Posts Tagged ‘mass incarceration’

“The transition from a disciplinary to a punitive penal system happened very quickly, although its implications would go unnoticed for a long time. Arguably, we still don’t fully understand the nature of this cultural shift, which exceeds the penal system and appears in a number of the institutions of everyday life. But I get ahead of myself.

The punitive turn began in the turmoil of the 1960s, a time of rapidly rising crime rates and urban disorder. In 1968, with US cities in flames and white backlash gaining momentum, congress overwhelmingly passed — and Lyndon Johnson reluctantly signed — the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. As Jonathan Simon has suggested, the act became something like a blueprint for subsequent crime-control lawmaking.

Shaped by a conservative coalition of Western Republicans and Southern Democrats, the legislation invested heavily in local law enforcement, asserted rules for police interrogations designed to countermand the liberal Warren court’s decisions, including Miranda, allowed wiretapping without court approval, and, in a successful bid to secure liberal support, included modest gun control provisions.

Although the legislation did little to increase criminal penalties, it reversed the logic of earlier Great Society programs; instead of providing direct investment, the act’s block grants ceded control to local agencies, often controlled by conservative governors. Most importantly, the act established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), an independent branch of the Justice Department. Blaming low conviction rates on a lack of cooperation from victims and witnesses, the LEAA launched demonstration projects aimed at recruiting citizens into the war on crime.

Tough talk about law and order articulated “the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments racking the nation in the 1960s,” as Rick Perlstein has shown, and, by 1972, Richard Nixon had consolidated a new governing coalition that still dominates American politics. Nixon’s anti-crime narrative appealed to the traditional Republican base’s rural and small-town values and incorporated conservative Southern Democrats, who viewed the civil rights movement as lawless and disorderly. It also attracted Northern “hardhat” conservatives and white ethnic voters alarmed at escalating crime, urban riots, and campus unrest. In short, the nascent war on crime firmed up white backlash and gave durable political form to a conservative counter-counterculture.

But race reactionaries were not the only group spreading tough law-and-order rhetoric. Vanessa Barker has described how African American activists, representing the communities hardest hit by surging crime rates, also agitated for harsher penalties for muggers, drug dealers, and first-degree murderers.

In 1973, incarceration rates began an unprecedented thirty-five-year climb, and political tides began to turn even in liberal states. That year, New York passed the most draconian drug legislation in the country. Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the minimum penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, or heroin was fifteen years to life. (It took until 2009 for New York to retire much of what remained of these laws.)

Ironically, the Left was helping to prepare the way for a decisive turn to the Right. Leftist activists from the civil rights, black power, and antiwar movements were leveling heavy criticism against the criminal justice system, and rightly so. Patterns of police brutality had been readily discernible triggers of urban unrest and race riots in the late 1960s, and minorities were overrepresented in the prison population (although not as much as today). Summing up New Left critiques, the American Friends Service Committee’s 1971 report, Struggle for Justice, blasted the US prison system not only for repressing youth, the poor, and minorities but also for paternalistically emphasizing individual rehabilitation. Rehabilitate the system, not the individual, the report urged — but the point got lost in the rancorous debates that followed. As David Garland carefully shows, the ensuing “nothing works” consensus among progressive scholars and experts discouraged prison reform — and ultimately lent weight to the arguments of conservatives, whose approach to crime has always been a simple one: Punish the bad man. Put lawbreakers behind bars and keep them there.

In 1974, Robert Martinson’s influential article “What Works?” marked a definitive turning point. Examining rehabilitative penal systems’ efficacy, Martinson articulated the emerging consensus — “nothing works,” and rehabilitation was a hopelessly misconceived goal.

Tapping into the zeitgeist, Hollywood released Death Wish that same year, followed by a host of other vigilante revenge films. Exploitation movies enlisted a familiar Victorian spectacle — sexual outrages against girls and women — in the service of right-wing populism. Their plotlines invariably connected liberals, civil libertarians, and high-minded elites with the criminals who tormented the ordinary citizen. Notably, however, such films carefully muted the racial backlash that had inaugurated the punitive turn: they depicted the vicious criminal as white, allowing audiences to enjoy the visceral thrill of vengeance without troubling their racial consciences.

Thus far I have described the rise of the carceral state in largely negative terms: what happened in the late 1960s was not only a war on drugs nor a new system of racial domination but something wider. A succession of changing motives and rationales supported the punitive turn, and the urge to punish came from an array of sectors and institutions. The time has come to sum up my analysis in more positive terms.

First, beginning in the 1970s, all social institutions turned toward detection, capture, and sanction. A broad-spectrum cultural shift away from values of forbearance, forgiveness, and redemption animated this transformation. The punitive turn was, first and foremost, a cultural turn.

Many observers today look skeptically at cultural explanations of this sort, which claim that people do x because they believe y. From structuralism to poststructuralism and beyond, a cavalcade of theoretical currents promoted an abstract idea of “culture,” severing it from history and political economy. In highlighting the cultural element in these developments, however, I do not mean to suggest that culture always sets the course of historical events, only that it sometimes does — a point that Friedrich Engels was also keen to make.Further, I do not assert that once the desire to punish got into people’s heads, it spread uniformly throughout society, nor would I argue that this cultural shift sprang into being ex nihilo.

