Posts Tagged ‘mass incarceration’

“Historians have had difficulty reconciling the Nation of Islam’s seemingly incongruous black nationalist ideas of a separate state, flag (with a crescent and star), and ethnoracial identity (“Asiatic”), with its use of courts, litigation, and a rights-based framework to secure civil rights protections and constitutional guarantees. [Historian Dan] Berger argues that the prisoners’ rights movement “was less a claim to expand rights than it was a critique of rights-based frameworks.” But this is truer for a later period in the prisoners’ rights movement, following the important constitutional gains won through Muslim litigation in cases such as Cooper v. Pate. In the early 1960s, Muslim prisoners drew on section 1983 of the 1871 Civil Rights Act, which protected citizens against violations of constitutional rights by persons acting under state authority. They also frequently cited the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Cooper v. Pate, for example, Tomas X Cooper referenced the Illinois Bill of Rights as well as the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Muslim prisoners not only cited constitutional protections but also used direct-action strategies such as sit-ins, hunger strikes, and occupations of solitary confinement, that anticipated the “Jail, no bail” efforts of southern civil rights activists. Rather than see claims to constitutionalism and direct-action protest as irreconcilable with black nationalism, we might consider these as effective, if entangled, strategies to win protections for prisoners under the law while challenging white supremacy and incarceration more broadly. As C. Eric Lincoln noted: “the Muslims appear to believe in the efficacy of the white man’s law without believing in its justice.””

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 75.  

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“First, the Nation of Islam’s prison organizing—and black nationalism more broadly (exemplified most prominently during these years by the NOI)—should be seen as a central current of the postwar struggle for black freedom. Its political strategies and conceptual legacies expand our understandings of the mid-century black freedom struggle, the prisoners’ rights movement, and the development of the punitive state. Secondly, prison organizing should not be narrated as a post–civil rights struggle but rather as one born out of, and alongside, the movement. Lastly, the carceral state was not simply a counterrevolutionary reaction to the gains of social movements through top-down policy changes and electoral shifts but was produced through daily, on-the-ground interplay with prisoners’ activism.

The dialectical relationship between prisoners’ radicalism and prison repression—what I term the “dialectics of discipline”—paradoxically helped develop the protest strategies and legal framework for the prisoners’ rights movement while fortifying and accelerating the expansion of the carceral state through new modes of punishment and surveillance. These dialectics took two major forms during this period in New York prisons. The first was the relationship between state methods of control such as prison transfers, confiscation of religious literature, solitary confinement, and loss of “good time” (sentence time reduction for good conduct) and the responses by Muslim prisoners through hunger strikes, writ writing, and take-overs of solitary confinement. The second was the interaction between Muslim religious practices and prison surveillance. An emerging web of state surveillance monitored Muslim rituals and attempted to construct a religio-racial formation to justify the suppression of Islam in prisons. Because grassroots organizing by prisoners and the production of state knowledge and discipline grew alongside one another, historians of the carceral state cannot supply one-sided histories relying on state-produced narratives while burying the physical and theoretical labor of those who opposed such systems. Rather than seeing the development of mass incarceration and carceral apparatuses in the tectonic shifts of electoral realignment and other federal policy measures, this essay points to the local and daily exchanges between prisoners and prison officials as ground zero for the rise of the prisoners’ rights movement and the extension of the carceral state.”


– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 72-73.

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Defining the criminal
A criminal is a person legally convicted of violating the laws of the society in which he or she lives. Unsurprisingly, laws written by those in control to preserve their power and property are enforced primarily against the powerless and unrepresented. Once convicted in a system privileging elites, the criminal’s “rap sheet” becomes an indelible record—sometimes his or her identity for life. Who is convicted, how the structure and processes of the legal system lead to disproportionate conviction of certain social groups—these are important questions of social justice. In the American ideal, every individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty, entitled to equal legal defense and judgment under the law. In practice, however, not everyone benefits equally from Constitutional protections. The American public generally assumes that those finding themselves in state and federal prisons have had access to legal representation, but concepts of the adequacy of such representation vary over time and jurisdiction. Inadequate or overburdened legal representation (a public defender, often underpaid, may have a portfolio containing hundreds of cases) leaves most offenders with prison sentences resulting from plea bargains – no jury of one’s peers involved. Prisons and jails become long-term holding cells for the population’s most vulnerable cast-offs.

