A happy life creates a grateful life, but the converse is just as true: a grateful life creates a happy life. I’m a public defender, and this presents a challenge to feeling grateful. I trust that many, many families enjoyed a wonderful day together yesterday, full of special food and togetherness.
But just as many families were painfully aware of an empty seat at the table, the one unoccupied because a family member spends Thanksgiving in a jail cell. America’s insatiable hunger for incarceration is on the table every day, destroying families, costing billions, failing our uniquely American ideals of what is fair, and creating an enormous, crushing, tragic system of injustice.
More than 2.3 million people spent Thanksgiving in prison, and that ought to make us wince, put down our forks for a minute, give us pause. Many people are in prison because they are mentally ill, or they just can’t make bail, or they are addicted to drugs and it’s so much easier to get jail time than treatment. Most everyone in jail is there because they are poor and as such have no power, because they daily endure more stress than is possible to and person to bear, because they have trauma in their personal histories, and they have fallen through a shrinking net of social services that has left them with enormous unmet needs.
If you didn’t have an empty seat at your table yesterday, I guarantee you know someone who did, someone close to you. It’s a reflection of the stunning number of people in our jails to consider that everyone is close to someone who is incarcerated.
Given that proximity, with the memory of Thanksgiving still fresh in our minds, this public defender hopes that a greater swath of our society grieve for families separated by our criminal justice system, demands that verdicts be accurate and sentences be fair, believes in the opportunity for rehabilitation, and is compassionate to the challenges of being poor and accused.
I would be so grateful.