At its inception, the punitive turn found fertile ground in preexisting institutions of race and class. As it developed, political actors and moral entrepreneurs reworked received ideas, some of them older than the republic, some of them torn from the headlines. The United States’ long history of capitalism and various forms of power all participated in the carceral state’s development.Second, federal legislation played a key role in institutionalizing and hardening this cultural change. This was not merely a question of mechanizing the law with mandatory minimum sentences or “three strikes” provisions but of automating a system of interconnecting institutions.The nucleus of this development was already present in the 1968 Safe Streets Act, aimed at expanding and modernizing policing, and in the LEAA, designed to increase prosecution and conviction rates. From this start, police forces grew, became more proactive, and made more arrests.

Securing greater cooperation from more victims, prosecutors brought more cases to court — often with higher charges. Responding to the shifting mood, judges sentenced more defendants. Across four decades, legislators passed laws that criminalized more activities, increased sentences, and expressly barred compromise, early release, consideration of mitigating circumstances, and so on. Put simply, the law became more punitive. Such mechanisms could persist under changing conditions because a vast institutional network spanning the state and civil society actively produced fresh rationales for them.The punitive turn was consolidated into a punitive avalanche.The result was a transformed system, in which prison, parole, and so on were stripped of their disciplinary aims (reeducation, rehabilitation, reintegration) and reoriented toward strictly punitive goals (detection, apprehension, incapacitation). Horkheimer and Adorno would have called this “instrumental rationality”: a nightmare version of bureaucracy that suspends critical reasoning and tries to establish the most efficient means to achieve an irrational end.”

– Roger Lancaster, “How To End Mass Incarceration,” Jacobin. August 18, 2017.

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“Cedric Johnson:  It seems the problem you described had to be especially vexing given that you characterize D.C. as a haven for refugees from the civil rights movement, a place where there’s an activist culture and where many of the first generation of black elected officials were veteran organizers. Why would they advocate equally harsh public policies in terms of prisons and incarceration? Would you explain how this process unfolded in the District, from the heroin epidemic of the 1970s through the crack cocaine years? And related to that, why is this an important story to tell about D.C. given the potential controversy of focusing on black culpability within both activist and academic circles, which tend to focus on white racism rather than black leadership?

James Forman, Jr.: Let me just take that point, the last point first, and then work back. I don’t know why we can’t hold two ideas in our head at the same time. We’re smart people! When I say “us,” I’m talking about human beings but maybe I’m particularly talking about African Americans. To me, it would render us less than fully intellectual and, in a way, less than fully human to say that we can’t hold two ideas front and center simultaneously.

My first case, which brought me into working in the criminal justice system in 1990, was for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on a death penalty case in Provo, Utah. Our client had been convicted of armed robbery and homicide connected to that robbery. In the jury room, after they delivered the verdict of guilty and then death, somebody found a note that had the little hangman stick game. It had blanks for six letters — an “N” and “I” filled out and four letters that weren’t filled out. So I don’t have any doubt that racism at the individual and the societal level was a leading explanation of how America built a system of mass incarceration and then turned a blind eye on its human victims. I don’t lose my ability to have that understanding and analysis.

What happened in that jury room happened just as the story with Judge Curtis Walker and my client Brandon did. I have the ability to keep both of those in my head, and I think everyone else does too. I guess I’m frustrated with someone who says “We can’t keep those both in our head.” I don’t know what they’re saying! I can! Why can’t you? Why are you incapable of simultaneously understanding what happened in Provo, Utah, and in D.C.? Why are you unwilling to think about that?

Cedric Johnson: You’ve had positive responses in terms of published reviews, but at your book talks, have you ever come across this kind of pushback? I often find that there are some people who will acknowledge black culpability and conservative politics, but they’ll say, “I agree with you but this just isn’t something that should be talked about in public.” I think it should be. If we’re going to resist or contest the state of affairs that we’re stuck with right now, it requires us to be serious and honest about how we got here. I think some folks don’t really want to deal with that part of it. It’s too painful or inconvenient. I don’t know how to characterize it, but they don’t want to grapple with the complicated aspects of political life.

James Forman, Jr.: I understand where they are coming from but there are too many people in prison right now in a harsh criminal justice system in D.C. and other cities that have significant black representation to take the postion that we aren’t going to talk about it. There are too many people suffering. If I can effect change, I’m not willing to just let people rot because I don’t want to have a public conversation. To me, it would be the height of privilege to say “it’s messed up but I don’t want to talk about it.”

I couldn’t look somebody in the eye who’s in prison or is going to be prosecuted if I have the ability to persuade people, because a big part of the book is also pointing out the devastating consequences and arguing for a different approach. In ten days, I’m meeting with staff and some members of the D.C. city council. These are the people who make the law, and if I can convince them to make someone’s life meaningfully and demonstrably better, I’m not willing to just let folks suffer because I don’t want to have a public conversation. Also, how do you even have a private conversation today? Where do you go to have a conversation that’s never going to leave the black community? If that time existed, it’s gone now.

Cedric Johnson: I think those who evoke the notion of “airing dirty laundry” do so as a way to end the conversation. It’s a way to deflect difficult questions. I don’t think they really believe there could be some truly “in-house” conversation. It’s simply a way to dissuade broaching those subjects or truths with which they don’t want to engage.