The widely accepted notion of “minority rights” is a contradiction in terms in the American penal system. People of color, immigrants, people without money or property, and the mentally ill—the minorities, the dispossessed, society’s “others”—are groups historically ostracized within the criminal justice system. Legal marginalization often stems from limited access to Sixth Amendment tools guaranteeing judicial fairness. Conversely, certain people appear cloaked in privilege, evading long term retention behind bars as their social standing, connection, or power exonerates them or reduces their sentence. Take the case of Brock Turner, a white male Stanford University swimmer accused of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster in California in January 2015. Although caught in the act and found guilty of three felony counts, the law determines that Turner will never see the inside of a prison as punishment for his crime.

The judge presiding over the case decided six months in county jail (of which Turner will likely only serve half due to California felony sentencing laws) was more appropriate than the six-year minimum because “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.” Juxtapose Turner’s sentencing to the case of Brian Banks, also a promising athlete in California. Accused of rape in 2002 at age sixteen and tried as an adult, he faced forty-one years to life in prison. Banks, a black man, plead no contest to avoid an all-white jury. Though later evidence confirmed his innocence, Banks spent five years in prison on trumped-up charges. The judge, in Banks’s case, did not consider the “severe impact” on Banks as a person. A comparison of the treatment of these two individuals caught up in the justice system suggests not that more time in prison would “fix” Turner or make up for his misdeeds, but illustrates a stark polarity representing imbalance and injustice in American jurisprudence. Courts sentence people convicted of very similar crimes, even in the same state, entirely differently. The justice system continually positions those of certain class and color as perpetual outliers. Yet it is easy to blame systems without looking at the underlying people who support and sustain them. Surely it is not just judges making these mistakes where lives and futures are at stake.

The example of rape sentences in California speaks to racial bias; legal scholars, noticing the seriousness of this phenomenon, have delved deeper into its national prevalence and cultural, social, and economic sources. Michelle Alexander systematically investigated racial bias in the justice system in her path breaking, mightily influential 2012 study The New Jim Crow, observing that “for nearly three decades, news stories regarding virtually all street crime have disproportionately featured African American offenders.” Lisa Bloom expanded on Alexander’s assertion two years later in her book Suspicion Nation, noting “the standard assumption that criminals are black and blacks are criminals is so prevalent that in one study, sixty percent of viewers who viewed a crime story with no picture of the perpetrator falsely recalled seeing one, and of those, seventy percent believed he was African-American.” These grim statistics demonstrate that when it comes to identifying a face of a different race, more mistakes and, hence, wrongful convictions are likely to occur. The Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization committed to identifying and exonerating those wrongfully convicted, found that fifty-three percent of misidentification cases where the race is known involved cross-racial identification. Although the American criminal justice system theoretically operates on the principle that every accused is innocent until proven guilty, certain identity characteristics feed collective pre-judgment, leaving some individuals more vulnerable from the witness stand. Past frames present. To this day, historically marginalized communities pay the greatest price for crime.

Prison riots and the public
Once behind bars, offenders face a continuum of similarly racialized injustice. Their connection to the outside world is confined to letters, proctored visitation, and the occasional fee-based, monitored telephone call. This access, at the discretion of the penal institution, is subject to compliance with policies of “good behavior.” As Sykes points out in the 1950s and as still maintains sixty years later, “at certain times, as in the case of riots, the inmates can capture the attention of the public; and indeed disturbances within the walls must often be viewed as highly dramatic efforts to communicate with the outside world.” An instance of such performative engagement of public attention emerged in the December 30, 1947, riot at Colorado State Penitentiary. While the riot itself provides an intriguing line of inquiry, an analysis of the public response and rationalization following the event is still more instructive. As the news wires chronicling the characters, the motives, and the gritty details, Hollywood capitalized on this opportunity to dominate the public imagination with a “morality play” of a story depicting good versus evil.

