Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Civil Disobedience and Uncivilized Punishment: Run Edward and Keep Running

Edward Snowden's father recently gave an interview in which he rejected the idea that his son should come home to face US punishment (read the full story in the Guardian here):
He is going to be thrown into a hole. He is not going to be allowed to speak." The 52­year­old said he had been as "surprised as the rest of America" when his son, who worked for a contractor, was revealed as the source of the leaks about surveillance by the National Security Agency to the Guardian. "As a father it pains me what he did," Snowden said. "I wish my son could simply have sat in Hawaii and taken the big paycheck, lived with his beautiful girlfriend and enjoyed paradise. But as an American citizen, I am absolutely thankful for what he did." 
With Bradley Manning facing the likelihood of dozens of years in prison, despite no evidence he harmed anyone, I could not agree more.  There was once a tradition in this country of people breaking the law for principled reasons, typically to protest or expose even greater moral wrongdoing, but accepting their lawful punishment as a way of underscoring their personal commitment to the polity and its laws.  However that belonged to a time when America believed in civilized punishments that had some proportion to the crimes committed.

In the age of Bush and Obama, American punishments reflect a level of viciousness and degradation that no principled person should be willing to accept for themselves or others.  Bradley Manning, even before he was convicted of anything, was subjected to treatment that would be considered a human rights violation in any civilized country but raised hardly a word of concern from press or politicians today.  While criminals on Wall Street who have ruined the lives of millions receive no punishment and indeed the solicitude of the Obama Administration, ordinary and political criminals in this country are subject to punishments that are cruel, degrading, often amount to torture, but are by no means unusual (in fact they are routine).

Given that fact, the days of sacrificial civil disobedience are behind us.  Put principle and pious appeals to come home aside Edward, and follow your Dad's wise advice.  Run Edward, run, run, run....

Monday, July 15, 2013

Race and Reasonable Doubt: Notes from the Sanford Florida Verdict

The official media narrative is in.  The acquittal of wanna-bee neighborhood guardian George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin reflects the impenetrable wall that the law and the trial judge set up between the narrow legal questions of culpability and the broad social issues that had animated passions in the case: gun carrying in public and racial profiling.  But do not buy this part of the narrative.  While the legal issues may have been narrow and the evidence carefully filtered by the judge, whether consciously or not, race was central to the jury's considerations in Sanford this past weekend.

George Zimmerman admitted he fired his gun into the center of Trayvon Martin's body, from which a jury could and normally would infer that he intended to kill Martin.  Normally that would be enough to establish 2nd degree murder.  Here however Zimmerman claimed "self defense."  Even though Zimmerman never took the stand, the jurors had to consider his story presented in police reports and forensic evidence.  The jury had to consider whether Zimmerman reasonably feared that he would die or suffer grievous bodily harm if he did not use lethal force.  Does an adult with a gun in his pocket have a reasonable fear that someone who has punched him and is now straddling him and pounding his head on the pavement is going to cause his death or at least grave bodily harm?  That is where age, gender, and race do their work.

Imagine that Trayvon was a 17 year old female, a 54 year old white male, or even a 17 year old white male.  In all of those cases the prosecutors would have had an easier job convincing the jury that Zimmerman acted recklessly in firing his gun.  It is true that teenage males are more associated with aggression, anger, and violence in our culture than either females or older males; but young black men are endowed with a legendary level of anger by our cultural imaginary (and one typically associated with danger to white people).  In scores of popular cultural references young black men are depicted as exploding into legal violence with little provocation or warning.  In its own way this cultural construction reflects an acknowledgement of the historical wrongs done against African Americans and the resentments which this treatment would give rise to.   It is this cultural imaginary that was so successfully invoked by "black power" political leaders of the 1960s and 1970s from Huey Newton to Jesse Jackson Sr. and Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and which candidate Barack Obama had worked so hard to distance himself from with his calm demeanor, starched shirts, and studied refusal to give voice to racial grievance.

It is true that the defense was not able to introduce potentially prejudicial evidence about Trayvon Martin's past, including that he had used marijuana and that he had been involved in some  minor fights at school.  But in convincing the jury that George Zimmerman was reasonable in fearing for his life, the defense had a wind at its back that would not have been there had Trayvon been female or white.  Think about Zimmerman's story again.--- He was on his way back to his car in the gated community.  Suddenly, out of the dark, Trayvon attacks him, punching him to the ground, straddling him, pounding his head into the pavement with a vicious force.--- Now the jury knew that Trayvon had gone to the store to get candy and that he was talking to a friend on his cell phone just before the incident; so they had no immediate context which could explain why he might suddenly act with violence.  All they had was his race and the racialized cultural narratives about anger and violence that are part of the American legacy of racist violence.  For reasonable doubt, that may have been all they needed.

