Wednesday, August 24, 2011

California Reconsiders (Its) Penal Isolation

A hearing yesterday in Sacramento of the Assembly Public Safety Committee was another remarkable sign that California's once frozen penal policies are beginning to thaw and change. Isolation of "high risk" prisoners, in a lock-down environment designed to promote security to the exclusion of all other penal objectives has been a pillar of California's prison system since the state opened one of the largest supermax prisons in the country, the Secure Housing Unit (or SHU in the inevitable bureaucratic parlance) of California State Prison Pelican Bay in 1989. Today California houses more than 3,000 prisoners in SHU conditions at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and in smaller units at two other prisons (read Keramet Reiter's recent study here). Despite three decades of criticism, a massive court intervention in the 1990s, and piles of academic research suggesting that holding prisoners in such circumstances for prolonged periods was dangerous and counter productive, California's prison officials have always steadfastly maintained that the regime is an essential barrier against the dominant gang culture among prisoners. At yesterday's hearing however, a representative of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was promising real change (read Sam Stanton's reporting in the Sac Bee here):

"I'm not talking about having another study," Scott Kernan, undersecretary at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said at a legislative hearing. "I'm talking about having some substantive changes."

The Department's change talk may in fact be coverage to buy more time and do more studies but there are other indicators that whether sincerely desired or not change is coming.

* The hunger strike led by prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU this July, which reached as many as 6,000 prisoners statewide, received significantly more media attention and expressions of public concern than the Department (or me for that matter) expected. This strike was particularly effective in getting attention to how extreme California's practice of supermax is, especially the long time prisoners spend in theses conditions (an average of 6.8 years according to the testimony yesterday) and the fact that it is imposed not for particular crimes or violations but as a preventive measure taken against supposed gang involvement.

* The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata handed down in May not only took away any legal hope that the state could shrug off lower court orders to reduce prisoner populations by tens of thousands, but also painted California's overall penal system as distended, irrational, and degrading. The ongoing budget crisis makes the super-expensive style of incarceration especially hard to defend but Brown may be even more important is a cultural shift that is making the whole enterprise of mass incarceration morally harder to defend. A former SHU prisoner, Earl Frears, who testified yesterday put it powerfully,""I am human, and by being human I do have certain rights … ." I think that is message Californians are increasingly able to hear.

Fixing California's extreme SHU practices is overdue, as is a fix for crazy sentencing laws like Three Strikes under which many SHU prisoners serve time without end, but if this moment is as promising for change as I think it is, we need to push this reconsideration of isolation in two further ways.

First, California has isolated itself for decades from national and international concerns about prison conditions and the tolerable scale of imprisonment in a democratic society that maintains respect for human rights. Our fear decades of high crime and paranoia during the 1970s and 1980s, left the state with a kind of political PTSD in which any measure against crime, no matter how costly, futile, and inhuman, was acceptable if it painted criminals/prisoners as monsters with no claim on human dignity. As a result prison policy has lived in a moral and intellectual lock-down in which the news that prisoners are humans has a startling quality to it. (Germany didn't end up where it found itself in 1945 overnight either).

Second, we need to end the larger policy of addressing community insecurity by isolating individuals in state prison. The era of big prison government must be declared dead and over. Prison remains an appropriate penal response to the most serious crimes and threatening criminal records. We cannot, however, make communities more secure by incarcerating whole neighborhoods full of residents. Realignment must become more than a way to hide prisoners from the federal courts; it must become a commitment to addressing community insecurities precisely and directly rather than through mass incarceration.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Justice and Social Control? Neither support harsh sentences for rioters

Does punishment restore a state of justice that has been ruptured by a crime, or is it a tool of social control? That is a question on which a great deal of punishment and society scholarship turns. It is also one raised a new by the latest turn in the London riot of 2011 story, the wave of very harsh sentences for riot related crimes. As Polly Curtis and Vikram Dodd report in the Guardian (read the whole story here) that legal experts in the Liberal Democratic party have expressed grave misgivings about the substantial prison terms being handed down in many such cases, while Prime Minister David Cameron has praised judges for using their considerable sentencing discretion to send a message on rioting. The debate may force a confrontation within the coalition at a time of high stress.

