I’m reading a horror story. It’s a true story written by Howell Woltz called Justice Denied. You should buy his book and read it, too. His courage will amaze you.
I first intended to write a long post about the injustice of the American penal system but I’ve become overwhelmed by all of the examples I could use to elucidate Mr. Woltz’s experience. It’s a a tangled knot. On the one hand, I’m a big fan of paying taxes to government and providing public services that everyone can enjoy. I am not a political animal who rails against all forms of government. I think government is a good and useful thing.
On the other hand… there is no doubt that aspects of the US federal government are far too autonomous and secretive. There are “things” happening behind the scenes that are troubling and frightening. Any sensible person can see these happenings and grow alarmed at the extreme misuse of power. In Howell Woltz’s case, a crime was invented and he and his wife were held in jails in North Carolina for years. He was moved between districts and states and held without recourse for years. You should watch the short trailer for the documentary to get a sense of the chilling ramifications of this case.
But Woltz is not alone in his experience. My friends and I have talked about the way police power can be used to coerce and trample on individual rights. I lived under both the Los Angeles paramilitary police system and the pervasive “stop & frisk” police system in New York City. On days they were doing random bag searches in the subway I would choose to walk over the bridge instead, no matter the weather, as I will never consent to searches for no apparent cause. And this is despite being one of the many New Yorkers directly affected by terrorism. Instead of looking to law enforcement to protect me, I am wary. And I was wary of that power over the people long before I knew of my own family history.
I’ve watched fascinating videos, like this one, that explains why it is always in your own best interest to stay quiet around police officers.
How could we have become so distrustful of our own public systems and services? After so many years of watching Constitutional Rights trampled and ignored it seems clear that no one is safe.
Many Americans will look at the way “enemy combatants” are held in a limbo state in places like the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and think it is a good and proper thing that they are held so they cannot harm others. I see that prison as yet another reflection of a system that no longer respects the inalienable rights of any sole individual, American citizen included. The people in positions of power have been chipping away at these rights for so many years that we’ve arrived at a day when someone like Howell Woltz could go to jail for no crime. It’s a time in American history where you’re more likely to go to jail for protesting in the street and stepping off the sidewalk than for stealing millions of dollars. Americans live in a for-profit prison system that jails a larger percentage of its population than any other nation on Earth.
“The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”
Re-read that quotation and let it sink in a little bit. Also, consider that the quality of the prisons themselves is wretched compared to many other nations.
Woltz had the unfortunate experience of seeing the unfairness of this system from the inside. He has since decided to use the pain his family endured to try and enact positive change. The first step in that journey was the realization that many people in jail with him were there unfairly and deciding to help them overturn their own charges. The next step was realizing he could reform the system on a larger scale by sharing his story.
Also note, the conviction rate in the Federal court system is 98.6%. The stat of nightmares.