James Forman, Jr.: I’ll just tell you this in terms of reactions. I spoke at San Quentin yesterday to 100 guys there. They all had read the book, had copies of it, and most of them were African American. A lot of them had been in for twenty to thirty years, and they were incredibly grateful for the analysis. I would say it was the most positive reception that I’ve gotten in any event except the book launch party in D.C. where I was surrounded by friends, colleagues, and family members. That was a joyful event, but this was probably a close second. These guys, they know what’s up! To me they were a very good test. Only a few of them were from D.C., but they said they felt like they saw the world they grew up in depicted in the pages of the book.

Cedric Johnson: I was wondering if we could rewind and talk about how this process unfolded over time in the District, at least the broad outlines of it.

James Forman, Jr.: So I think the first thing that’s really crucial to understand is the role that crime, addiction, and violence played. In D.C., the homicide rate tripled in the 1960s and it would double again in the crack years of the late 1980s. It tripled during the heroin epidemic. People remember crack but heroin was the crack before crack. Heroin devastated black communities nationally.

But it’s more than the numbers. I went back and looked at the papers of various city council members who had retired and given their papers to D.C. libraries. Included in those papers are volumes of letters from citizens. One of the things that’s so striking is to see is the pain and anguish that jump off the pages. Citizens are writing — and these are mostly black citizens writing to mostly black elected officials — saying “I feel like a prisoner in my own home. … I feel like a stranger in my own streets … I can’t go outside … I don’t want to walk my children to school by the drug dealers … I can’t leave my children in the park after school because people are shooting … There are syringes in my backyard … What’s happened to our city? … What’s happened to us as a community? … What’s happened to us as a people?” There are these desperate pleas in the years shortly after the end of formal Jim Crow. They see drugs marching through their community and feel overwhelmed.

The next part of the story to think about is: who are the people receiving these letters? They are this first generation of black elected officials and they have their counterparts in judging, policing, and in court functionaries and civil servants. Many of them are from the South, out of the civil rights movement. They are aware of the generations of under-enforcement of the law in black communities. They remember when you didn’t call the police in black neighborhoods. You didn’t call the police if there was a fight or something because they were not going to come and if they did, they were just going to make matters worse.

They remembered this history and they were bound and determined to protect black lives. Chapter two of my book is called “Black Lives Matter” even though it’s 1975 and they didn’t use that phrase. I use that title because I want to highlight that this is a generation of elected officials that is committed to making black lives matter, to protecting black victims who had never received adequate protection of the law. That to me is the judge in the opening story of the book. He saw himself as just as motivated by a civil rights commitment as I did. That’s why he’s talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. But he flips the script by saying that protecting the black victims of crime and communities who have not historically received that protection is his motivation to carry out what I consider to be a very harsh sentence for Brandon. And so that’s the thing that I think is crucial to understand and what I learned through the research: how many individuals saw protecting black lives and protecting black victims of crime as an extension of the civil rights struggle and not in contradiction to it.

The last piece of the explanation focuses on the constraints African American politicians were under. This is a story about black elected officials, but it’s also a story of constraint and the limitations that they were under. The first constraint is that of imagination. Consider David Clark, a city council member who is one of the few white characters that gets a lot of attention in the book. He’s an unusual white character in that he went to Howard University Law School and worked with Dr. King. He’s not a drug warrior at all. He fights for marijuana decriminalization. But he also gets letters from citizens saying “Hey, you know there’s an addict in front of my apartment building or in front of my place of business.” And he takes those letters and he does what a responsible elected official should do and forwards them on to the relevant public agency. They say they’re going to look into it, and he relays that back to the citizens. That’s good constituent services! But he’s constrained by his imagination. Which government agency does he forward the citizen complaint letters to? Is it the Department of Drug Rehabilitation, the Department of Health, or the Department of Mental Health? No, it’s the police department. Because he, like so many Americans, thinks of an addict on the corner as a criminal justice problem. He cannot imagine a different approach.

Black elected officials are also constrained by politics. I spend a lot of time on this in the book. These are local actors, they’re responding to this problem at the city level, but they want help from the federal government. They know they can’t solve these problems on their own. Black officials say “we want gun control, we want a national investment in jobs in the inner cities, we want a Marshall Plan for Urban America, we want black communities to be treated the way Europe was after World War II, to invest, rebuild, and revitalize.” So they have an “all of the above” strategy to fight crime and violence but they only get one of the above, they get law enforcement.

They are also constrained by history: a history of racism and a history of white supremacy that has meant that they are responsible for protecting communities that have always gotten too little public investment. They were elected to represent black neighborhoods that were the first to lose jobs, were redlined, were stripped of their wealth by rapacious lenders, and that have always gotten inadequate public services. So they’re protecting or representing neighborhoods that are desperate. Early on at a conference at Columbia University, history professor Jelani Cobb asked me “Is it fair to say that people you’re writing about had the power to respond to crime but they didn’t have the power to respond to the underlying conditions that helped cause crime?” And my answer to him at that conference was yes, that’s a very good summary of the dilemma that they were facing.