Lord Macdonald, who led the prosecution service in England and Wales for five years, warned that the courts risked being swept up in a "collective loss of proportion", passing jail terms that lack "humanity or justice".

Meanwhile his fellow Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile, the barrister who was until this year the government's independent adviser on terrorism strategy, warned against ministerial interference in the judicial process, arguing that "just filling up prisons" would not prevent future problems.

David Cameron, who last week promised severe punishments for rioters, saying he hoped courts would use "exemplary" sentences to deter future riots, praised the sentencing decisions, which have included two jailed for four years each for inciting riots on Facebook – riots that never took place – and one person sent to prison for six months for stealing £3.50 worth of water.

Is it just to punish someone more harshly because the crime they committed took place in the context of an alarming collective disorder? It depends on whether the crime was itself aimed at taking advantage of an existing social disorder. Those that rob people who are fleeing from a natural disaster, knowing there is not likely to be much help for them, or who burglarize their vacated houses, arguably deserve more severe punishment. But in the case of the riots the crimes are themselves, in aggregate, what makes the disaster. Indeed, once we acknowledge the collective aspect of riots, there is an argument that participants are less culpable for their crimes since they are giving into a much observed tendency to follow the example of others. Instead, this appears to violate one of our central values about criminal punishment, that people face punishments proportionate to the their desert and uniformly with equally culpable individuals. Instead we have the price of crimes moving like equity prices to reflect gyrations in public anxiety.

Nor is it clear that tough sentences for rioters is good social control for the increasingly tight resources of the UK and the US. As Lord Carlisle suggested in the passage quoted above, there is no reason at this point in our history to view expanded incarceration as a good way to bolster social control. England has more than twice the incarceration rate it had in the mid-1990s, a period of few if any riots. Some no doubt believe that future rioters will heed the harsh lesson being taught their cousins. No doubt Charlie Gilmore, university student (and son of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmore) who was given a 16 month prison sentence for participating in some disorderly events during the student fee demonstrations last December (read Stephen Bates' reporting in the Guardian) is unlikely to offend in that way again. That may be true for some of the individuals being punished now as well, although we will never know whether far more lenient but still undesired sentences would accomplish. But it is not clear it is true for the next Charlie Gilmore or young riot looter.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Chairman of the Board

Whether you view him as the archetype of the neoliberal marketization of security or the urban miracle worker who reduced crime while healing the reputation of police force tarnished by racism (at least in LA), Bill Bratton, who has been police chief of both New York City and Los Angeles and is now chair of Krull an international private security consulting firm, is the world's most influential police thinker (the Patrick Colquhoun of our time). Announced plans by British PM David Cameron to meet with Bratton prompted interviews with the chairman of the board of Krull in both the Guardian [read David Batty's story here](which calls Bratton the PM's new crime adviser) and the New York Times [read Al Bakers story here].

While the upper ranks of British policing are sure to bridle at yet another sign of the PMs contempt for the current leadership, Bratton's public profile is one they might, in fact, benefit from as they negotiate a budgetary modus vivendi with the real power man in White Hall, Chancellor George Osborne. For one thing, Bratton's LA profile is very much about winning the hearts and minds of frontline communities that experience the brunt of the war on crime and drugs. The PMs Dickesian rant this week in which he battered the police for not snuffing out the riot to start with and held out harsh justice as the only way to curb the feral children of the underclasses is not compatible with Bratton's public statements or profile. In both interviews he stated baldly that "“You can’t just arrest your way out of the problem,” adding in the NYT that “It’s going to require a lot of intervention and prevention strategies and techniques" and in the Guardian that:

"Arrest is certainly appropriate for the most violent, the incorrigible, but so much of it can be addressed in other ways and it's not just a police issue, it is in fact a societal issue,"

Neither statement is compatible with Cameron's Victorian celebration of the Big Society as the simple solution to most social problems. Nor is Bratton's focus on putting racial justice into practice inside the police going to sit easily with a government that thus far has regularly made vaguely Malthusian statements about immigrants and the limits of community tolerance for diversity.

