“[Prison] is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions — poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed — which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished” — Howard Zinn
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In this quote, Howard Zinn criticizes the overreliance on prisons as a solution to crime without addressing its root causes. He argues that imprisonment is a “cruel and useless substitute” for actually tackling problems like poverty, joblessness, lack of housing, desperation and racism that often underlie unlawful behavior among the disadvantaged.
Zinn also points out a double standard, noting that while the crimes of ordinary citizens are harshly punished, the illicit acts of the wealthy and powerful tend to face less consequences. He seems to be implying that an equitable justice system should work to eliminate unjust social conditions driving criminal behavior, rather than just incarcerating offenders, and also apply punishment equally regardless of class.
Overall, the quote conveys Zinn’s view that relying primarily on prisons to deal with crime is misguided when the social inequities fueling law-breaking are left unaddressed, and that a fair system would work to remedy underlying injustices while also holding all classes accountable for unlawful behavior.