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Senator Webb Introduces Bill to Overhaul America's Criminal Justice System

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Kenneth E. Hartman


“Art is long, life short; judgment difficult, opportunity transient”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

In the midst of the worst meltdown of the reigning power structure in several generations, there is a tremendous opportunity to break the stranglehold of the punishers on the criminal justice systems of this country.  The onus is now on us, on the vast mass of men and women crowded into the thousands of prisons and jails in every state.  This is our chance to disprove the accepted, standardized version of who we are and why our continued, ever-lengthening imprisonment is necessary.

            We should not delude ourselves by waiting for outside intervention to save us because that just isn’t going to happen.  A solid quarter of a century of endless drumbeating to lock more people up, lock more people up, lock more people up, has poisoned the collective consciousness.  The average, tax paying, middle-class American (read, most consequentially, voter) is convinced he lives in a country positively rife with crime and violence.  He does not believe the government’s own statistics that crime rates are at historic lows.  He believes, instead, the droning hysteria of the local newsreader’s recitation of the day’s crime report.  The former is abstract; the latter is aimed right at the gut.  There are no bleeding photographs of enhanced safety, and no weeping mothers bemoaning the loss of violence.  The truth is the huge prison-industrial complex was built on the unease of regular folks.

            But in front of this steamroller has appeared a fearsome chasm in the form of fiscal crisis.  I don’t believe anything else could have slowed it down.  Regardless, the prison ship has run onto the shoals of unbalanced state budgets.  Those same folks who regularly, if mindlessly, voted for politicians who stoked their fears are looking at reprioritizing on an unprecedented scale.  The bottomless pit of borrowed money that paid for our concrete boxes found bottom in a hurry.  Irrational fear of crime has been replaced by very rational fears of bankruptcy and penury.

            Crisis is opportunity wrapped in uncertainty.  For all of my 30 years imprisoned we prisoners have been waiting for some sort of magic to happen, a golden key that would open the locks.  I suspect the vast majority of us don’t really believe this fantasy.  We fight the unpleasantness of this knowledge by fighting each other, by escaping into drug-induced states of denial, by mailing out voluminous writs of hocus pocus, and by generally flailing about, thrashing against the unyielding walls that surround our minds no less than our battered bodies.  In our desperation, we too often provide fodder to the profiteers, to the blowhards, to the very groups who depend on our obstinate refusal to awaken from our intellectual and moral torpor into the reality of the actual situation of our lives.

            The foundering prison ship is vulnerable right now.  What we have to do is erase the distorted portrayals of who prisoners are and redraw a different picture to the world.  We need to seize every chance that presents itself to reclaim our humanity.  Society is hurting, and we should become healers instead of destroyers.  We should, all of us, rise to this challenge.  Be honest with yourselves, looking back two years ago, did you ever imagine all the changes we’ve seen?  All the way from the White House to the various statehouses, the old system is cracking, its foundation hollowed out and rotted.

            Channel your energies into positive and productive pursuits.  Create the chances to re-enter the world through your good works.  Prove your worth by becoming worthy of respect as human beings.  Sit down with the prisoner down the tier and call a truce for the time being.  Let all of this horror around us sink under the waves of history past; let the hulk of the prison ship be pulled under on account of its own excesses.  By our actions, by doing what is right and useful and human, we can shame them.  Nothing will expose how wrong this mad experiment is than by our rising to the challenge of this time, than by our becoming bigger than those who have used our weaknesses and failures to enrich themselves.

            The choice is, as we all know, ours to make.  We can continue to live like rabid dogs, or we can conduct ourselves with dignity even in the face of the indignities of prison.

            If you are interested in one roadmap to instituting real reform from inside write to Friends & Families for the Honor Program, P.O. Box 25299, Los Angeles, CA 90025, or ask your friends and families to visit: www.prisonhonorprogram.org.


“Four things come not back: the spoken word; the sped arrow; time past; the neglected opportunity.”
                                                                                                                         Omar Ibn Al-Halif



Kenneth E. Hartman has served over 29 continuous years in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence.  He is an award-winning writer and prison reform activist.  He is the author of “Mother California: A Story of Redemption Behind Bars,” a memoir of life in prison, published by Atlas & Co.  He was instrumental in the founding of the Honor Program at the California State Prison―Los Angeles County, and is currently leading a grassroots organizing campaign, conducted by LWOP prisoners, with the goal of abolishing the other death penalty.  He can be reached at prisonhonorprogram@hotmail.com and TODP@live.com, or see www.kennethehartman.com.


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