Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It's not yesterday any more

But getting people around my age, late boomers who grew up in the "fear years" of the 1970s, to rethink their assumptions about prisons, crime and criminal justice is hard; and it keeps us locked into mass incarceration. Consider SF Chron Columnist Chip Johnson's broadside at the Occupy Movement in the Bay Area's demonstration at San Quentin Prison last weekend (read Johnson's column here).

The demonstration this past Saturday called attention to the "cruel and unusual" conditions in California's prison system (documented by the US Supreme Court in Brown v Plata), and called for reforms including reconsidering our use of LWOP, the death penalty, three strikes and super max prisons (most of which would raise human rights claims problems in Europe).

According to Johnson, this is just the late 1960s remake with Occupy members reprising the sad fate of "radical chic". Johnson has a right and a duty to play the grey-head when necessary, but in dismissing the effort to bring prison reform into the center of political renewal today as hopelessly naieve and nostalgic, Johnson is seriously and revealingly misguided.

Apparently not immune to nostalgia himself, Johnson takes his view of prisons and prisoners from noted comedian Richard Pryor:

The comedian spent six weeks on location at Arizona State Penitentiary while making the 1980 film "Stir Crazy" and described getting to know some of the inmates.

"I talked to 'em and - thank God we got penitentiaries," Pryor quipped.

I'm with Richard on this one.

Putting aside the wisdom of taking criminological insights from a man perhaps best known for nearly burning himself to death smoking cocaine, the key data point here is 1980. In 1980 California was just coming off nearly three decades of escalating homicide rates fueled by the nearly complete shut down of the state's mental hospital system. In 1980 there were only around 50,000 prisoners in California prisons, compared to more than 160,000 today. In 1980, sentences for many violent crimes, set on the basis of parole practice in the 1960s and 1970s, remained relatively lenient. In 1970 a first degree murderer could realistically hope to be paroled in less than 10 years. Today burglars with past offenses serve more than that. In 1980, our prisons, designed to rehabilitate, remained relatively capable of delivering individualized care and control of inmates. Today after decades of hyper-overcrowding and mass incarceration the prisons have become a humanitarian disaster and a fiscal time bomb.

But it is not just prisons that have changed. In 1980 the best criminological work suggested policing could do little to reduce crime which remained stubbornly high after more than a decade of police led "war on crime." Research also suggested that little of the rehabilitative techniques promised in corrections could be proven successful at reducing recidivism so locking people up forever made a certain kind of sense to the most risk averse of citizens. Today, crime rates have dropped dramatically since the early 1990s, in many cases back to early 1960s levels, and according to the best research it is because of innovative policing rather than mass imprisonment (see Zimring's The City that Became Safe). Research also suggests that people age of crime by 40 and that most violent crimes are not repeated. That does not mean early paroles for serial killers as Johnson imagines. But it should mean prison and jail sentences proportionate to the harm and risk to the community of actual crimes, not the scatter-shot and "supersize me" approach that has dominated California's penal policies for the past generation.

In short, it's not yesterday anymore. The failure of many over 50 to get that is the biggest obstacle facing the state and nation today. In turning to prison reform Occupy is once again showing its ability to think beyond the confines of political thought still dominated by baby boomers.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the spirit

If you need a little of both this mid-February, Zoe Williams in the Guardian carries a lengthy interview with the great scholar Stuart Hall at 80 (read it here). Hall attributes the title's mantra to the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, but as William's notes, it helps define Hall's tonic effect on his readers since the 1970s. For this reader, it is Policing the Crisis:Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978) co-authored by Chas Critcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clark and Brian Roberts that was a defining encounter when I read it in the mid-1980s. Written before the rise of Thatcher in the UK, and before the full expression of mass incarceration in the United States, the book brilliantly diagnosed the new terrain of crime politics to come. Along with Stanley Cohen's Folk Devils and Moral Panics:The creation of the Mods and the Rockers (1972), the book also framed a method of political criminology that would prove as productive as Michel Foucault's, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (English 1977) in helping us analyze the emergence of mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.

A few choice bits:

Aging and encountering chronic kidney illness has deepened his sense of social solidarity.

"I've always known in my head I'm not an island, but it really came across. It's not just the kidneys – I could give you a litany of things that are wrong with me. I couldn't go two days without someone coming in to help me."

Hall is disturbed that so few seem to be vocally protesting the massive changes to the National Health System planned by the Tory led coalition, mainly aimed at making the system more profit centered. But the politics of health could prove to be an important ground of renewal in both the UK and the US where Obama's expansion of health coverage is certain to be debated in the election campaign. Hall's criticism of the Labour Party for not mounting a moral campaign on behalf of the NHS is equally applicable to Obama.

Hall views himself as a critic of both Neoliberalism and Marxism:

"I got involved in cultural studies because I didn't think life was purely economically determined. I took all this up as an argument with economic determinism. I lived my life as an argument with Marxism, and with neoliberalism. Their point is that, in the last instance, economy will determine it. But when is the last instance? If you're analysing the present conjuncture, you can't start and end at the economy. It is necessary, but insufficient.

