Thursday, July 28, 2011

Punished: The Culture of Control as Seen from Oakland

Punished:Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by UC Santa Barbara sociologist Victor Rios and should be on your summer reading list if you are interested in how the culture of control works. Rios closely studied a group of 40 Oakland youths of color as they navigated the terrain of poverty in a city governed through crime. Rios, who himself came up in the Oakland gang scene before receiving a doctorate from UC Berkeley, has an unparalleled set of insights into how the logic of crime control has pervaded the institutions of everyday life in a city like Oakland and come to shape the identities and aspirations of young men of color.

The most powerful insights in the book take us into how routine physical and especially verbal harassment by police of young men of color erodes their often significant positive aspirations and anticipates the pains of formal criminalization and punishment. The police ethno-theory of crime is that young men of color are so full of pride and arrogance that only a constant stream of insults and injuries can dissuade them from delinquency and drift. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not just, or even primarily racialized assumptions about these youth, but deeply faulty assumptions about the crime risk they (police) themselves face in low income urban neighborhoods, that drives these logics.

The study does far more than critique, however. By giving insight into how the effects of routine degradation push youth toward seeking a more dignified life in gangs, Rios points the way to truly effective crime reduction strategies. It is a cliche, but in this case true, that this book should be on the desk of every police chief, school principal, and community agency director in urban America.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hunger Strike for Human Rights in California Supermax

Since the start of this month prisoners at California's notorious Pelican Bay supermax style prison (known as the Secured Housing Unit, or SHU, in California prison bureaucracy language) have been refusing food and in some cases water in support of demands to modify the rules that keep prisoners in isolation regardless of their disciplinary record and practices which have been found to reduce human beings to the point of mental illness. According to Sam Quinones reporting in the LA Times, as many as 400 prisoners at Pelican Bay are participating in the hunger strike, and they have been joined in solidarity by prisoners at 11 other prisons of the state's massive system.

The prisoners' demands are the following (read the full statement here):

1. End Group Punishment & Administrative Abuse ...

2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy, and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Status

3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons
2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement –...

4. Provide Adequate and Nutritious Food – cease the practice of denying
adequate food, and provide a wholesome nutritional meals including special
diet meals, and allow inmates to purchase additional vitamin supplements....

5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for
Indefinite SHU Status Inmates....

Note that these demands are hardly "revolutionary" except in the basic deprivation of humanity that they reflect. Mostly prisoners want contact with family, warmer clothing, tolerable food, adequate health care and due process.

So far the CDCR has refused to negotiate with the prisoners or a mediating committee approved by the prisoners. Despite the recent decision of the Supreme Court in Brown v Plata upholding findings of chronic and grossly unconstitutional conditions throughout California's distended prison system, the strikers and their demands have gotten very little attention from California politicians or the media. It is time for citizens to press Governor Brown and the CDCR to agree to a broad re-examination of the whole supermax model in California. The Pelican Bay SHU reflects in concentrated form the pathological policies that have brought California prisons to a state of crisis. People are sent to the SHU not because of what they have done, or for proportionate terms, but based on unproven assumptions that they are gang members and without any viable path toward progress or release. Instead of programming, work, or education, to provide prisoners a meaningful way to serve their time, the SHU relies on shear deprivation and isolation to produce order. The resulting conditions have been found to diminish the mental health of normal adults subjected to them to the point of insanity. The prison is intended to protect security in the broader prison system by incapacitating suspected prison gang activists but has left a system that most observers agree is organized around gangs.

Like mass incarceration in general, supermax or SHU imprisonment is a scandal that unconstitutionally deprives prisoners of their human dignity while failing to protect anyone. If California wants to guarantee its prisoners safety from racist prison gangs they should implement a one prisoner to one cell policy and begin providing work, education, and health care practices that can give prisoners a constitutional civic order in which to serve their sentences.

Contact Governor Brown here