Cedric Johnson: Over the past few years, some activists have embraced this notion of the politics of respectability, drawing on the work of historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, as a means of criticizing black conservative, bourgeois class dynamics. In your account of the District, you characterize the ways politicians and residents responded to the heroin epidemic in terms of a “politics of responsibility.” How do you see those two concepts? How are they related? How do you distinguish between those two?

James Forman, Jr.: I think both of them have been present at different times. When I think of the politics of respectability, I think of it as a politics by which respectable blacks either try to expel or shun the criminal element from the community. Someone like D.C. city councilmember Doug Moore was not practicing that kind of politics. Doug Moore was a black nationalist, civil rights leader, and minister who campaigned on and purported to govern as a spokesperson for the black poor. That’s the role that he filled in public life. He viewed himself as responsible for them, so he didn’t want to shun the disreputable politics of the community, which is what I think of respectability politics as doing. But he viewed marijuana as a gateway to heroin, which other people were also arguing at the time.

Jackie Robinson’s son was addicted to heroin. He went around to black churches and black civic organizations in the early 1970s and said “Look, my son Jackie Jr. is a heroin addict and he started with marijuana.” So this idea of marijuana as a gateway was a very serious idea in black communities. Doug Moore felt he was responsible for black youth, and having that in his mind, he took the position that “you should not use drugs.” But here’s the error that he made. He underestimated, partially for understandable reasons, the harms that would follow criminalization. He thought he knew what harms came from marijuana use: you’re not going to do as well in school, you might get introduced to a harder drug, you’re not going to be in the vanguard of the revolution if you’re just sitting around high. So he focused on those.

What he didn’t focus on adequately were the harms that would come from criminalization. Moore and other opponents of marijuana decriminalization didn’t realize in the 1970s the full implications of what they were doing. It wasn’t until later in the 1980s and 1990s that Congress would pass laws that made it harder for you to get a student loan, harder to get into public housing, harder for you to get a job. It wasn’t until later that we had a technological revolution that created greater access to court records.

Cedric Johnson: I really appreciated the chapter on the early campaigns demanding the recruitment of more black police officers. I think that your discussion of that work in Atlanta in the 1940s and the District in the 1960s adds another layer of complexity. Many residents had hoped hiring black officers would deliver better services and treatment of black residents. Why didn’t those efforts produce the results many activists anticipated?

James Forman, Jr.: That’s actually my favorite chapter in the book, in part because it was the most unfamiliar to me when I was doing the research. But to answer your question, I think the problem is twofold. Advocates for hiring black officers never had a clear theory on what difference black police officers were supposed to make. Some people argued that they would be more aggressive because they would actually care about crime. It’s hard now to remember a time when white police didn’t go into black communities to do policing, but it is true. Others believed that black police would be able to make distinctions within the black community, and that white police officers can’t even tell us apart. So here we’ve got some respectability politics, some of them were saying “we’re the good ones, we’re upstanding,” and a black officer will know that.

By the 1960s, we get this other argument, the argument that a black D.C. newspaper columnist named John Lewis made (he’s not related to the civil rights leader with the same name). Lewis says that black officers will be less brutal. After a white cop shot someone for jaywalking, Lewis writes an opinion piece called “Black Officers Won’t Shoot Black Jaywalkers,” and his explicit claim is that black police officers will be less violent. The problem in part is that these two arguments are somewhat in contradiction with each other. The former argument is that they’re going to be more aggressive in rooting out the less respectable elements, while the latter assumes they’ll be more restrained. The other problem is that along the way no one was actually asking the black officers, the people who were taking these jobs. Sociologists and others eventually asked and when they did, most black officers said, “because it is a good job,” not “because it is next frontier of the civil rights struggle.”

On top of that, many of these new black officers were going into environments that were white-dominated, and regardless of who’s running it now, had a history of command and control, and demanded compliance and a code of silence. Many police departments had the attitute, “We’re warriors not social workers … we have a code of silence.” These black officers are entering that context and even if you were a civil rights activist turned police officer, it would be hard to buck that. Now just imagine you’re someone trying to get a job and provide for your family. How in the world are you going to buck that? And to me, that taken together is a story of why changing the racial composition of police departments hasn’t changed the way police behave and never will.

I still argue for hiring more black police officers, even after everything I just told you. But the reason is not because I think it’ll change how we police, but because I believe we, black people, deserve our share of all jobs in this country. My account of the District notwithstanding, blacks are underrepresented on the police force as compared with our percentage in the local population, so that continues to be a demand. But we also have to change how we police, and those changes are going to be separate from the force’s racial composition.

Cedric Johnson: That being said, as the protests against police killings have gained momentum over the last few years, more racial diversity and training officers better have resurfaced as solutions. Many people have pointed to the need for black officers with the same old logic. Is there a role for black lawyers, judges, bailiffs, beat cops, and parole officers to play in advancing meaningful criminal justice reform, or should we be looking toward other actors and constituencies?

