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We are a country of laws.
Not of people.
Not of compassion.

Americans display great generosity when asked to donate to causes like world poverty, famine, disease, research, environmental issues, endangered species or animal cruelty.  But when it comes to the inherent inhumanity of their own systems of social justice they are tone deaf. They are absent. They are thoughtless.

For decades as a society we’ve continued to pursue a mindless agenda of mass incarceration, judicial viciousness and large-scale social indifference to the plight of those we have singled out as suspects or offenders. The U.S. for some time has been known as the world’s incarceration nation. Other advanced countries have copied our model but none have yet matched it. On that scoreboard the home team still remains far ahead of the challengers.

We are at the top of the food chain when it comes to arresting, degrading, bullying, isolating and permanently socially disabling anyone who breaks a statute or defies the rules. We do it to pursue moralistic crusades such as drug abuse, public safety, environmental protection and sexual ideas. We do it punitively. Often we do it inhumanely and unquestionably with racial bias. We do it systematically and effectively regardless of the financial burden or the human cost. Shamelessly, we even do it for profit. But then there’s little Americans do that isn’t for profit. Even in the midst of a lethal pandemic we are willing to let thousands of old, poor and undesirable die just so that we can hang on to our grand illusion of eternally greater profit, economic stability and empty-headed amusements. We have nurtured a society obsessed and mesmerized with crime, violence and a sense of payback justice. Oddly we are shocked and mystified when police kill people just because they act suspiciously. We have created hair-trigger policing.

American society hit on a winning formula when it emerged as a global power. It offered the poor and the downtrodden of the world opportunities to better themselves. At the same time filling the coffers of greed driven capitalist barons. This was touted as the pursuit of happiness. The system worked, evolved, and still endures. But along the way we have lost our sense of moral proportion, humanity and compassion. Nowhere is this more evident than in our prisons. At no time has it been clearer than now while looking through the harsh lens of COVID-19. While making superficial claims of leniency toward the COVID vulnerable, old and sick inmates, the Bureau of Prisons and the courts are shutting the door on as many claims for compassionate release as they can. They are stretching the language of the Cares Act and the First Step Act and are  ignoring the decisions of Congressional lawmakers.

But most inmates in the federal system have come to expect such treatment. They expect no mercy from the system. No mercy in the lengthy sentences doled out even to first-time non-violent offenders. No mercy in the substandard medical care. No mercy in the arbitrary rules imposed on them by careless and often surly, bigoted guards. Generally the U.S. state prisons follow the model of the Bureau of Prisons. In fact, over the last few decades the federal system has taken over what used to be state criminal cases. A huge percentage of federal inmates now are not dangerous felons but petty street criminals. In the past such offenders would have been dealt with by local courts, incarcerated for short terms and would have access to parole boards. Now the same type of offenders find themselves warehoused for decades without parole, at a staggering cost to taxpayers. These prisoners are treated as if they were masterminds or kingpins but they are being transformed into useless social pariahs.

How do such offenders spend their time in prison? Some pursue pointless programming that will do little for them upon some distant date of release. Some lift weights or play various sports. Now because of COVID-19 lockdowns even these privileges are gone. Most sit in front of television sets for hours on end watching a world they are no longer and will never be an integral part of. Many play games. Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder for mostly white sex offenders. Dominos, cards and sports gambling for mostly black drug offenders. Many sleep their lives away. Humanity seeps out of all of them, a bit at a time, until they are just shells, ghosts. They forget why they are alive. When asked, many will say truthfully, especially those who are very old or sick, that they are simply waiting to die.

In this time of COVID there is a sense of absolute hopelessness which engulfs federal inmates. Some now wait for the inevitable arrival of the virus. Others have just stopped caring. In a life that no longer matters and has no purpose there’s not even a sense of injustice or a spark of revolt.

We, those of us inside, long past remorse and repentance for whatever harm we caused and whatever statute we broke and now we live strictly in just a biological sense.

In here, all of us, or at least those with any sense, are just waiting to die, whether from COVID or just from the final exhalation of our captive spirits.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Fernando Rivas Martinez is writer and prison reform advocate incarcerated in Texas. He is a 1977 Juilliard graduate and award-winning composer of film and television music. In 2016, while incarcerated, he received an honorable mention from the PEN America prison writing program for his poem "300 Min." In 2019 he won the American Short Fiction Insider’s Prize award and an honorable mention on the Texas Observer short story contest.