Intriguingly, Bratton and the New York effort he led in the 1990s is perhaps best known for using effective policing to drive down reliance on incarceration, thus helping New York to be come the leading state thus far to have abandoned the practice of mass incarceration which is destroying government and society in California and much of the nation. Given the disappointing recent follow ups to the coalition government's once promising objectives of reducing the UK's incarceration rate, Cameron could do worst than to listen to Bratton and Ed Miliband should schedule a chat too.

Finally, police in the UK should appreciate that Bratton's strategy has not generally been a plan for community disinvestment. Like most surge strategies, it can only be viewed as cost reducing in the long run when tied to real reductions in incarceration.

There is a dark side to the Bratton rap, however, and that is the emphasis on fighting gangs with sophisticated technologies and strategies. Gang talk should always be filtered through two facts. One is that people, and young people in general, almost always act in and through social networks. So behind the term "gang" we have no problem finding something real. On the other hand police, politicians, and ironically some usually incarcerated "gang members" have a huge huge huge incentive to blow up that social network reality into something far bigger and badder than it really is. Gangs will be with us always, especially as long as we cling on to war on crime metaphors that favor a way of imagining crime as an organized army of enemies.

Bibliographic resource:

The debates that Bratton's intervention are likely to unleash will involve urban geography and race in countless and overlapping ways. Fortuitously I've just learned from Stuart Elden that the journal Society and Space--Environment and Planning D, has posted "virtual theme issue" on "urban disorder and policing" that includes some classic and more current papers from the journal on issues of race, policing, and urban disorder. The issue will be open for reading without the usual electronic subscriptions until October.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Culture or Poverty? Try Dignity

British Prime Minister David Cameron's speech (listen to excerpts here) to Parliament yesterday on the recent rioting dripped with all the racially charged rhetoric of forty years of war on crime in both the US and the UK (read the Guardian's backgrounder by Nicholas Watt here):

This is not about poverty, it's about culture. A culture that glorifies violence, shows disrespect to authority, and says everything about rights but nothing about responsibilities. In too many cases the parents of these children – if they are still around – don't care where their children are or who they are with, let alone what they are doing. The potential consequences of neglect and immorality on this scale have been clear for too long, without enough action being taken."

Cameron was clearly hoping that Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, would fall into some Michael Dukakis like time warp and begin to blame the rioting on Cameron's severe cuts in social spending. No such luck, predictably Miliband attacked instead on the New Labour ground that the coalition has imposed cuts on police budgets all over the country. Everyone seemed to agree that the police, perhaps aided by the army, were the thin blue line separating civilization from the chaos spread by the brawny spawn of the underclasses. Even the left oriented Guardian's writers have speculated on whether announced plans to reduce incarceration has sapped the deterrent threat of prisons (read Zoe William's interesting column discussing criminological views of the riots).

Observers should be reluctant to embrace either the view that rioting is the inevitable or at least direct result of increasing poverty on the one hand, or the product of a culture, i.e., practices of child rearing, which produce violent and narcissistic adults, on the other. The alternative view is well expressed in another Guardian comment by Seamus Milne (read it here) who notes that riots, unlike the dangerous classes, are not with us always, but why?

This time, the multi-ethnic unrest has spread far further and faster. It's been less politicised and there's been far more looting, to the point where in many areas grabbing "free stuff" has been the main action. But there's no mystery as to where the upheaval came from. It was triggered by the police killing a young black man in a country where black people are 26 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than their white counterparts. The riot that exploded in Tottenham in response at the weekend took place in an area with the highest unemployment in London, whose youth clubs have been closed to meet a 75% cut in its youth services budget.

For my money it is not poverty that links the cuts in social benefits, to rioting, but dignity, or one should say, indignity. While many of the cuts have yet to take place yet, the communication of who has standing in our societies has come through loud and clear. The world's leaders tremble over the narcissistic rage of bond holders whose pursuit of shameless risk free profits in investments they should have known were gambles, has placed them and the entire global financial structure in peril. But in Washington and London (and one suspects in Paris and Berlin as well) there is no element of urgency about the situation of communities locked into degrading helplessness by anomic and dysfunctional education and employment practices. It is this sense of relative deprivation that goes to the basic sense of dignity, the equality of which is essential to the survival of any truly democratic society. The reason young people, apparently of many races and in some cases classes, are so prone to riot, I would suggest, is not their lack of impulse control or high discount rate on the future, but their heightened sense of dignity/indignity.

