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Why I’m taking Mark Hall’s OLLI class on prisons

I don’t want to take this class

I grew up in Berkeley, CA, in the 40s and 50s. This was the cold war, the time of air raid drills, polio, HUAC and ever-present danger in spite of our prosperity and energy.

Perhaps it’s for this reason that the idea of prison and torture has always frightened me and I’ve never much wanted to imagine or think about such things. I couldn’t finish Democracy in Chains or any Noam Chomsky book because their messages are too distressing, not because I think they are wrong.

I want - I need - to believe that I live in a safe and good society.

In other words, I don’t really want to take this class. It’s like my struggle with understanding the war in Vietnam: for a long time I couldn’t or wouldn’t believe that my country was doing the horrible things that people were accusing us of. I want to trust our leaders.

It’s the same with prisons except that I already do believe that my country is doing terrible things there, but I don’t really want to face it head on.

What I think I know already

I’m interested in civil liberties. I’ve been a member of the ACLU since my college days and have been on the NC ACLUs Board of Directors (not as big a deal as it sounds). I am increasingly sickened at the idea of for-profit prisons, especially as capitalism seems more openly rapacious in our new century. I’m very interested in having a fair system of justice.

I do believe that some people should be executed for their actions, but I also know that the death penalty is not applied evenly and justly and without a shadow of a doubt. So I oppose it on the grounds that it is often unfair and error-prone. Plus I’m not sure that the state should have this power.

I also oppose some of the ways prisons are used. Sheriff Pendergrass told me one time that his department has to take care of people who really need psychological services, but that our society doesn’t want to provide them. It also appears to be used as a tool of racial terror, along with our law enforcement systems. I don’t want to abolish either prisons or police, but I would like to see massive changes.

So why am I taking this class?

For one thing, I know people who are interested in our prison system. Our daughter, who is a left-leaning academic, is very interested in prisons and voices ideas that I’m not always comfortable with, just as people do these days when they talk about abolishing the police. I’m also friends with Simone and David, who, I just learned, know Mark.

Finally, it’s a test for myself and OLLI has got to be a safe environment to learn about prison. I’m hopeful that this course will change me in a good way, making me less fearful of facing reality. Perhaps I’ll become more useful.

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