The spectrum of American injustice: elite act with impunity, poor get solitary

Published 9:02 am Thursday, January 5, 2017


Contributing columnist

If ordinary persons, especially poor ones, commit even a minor crime, our legal system inflicts harsh punishments with lasting effects such as psychological damage and criminal records that make it hard to get a job. But wealthy, politically connected people regularly commit serious felonies with impunity. Prosecution and prison are now seen as inappropriate for the elite.

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In an interview on Sept. 9, 2015, Sally Q. Yates, deputy U.S. attorney general, responded to growing criticism of the lack of criminal prosecution of high-level corporate criminals with this declaration: “Corporations can only commit crimes through flesh-and-blood people. It’s only fair that the people who are responsible for committing those crimes be held accountable.” What she said was obviously true and essential for a nation that claims to have the rule of law.

Yet, as the Boston Globe pointed out, eight days later General Motors was allowed to pay a $900 million fine for knowingly selling cars with defective ignition switches that caused 124 deaths. “Does that sound like a lot? GM’s revenues last year were 172 times as much. No criminal charges were filed against any of the executives.” Some “flesh-and-blood” GM executives got away with a lot of blood on their hands.

Anyone who can read knows about all the high-level financial executives who have escaped prosecution for felonies that contributed to the 2007-08 financial crisis. Perhaps the most glaring example is Angelo Mozilo, former Countrywide Financial Services CEO. His company flooded the financial market with subprime mortgages obtained through fraudulent applications.

The SEC charged him with securities fraud and insider trading, but reached a settlement with him four days before his criminal trial in October of 2010. Instead of getting a prison sentence, he was allowed to pay a $67.5 million dollar fine ($20 million of which was paid by Countrywide). He did not have to admit wrongdoing. Last June, the SEC dropped its civil lawsuit against Mozilo. He is now free to enjoy his $600 million net worth left over from his glory days at Countrywide.

The really bad news, worse even than the $12.8 trillion loss to the American economy and the impunity of the criminals who caused it, is the public’s passive acceptance of the lack of prosecution. We have, as the saying goes, “moved on.”

It’s not that we’ve gotten less inclined to lock people up. On the contrary, the American incarceration rate grew from 209 per 100,000 in 1980 to over 693 per 100,000 in 2015. The U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Russia’s rate is 453, and China’s is 118. Our neighbors Mexico and Canada have 212 and 114 respectively. Although our country has only 4.4 percent of  the total world population, it has 22 percent of the world’s prison population.

One of the grimmest facilities in the American gulag is Rikers Island. It sits in the middle of New York City’s East River, just offshore from LaGuardia Airport, 10 miles or so from Manhattan’s multimillion-dollar apartments and the towering headquarters of the world’s largest banks. Part of the island was built on a landfill of garbage and ash — a suitable substrate for a place to dump throw-away people.

Rikers exemplifies problems found throughout our broken prison system. The island’s inmate population averages 10,000. As Grist magazine points out, “about 40 percent of the Rikers population has been diagnosed with a mental illness. And the overwhelming majority of the people incarcerated on the island — about 90 percent — are black or Latino.” A majority have not been convicted of any crime. They languish in jail because they can’t afford bail.

One of them was 32-year old Candie Hailey. In 2012, she was charged with attempted murder. She spent 29 months in jail, including 27 months of solitary confinement, before she was found innocent at her trial.

Even then, the Bronx district attorney wasn’t through with her. She was put on trial again, this time on charges of felony mischief during her time in Rikers. The case against her was so weak that the judge asked the prosecutor to drop the felony charges. In exchange, Hailey pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and was released with no criminal record. She is now suing the city for $10 million, claiming that she was physically and sexually abused by her guards at Rikers.

According to Solitary Watch, an organization opposed to the widespread abusive practice of solitary confinement, Hailey exhibited mental health problems soon after she was jailed. These were exacerbated by prolonged solitary confinement. As Solitary Watch explains,

“She would regularly hurt herself by banging her head against a wall and cutting herself. Such behavior would bring a moment of reprieve from solitary when she would be taken to the mental clinic. . . . After each one of her multiple suicide attempts, officers wrote her a disciplinary ticket, and with each ticket came 30 more days of solitary confinement.”

Hailey is now an activist against solitary confinement. As she said to a VICE News reporter, “It’s torture. There’s no other way to describe it but torture.” There are more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement in American prisons and jails. They spend 23 hours a day for  weeks, months, even years and decades in a cell that is typically 6 x 9 feet. Meals and communication with prison staff are often through slots in steel doors. The living conditions in these cells can vary at the whim of guards.

In his 2014 book “The Divide,” Matt Taibbi aptly describes what has become the American injustice system: “The cleaving of the country into two completely different states — one a small archipelago of hyper-acquisitive untouchables, the other a vast ghetto of expendables with only theoretical rights.”