James Forman, Jr.: I would say the same thing applies to those other areas. It’s still true that African Americans are nationally not represented well in all of those areas, particularly for prosecutors. I think by all accounts only 3-4 percent of prosecutors nationally are African American and we’re 13 percent of the population. And this is true for judges and defense lawyers as well. In my mind there’s no more important or pressing issue for black America than wealth creation and job opportunities. In Chicago or any other city, they talk about saturation patrol and response after shootings. If you ask me what should we be doing, I want to talk about saturation jobs, and I’m quite serious about it. I mean actually going and saturating a community with jobs. I think if we did that, not only would we see crime reduction but also a community becoming healthier in different kinds of ways. That’s my belief and I also think that’s true for employment throughout society.

We have to press for change in the logic and functioning of those systems separately from the push to change the racial composition of those jobs. Having said that, in response to your question about if black people in those positions have a particular obligation to change those systems to be more racially equitable, my answer is yes. I simultaneously believe that everybody in society has an obligation to fight for racial justice, and that black people have a special obligation to do it. That’s just where I am. I am respectful of the view that says we don’t, that says “it’s unfair to put an extra obligation on black people.” I get that. I think that’s a fair view, but it’s not mine. I do feel like the people in those positions who are people of color have a special obligation to raise these racial equity issues, and I’m simultaneously aware that it’s unrealistic to expect them to do that.

Cedric Johnson: That makes sense. There are parts in the book where you really detail the class character of contemporary policing, that working-class and poor neighborhoods are the ones being most intensively surveilled and targeted. I make this argument and Adolph Reed Jr. and Lester Spence, have made the argument as well.

When I make this argument in public, the most common responses evoke anecdotal evidence that class doesn’t matter, often the story of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates being harassed by Cambridge police. In return, I usually remind the audience about how that incident was eight years ago and ask them how many times Gates has been stopped by the police since. By contrast, if we go to some precincts in D.C. or Chicago, we can find young black men who are stopped by the police on a routine basis. We could even go to some rural places and talk to sex workers and people connected in some way to the drug economy, either as users or sellers, or may just live in a neighborhood where that activity is prevalent, and they’re harassed and surveilled in much more intense, frequent manner.

Given those realities, is the racial justice framing in the mode of The New Jim Crow or even some Black Lives Matter rhetoric, adequate for understanding what we’re up against?

James Forman, Jr.: Well, I would say the racial justice frame takes us a long way but I don’t know that it’s adequate by itself. I would add a class dimension to it. Focusing on class helps us see why racial profiling by police became a racial justice issue before mass incarceration. If you go back to the 1990s you’ll find magazine articles from the New Republic or the Atlantic that list black people stopped by the police: it’s CEOs to baseball players to black police officers who are not in uniform to people that are heads of state. It’s a who’s who of black America. Racial profiling affects all blacks. No matter how many degrees you have, no matter what your wealth or income, if you are driving, you’re suspect. Because the officer doesn’t know any of those things.

But prison-going is somewhat different. A black man who dropped out of high school is ten times more likely to go to prison than a black man who graduated college. Ten times! Even in the area of mass incarceration, where we’ve had this exponential increase in black incarceration rates, there has been no increase in the likelihood of going to prison for a black man who has gone to college.

So it matters a lot whether we are talking about an issue like prison conditions or an issue like racial profiling. Because class matters in one, but in the other it hardly matters at all. So, that’s an additional level of nuance and complexity that I try to bring to the conversation about race and class.

Let’s add to that a point about white America. I don’t want to leave out other ethnic groups, but blacks and whites are the groups about which we have data. The same class and educational divides holds. You could go to prisons throughout this country where most of the people in prison are white. And they’re almost all poor. You go to the prisons in Vermont, the prisons in Idaho, Maine, and North Dakota, and you’re going see a lot of white people in prison. They’re going to be many white folks who are poor and working class and have addiction in their families, abuse and trauma in their lives, and inadequate education.

I think that we need an account in our criminal justice system that never loses sight of the fact that there’s nothing worse than being black and poor for criminal justice purposes. There is nothing worse. There’s no segment of society that’s more targeted. At the same time we can hold that idea in our heads and also understand that poor white people are dealing with this, and that more educated and wealthy blacks are somewhat protected from the criminal justice system, but not completely protected. That’s the kind of complexity we have to force people to grapple with, and to me, none of that complexity means giving up the racial justice frame.”

– Cedric Johnson interview James Forman Jr., “Black Judges, Black Politicians, Black Prisoners.” Jacobin, August 15, 2017.

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Beyond racism, the more we studied together, the more we learned about imprisonment.  The well-known criminologist William Nagel found that there is no relationship between the crime rate and the imprisonment rate, and no relationship between the crime rate and the number of Black people that live in a given state. But he found a strong relationship between the imprisonment rate and the proportion of Black people who live in a given state. In other words, people go to prison because they are Black not because of a rising crime rate. It became apparent to us that prisons are instruments of social control of people of color. Before the 1970s we did not have these huge imprisonment rates, nor did we have control unit prisons. In the 1960s Black people led the way in challenging injustice. They were a force to be reckoned with. When Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were assassinated, there was mass unrest with urban centers going up in flames around the country.

The Attica prison rebellion of 1971 was a watershed where prisoners stood up and said: “We are men. We are not beasts and will not be treated as such.” To a large extent, the rebellion was an expression within Attica of the Black liberation movement on the outside. When the tear gas and bullets cleared, 43 men were dead as a result of Rockefeller-ordered military assault. Control units try to prevent the kind of camaraderie and resistance from developing that was exhibited on the yard at Attica.