In the meantime, it is not lost on those rioters that the deep financial crisis that has cast both the US and the UK into huge budget deficits was caused by behavior which has been frequently and obviously compared to looting. Where is Prime Minister Cameron's outrage at the poor parenting and deformed culture of his class peers in the executive suites of the top London and Edinburgh banks? Where is London Mayor Boris Johnson's statement that the City of London's efforts to aid corporate clients in avoiding lawful taxes (thus furthering the deficit crisis) was "criminality, pure and simple"? And while both Cameron and Johnson are invoking painful punishment to malefactors as the only sensible government response to rioting, there has yet to be a single prosecution in either the US or the UK for behavior involved in causing the crash (put aside criminals like Madoff whose crimes were discovered because of the crash). If there is a failure of deterrence, it is there.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Policing the Crisis

One of the more interesting angles on the violent rioting going on in parts of London over the past three nights is the increasingly toxic relationship between the Conservative party dominated coalition government and the police (especially London's Metropolitan Police Department). In an insightful backgrounder in the Guardian, Sandra Laville points out that when Margaret Thatcher faced similar rioting in the 1980s over a poor economy and cuts to government social benefits, she could count on her close relationship to police on whom she frequently lavished ideological support and which was a part of government she did not seek to cut. In contrast, David Cameron's mix of law and order populism and cross the board cuts in government spending have put his government increasingly at odds with police forces around the UK that are facing both severe cuts and the prospect of rule by locally elected police commissioners (a move many have described as an effort to unleash more American style populist pressure on policing).

At the same time, both Conservatives and the Metropolitan police leaders have been badly damaged by their close association with Rupert Murdoch's toxic tabloid newspapers, especially the now terminated News of the World which has been shown to have engaged in wholesale violations of privacy laws by "hacking" into the mobile phone voice mails of countless celebrities, politicians, Royals, and most outrageously, murder victims and the families of military personnel killed in Afghanistan. Metropolitan Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson announced his resignation last month after facing massive criticism for the fact that his own media adviser was a News of the World heavy and that one of his top commanders, John Yates, had rejected a renewed investigation of the phone hacking scandal after it was brought back to life by coverage in the Guardian during 2009. Stephenson, whose resignation was not rejected by either London Mayor Boris Johnson (a Conservative) or Prime Minister Cameron, publically slammed the PM by drawing the not fantastical parallel with the Prime Minister's employment of Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World who had resigned that job because of hacking problems, as his major media adviser during the 2010 general election as during the first half year of his government (Coulson resigned as the hacking issue heated up again in December). [The fact that both party leadership and police leadership were operating on political scripts written by tabloid media wizards adept in playing on the themes of fear and scandal is worthy of a post its own right.]

Against this tense background, the coalition government's commitment to substantial cuts in almost all government spending program (excluding some health, but that is facing its own coalition led upheavals) and student fee increases for university students has generated increasing public order problems for the police, especially in London. Since the spending cuts were announced last Fall, there have been several massive demonstrations in London that have spilled over into riotous behavior by fringe groups and major embarrassments for both the police and the government. And now, the worst rioting in a generation. To add to the sense of existential crisis for the tradition rich Metropolitan Police, according to Laville, Cameron would like to see former New York Police Commissioner (and since global security entrepreneur) Bill Bratton as the new Commissioner in London.

Like Ronald Reagan in the US, Thatcher could combine hostility to government welfare and regulation while strongly identifying with the military and criminal justice aspects of state power. That option seems to be foreclosed precisely as the global economic restructuring of the once rich west picks up its pace and seems likely to place governments of all parties in the position of cutting military and security budgets while continuing to generate excess insecurity for their populations. It will take a leader in the UK or the US of real vision to talk their respective publics down from the crime fear based consensus on security that Reagan and Thatcher helped promote, and which both Clinton and Blair expanded on, while navigating toward a new economic model that can produce sustainable economic growth (rather than debt based construction booms and busts). Both David Cameron and Barack Obama once looked like leaders who might have such a vision. Right now I wouldn't bet on either.