Political Prisoners in America

Column by Paul Bonneau.

Exclusive to STR

One bit of indoctrination I have found it difficult to shake, is the notion that only other countries have political prisoners. Perhaps you have the same mental knee-jerk reaction that I do, when I hear that phrase: people rotting in prisons in Cuba, or some other banana republic run by a military honcho, or Burma, or North Korea. But are such examples really representative of the concept, “political prisoner”?
When you look up the definition, you generally see something like “A person who has been imprisoned for holding or advocating dissenting political views,” or “someone imprisoned for holding, expressing, or acting in accord with particular political beliefs.” These definitions are not the most helpful in the world, as they are so elastic. It could cover almost everyone in prison, or almost no one, depending on one’s preference.
I’d like to propose another definition that nails things down a bit better: A political prisoner is a person in prison for commiting mala prohibita.
This definition immediately rules out murderers, thieves, rapists, and so forth. Most people (except maybe those same murderers, thieves and rapists) would consider this reasonable.
Now, getting pulled over for speeding is an example of mala prohibita. But usually, you are not thrown in jail for it, so you are not a political prisoner. It’s only if the punishment rises to the level of imprisonment that this term kicks in.
Does this fit in with existing definitions? I think so. Presumably, people who commit mala prohibita do dissent from the prevailing or state-enforced political view that they can do X. After all, it took legislation--political activity--to outlaw X, unlike the case with murder and theft (which are naturally outlawed). It may be their political belief that they can do whatever they want with their own bodies, or own whatever they can pay for, or hire whomever they want, at whatever wage they care to negotiate. These innocent activities are not inherently political; but they certainly become so when they are outlawed.
The stereotypical political prisoner is not the conservative activist, rotting in a Cuban jail. It is a pot smoker, or the guy with a worn sear in his AK-47, rotting in an American jail. With 2.3 million people in jail, largely for mala prohibita, America has more political prisoners than any other place. Unfortunately, with our government, “political prisoner” has become as American as apple pie.
It’s becoming close to the time when Americans must have their “storm the Bastille” moment, and free all our political prisoners. We can start with Julian Assange and Bradley Manning!


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Paul Bonneau's picture
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rita's picture

There are over half a million prisoners of war in the US doing time for victinless drug crimes. That's not counting those convicted of other crimes whose paroles or probations were revoked for drug use or sentences aggravated for prior drug felonies. That's not counting the children of drug raids, guilty only of being present, condemned to spend their youth in foster homes (where they may or may not be housed with teenaged sex offenders), turned out and forgotten at 18; no one keeps track of how these children, "protected" by the state from drug-using parents, spend their adulthoods. If you're an American, and you're not deeply ashamed of this country's travesty of justice system, you're not paying attention.