Just six months after the riot, directors and film crews flocked to Cañon City, creating a movie covering the events of the turbulent December day. This movie, titled Cañon City, speaks to a public yearning to create narratives around the incarcerated. While the viewer is introduced to all twelve escapees, special attention is given to James Sherbondy, a convict who hesitated to join in the riot, and who is treated in the film with much historical accuracy. Upon his escape, Sherbondy entered a local family’s home, taking them hostage. When a child of the house suddenly fell ill, Sherbondy allowed the seven-year-old boy to be taken to the hospital. This compassionate act, as represented in the movie, arouses the viewer’s sympathy, serving as a reminder that not all human decency is lost in prison.  In the film as in the event, Sherbondy was recaptured the next day and severely punished for the escape attempt. Playing himself in the film, Warden Roy Best then shamelessly self-promoted his regime of strict discipline and unquestioned submission to authority by those paying their debt to society—as indeed he did in the historical instance.

Two years after the movie’s release, ironically, Best was charged by a Colorado grand jury with five counts of embezzling state property. The town rallied behind Best, gathering the funds for his $10,000 bond. Even as the warden faced a two-year suspension, his notoriety increased. Details of his abuses became public knowledge. Nonetheless, when most of the relevant evidence was destroyed prior to the trial, Best was acquitted. Although it is unclear how Best’s trial was rigged, public influence was evident. The people of Colorado had trouble accepting the idea that their flagship prison’s esteemed warden was a criminal like those he watched over and punished. As someone appointed by and reaffirming Colorado political power, Best did not fit the image of the criminal purported by the media. In contemporary experimental psychology, this pattern is called confirmation bias. 

This principle similarly explains how it can be easier to accept that someone living in poverty is inclined to break the law, and thus to justify locking any in that segment of society behind bars, than that a middle-class perpetrator is guilty and justly subject to confinement. The human predisposition to affirm or exaggerate pre-existing impressions has ensured the longevity of prisons, as most of the families with members who are incarcerated lack the resources to challenge the system and the narrative of criminality as applied to them. Best, however, had the resources and the public’s support, and thus escaped the legal label of criminal. Three days prior to his reinstatement as the warden of the Colorado State Penitentiary, Best suddenly died. Thereafter the Colorado prison system entered a new era of reform under the leadership of Harry Tinsley.

Prison as Continuum: Re-“carcerating” the Incarcerated
Tinsley, believing that his duty as warden extended beyond discipline, helped institute more than twelve self-help programs at CSP. “Society can’t gain by merely caging its offenders behind bars,” Tinsley asserted in an August 1968 Denver Post article. His policies reflected this ethos, attempting to create a sense of community in prisons to better prepare the inmates for responsible places in the world outside. Tinsley established a dialogue and a sustained relationship between the prisoners and the free population with programs like “Don’t Follow Me,” in which convicts traveled outside the prison walls to talk to teenagers and adults about their life in prison and what brought them there. A veteran guard commented, “Roy Best would spin in his grave if he knew a bunch of cons were running around the countryside giving talks on behavior.” Paradigms that placed little to no value on the life of a prisoner were changing under Harry Tinsley’s administration.

Colorado’s first parole preparation facility opened in 1959 under Tinsley’s leadership. Edward W. Groul, executive director of the state’s adult parole division at the time, described the center as a place where prisoners “learn to bridge the gap between prison and free society.” The institution of this Pre-Parole Release Center acknowledged and responded to the difficulty inmates face upon their release and re-entry into society. The center continues to charge the corrections system with more than just confining and warehousing those who have erred. As Tinsley made clear, “Locking them up is not enough. We have to do something to help them help themselves and become useful citizens.” Such an idea was radical because it looked past the isolation of inmates from the outside world and towards their reintegration into the society from which they had been forcefully removed. The funding of Lyndon B. Johnson’s mid-1960s Great Society-era programs had projected the image that prisons and inmates were worthy of these government investments, but involvement in the Vietnam War put prisoners’ issues on the backburner, retarding further such development.

