Saturday, April 30, 2011

Europe's Dignity Gap between Punishment and Immigration Control

During my year in Scotland I've become increasingly impressed with the way dignity as a public value promoted by the European Convention on Human Rights and various European governmental bodies has influenced prison law and policy, setting limits on popular punitiveness and preventing the formation of something like California's humanitarian crisis of prisons. However as sociologist Vanessa Barker pointed out to me during a seminar in Stockholm last week, the great gap in European human rights involves immigrants who have been subjected to detention and deportation practices that seem far out of line with European norms in the penal field. The mass deportations of Roma in France last summer, and Italy's treatment of Tunisian and Libyan nationals (some of whom may be refugees) evidence an indifference to human dignity that is at odds with the respect for dignity in the exercise of the power to punish (even though the practices themselves may be functionally the same including detention, involuntary removal, and even death).

One case in point is the death of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan man who died while being forcibly deported on a commercial flight waiting to take off from Heathrow airport last fall. Most recently, his wife and others have asked the United Nations to investigate his death (read Matthew Taylor and Paul Lewis reporting on this story in Guardian). Mubenga, whose deportation to Angola after years of living in the United Kingdom was separating him from his wife and five children who remained in England, died while being forcibly restrained by a team of employees of G4S, a private security firm with a contract to conduct deportations for he UK government. Alarmed fellow passengers were told rebuffed by the security guards when they expressed concerns about Mubenga's apparent pain and difficulty breathing.

Whether or not the death is ultimately ruled criminal, there is a lot about the episode the raises grave concerns from a dignity point of view. First of all, private firms should not be delegated to carry out functions that necessarily involve extreme coercion in the name of the state. The employees of G4S are there to make money for the company, not to make sure that the public values of the United Kingdom are protected (as they were not). Second, the fact that Mubenga was deported on a commercial flight meant that the predictable anguish he was going to experience in being forcibly separated from his family (not to mention being killed) was going to be witnessed by numerous strangers; it become a kind of public punishment.

The US also relies heavily on private firms to exercise coercive functions with immigrants, but our penal system is also deeply degrading.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

It's So Predictable: Oakland, Violent Crime, and the Press

There have been a string of brazen gun crimes in Oakland, and once again a Mayor with the right instincts is getting politically nailed by a newspaper columnist speaking in the "common sense" about crime----it is all so predictable.

In this case the crimes are the type that shake the confidence of anyone who loves urban life--- a brazen shooting in a restaurant, a bungled robbery, killing two and wounding four. Earlier this month an Oakland restaurant owner was killed in another robbery. The Mayor, Jean Quan who came into office only this January, dares to suggest something other than the tried and truely failed strategies of a police "crack down" or a new harsh penalty for violent crime (as if we could get much higher than the sentences which currently prevail for violent crime in California). In this case the columnist, Chip Johnson (read his column), is no hack, but instead a veteran and often perceptive observer of Oakland's social scene.

Johnson takes the mayor to task for failing to deter crimes like these.

Her response to a restaurant shooting early Monday in downtown Oakland that killed two people and wounded four others was particularly disappointing.

"I assure you that it is a high priority and the Police Department will schedule increased patrols in the area as they continue to investigate the circumstances," Quan said in a prepared media statement.

Quan believes in providing young people, including those hell-bent on shooting other people, with positive alternatives.

Nothing wrong with that, but that alone is not going to deter crime on the mean streets of Oakland. She needs a clearer, more comprehensive approach that includes spelling out for residents the Oakland Police Department's role.

Actually it's Johnson's analysis that is disappointing. Let's start with what is predictable.

It is predictable that Oakland will continue to suffer from periodic spasms of violent gun crime. We have a large population of extremely alienated young males (older teens and young adults) who have accepted a path to "honor" paved in guns, blood, imprisonment, and early death. Post-industrial cities have that problem not just in America, but, minus the big factor of guns, everywhere in the old industrial world. Urban industries permitted aging young men with limited educations to obtain a life of honor (if not glory) by embracing working class values and objectives. We let our industrial economy die and failed to replace it with any viable alternative. Angry young men stay angry until age and prison break them to a life of low level degradation, pushing a shopping cart across the empty lots of post-industrial cities, collecting cans and bottles. There are societies that chose not to allow their industrial economy to disappear, Germany for instance, and they have far less crime with remarkably low levels of policing or punishment.

It is predictable that any effort to stray from one side of the other of the deterrence equation (more policing or more punishment) will be ridiculed as naive and ineffective. As Johnson writes (with the conviction no doubt shared by most of his readers even in liberal Oakland):

Sad as it is, all the community involvement in the world couldn't stop the bullets that ended the life of Jesus "Chuy" Campos earlier this month. The Fruitvale restaurateur was shot to death April 8 while opening his business.

Of course Chip is right. Better social policies cannot stop bullets fired in the present any more than stopping smoking can stop a malignant tumor from growing in your lung --- but the truth is, nothing we have is going to stop that tumor now. No amount of aggressive patrolling and indiscriminate arrests is going to alter the basic incentives that lead those bullets to fly. Where Johnson falls victim to his own "common sense" is in believing there is a way to deter those bullets today (or the hands firing them). But everything we know from empirical research and the experience of our own failed war on crime is that young men do not put enough stock in the future to be deterred by crackdowns and long prison terms (they already accept those consequences).

