When I started as a paramedic over twenty-five years ago, I had a number of set views. Here are two.
- People who use heroin have character flaws and are criminals. They deserved their fate.
- People who go to jail or have been in jail went because they had character flaws and were criminals. They deserved their fate.
In time, I learned that addiction was not a character flaw, but a chronic relapsing brain disease and that many people became addicted through no fault of their own, but because of system that allowed pharmaceutical companies to prey on people leading to mass prescription of addictive pain pills not in the interest of patient care, but profit. Users were sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and neighbors, people who should be treated with love and compassion.
Working in the north end of Hartford, I have encountered people with substance use disorder and many people who either been in jail or are no doubt headed there.
I am sixty-two years old now, and while I am not ready to embrace murders and rapists, I sense there are many people who are in jail or who have been incarcerated who got a raw deal, not just on their conviction, but from life, from the system. They, too, are sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, friends and neighbors, people who should be treated with love and compassion.
I have mentioned that I am taking a course called anti-black racism, and yesterday I had to listen to an NPR podcast on Mass Incarceration.
Listening to it, I feel like I have been hit in the head with a sledgehammer, trying to knock sense into me. Of course there is something wrong when America has 2.3 million of its citizens behind bars. More than 24% of all the prisoners in the world are locked up in our country. It can’t be that we just have more criminals.
One third of the prisoners are black men. One out of three black male children can be expected to be sentenced to jail in their lives versus one out of 17 white boys.
That’s just not right.
I’m not learned enough in the subject to take a deep dive into the issue, other than to say, we need change.
In the podcast, I was stunned to learn that after slavery, many towns, counties and states enacted crazy laws such as, you can’t walk along the railroads tracks, you can’t sell your farm crops after sunset and a black person can’t talk loudly in the presence of a white woman. Black people were arrested on a mass scale, conceited and sent right back out into the fields to work for the man. In later years, increasing the number of prosecutors seemed to have led to a corresponding increase in the number of people going to prison. Becoming a prosecutor also seemed to become a popular avenue to political office and tough on crime prosecution was the way for people to get ahead. Listen to the podcast.
As a paramedic serving a predominately black community, I feel it is my obligation to understand this issue and the lives of many of the people I care for and serve. I will have more to say about this as I learn more, but for now, I’m going to let Sam Cooke bring it on home.