A bit delayed w/ this post--paste, really--but it's still worthwhile. Following my Nov. 2012 essay in Wired about convictonomics, the editors received this letter from a "reader incarcerated in a maximum-security prison."
To the Editors:
As a reader incarcerated in a maximum-security prison, I was heartened by David Wolman's enlightened "Convictonomics" in issue 20.11. With an opening line referring to the criminal justice system as "a disaster"; an ending which urges a move towards a system that makes sense; and a body comprised of behavioral economics writ jurisprudential, Wolman did a good thing for the cause of justice. A clear, well-informed position, undergirded by hard numbers and counterintuitive facts: classic Wired.
I went away in 1999, when a barely-audible upstart called Google was certain to be no match for Yahoo or Lycos. For most of these 13 years, I have subscribed to Wired, partly as a way to remain au courant. During those years, I have ready your occasional pieces on prison -- mainly "Start" content about prison contraband markets and the like -- and found them to be accurate, as opposed to the sensationalized (and often, right-leaning) pap that counts as prison coverage from various media outlets.
Every so often, there's a solid piece of reportage on our nation's criminal justice policy, something that helps shape public discourse and causes others to write follow-up pieces. Eric Schlosser's seminal essay on "The Prison-Industrial Complex" in The Atlantic Monthly (1998), "Hellhole," Atul Gawande's expose into extended isolation in The New Yorker (2009), and Amy Bach's extraordinary Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court stand out as shining examples.
These pieces matter because the stakes are so high. It costs $70 billion a year to keep 7 million people in some form of custody, as Wolman notes, but what's often overlooked are the ripple effects of such stratospheric incarceration rates. Each of those 7 million have family and loved ones who are affected by criminal justice policy, whether it's the child who acts out in school because his mom's in county jail for drug possession, or the family who gets evicted from their home because the sole breadwinner just went away for 10 years. If you attach 4 people to each of those 7 million, that's roughly 10% of the United States, people who haven't broken the law, yet are feeling the effects of the system. And since no person is an island, that misbehaving child disturbs his classroom peers and the newly-vacant home becomes a problem for the entire neighborhood. Those are the ripple effects, and this is who we are now -- a nation of bars and stripes, concrete and concertina wire. How many degrees of separation is any citizen from someone doing time?
Yet, I haven't lost the hope that after trying everything else, we will settle on the right course of action. As Carl Rogers wrote: "Just when it seems too late, the great collective mind grasps the seriousness of a problem and begins to move dramatically ahead." Perhaps there will be an X Prize for a top-to-bottom overhaul of the criminal justice system. In the meantime, Wired can truly add something fresh to the national conversation: a long-form piece expanding on Wolman's "Convictonomics." This will be for the good of the country, not to mention the family and friends of 7 million Americans. Please consider publishing such a piece.
Be well and continue producing such great content.