Programs aimed at keeping youth in school, creating places to go other than the streets at night, and shaping a policing strategy less likely to drive impressionable younger men into the arms of the gangs are all worth doing because they may, at the margins, diminish the number of bullets flying five years from now. At least these strategies are less destructive and costly than the tried and truly failed war on crime tactics. More realistic would be an economic strategy aimed at producing a new generation of good working class jobs in Oakland and providing the kind of high school education necessary to prepare the current ten year olds for those futures.

What to do about the current young men with guns? Police tactics precisely aimed at deterring them from carrying their guns is one possibility. It worked in New York, but it requires a mass mobilization of police that Oakland cannot afford on its own and California does not have the current budget to support. It also means ignoring the Constitution's bar against unreasonable searches and seizures (but that's for another post).

Another approach would be turbo charging our current juvenile and adult probation with electronic monitoring and low case loads that allow both surveillance and daily engagement with offenders, but that also costs money we cannot afford until Governor Brown's realignment from state prison to country law enforcement happens (currently locked out by the budget impasse).

There is little Mayor Chuan can do on her own to make any of these strategies available in Oakland. She can help lead a real discussion of why Oakland is so violent and what strategies might produce a less violent Oakland in the future, but to do that she'll have to survive the all too predictable common sense promoted by the media.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Wall

Earlier this month I went with my family for four days of walking through the countryside of Northumbria in the United Kingdom along some of the largest and most stunningly situated remains of what is known as Hadrian's Wall. Built in a remarkable five year period on the orders of the Roman emperor Hadrian (in power from 117-138) the wall originally stood fifteen feet high, at least four feet thick, 80 miles across the breadth of Northumbria from present day New Castle in the east, to Carlisle in the west, and along the west coast.

For a student of crime and social control the wall is a subject of endless fascination. We know it was built to significantly upgrade the security of Roman control over what they called Brittania (military documents left at the contemporary and nearby Roman fort of Vindolanda make reference to the locals as more or less "dirty little Brits"). Only a decade earlier a rebellion to the south, led by Queen Boudicca, had led to the trashing of several Roman cities including London, and the massacre of Roman civilians (in retaliation for abuses against locals). But Brittania was hardly the most dangerous outpost in the Empire, perhaps just the most dangerous one where a wall would be helpful because of the relatively narrow parts of the long island.

How was the wall supposed to work? It is tempting to view it as a security perimeter designed to separate an untamed North from the docile and controlled South (that feeds into much of the later historic imaginary of Scotland as a wilder and less tamed region). But we know that Boudicca's rebellion had come from the South. Moreover, the wall was part of a larger military zone which ran from a ditch dug just north of the wall, to an even wider ditch with raised ramparts running a bit further to the south. Indeed, Hadrian's Wall interacted with a previous infrastructure, the Roman military road which ran parallel approximately two miles south and along which the Romans had already constructed forts including Vindolanda and several others at which they stationed large units of auxiliary troops (so called because these units composed of non-Roman citizens were considered of lower status than the legions but almost equally well trained and led).

Instead of a barrier, the Wall seems to have been both a demonstration of Rome's sheer power (the amazing views we enjoyed reflect the fact that it was built across high ridges and crags where attackers or traders were unlikely to come but from where it could be seen for miles). It was also a demonstration of Rome's disciplinary technology, with defensive turrets and wall forts designed to control (and tax) traders entering into the Roman zone spaced every 1/3 of a Roman mile even where that placed them on top of a high crag that no trader would ever visit. It may also have been an instrument for introducing these disciplinary patterns into the Celtic populations along both sides of the wall. Whether coming from the south or the north, locals seeking to visit family or trade across the wall would have had to deal with the disciplinary matrix of the military zone along the wall and learn to conform themselves to its demands. Indeed, this aspect of the Wall seems to have survived its demise (Rome abandoned it and Britain in the 5th century) to linger in the cultural imagination of the British. For example the common reference in British usage to a fortnight (or two weeks) comes from the period of time during which Roman soldiers would rotate through duty on the Wall where they patrolled the along the wall and slept in the turrets and wall forts (thus fortnight).

There is a story of crime here as well in the Wall's survival. Although many of its well dressed outer stones have been robbed to build churches and farm houses, the fact that this area between England and Scotland was a zone frequently visited by raiding parties from both sides (some of them known as Reavers) kept the area from being more fully developed until union of the two kingdoms brought relative peace in the 18th century, at which time a sense of preservation about the wall had begun to develop.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Hardman

Chris and I saw the new production of The Hardman, directed by Philip Breen, in Edinburgh through Saturday I believe and then moving on to Glasgow (check out dates here if you are in Scotland). The play written by the late Tom McGrath, and Jimmy Boyle, the famous gangster turned artist whose early life it retells. Criticized when it was first produced in the Seventies for glamorizing violence, the play is an unrelenting encounter with the horror of violence. It is an exercise in the most courageous kind of truth telling (especially given that Boyle was still in prison and seeking parole release from a life sentence for murder) which spares little in describing Boyle's escalating violence as a young man turned gangster, a pattern that only accelerates initially when it meets the routinized violence of Scottish prisons in the period. Interestingly Boyle's character, Johnny Bond, is better at exhibiting violence physically (and the production fo the revival in this respect is brilliant and wonderfully acted by Alex Ferns) the explaining it analytically (he says at one point that he cannot read his DNA). Instead, the most insightful lines are given to the racist (anti-Catholic) and sadistic prison officer Paisley:

...And the other...screws don't like me because they know I'm the one that does the dirty work for them.

