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Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag
By Ivan G. Goldman
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
The American justice system is broken. Ivan G. Goldman, novelist, journalist, and blogger, unearths the moral rot and rampant corruption within the American justice system. His new book, Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag, despite its sensational title, a scathing, well-researched, and highly readable indictment involving compromised ideals, damaged lives, and obscene profiteering. Last year, I reviewed Goldman's magical realist (sort of) satire Isaac: a Modern Fable. Having read his fiction, I didn't know what to expect from his investigative journalism. There are a few similarities: the love of boxing, a dark view of human nature, and a zeal to see justice done.
Sick Justice accomplishes many great things in its muckraking. Throughout the book, Goldman traces the lives of ordinary individuals damaged and thrown into America's sewage system, our jails and prisons. He states America has 2.3 million people behind bars, equal to Houston's population. How did we, as a nation, get to this place? The overcrowded prisons, the punitive sentencing, and the for-profit prison industry are investigated and explored. The reader will learn about California's wealthy and corrupt prison guards union and their campaign for stricter sentencing. From a perspective of self-interest, that just makes sense. When you work in an industry, you want to keep your job by increasing the amount of raw material harvested. From a moral perspective, that's kind of evil, especially when we are talking about the lives of real people. Because of fear-mongering, political connections, and overstuffed union coffers, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) has more power and clout than the state's teacher's union. (Guess which one we're supposed to hate? And guess who earns upwards of $100,000 per year?) On the other end, Goldman also profiles Law Enforcement Officers Against Prohibition (LEAP), a law enforcement organization against the disastrous War On Drugs.
Beyond the frightening prison world, there is an illuminating account of runaway prosecutors and paid informants. Prosecutors have specific legal privileges and immunities, along with the ability to bribe informants in cases. Public defenders have no such power. It seems, at present, that the system is rigged to benefit the prosecution, despite the usual amount of innocent people sentenced for crimes he or she didn't commit. Within the justice system itself, defendants get placed in Catch-22 situations. For example, say you, dear reader, are accused of a crime you know you didn't commit. Standard operating procedure would involve a plea bargain for a lower sentence. But that implies guilt, which is impossible, since you didn't commit a crime. Unfortunately, the judge looks down on those pleading innocent. If one pleads innocent but is found guilty, that involves a stiffer sentence. Luckily, the murderer or rapist who is your cell mate will be getting a lower sentence since he made a plea bargain and informed on some of his lower-level associates. (Unlike the reigning mythology that has one believing that once the cops catch the lower-level bad guys, then they will squeal and rat on their superiors.) Luckily criminals don't see incarceration as a networking opportunity.
And on and on. From one aspect of a broken, corrupt, morally bankrupt system to the next. Although clarification is needed, since Goldman remains sensible and just in his muckraking. While he decries minimum sentencing and how it hobbles judges from doing their job, he also holds a realist's perspective on human behavior. Many individuals he profiles do not resemble saints, with most facing jail time for illegal behavior. He asks the important question, central to jurisprudence, "Does the punishment fit the crime?" With prisons overflowing with non-violent offenders, are punitive measures like the "Three Strikes" laws really actually effective? Or are these measures simply fear-mongering tactics used by career politicians for an effective re-election campaign?
The for-profit prisons is the most perplexing issue as well. A recent phenomenon among conservative and libertarian politicians, the concept makes no sense whatsoever. As someone who has muscled through Ayn Rand's ninth-rate science fiction libertarian gospel, Atlas Shrugged, even her characters draw the line of privatization at police and judges. Even Ayn Rand, that anarcho-capitalist temper tantrum one poorly written passage away from a psychotic break, even warns against privatizing the police force. In Rand's ideal world, citizens would only pay taxes on cops and judges. But what's behind privatized prisons? Goldman lays it out, "The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a secretive, right-wing lobbying group of corporations and legislators that works to privatize most of the known universe, including the penal system." For a group with a boring name, ALEC represents a clear and present danger to American social cohesion. The last place anyone should want a profit motive should be prisons. (How will this for-profit mentality effect prison guards? Especially those guarding incarcerated individuals more than willing to drop a C-note for added privileges or a turned head during something horrible?) Luckily the profit motive in the military and health care systems have turned out fine, making things operate smoothly and cost-efficient. Or not.
This is one of the best books of the year. Not just because Goldman and I share the same ideological perspective. Unlike the shrill politicking and fear-mongering on social media sites, Goldman writes with precision and empathy for his subjects. He also leavens the book with literary references ranging from Solzhenitsyn to Tolstoy to Victor Hugo. Like Solzhenitsyn three-volume Gulag Archipelago, Goldman paints a group portrait of a system broken, corrupt, and obscene. The book achieves brilliance with its collection of modern corruptions and Stygian depravities, collecting all the major problems in one place. It is succinct, it is damning, and it is compelling.