For Christmas this year, the Wellthisiswhatithink household bought itself a subscription to Time.
In years past, as a reflection of the household’s main occupation (advertising) we used to get a weekly complimentary copy.
But a few career excursions (including a year off to write a book of poetry) meant that our freebies declined proportionately.
It’s embarrassing to ring up and mutter “I used to be important, please can you put me back on your complimentary list?”, so we simply stumped up the dosh for a change like the rest of the population.
And a very good investment it has proven to be. This consistently excellent news magazine gives us a good overview of a week of world events, backed up by really good in depth reporting.
One such report in the February 10th issue contained, for us, a staggering statistic.
There are about 200,000 veterans in jail in the USA, making up about 14% of the country’s prison population.
Contrary to public perception, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are actually less likely to be incarcerated than those who fought in earlier wars, but they are three times more likely to suffer the agonies of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, whether inside prison or out.
All told, around the country there are around 10,000 veterans of the two most recent conflicts imprisoned, and in an environment where mental health treatment is spotty at best.
Let us just pause and consider those two statistics slowly.
Two hundred thousand veterans in total. Ten thousand veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army bridgadier general, remarked:
“We are throwing these guys away.”
One does not have to be a fan of American foreign policy or militarism generally to feel, very strongly, that this state of affairs is a disgrace. American society idolises its serving men and women, and a career in the forces is often held up as the most virtuous choice a young person can make. The very least that prevailing culture demands is that the resettlement back into civilian life and post-trauma care of people so seduced is proportionate to their sacrifice.
Perhaps equally significantly, the very large standing forces of the USA hoover up vast numbers of young people without better career prospects, keen to make a decent fist of their low-prospects life. These people, often turned loose like so much mincemeat from the end of a grinder at the end of one, two or even more periods in the military – and after they have seen service in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable – are often returning to backgrounds with poor employment opportunities and less-than-optimal social situations that make the drift to petty crime, substance abuse and mental illness depressingly obvious and sadly predictable.
By world standards America locks up a ridiculously high percentage of its population, anyway, and sentencing regimes are frequently savage.
Under the ludicrous “three strikes and you’re out” legislation that prevails in some states people end up incarcerated for life for the most minor felonies. In many states, “three strikes” and mandatory minimum sentences help politicians look “tough on crime” to their electors, but frequently lock up for ludicrously long periods people who the presiding judge would much rather set free and into a diversion programme.
The same legal excesses are now frequently demonstrated in other countries like Australia and the United Kingdom.
But locking people up and throwing away the key need not be the answer. In Sweden, for example, they are now closing jails because they haven’t got enough offenders requiring prison time to keep them open.
That the American jurisprudence system is sick is hardly revelatory commentary. The ludicrous obsession with petty and interminable legal wrangling in the civil arena is well-known, but more significantly the prison population is bloated way beyond anything that is necessary for public safety.
A concerted effort to free tens of thousands of people would reduce costs to taxpayers, and right many judicial wrongs. As the American economy picks up, there is work for these people to do. Of course, no-one would argue for violent or serious offenders to be prematurely released, but there is little doubt that the dominant factor in American sentencing, as elsewhere, is revenge for social non-conformity. Why, if it was otherwise, would we lock people up for years or decades for personal possession of small amounts of illict drugs?
The “war on drugs” has been comprehensively lost anyway, and the price paid by, in many cases, veterans, has been dis-proportionately high. Locking people up in their tens of thousands has become a fig leaf to cover the comprehensive failure of the American political system to tackle the problems of poverty, lack of social engagement, poor education, and more. That the matter is almost never mentioned by leading politicians and social commentators is a tacit admission that no-one has put any real thought into alternatives or has the will-power to devise them. A population that fails to engage with the problem – out of sight, out of mind – is equally to blame.
Laudable efforts to stop veterans ending up in jail are underway.
Now, a determined attempt to free as many of those imprisoned veterans as possible, and to provide them with the appropriate support to re-make their lives, would be a good and honourable place to start fixing the bigger problem.
Vets do deserve special consideration, having served their country as volunteers, or, indeed, perhaps most poignantly, as conscripts, shipped overseas to fight in Vietnam for example, through the wrong-headed belligerence of politicians obsessed with empire building, and lacking the social connections or wealth to get out of the draft.
And anyway, if the only job you can get is to sign up to be a “grunt”, then really, what sort of life choice did you have anyway? Whether you’re conscripted by a law or by force of circumstance, the outcome is surely the same.
However they ended up in a trench, a humvee, or ducking behind a tree or a wall with armalite in hand, these are people – often young, terrified, and confused – who have given their lives, not by falling in battle, but by surviving it.
They deserve better.