They know what this prison would be like if we didn't get tough from time to time. They don't want to walk in fear of their life from day to day when they're going about their job, any more than you would. So they tolerate me. I'm (their) hardman. And they feel a wee bit guilty about me because I'm an aspect of themselves they don't like to admit to. Just like you should be feeling guilty about us because we're the garbage disposal squad for the social sewage system. You people out there, that's the way it works for you --- you've got a crime problem so you just flush it away one thug after another in behind bars and safely locked away. The cistern's clanked and you can think you can leave it floating away from you to the depths of the sea. Well, ah've goat news fur you --- its pollution. Yir gonnae huv tae look ut it. Because if yae don't, wun day its gannae destroy yae. But in the meantime, dirties like me, well, lets just say we're a necessary evil. Very necessary.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Post Conflict Violence in Northern Ireland

Shortly after I departed Northern Ireland, this past Saturday, a new page was being written in the story of post-conflict violence. That afternoon, in Omagh, a 25 year old recent recruit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), was killed by a bomb booby trapped to explode when he used his car to commute to his post as a police officer (read the Guardian coverage here). To speak of post-conflict violence sounds contradictory, but it is not. The conflict is over because the major organized forces that pursued it for three decades have laid down their arms and now participate quite cooperatively in a set of political institutions negotiated to end the conflict. The lethal attacks and threats that continue to be carried out show that the conflict is not over for everyone, but those acts take place against a background of agreement that conditions their logic. Thus while no group has claimed credit for the latest Omagh bomb, it is widely assumed that the operators were part of the rejectionist wing of the Republican/Catholic side, which insists that the armed struggle to reunite Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic must continue. The fact that they targeted a Catholic police officer, in an effort interpreted by others as one aimed at preventing the PSNI from achieving the integrated force composition that is a key part of its own post-conflict make-over into a reflection of the peace and to differentiate themselves from the much criticized Royal Ulster Constabulary which was widely viewed as siding with Protestant militants during the troubles. Both the PSNI and the rejectionist Republicans are pursuing what can fairly be called post-conflict strategies.

The rejectionist Republicans who are also blamed for the mass killing of 29 people in Omagh in 1998 at the time of the peace accords, believe that they can trigger the kind of repression of poor Catholic neighborhoods that during the conflict period helped sustain popular legitimacy for the IRA among Catholics. The PSNI which has invested considerable effort in branding itself as a successful model for post-conflict policing globally (see Graham Ellison and Conor O'Reilly, "'Ulster's policing goes global': The police reform process in Northern Ireland the creation of of a global brand," Crime Law and Social Change (2008) 50:331-351), knows that they cannot afford to alienate Catholic communities by a repressive crackdown. The only question is whether the political dynamics within the Loyalist/Protestant community can resist the impulse toward a crackdown.

Another prime theme of the conflict that is being brought into play in the post-conflict is the politics of informers. Ron Dudai, a post graduate student at Queens, School of Law, is exploring the post conflict politics of informers and the legacy of reprisal violence carried out against suspected informers (read a brief essay available on the web by Ron on this general topic). Informers played a crucial role during the conflict in both the British effort to combat the IRA, and in the IRA's effort to maintain legitimacy among the Catholic population. The rejectionist Republican militias are clearly seeking to extend that logic while the older Sein Fein/IRA has now taken the extraordinary step of asking Catholic community members to inform the PSNI about violent militias (read the Guardian story here).

Finally, the incident is a lesson in how the availability of weapons has changed the political calculus of militia violence. As Queens law professor and transitional justice scholar Kieran McEvoy told me while I was visiting Belfast, the IRA struggled during most of the troubles with a very limited access to high quality weapons. The highly unstable home made bombs relied on in the early phase frequently killed as many IRA members in accidents as they did victims in intentional terror acts. Only after they obtained high quality arms from Libya's Muamar Quaddafi could the IRA go on to its major terror successes in the 1980s, events that laid the groundwork for resolution in the 1990s. The use of fire arms was therefore highly regulated by the IRA leadership during the conflict. Tight control on weapons went along with a human capital strategy in which the cooperation of many individuals and whole communities was necessary to sustain the armed struggle. In contrast, the relatively tiny membership of the rejectionist IRA militias has access to relatively sophisticated weaponry that can achieve great lethality (the previous Omagh bombing killed 29, the largest during the entire conflict) which they can use with virtually no base of popular support. It is hard to see how that can be reversed which suggests a very long tail to violent conflicts.