Earlier this month, Pauls Valley resident Jamie Lynn Russell died in a Garvin County jail from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. How did she get there you might be wondering? According to KFOR, Jamie went to a hospital to have her extraordinary pain treated, and was in so much agony that she could not lie down or cooperate. Naturally the hospital called over a police officer to restrain her. When that police officer found two prescription pills that did not belong to Russell, he carted her right off to jail. She died some two hours later.
While the specific unfolding of this story is somewhat rare and particularly disgusting, it fits neatly into a broad tendency within this society to pursue punitive law enforcement at all costs. From the failed drug war to failed three-strikes policies to mandatory and escalating sentencing regimes that have effectively given prosecutors unfettered abilities to ruin people’s lives, the United States stands alone in the pure scale of its punitive incarceration culture.
Generally, overzealous law enforcement delivers its heaviest blows on communities of color and poorer folks. Unfettered and often racist police forces come down hard on specific neighborhoods, and sometimes, in the event of New York City, appear to just stop every Black and Hispanic person they see and pat them down. The imprison-at-all-costs mentality has made Oklahoma in particular famous for having the highest female incarceration rate in the entire world.
This kind of self-destructive zeal usually remains below the surface, something very real in some communities, but not those the popular press particularly cares about. In the past few days, however, an exception has emerged. The high-profile suicide of the computer programmer and internet activist Aaron Swartz — committed, it appears, in response to government prosecutors threatening 50 years of imprisonment for downloading millions of JSTOR articles — has even the Wall Street Journal writing pieces about prosecutorial overreach.
Of course when someone of Swartz’s status faces unconscionable levels of prosecutorial grandstanding, the resulting life-devastating consequences become national news. That’s how things go. It deserves pointing out however that unbelievably harmful police, prison, and justice system mistreatment are everyday realities for certain segments of the US population, generally those less able to capture top stories in the country’s best newspapers. Jamie Lynn Russell was one such person, and unless things dramatically change, we can expect many more victims to come.
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