When the Vietnam War ended, concern for the growing criminal population appeared stunted. Instead, on a national level, public punitiveness seemed to be increasing in the 1970s. In 1974, chief guard training officer of Colorado State Penitentiary Uhland blamed the abuses of power occurring in Colorado prisons over the last century on the public’s neglect of the incarcerated population, stating that “Public apathy to what goes on inside prison walls anytime but during a crisis allows the problems to perpetuate themselves. Do you know why almost all prisons have high walls around them?” Uhland continued, “A tall chain link fence would accomplish the same purpose. People don’t want to see what goes on inside a prison. They don’t want to know.” Most operate on an “out of sight, out of mind” basis in regard to the prisoner. Corrections Director Rudy Sanfilippo echoed this sentiment a year later in a Colorado Springs Gazette Telegrapharticle, blaming the public’s attitude on “witches syndrome:”

A century ago the sanctimonious of Salem burned the mentally ill as witches. Lepers were isolated for fear that you could contact the disease by looking at a leper…there was a feeling that if you could toss the offensive of the world into a snake pit you would have them out of sight and out of mind. People are at the same level of thinking right now regarding criminal offenders.

In 1975, Sanfilippo tried bringing the problem into a larger context by reminding people that life on the inside influences life on the outside. “What we do now is brutalize offenders,” he opined, “so how come anybody should be surprised if when they get out of jail they hold up the nearest store? They come out mad and vengeful.” Indeed, recidivism metrics are held up by detractors of rehabilitation as support for their work. Colorado had the third-highest return-to-prison rate in the nation in 2010, 52.4 percent according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice. While the 2013 recidivism rate cited by current director Rick Raemisch is forty-nine percent (a three percent decrease), this rate still does not reflect well on the success of the Colorado prison system.

Recidivism rates all too easily confirm existing biases that the root cause of criminal behavior is a failure of individual character, not of wider society. In this view, some people are inherently criminal—when given the choice between freedom and crime, they choose crime. To attempt to rehabilitate offenders is, according to this logic, to throw good money after bad. Such conclusions are reached without full knowledge of the reality offenders face upon release. Hiring practices even for unskilled jobs discriminate against persons with criminal records. Mental health and medical support, as well as public housing, are difficult to find. Competition for work is harsh when one’s skills are stale and outmoded. Municipal restrictions, including parole and fines, further limit job flexibility. The prisoner returns to society stigmatized, disenfranchised, and consigned to minimum wage jobs, constant parole surveillance, web mugshot postings, and routine searches in DNA crime databases. The formerly incarcerated individual, in effect, carries a life sentence. The struggle to re-claim a sense of dignity becomes constant. Unwanted and rejected by mainstream society, some former inmates simply cannot re-envision their place in it. Another wall, built on shame, ostracism, fear and social contempt, keeps them prisoners long after their “debt to society” is repaid.

– Caleigh Cassidy, “Invention of the Inmate.” PAST, PRESENT, PRISON: Using the past to construct the future, Colorado College History Department.

Stills are from Cañon City (1948), found on IMDB

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“Juan G Morales belonged to the 1970s crush of incarcerated men and women who asked the courts to ease the harshness of prison life. Morales was incarcerated in the state of Wisconsin, and his jailers were not allowing him to exchange letters with his lover. He brought an action in federal court against the state in order for his right to correspondence to be restored. His case came to Judge James E Doyle, father to a future governor.

Doyle sided with Morales, and the language he employed says much about how the prison system was viewed by mainstream America at that time: “I am persuaded that the institution of prison probably must end. In many respects it is as intolerable within the United States as was the institution of slavery, equally brutalizing to all involved, equally toxic to the social system, equally subversive of the brotherhood of man, even more costly by some standards, and probably less rational.”