Monday, July 8, 2013


Today, July 8, 2013, prisoners in California's supermax "SHU" units (for Secured Housing Units), are commencing a hunger strike and work stoppage, their second in two years (read the solidarity statement here).  This is tragic.  Hunger strikes are an extraordinary act of self deprivation by people who have almost nothing.  They can result in the deaths of those involved and compel prison staff to engage in degrading practices like force-feeding to prevent that.

This desperate step indicates the depravity of California's SHU policy and its recalcitrance in reconsidering it in the face of mounting criticism from human rights organizations (read Amnesty International's 2012 report here) and the lack of any empirical evidence that this exceptional penal method is justified.  We keep more people, in worst SHU conditions, for longer, than any-other state on the planet.  I ask all readers of this blog to use their social networks to call on Governor Brown and California's Secretary of Corrections Jeffrey Beard [Actually a search of their website shows no way to contact them other than to do business] to meet the prisoners' five core demands (read them here) which amount to respect for basic human rights: to be treated as an individual; to have a horizon of hope for release from inhuman isolation conditions; to be given an environment fit for human psychological and physical health.

Supermax style prisons are an American abomination that are rejected by most other societies and considered a human rights violation in many.  Total isolation of prisoners without meaningful activities, visitors, or meaningful human contact has historically been reserved for disciplinary punishments limited to weeks or months.  In California's SHU scores of prisoners have served more than twenty years of such conditions, and hundreds for more than ten.

Most SHU prisoners are there not for any crimes committed on the outside, or disciplinary violations on the inside, but because prison officials have determined that they are an "associate" of one of the racist prison gangs that dominate the social order of California prisons.  Once dubbed an associate, based on evidence that does not have to be tested, a prisoner can never be released unless they "debrief" against the gang they are suspected of being an associate of.  For those falsely believed to be associates, this is impossible.  For those who in fact were associates, this means they are a "snitch" who will need to be in protective custody for the rest of their term (a somewhat less brutal version of the same isolation).

The State continues to claim that SHU isolation is necessary to keep gang violence under control in the State's sprawling and still extremely overcrowded prisons, but there is no good evidence that this works according to criminologist and legal scholar Keramet Reiter who carefully examined the State's case in her Berkeley dissertation (a recent article on supermax and California here).

More accurately, the SHU is necessary to maintain the State's ideological justification for its draconian prison sentences and inhuman prison conditions.  That justification, which holds that California prisons are filled with committed criminals who represent an unchanging risk of violence to Californians, implies that within this class must be an even more threatening elite, "the worst of the worst".  Since our prisons offer no meaningful rehabilitation or incentives for self reform, only deeper deprivation can provide a tool for control for this class.  In fact, the State has long ago ceded to the prison gangs responsibility for maintaining a social order inside the prisons, and openly cooperates with their recruitment and operations, but the need to justify this monstrous enterprise of human warehousing requires a veritable monster factory, which is what the SHU is.

The warped security logic behind SHU and CDCR generally is well expressed in a particular policy on photographs highlighted this morning by KQED's California Report in their excellent reporting on the strike. Under the policy, in place for over 25 years before it was finally changed after the 2011 hunger strike, SHU prisoners are not allowed to have photographs taken of themselves to send to their families or anyone else.  The policy was justified based on the claim that these prison gang leaders used their photos as "calling cards" to intimidate other prisoners.  While this claim is fascinating to a student of penology like myself (with its intriguing echoes of Victorian social customs), it turns out to have been based on mere anecdotes and passes not even the most basic tests of logic (does anyone believe a prisoner will be less intimidated because a prison gang leader can't leave his photo but has to leave something else, maybe a dead fish).

For this, people were stripped of the simplest piece of human dignity; the ability to be remembered as you are, by family members who have already lost all ability to touch or speak with you.

The hunger strike that begins today is a terrible thing.  If it is allowed to go on people will die for the crime of demanding to be treated like human beings.  Soon we will be debating force feeding. Enough...There is simply no reasonable justification for anything like California's SHU practices.  It is worst than Guantanamo and based on even less evidence.  The longest held Guantanamo inmates have been there for around 10 years.  The longest held SHU prisoner has been in for an astounding 42 years.  For generations Californians managed dangerous criminals of all sorts without a debasing their moral integrity by operating a SHU.

End this disgrace on our state.  Call upon Governor Brown and Secretary Beard to meet the prisoners' demands, and further, to announce plans soon to close these institutions and relocate all current prisoners within one year.