Rotten Justice

I read about killings, rape and torture in South Sudan, Syria and elsewhere and turn the page. These are terrible things but they are too far away to hit me in the gut.

What hits me in the gut are terrible things done by my own country, the land that I love. Yes, U.S.A., U.S.A.

Such a time was the Vietnam war. I was horrified by the slaughter of millions to prop up the elephantine ego of Lyndon B. Johnson.

I joined a boisterous protest march in Washington. I contributed to the primary campaign of Senator Gene McCarthy against LBJ. I picketed outside a church in Scarsdale. Inside, the Scarsdale Man of the Year award was being given to Dean Rusk, L.B.J's secretary of state.

Little things. But who am I? I did what I could. I was not about to douse my body with gasoline and apply a match.

I am ready to do it again. Incarceration in my country bears a greater resemblance to Stalin's Russia than it does to Reagan's "shining city on a hill." With five percent of the world's population, we hold almost a quarter of the world's prisoners.

One in three black males can expect to spend time in prison. One in six Latinos. The war on drugs (enhanced by those two great liberals - Nelson Rockefeller and Bill Clinton) has become a war on the minority poor.

Solitary confinement is one of our specialties. On any given day, 80,000 humans are locked in alone for 23 hours. Half are mentally ill and, by the time they emerge, a far greater number have lost touch with reality,

Brutality is another specialty. Beatings at Riker's Island and other prisons every now and then indignation break into headlines. Mostly, they go unrecorded.

Thousands, many of them innocent, languish in prisons awaiting trial because they haven't got $500 to make bail.

But, you say, these travesties are being acknowledged. Democrats and Republicans agree that far too many have been sentenced, and for far too long. We are moving in the right direction.

Yes, but too slow and too limited. We need to protest as a people as we did during the Vietnam War. Of course that war threatened our sons, our husbands, our brothers, ourselves. That's why we took to the streets. These people behind bars - we do not know them. All of them plus those on probation, parole or ex-felons who have lost their vote total about 7 million, two percent of our population. Who is going to speak for them?

We have had someone who could have spoken for them, who could have greatly reduced abuses. His name is Barak Obama and he has had seven years to do it. Recently, he pardoned 46 prisoners, visited a prison and made an empty speech in an empty cell. Meanwhile, his Justice Department opposes second petitions by prisoners even if the sentence was illegally imposed.

Our foundation supports five nonprofits that monitor prisons, provide legal services, reduce recidivism. It is not enough.

Every now and then indignation takes hold of me. It is always when it is my country that is inflicting pain on some of its citizens.

I wish I could do something.