And no wimp is she. Her first book, which took three hellish years to write, is called Women Behind Bars and it's out this month on Seal Press. Silja looks at the disproportional growth of women's incarceration and the deep dysfunctionality of the U.S. prison system.
Some shocking facts about incarceration in this country.
- One in 32 Americans is under some sort of correctional supervision.
- One quarter of the world's prisoners are in US jails and prisons, although we are only 5% of the world's population.
- The US has more people in prison than any other nation, even China.
- In 2006, 2.24 million people were under incarceration in America, a 3% increase over the previous year.
- While women are stil only about 8% of those incarcerated, their numbers have climbed by 757% since 1977.
A few things stood out for me in particular. She spoke passionately about how the prison issue needs to connect to our own broad interests and the overall erosion of human and civil rights. We should care about how people are treated in prison because, ultimately, we're vulnerable too. Which is funny, because that's exactly what I've been saying about homelessness lately.
Two despised populations with an identical advocacy challenge. Interesting.
Silja visited several European prisons in the course of the book, and compared to what she found here at home, they were the very model of enlightenment. "Why," I asked, "is the US prison system such a horror show compared to that of other nations."
They do not, she said, generally have a culture in which people are seen as throw-ways. Here, on the other hand, poor people, black people, and others whom the system fails, are the flesh and blood equivalent of landfill trash. After we use them up we want them out of the way, We have, she said, a culture of dehumanization that is prodigiously ahead of the international curve.
Disposable people, especially disposable people who have been defined as criminals, have an extremely limited claim on our sympathies. Compassion, essentially, is an act of imagination, and we Americans have less and less of that all the time.
It's no coincidence that the shelter industry and the prison industry both grew exponentially over the decades of deindustrialization. The reality of structural unemployment in America — and its various containment mechanisms — is something that is far too seldom acknowledged.
Prisons, aided by the drug war, are one way of taking surplus bodies out of the economy and rendering them harmless while building an industry on top of their misery. There is an institutional logic to the ever-expanding prison state, just as there is a logic to an expanding human services empire in the service of "ending" homelessness.
The implications of a prison population that grows by 3% in a year should have us all terrified. Instead, we're oblivious and acting as though this is normal and desirable. It's not.
Silja will be reading from her book at the Elliott Bay Book Company on Saturday, November 17, at 2 pm.