For almost 50 years prior to Attica, the U.S. incarceration rates were constant, and commensurate with those of Western Europe. In response to the movements of the 60s and early 70s, particularly civil rights and black liberation, in response to Attica and George Jackson and the California prison movement, imprisonment rates started to soar, and we saw the beginnings of what would become a mass imprisonment binge. It was no accident that control units began to emerge at the same time. Just as prisons control a population on the outside of prisons that was demanding human rights, control units control a rebellious prison population on the inside. The first control unit was opened at Marion in 1972, exactly in response to a peaceful work stoppage and a year after the incredible uprising at Attica.

In 1975 the right-wing ideologue and Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington wrote The Crisis of Democracy, a report for the Trilateral Commission, in which he argued that there was too much democracy and things needed to change. Well, things have changed. And now, thanks to both Republicans and Democrats, the leading ‘democracy’ in the world is also the largest incarceration nation.


So what is a control unit prison?

There are variations from prison to prison, but generally speaking, a control unit prison is one in which every prisoner is locked away in their own individual cage about 23 hours a day under conditions of severe sensory deprivation. The prisoner eats, sleeps and defecates in the windowless cell. Meals come through a slot in the door. In some cases the prisoner may be out of the cell a couple of times a week for exercise, but in other circumstances the exercise area is even more limited and is attached to the cell itself. Most control unit prisons have little access to education or any recreational outlets.

Usually, control units severely restrict the prisoner’s connection not just with other prisoners, but with family and friends in the outside world. At Marion, only family members could visit, upon approval, and only for a small number of visits per month. The amount of time allowed per visit was severely restricted, and there was no privacy whatsoever and no contact permitted between prisoner and visitor. Visiting took place over a plexiglass wall and through telephones. Guards were always within earshot. The prisoner had to be searched before and after, sometimes cavity searched. The visitor had to undergo a body search as well. The prisoners were brought to the visit in shackles.

Regarding the underlying dynamics, the intent is to make the prisoner feel that his or her life is completely out of control. That is not an unintended consequence.  The purpose of the control unit is to make the person feel helpless, powerless and completely dependent upon the prison authorities. The intent is to strip the individual of any agency, any ability to direct his or her own life. A control unit institutionalizes solitary confinement as a way of exerting full control over as much of the prisoner’s life as possible.

There is no pretense that this is a temporary affair. Instead it is long-term, severe behavior modification, and it is the most vile, mind & spirit-deforming use of solitary confinement. Control units represent the darkest side of behavior modification. Inside a control unit, the prisoner usually has no idea how long he or she will be there. It is an indeterminate sentence, and usually the rules or guidelines for exiting are unclear at best and impossible to comprehend at worst. It is a hell without any apparent end. It is truly Kafkaesque and studies have shown that long-term solitary confinement drives many people crazy. As a social worker in the Chicago public schools for 20 years, and as a human being, I don’t believe this severe punishment helps people to change in any positive way. Human interaction is critical. The Quakers first instituted solitary confinement (they called isolation in a cell with a bible “doing penance,” hence “penitentiary”). They thought it would be a more humane alternative than physical punishment such as flogging, but they gave it up when they saw what effect it had on people.

Being sent to a control unit prison is tantamount to torture, as acknowledged by many human rights organizations  including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Amnesty International recently released its 2012 report, “The Edge of Endurance: Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units,” in which the conditions in two California prisons — Corcoran and Pelican Bay — are described as “cruel, degrading and inhuman” and a violation of international standards.

Prisoners are held under conditions that today are not considered ‘humane’ even for animals. This is an extreme abuse of state power.

The existence of the control unit also functions to control other prisoners who are in the general population. This is as important to the system as the impact on those actually in the control unit. The fear of imprisonment in this worst of all prisons is meant to scare all prisoners into tolerating intolerable conditions. The word ‘Marion’ was meant to strike cold fear into the hearts of prisoners throughout the federal prison system.

The people who are sent to control unit prisons are not different from those people in the general population of a maximum security prison in terms of the crimes for which they are incarcerated. Most have not been convicted of violent crimes. Many are political prisoners, jailhouse lawyers, and natural leaders.


In Out of Control I argue that CEML’s 15 years of work is “the story of one long determined effort against the very core of the greatest military empire that has ever existed on this planet” … and that “in this day of debate about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, it is absolutely essential to realize that a direct line extends from U.S. control units to these so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ centers throughout the world.” The connection has always been there because we live under one system, and that system has a domestic side and an international side. But they are really just two sides of the same coin.

