Friday, June 26, 2020

Injustice for Sale

Recently, I've heard two different stories about the relationship between privately-run, for-profit prisons and the justice system in the United States. The first said that the justice system as a whole was actively working for the prison operators; that the wheels of justice, as it were, were designed to funnel innocent people into a form of modern-day slavery at the behest of rapacious capitalists. The second was the story of a specific judge, who accepted bribes from a local prison operator, to be paid every time the judge sentenced someone to prison. This second one, it turned out, was the Kids for Cash scandal of a decade ago.

The two stories were broadly similar, and point to related, yet distinct problems within the justice system. One says that the system is corrupt in a moral sense, the other is that an individual within the system is corrupt in a legal sense. Both of these can be said to be conspiracy theories; it's the depth and the nature of the alleged conspiracies that differ. Interestingly, the NPR story was updated last year, noting that the story had been circulating on Facebook with an altered headline. I wonder if I haven't heard two versions of the same story, one having been through the social media grinder, and one from memory.

As related to me, the stories carried different themes; one warned of the dangers of a system that operated at the behest of shadowy élites and the other expressed anger at how those who wield the power of the state use it to protect themselves from accountability. Each story reflected the concerns of the people who related them to me. And interestingly, seemed geared towards prompting me to share those concerns.

There is a worry about misinformation in academic circles, with a never ending series of alarms being sounded about false information circulating online. But maybe the worry would be better placed (to the degree that worry can ever be well-placed) if it were concerned with people's worries. If a significant portion of misinformation is driven by people's fears, perhaps working with those fears would kill two birds with one stone.

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