In the years after Doyle wrote, the prison population soared, imprisonment became a predominant feature of American life, and a world without prisons became even more difficult to imagine. Yet Doyle’s words reflected a very real sense common to the early 1970s that the end of the prison could be quite near. The Norwegian criminologist and prison abolitionist Thomas Mathiesen describes this historical moment – not only in the US, but across the Atlantic as well – as the only time in the history of the prison when prison abolition was a real possibility. We are reaching another such moment, and we ought to learn from what went wrong nearly a half-century ago. Among the reasons the protean movement to abolish prisons fizzled was its refusal to speak in plainly moral terms. In foregrounding pragmatic reforms, 1970s prison reformers turned away from the rich abolitionist heritage and failed to generate the force necessary for effecting radical social change.

Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow has done much of late to introduce the massive scale of the injustices involved in the prison system to a mainstream audience, but from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, there were any number of such publication events: Karl Menninger’s The Crime of Punishment (1968), Nigel Walker’s Sentencing in Rational Society (1969), Richard Harris’s The Fear of Crime (1969), former attorney general Ramsey Clark’s Crime in America (1971), and Jessica Mitford’s Kind and Usual Punishment (1973), to name a few.

To a wide and receptive public, these opponents of the prison system argued that prisons simply do not work. Prisons attempted to rehabilitate, but high recidivism rates proved they were failing. Prisons were also cruel and unjust, according to these early opponents – not merely as they were currently administered, but as such: caging people was presented as fundamentally harmful and wrong. Mitford, an English aristocrat and journalist, went further, claiming that prisons are “essentially a reflection of the values, and a codification for the self-interest, and a method of control, of the dominant class in any given society”. Increased public attention focused on the prison system, stoked by highly visible prison rebellions in New York City in 1970 and in Attica in 1971, led to a sense that dramatic change was inevitable. It was now just a question of sorting out the practicalities.

Writing in his 1971 book The Discovery of the Asylum, historian David Rothman optimistically asserted: “We have been gradually escaping from institutional responses and one can foresee the period when incarceration will be used still more rarely than it is today.” In his widely circulated 1973 exposé, The New Red Barn: A Critical Look at the Modern American Prison, William G Nash prescribed as the only appropriate policy response a moratorium on all prison construction. This proposal was broadly considered plausible and seemed to reflect an emergent common sense. In April 1972, a moratorium was endorsed by the board of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a centrist criminal justice thinktank, as well as by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice a year later. The latter commission, operating under the Department of Justice, added a call for the closure of all juvenile prisons, and it explicated the emerging consensus about American prisons: “There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.”

With such broad public concern, elites wanted to gain firsthand knowledge of the prison system. Lawyers, judges and politicians spent a day or two in prison to get an impression of the conditions. Thoroughly shaken by his experience, Emanuel Margolis, a prominent Connecticut attorney, concluded that prison reform was the wrong answer: prisons had to be abolished. The son of a rabbi, Margolis concluded from his brief prison experience that in incarceration “the total being is involved and affected – his dignity, even his soul”.

Likewise, in 1972, Congressman Stewart McKinney, a Republican from Connecticut, decided to spend 36 hours in a prison to understand what everyone was talking about. As reported by the Associated Press, the congressman “emerged from prison an emotionally strained man”. McKinney concluded that the current prison system is “a big waste of money and human life”. Upon his “release”, he told reporters: “I can’t see consigning any human being to this kind of existence.”

Yet the rate of incarceration today is nearly five times what it was when McKinney emerged from his cell. As political scientist Vesla Weaver has demonstrated, some of the very same politicians who once advocated for segregation switched to advocating for crime policy that would imprison massive numbers of poor people and people of color when it became clear that segregation was a losing cause. Georgia senator Herman Talmadge associated crime, urban uprisings and non-violent civil disobedience, asserting: “Mob violence such as we have witnessed is a direct outgrowth of the philosophy that people can violate any law they deem to be unjust or immoral or with which they don’t agree.” The necessary response: getting tough on crime and building prisons.

In accounting for the rise of what many now call “mass incarceration”, scholars point to race, politics and economics as driving factors. The composite picture has gradually come into focus. The New Jim Crow rightly pushed race and racism center stage, and laid the blame on shapeshifting white supremacy, but more recent work by Michael Javon Fortner and James Forman Jr shows how concern over crime also led black leaders to support the emergent regime of tougher punishments.

