“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
Florence, Arizona, the Pinal County seat, lies 61 miles southeast of Phoenix. Prospectors discovered silver in the area in 1875, but its gold rush came in the 1990s and 2000s, when the town became a center of mass incarceration in the United States. Today Florence is home to six state prisons, two for-profit federal immigration prisons, one county adult jail, and one county juvenile detention facility. That is ten altogether; ten warehouses where human beings are fed substandard food, given substandard health care, and exposed to brutal physical and sexual and psychological violence that violates the Arizona Constitution, the U.S. Constitution and international law. Ten immense cages where we lock away our neighbor for being poor, our co-worker’s daughter for being mentally ill, and our grocery store clerk for being addicted to drugs.
Despite a growing grass-roots movement for criminal justice reform, our government has taken no meaningful steps to deconstruct the carceral state. The Arizona legislature did not pass one single, significant criminal justice reform bill in 2019. Arizona taxpayers still spend $20,000 more per inmate than they spend per K-12 student. Arizona still has the eighth highest incarceration rate per capita in the world.
The U.S. is not the prison capital of the planet because of some impersonal force like “the system.” There is a long list of institutions and individuals responsible for maintaining this brutality, which imprisons more people than China or Russia, and keeps a higher percentage of black people behind bars than South Africa did during apartheid. However, there are sociological phenomena worth mentioning which exacerbate mass incarceration and act as barriers to reform.
The first is the truism that mass incarceration falls heaviest on marginalized people, poor people, and people of color. They have few interest groups, even fewer lobbyists, and almost no money. None of our lawmakers have ever been to prison, and most don’t have family members who have been locked up. It is easy to find politicians who will at least pay lip service to tax reform, education reform, and health care reform; almost everyone gets sick, goes to school, and pays taxes. But ask elected officials to have empathy for the felon and it will be a long time coming. Felons cannot vote, and their families often do not, so why bother helping them? Better to go back to groveling for that Chamber of Commerce endorsement.
The second phenomenon is geographic. Prisons are built in out-of-the-way places where land is cheap and neighbors who might shout “not in my backyard!” are absent. How easy it is for us to forget the existence of areas where we never go, and buildings and barbed wire we cannot see. With that in mind let us take a moment to open our eyes, in the hope that the first step in solving this problem is in fact recognizing there is one.
This is Florence, Arizona, 67 miles from Tucson. This is how we treat people 90 minutes from where we live, and where we sing about the land of the free.
– Joel Feinman