September 6, 2001
I am here today because I have to be. This is a day when Supermax, and the specter it represents, looms large in my mind, heart and soul. Today is a day when I carry this caustic reality with me. It is a day when I cannot focus on what little I can do individually to combat the growing insanity that has rendered the existence of places like Supermax almost sane in the minds of far too many people who seem to be content with muttering inanities like, "Do you want all the criminals to go free?" My response (when I am able to muster up the energy to respond to such questions) is "I am grateful that there are bars and walls to separate me and my loved ones and even people I do not love or even like from axe murderers (no matter how they wound up as ax murderers), and I am willing to take my chances with the person who is a nonviolent petty thief who was, in a sense, sentenced at birth by the place he lives, the color of his skin, the amount of education he does not have and the economic opportunity that somehow bypassed his neighborhood. Maybe it's because it's on a dead-end street far away from any legal thoroughfare. Maybe it's because the legal opportunities for getting over exist on the other side of town and very few who look like him reside in those places."
Am I saying that people who look like me and live in neighborhoods that are virtually devoid of opportunities should be absolved of responsibility for crimes committed? This is not what I am saying. I am, however, saying that we must give some thought to causality. We must give some thought to historic exclusion. Supermax cannot be explained away with insipid platitudes. It's deeper than that much deeper, and we must be prepared to get wet and stop wading in the shallow end of a pool that represents a national crisis. If the prison population has doubled in ten years what are the implications for a tripling of the prison population? If one out of three Black males is in jail or prison, on probation or parole, what will it mean when one out of two occupies that status? We must come to grips with the reality that people who look like me are not inherently bad and that it is no coincidence that if I were to walk into virtually any jail or prison in the country right this minute I would find that 20, 35, 60% of the inmates would look like me in communities where I often represent less than 10% of the population.
With regard to other people that make up jail and prison populations you don't go to a podiatrist to have a brain tumor treated. Does it make sense to place a non-violent person with a mental illness in Supermax? You don't take your visiting vegetarian cousin to Bud's House of Steaks for dinner. Similarly is Supermax the appropriate placement for the non-violent offender with significant alcohol and other drug abuse problems? The underlying questions are who is in this place, why are they here and is Supermax the best place for them to be?
I am here today because I question who I most need to be protected from: the people on the other side of the Supermax walls, or the architects and manufacturers of the pseudo reality that mesmerizes us into believing that Supermax needs to exist in the first place.
I am here because I am a Black man and my chances for residing on the other side of maximum, medium and occasionally minimum security walls are infinitely greater than my fairer skinned brothers and sisters. That I am on the outside is mainly a function of luck. Of this I am aware, and I am truly grateful to a power larger than any system that I can turn off my lights when I please, and exercise when I feel compelled to do so, and that I can embrace loved ones and friends when I am so inclined, and that my life is an open circuit and that I do not have to view some distorted representation of my existence on closed-circuit TV.
I am here today because I am terrified by Supermax and what it represents more than I fear the people inside and I do not presume that there are not, at least, a few very scary people in there. But how many? How did the non-violent, non-scary people wind up in there? I am terrified at the prospect that the mass insanity that forms the mortar to cement these places into the crevices of our national consciousness (but not our consciences) and to see these non-responses to complex and long-standing societal ills as actual answers keeps me awake at night and disturbs my waking hours. It's a threat to my mental health. It's a threat to my economic health. It's an affront to my humanity. What's going on in this place? I need to know.
So I am here today because I have to be. I am here to join my voice with my brothers and sisters of all colors and incomes and belief systems and non-belief systems and political persuasions and income levels to say that Supermax represents something that is fundamentally, unequivocally, unquestionably, irrefutably and undeniably wrong.
I am not here today with the expectation that the entire criminal justice (or Just Us as Richard Pryor said a long time ago) morass will be unscrambled. I am here to join my voice with others who have the courage to ask very basic questions with the very legitimate expectation of receiving very basic answers:
We want to know. We need to know. We deserve to know.
In the immortal words of the late, great Marvin Gaye, ³Whatıs goinı on?²
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