Too many of my students assume that mass incarceration exists only because of Neoliberalism, or displaced Jim Crow racism. But while these are necessary conditions, as Hall might say, they are not sufficient. Mass incarceration endures because it is anchored in a moral case, one that pits "innocent" against "guilty" and not surprisingly finds that if losses or risks are inevitable they should be imposed on the "guilty" no matter how extreme.

Hall, like Foucault was, is ultimately a theorist of the present. I'll end with his forceful advice for it will serve well those of us seeking to understand the possibilities opened by California's penal crisis.

Analyse the conjuncture that you're in.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Poor Storm: Ending mass Incarceration in America

But every society has a poor storm that wretches suffer in, and the attitude is always the same: either that the wretches, already dehumanized by their suffering, deserve no pity or that the oppressed, overwhelmed by injustice, will have to wait for a better world. At every moment, the injustice seems inseparable from the community’s life, and in every case the arguments for keeping the system in place were that you would have to revolutionize the entire social order to change it—which then became the argument for revolutionizing the entire social order. In every case, humanity and common sense made the insoluble problem just get up and go away. Prisons are our this. We need take more care.

Adam Gopnik, The Caging of America: Why do we lock so many people up, The New Yorker, January 30th, 2012

You know that mass incarceration has arrived as a social problem it is time to solve when literary writers who usually raise goose bumps on the arms of readers in book store cafes writing about Paris, brie and turkey (the food not the country) turns to the question of why so many Americans are fated to spend much of the rest of their lives in prison while the country in enjoying its lowest crime rates in decades. In a powerful essay wrapped around a discussion of several recent books on criminal justice in America, Adam Gopnik delivers up the most thoughtful understanding of mass incarceration yet to appear in American journalism (read it here).

Gopnik goes right to the point. Prison is cruel, even if you are not raped or in need of careful medical attention, because it turns the very gift of life itself, time, into a trap designed to produce pain. And it does. Of course America is not the only nation that adopted prisons, which appeared to be a humane alternative to torturing people in scaffolds or transporting them to Australia at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. The difference is that we send so many people and seek to incarcerate them so long.

Why? Drawing on excellent recent books on American punitiveness, including William Stuntz, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice; Robert Perkinsons, Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire, and Michelle Alexanders, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Gopnik suggests American proclivity for incarceration comes from different strains in our culture. One associated with the North, is a confidence in procedures to justice (as well as an optimism about machines to make things better, the penitentiary was a machine). Another associated with the South, is a commitment to forceful racial controls through degrading means (exemplified by Texas' tradition of plantation prisons described by Perkinson and in Michael Berryhill's just published, The Trials of Eroy Brown). Gopnik also mentions the rise of private prisons which also puts the profit motive behind building up and maintaining mass incarceration.

But as Gopnik recognizes, all of these features of American penality and life were present before the late 1970s, when the present run-up of incarceration began. The change was facilitated by the massive increase in urban crime that began in the early 1960s, and may have ended in the 1990s. This crime wave, often blamed on demography, but never adequately explained, reshaped American expectations about cities and insecurity in ways that transformed the routine activities of every generation since (just look at our locked down lives as well as our locked up prisoners). As the wave crested in the 1970s, alarming images of violent crime on the streets (serial killers) and in prisons (Gopnik mentions killings of guards at Marion federal prison in 1983 which initiated the first federal supermax prison, but the twisted story of the Attica prison uprising and retaking in 1971 may have already framed American prisoners as psychotic terrorists more than a decade earlier).

The fear of crime, named already as an object as well as problem by a New Yorker writer Richard Harris in 1969, has been with us ever since and forms the moral foundation for the mass incarceration state. It is this ingredient, above all, which has made prisons unassailable even at time when both the proceduralism and racism of our system have been widely exposed. Which is why the New York crime decline, charted by Zimring is so important. New York reduced crime vastly more than anyone else and did so while imprisoning fewer people and it did so largely using a grab bag of mundane police tactics. The key assumption of mass incarceration, that a prisoner in prison, is a long string of crimes avoided, is simply false.

Stripped of any pretense that prison reduces crime, it amounts to a cruel punishment now untethered to any limits of proportionality that as Durkheim argued provides the essential signature of the common consciousness in the will to punish. But even naked cruelty, can stand for decades, look at slavery or child labor. But if reducing crime is a matter of taking more care, as Gopnik apprehends, it will take a change of conscience, not a change in our criminologies (or not just a change, the truth is important) to unlock mass incarceration. Even now, the small steps back from the edge of proceduralism and racial control, like the reduction of the crack/powder sentencing differential in federal law, and the leeway granted by the Supreme Court to federal courts in sentencing under the no-longer mandatory guidelines, are under political pressure (hear Carrie Johnson's report "GOP Seeks Big Changes in Federal Sentences, on NPR here). Its not just our political parties,its our media, our urban landscapes, and ultimately our own imagination that keeps crime available as a construct to interpret our world and authorize power.

Which is why it is not just felicitous that a writer on food and culture takes an interest in prisons. Starting with the great wave of revulsion that greeted John Howard's State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777), writers and artists have played a crucial role in articulating the cruelty of prisons by touching the humanity of readers and observers.