In Out of Control I discuss a 1962 Bureau of Prisons (BOP) meeting in Washington, DC between prison officials and social scientists. Billed as a management development program for prison wardens, it took place the same year the BOP opened Marion. Dr. Edgar Schein of MIT, a key player at that meeting, had written previously in a book entitled Coercive Persuasion about ‘brainwashing’ of Chinese Prisoners of War (POWs). In the meeting he presented the ideas in a paper entitled “Man Against Man”:

“In order to produce marked changes of attitude and/or behavior, it is necessary to weaken, undermine, or remove the supports of the old attitudes. Because most of these supports are the face-to-face confirmation of present behavior and attitudes, which are provided by those with whom close emotional ties exist, it is often necessary to break these emotional ties. This can be done either by removing the individual physically and preventing any communication with those whom he cares about, or by proving to him that those whom he respects are not worthy of it, and, indeed, should be actively mistrusted… I would like to have you think of brainwashing, not in terms of politics, ethics, and morals, but in terms of the deliberate changing of human behavior and attitudes by a group of men who have relatively complete control over the environment in which the captive populace lives.” (Berrigan, p.6)

Along with these theories, Schein put forward a set of ‘practical recommendations,’ that threw ethics and morals out the window. They included physical removal of prisoners to areas sufficiently isolated to effectively break or seriously weaken close emotional ties; segregation of all natural leaders; spying on prisoners, reporting back private material; exploitation of opportunists and informers; convincing prisoners they can trust no one; systematic withholding of mail; building a group conviction among prisoners that they have been abandoned by or are totally isolated from their social order; using techniques of character invalidation, i.e. humiliation, revilement and shouting to induce feelings of fear, guilt and suggestibility; coupled with sleeplessness, an exacting prison regimen and periodic interrogational interviews.

So-called ‘brainwashing’ strategies that involved physical as well as psychological abuse were being adopted from international arenas and applied inside U.S. prisons. Now, in 2011, similar strategies, honed in Marion and its progeny, are being employed around the world in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere.”

– Nancy Kurshan, “The Battle Against Control Unit Prisons,” Counterpunch. July 5, 2013.

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“To understand the reasons for the spread of control units, we must determine what function they serve, what it is that they achieve. We will examine what is claimed about control units by prison officials and compare those statements with what is known. We will analyze three specific claims repeatedly made by prison officials all over the country and reported in any media coverage of control unit issues:

  1. Control units contain the most violent prisoners, the “worst of the worst”, who have proved too violent to be held at other prisons.
  2. Control units reduce violence at other prisons by isolating the most violent prisoners.
  3. The reduction of violence allows security at these other prisons to be relaxed.

The first claim is the major one, on which the other two rest, so we will concentrate on it. The facts of Marion show that the claim is false. Federal prisons used to be given a security rating from one through six, one being the least secure and six being the most secure. In 1984, Marion was the only level six prison in the federal system and prisoners there were supposed to have a corresponding level six rating. However, a 1984 report by consultants hired by a Congressional oversight committee stated that eighty percent of prisoners at Marion did not deserve that level of security (Breed and Ward, 1984). In fact, prisoners are sent to Marion for a variety of reasons and sometimes for no reason at all. For example, the U.S. District Court ordered a cap on prison population and as a result, so many prisoners convicted of felonies in the District of Columbia have been moved to Marion to relieve overcrowding that they constituted seventeen per cent of Marion’s population in 1990 (Lassiter, 1990: 80). Virtually all of these prisoners are Black.

There is, however, a trend to be seen. Prisoners have been transferred to Marion for writing “too many” lawsuits, for protesting the brutality of the prison system, or for angering prison officials in some other way. In addition, among the many political prisoners who have been in Marion, American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, Sekou Odinga, member of the Black Liberation Army, Alan Berkman, Tim Blunk and Ray Levasseuer were sent directly to Marion from court (Can’t Jail The Spirit, 1989; O’Keefe, 1991) thereby disproving the claim that prisoners at Marion have been violent at other prisons.

The Prison Discipline Study initiated in 1989 by the Prisoner Rights Union of Sacramento, California, investigated the question of which prisoners were most often disciplined and how (Prison Discipline Study, 1991). The report showed that solitary confinement was the most common disciplinary action. Included in this report were testimonies by prisoners that those of them exhibiting personal integrity are singled out for brutal treatment. Respondents to the survey described this group as: “those with principles or intelligence”; “those with dignity and self-respect”; “authors of truthful articles”; “motivated self-improvers”; those “verbally expressing…[their] opinion”, “wanting to be treated as a human being” and/or “reporting conditions to people on the outside.” The study shows, therefore, that a practice such as sending prisoners to control units, which is based on arbitrary and subjective judgments by guards and other officials, will target prisoners who are most likely to be challenging the prison system.

In fact, the BOP’s own rules for determining who gets sent to Marion are far broader than the “violent at other prisons” line given to the media. In the aforementioned “one through six” security rating system, prisoners were assigned their security rating on a number of factors: Type of Detainers, Severity of Current Offense, Projected Length of Incarceration, Types of Prior Commitments, History of Escapes or Attempts and History of Violence (Breed and Ward, 1984: 35). Although this rating system is obviously broader than the “violent” formula and open to a certain amount of interpretation, the finding that four out of five prisoners at Marion did not have the required level six rating meant the BOP had to find another, vaguer system. They have therefore revised their rules and now classify institutions as minimum, low, medium and high security. Prisoners must be “high” security to be sent to Marion, which is determined by pre-commitment factors such as severity of offense. In addition, prisoners at Marion should have a “maximum” custody rating, which is determined by post-commitment criteria such as “disciplinary record” (Dove, 1991). Having revised these rules, the BOP changed the classification of everyone at Marion to “high-max” (Dunne, 1991).

