When we get down to the poorest and most oppressed of our population we find the conditions of their life so wretched that it would be impossible to conduct a prison humanely without making the lot of the criminal more eligible than that of many citizens. […]

The vast majority of our city populations are inured to imprisonment from their childhood. The school is a prison. The office and the factory are prisons. The home is a prison. To the young who have the misfortune to be what is called well brought up it is sometimes a prison of inhumane severity. […]

This imprisonment in the home, in the school, in the office and the factory is kept up by browbeating, scolding, bullying punishing disbelief of the prisoner’s statements and acceptance of those of the official, essentially as in prison. The freedom given by the adult’s right to walk out of his prison is only a freedom to go into another or starve: he can choose the prison where he is best treated: that is all.

 — George Bernard Shaw, The Crime of Imprisonment (1946), originally published as Imprisonment in 1925.

Upon reading this 80 year old quote from George Bernard Shaw, I couldn’t help think of the persistent economic inequality of Western capitalism. It’s difficult to fathom why the gap between the rich and the poor has accelerated. The gap is NOW the largest it has EVER been.

The U.S. income gap between rich and poor is the greatest among Western industrialized nations:

The data also revealed that the number of Americans at the very bottom of the income ladder are at record highs. About 6.3 percent of the population are below half the poverty line – $10,977 for a family of four – up from 5.7 percent. This was the highest level since the government began tracking this group in 1975.

Shaw petitioned for the erasure of private property. When Shaw won the Nobel Prize for literature, he took the medal but refused the money. We needn’t take a Shawesque position of martyrdom, just an honest look.

The Pew Center reported this week that those that lost MOST in the economic downturn were African Americans and Hispanic families.

NPR reports that the “mistake” African American and Hispanic families made was to by into the American Dream by way of bricks and mortar:

“What’s pushing the wealth of whites is the rebound in the stock market and corporate savings, while younger Hispanics and African-Americans who bought homes in the last decade — because that was the American dream — are seeing big declines,” said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in income inequality.

The statistics are repulsive:

The median wealth of white U.S. households in 2009 was $113,149, compared with $6,325 for Hispanics and $5,677 for blacks, according to the analysis released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center. Those ratios, roughly 20 to 1 for blacks and 18 to 1 for Hispanics, far exceed the low mark of 7 to 1 for both groups reached in 1995, when the nation’s economic expansion lifted many low-income groups to the middle class.

The white-black wealth gap is also the widest since the census began tracking such data in 1984, when the ratio was roughly 12 to 1.

How does this relate to prisons?

Well, it occurs to me that if one is living way, way below the poverty line, then the energy to worry about someone elses circumstances is going to be a low priority. If “free” society is in fact – as Shaw suggests – a prison of downward mobility then, quite simply, why bother?

Shaw goes on to argue that at least people in prison don’t have to worry about the provision of food, shelter, nor the payment of taxes. It’s a bleak point indeed when one begins to argue for the merits of prison above and beyond open society (we must also remember Shaw is writing before the era of mass incarceration about the jails of Edward V’s England; he might not so readily espouse the benefits of the U.S. Supermax.)

All this brings me to the ongoing debate about permissive attitudes and failing morality in modern society. Sometimes it seems the issue isn’t what the shared values should be, but that shared values should, at the very least, exist in some form.

In Rude Britannia John Burns’ Sunday Op-Ed for the New York Times, quoted was Ed Milliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party in the UK:

“What is a young person, just starting out in life, trying to do the right thing, supposed to think when he sees a politician fiddling the expenses system, a banker raking off millions without deserving it, or a press baron abusing the trust of ordinary people?”

In such terms, it’s obvious why people don’t care about prisoners or functioning penal institutions.

People are either poor and as such prisoners of society; or they’re cast early in adulthood as amoral, beer-swilling louts whose disruption is perceived as potentially requiring the discipline of prison; or they are witnesses to the crimes and corruption of those in power and conclude it’s a free-for-all anyway.

The drive for crass tabloid journalism, the reluctance for prison reform, the race-to-the-bottom rhetoric of war, and political gridlock over issues (debt ceiling, anyone?) are all driven by lack of imagination.

The UK and the US, in their own ways, could easily get behind an idea. The idea just needs to prioritise social justice action and be imaginative.