News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

December 25, 2011

STEPHANIE SALTER: Making room for the least among us — and their kin

TERRE HAUTE — Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

— Hebrews 13:3

Christmas. Quiet time. Down time. Not exactly the kind of day most folks tend to contemplate their fellow Americans behind bars. And yet, the United States leads the world in percentage of population in jail or prison, far ahead of second-place Russia. About 2.3 million people — nearly one in 100 adults — are incarcerated in this country.

Most of those inmates have family and close friends who still care for them. That’s a lot of lives, inside and outside, that are touched directly by a corrections system that has become an “industry” in every sense of the word.

I have three such friends to remember this Christmas Day, two women and a man. One has been in federal prison for a few years, one has been in a state facility nearly 30 years and one is a new arrival in a county jail. All three would be the first to tell you they deserved to be locked up for their various crimes.

All three would turn back the clock and take a much different path if they could. Remorse and regret are their constant cellmates.

Neither woman likely would be an inmate if she’d never taken drugs. The one in state prison got her first fix of heroin in early adolescence, the one in jail self-medicated her erratic mood swings with methamphetamine. My friend in federal prison isn’t a drug addict, but he is deeply, mentally ill and needs psychotherapy for the anti-social behavior that landed him behind bars. The only programs available to him so far, however, have to do primarily with job training: A college graduate, he now can take apart a car engine.

As my friends can attest — and as prison ministers will affirm — the person behind bars is not the only recipient of punishment. Family and friends pay almost as dearly — literally and figuratively. The emotional and social costs are obvious, but the financial costs are not, particularly in a system that requires more than $50 billion a  year in public funding to maintain.

From collect telephone calls that can start at $10 or $20 and cost more by the minute, to gift boxes that must be purchased through a for-profit monopoly vendor under contract to a prison or jail, families pay through the nose to stay connected to someone they love.

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