It is admitted at the highest level that a prisoner’s political beliefs are basis for assigning that prisoner to a control unit. In a letter to Congressperson Kastenmeier, the then Chair of the Congressional subcommittee that oversees the BOP, Michael Quinlan, the Director of the BOP, stated:

“A prisoner’s past or present affiliation, association or membership in an organization which has been documented as being involved in acts of violence [or] attempts to disrupt … the government of the United States … is a factor considered in assessing the security needs of an inmate” (Quinlan, 1987).

We may ask what constitutes “association” with an organization, or what is meant by trying to “disrupt” the government. In a case brought by a prisoner in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at the California State prison in Sacramento, Chief Justice Karlton made it clear that prisoners are sent to the SHU for reasons that have nothing to do with discipline. He noted that the plaintiff, who was challenging the prison’s forbidding him to practise his Native American religion, was in the SHU for being “an associate” of a prison gang, the Mexican Mafia and that “given that [he] is in the SHU by virtue of his status rather than as punishment for a particular act, there is no apparent way for him to work his way out” (Sample v. Borg, 1987).

As a last point in our argument against the claim that Marion contains the “worst of the worst” we note that for this to be true, all or most prisoners who satisfy their criteria must be at Marion. For example, Oscar Lopez Rivera, a Puerto Rican Nationalist, is in Marion for “conspiring to escape”. Since he is there, then other prisoners who “conspire to escape” should be there as well as all the prisoners who actually try to escape, as well as all the prisoners who actually *do* escape and are apprehended. Are they? There are prisoners at Marion who have assaulted guards (not in itself an indication of violence if the guard had been harrassing and abusing the prisoner). Are all prisoners who have assaulted guards, or even killed guards, at Marion? Obviously the answer is no.

Finally, let us address the two other claims made by officials about control units.

Prison officials claim that Marion, Pelican Bay and the other control units reduce violence in the rest of the prison system. Since we have shown that the control units do not hold the most violent prisoners, this cannot be true and there is no evidence that it has happened. Moreover, all the evidence points to the opposite being true. Most of the prisoners will be released at some stage either back into the general prison population or into society. It is known that control unit conditions produce feelings of resentment and rage and mental deterioration (Korn, 1988). Prisoners will have been so deprived of human contact that it will be hard for them to cope with social situations again. The inhumanity of control units cannot reduce violence, it can only increase it. Evidence includes the high level of violence at Marion during the period before the lockdown, when controls were being tightened but not yet to the extent of completely physically incapacitating prisoners. The tighter controls certainly did not have a calming effect on the prison. In addition, the guard deaths of 1983 occurred in the Control Unit itself.

The claim that control units allow security to be loosened at other prisons is also invalidated because of the truth about which prisoners go there. And again, there is no evidence that the situation in other prisons has improved. Furthermore, Marion has been the model for the numerous state control units [10]. A delegation of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Administration of Justice which visited Marion in May, 1990, cited the need to “develop a more humane approach to the incarceration of the maximum-security prison population. This is particularly true because the Federal Bureau of Prisons serves as a model for state prisons and for other countries in the world.” (Lassiter, 1990: 80) Incredibly, similarity to Marion is now a defense against suits brought to contest inhuman conditions at other prisons (Reed, 1992). The existence of Marion has not improved conditions at other prisons; its example has dragged them downwards toward greater brutality.

Having disposed of the official claims regarding the purpose of control units, we turn to the true function. Ironically, this was clearly stated by Ralph Arons, a former warden at Marion, who testified in federal court:

“The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in the society at large” (Whitman, 1988: 25).

(Notice “revolutionary *attitudes*” not “actions.”)

This is born out by the large number of political prisoners who are, or have been at Marion and by the Prison Discipline Study. That control of dissent, protest and liberation movements is the true purpose of control units is also shown by history, most especially the history of the early seventies. In September 1971, the prisoners at the state prison at Attica in upstate New York rebelled against the inhuman and racist regime there, declaring their solidarity with all oppressed people and demanding their rights. The rebellion, and the consequent brutal murder of thirty-nine prisoners and hostages by New York State Troopers, under the orders of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, rocked the nation. The whole prison system was at boiling point. Despite the recommendations of the official report into the Attica rebellion that prison conditions be humanized, the response of the New York Department of Corrections was to plan a control unit in which to isolate prisoners such as those who lead the rebellion ( Kaufman, 1971). It was never built, due to resistance led by Martin Sostre, a Puerto Rican prisoner who had run a radical bookshop, groups supporting Puerto Rican political prisoners and POW’s and a defense group headed by Angela Davis (Buhle et al., 1990). Even corrections experts judged the planned prison to be too brutal and to be counterproductive to the purported purpose of violence control (Tomasson, 1971). However, not long after, in 1972, the Control Unit at Marion was initiated.

Starting in the early seventies, around the time of the opening of the Control Unit at Marion and the Attica rebellion, the prison population in the U.S. started to increase rapidly. Concurrently, there has been an increase in the proportion of prisoners who are people of color. We will document these developments in the next section but mention them here since they lead us to interpret the proliferation of control units in the United States as an attempt to suppress the increased likelihood of protests and dissent.”


Committee to End the Marion Lockdown, “From Alcatraz to Marion to Florence: Control Unit Prisons in the United States.” This article was written in 1992.

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