Everyday Life: The only thing we have to fear …

On Feb. 7, the political activist and philosopher Angela Davis spoke at Kansas University.

Toward the end of her speech she talked about abolishing prisons, and I thought: If we close the prisons, how will we protect ourselves from the bad people?

And then I read Adam Gopnik’s “The Caging of America” in the Jan. 30 New Yorker. Did you know that the current incarceration rate is three times that of the 1980s? That more than half of all African-American men without a high school diploma can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lives? That the rate of African-American incarceration is seven times the white rate, even though the rate at which people actually commit crimes is pretty much the same in both populations?

Did you know that our prison systems are run more and more by private contractors with financial interest in keeping their prisons full and even fuller, leading them to lobby against any legal reform that would send fewer people to jail? That, in partial consequence, we lock up increasing numbers of nonviolent people who are unlucky enough to get caught breaking laws that are, in fact, widely violated with no serious repercussions to society, instead of letting these folks do something useful with their lives?

Who goes to jail? According to U.S. Department of Justice figures, in 2010, 51 percent of federal prisoners were in for drug offenses and 35 percent for “public-order” offenses (e.g., weapons and immigration violations). Only 6 percent were jailed for property crimes, and only 8 percent were violent offenders.

You don’t have to be a prison abolitionist to realize that there is something very wrong with this picture. Prison isn’t the only effective deterrent to bad behavior. Other countries with far lower rates of incarceration are just as safe and even safer. One of the lowest rates of incarceration in the U.S. is in New York City, yet they have seen an 80 percent decrease in crime in the last 10 years.

Instead of keeping the rest of us safe, our current prison system increases the danger to those who come under its aegis, most of whom are not that different from the folks outside. In a heartbeat it could be you or someone you love, especially if your skin is more brown than pink.

How did we get to this point? Our prison system, as so much else that doesn’t work in our lives, is a result of irrational fear.

Fear is what puts us and everyone around us in danger. Gripped by fear, we can only lash out wildly, causing tremendous damage. But without fear, we can perceive what’s really dangerous and do something useful about it.

Is this possible? In Ohio, an Amish man, Monroe Beachy, is under arrest for a $16 million Ponzi scheme. While deeply condemning his acts, his community is asking to remove his case from the criminal justice system, in their own words, “based on Christian principles of love and care for the poor and needy.” The Amish can do it. Why not the rest of us?