I've read quite a few stories revealing the horror of America's prison system (and our detention centers for immigrants). The legal immigrant -- detained on a charge of buying stolen jewelry a decade ago -- who can't get a test to see if her cancer has come back. The nine-year old Canadian child begging the Canadian Prime Minister to intervene and get him and his family out of detention while their asylum claim is being processed. Reports of officially sanctioned rape. Flagrant abuse. Innocent men tortured in extra-legal black sites, then, when we concluded that "oops, he is innocent", dumped blindfolded on a hillside in a random country (it turned out to be Albania). I could go on -- and that doesn't even go into broken process by which we decide who goes to jail in the first place.
These stories, read in themselves, do not distinguish themselves from a typical autocratic thugocracy. Maybe not the worst of these regimes -- there are no reports of mass killing, for example. But certainly well within the bounds of the average brutal dictatorship.
But I read them, and for some reason, I have faith. I have faith that they're aberrations. I have faith that the system as a whole "really isn't like that." That these are exceptions. That we are not what these stories deeply imply that we are.
Why do I believe that? It's a belief that really has no grounding. There are certainly a great many people who are quite outspoken that my faith is wrong -- that the prison-industrial complex really is "that bad", all the way down, and consequently our justice system is essentially a reproduction of cruelty, degradation, and inhumanity that we -- as citizens in a democratic polity (and one that has taken "tough on crime" to be an article of faith) -- are all complicit in. And ultimately, there is very little argument in favor of my faith. The fact that these stories are printed, to (sometimes) public outrage? Please. Scandal is a fickle thing, as Mark Kelman once wrote. Abuse of certain people may be a scandal -- but the abuse of others is routinely ignored, which is not considered to be a scandal, nor is the fact that even the original scandal will quickly be forgotten even as the abuse continues considered to be a scandal. The fact that occasionally prison abuse burbles to the surface is no proof that it is exceptional.
Admittedly, the fact that there are reports of prison abuse does not mean that the problem is epidemic. I'm just in no position to know either way. That I believe that we are not ultimately an abusive state is ultimately an article of faith. But the more I read, the more I'm terrified that my faith might be wrong.