Tom Lewis, 4 May 2013 • Comments
The first time I heard “Justice Center” as the name being used to describe a new jail and courthouse, I immediately thought of an early scene in the box office hit, The Hunger Games. In this scene hundreds of young people march submissively toward a grotesque monolith in front of which two of them fall prey each year to a deadly bureaucratic machine. The building that casts its shadow over the impoverished community bears the deeply ironic name, “Hall of Justice.”
The name “Justice Center” provides an equally disturbing case of irony. It qualifies as an example of what George Orwell called “Newspeak” in his novel 1984. Wikipedia defines “Newspeak” as a “language created by the totalitarian state as a tool to limit free thought and concepts that pose a threat to the regime, such as freedom, self-expression, individuality, peace, etc.”
Naming a jail the “Justice Center” constitutes “Newspeak,” first and foremost, because it cynically hides from citizens’ view the real function of prisons in our society. The U.S. incarcerates more of its population — 743 per 100,000 in 2009 as opposed to 120 per 100,000 even in China — than any other country in the world. Greater percentages of people are jailed in the U.S. than in South Africa during apartheid.
The racial profile of prisoners reveals the real purpose of jails. For every 100,000 people in 2010, 2,207 prisoners were Black, 966 were Latino, and 380 were white. Jails are places where U.S. society stows away its unwanted, unfortunate, sick, and addicted brothers and sisters who are mostly living in poverty, deprived of a decent education, and lacking a secure future. Jails are not designed to rehabilitate. Jails take people with problems, harden them to society even more, and turn them into habitual offenders.
Johnson County and, in particular, Iowa City are no exceptions in this. Incarceration rates for minorities here is criminally disproportional to our population. Local politicians are currently falling all over themselves to promise the creation of committees to study racial disparities and even more committees to come up with alternatives to incarceration. Watch how these promises will evaporate once they’ve gotten our money for their new jail. It’s so easy — and so cynical — to “appoint committees.”
The second reason why the “Justice Center” is “Newspeak” is because it discourages citizens from asking penetrating questions about the social values and priorities that inform the campaign to build a new jail. After all, who would want to vote against “justice”? A lot of people might wish to vote against funding an expensive “new jail.” But who would like to be seen as opposing “justice”?
Behind the pro-jail campaign’s mind-numbing invocation of “justice,” there lurk reprehensible ideas. The key one, as already suggested, is the assumption that the solution to problems of drugs, poverty, and crime is simply to lock up more people. But what this “solution” says about the values of our city, county, state and nation is that our politicians are afraid to tackle the root causes of poverty, unemployment, racism, addiction, and violence.
Other morally bankrupt values behind the pro-jail campaign appear in its willingness to spend $46 million on a new jail. Yet what does this say about our politicians’ character? There are hundreds of homeless children in Iowa City schools. At least one in six children in Johnson County goes to bed hungry each night. Shelter space is insufficient, and the county can no longer fund adequate services for disabled persons. But let’s ignore that and build a new jail instead.
And on top of the politicians’ attempt to shake us down for a new jail, and on top of their willingness to cut services and squeeze ordinary people for more revenue, they still gleefully persist in doling out tax breaks and subsidies to rich developers and fat-cat corporations. U.S. corporations are presently sitting on a $2 trillion cash hoard, and Iowa enterprises have benefitted correspondingly in recent years. While the rest of us have suffered job losses, pay and benefit cuts, reduced social services, and imposed austerity, Corporate America has wallowed in bailout money and a gigantic mass of profits.
For moral, political, and economic reasons, we do not need to fork over $46 million to our local politicians on Tuesday, May 7.