Richard Nixon’s war on crime and Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs have long been seen as pernicious forces, but Naomi Murakawa and Elizabeth Hinton have pinpointed the roots of mass incarceration in Johnson’s Great Society, and Marie Gottschalk has spelled out the thoroughly bipartisan consensus thereafter. Perhaps most fundamentally, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Loïc Wacquant have shown how economic shifts conjured prisons as a catchall solution. In ways that addressed only symptoms and never causes, prisons solved for unemployment on both sides of the bars: both for the urban underclass that was caged, and for rural white communities that built and managed the cages.

But law-and-order politics also signaled a different kind of cultural reorientation: a shift in American religion. Nowhere was this change more obvious and consequential than in elite political rhetoric. During the civil rights era, politicians on both sides of the aisle would trumpet the ideal of justice, often using religious language to do so. Justice was an ideal; it was up to us to make this divine notion a reality. During the era of mass incarceration, Americans’ ambitions for justice have been thoroughly downsized. Justice is now principally a modifier in the “criminal justice system”. Law is principally something to be followed, and its violation (at least by those with little power) is to be punished. Instead of a world where the poor, the weak, and the hungry might be raised up, justice has come to mean little more than the efficient administration of the punitive system we already have. In the moral imagination of mass incarceration, we can imagine greater fairness – for example, in the elimination of racial disparities – but we are generally unable to envision a qualitatively higher justice.”


Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd,
Think prison abolition in America is impossible? It once felt inevitable.The Guardian. May 19, 2018.

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“The ongoing force of racism cannot be denied and the liberal carceral state is not an exception, as it provides ample evidence that its very structure is contingent on and advances a racist, particularly anti-black agenda. However, the carceral logic of capitalism has become increasingly focused on the most vulnerable, who, more often than not, are also the poorest. Along this line, you write that “the use of debt as a mechanism of dispossession requires that subjects first be incorporated into the capitalist system as borrowers,” and also introduce the concept of “racialized accumulation by dispossession.” How would you summarize the link between racialized mass incarceration and the debt economy legitimized by morality tropes such as deserving and undeservingborrowers?

One might ask, why include a chapter on the debt economy in a book about prisons and police? Perhaps I was trying to rethink how debt has been conceptualized, and show that expropriative credit instruments are also carceral instruments, insofar as the creditor owns the future of the debtor. In other words, I wanted to think of debt as a form of unfreedom that is unequally distributed (because race, class, and gender structure the forms of credit one has access to, as well as the perceived creditworthiness of the subject). But to label the use of credit as an instrument of capitalist accumulation a “carceral technique” is not merely metaphorical. In my chapter on municipal finance, I examine the chain of indebtedness produced by debt-financed governance. Municipalities have certain financial responsibilities to their creditors that they often offload onto their constituents. Thus, the creditworthiness of municipalities that are struggling fiscally (which determines their ability to access cheap credit) becomes dependent on their ability to loot residents. The financialization of governance and the emergence of new “exotic” credit instruments produce new modes of extraction that are carried out by the criminal justice system. You are also right to point out that both the debt economy and racialized mass incarceration are propped up by a moral economy that fractures the population into the deserving and undeserving.

You argue that the court system and police play an increasingly important role in the generation of revenue via municipal fines, as debt is imposed on residents (especially black Americans, already segregated and seen as potential offenders) through a variety of criminal proceedings that transform the residents’ space into a carceral one, marked by unrelenting austerity measures, hyper-policing, and fines farming. What are the traits of the carceral municipality as opposed to, let’s say, an ideally free city, where mobile, insurgent nonwhite sociality would not be regulated or punished?

In the carceral municipality you are followed in your car by a police officer as you drive to your shit job simply because you are not white. While you are being given a ticket for $300 the cop realizes there is a warrant out for your arrest for an unpaid fine for the length of your grass being three inches too long (though you cannot recall having ever received such a fine). In jail, you call your aunt to bail you out, but she doesn’t have the money and it takes her a day to secure your release through a commercial bondsman. Since your aunt lacked financial assets, she had to list her car as collateral. When she misses a payment due to low-waged and precarious employment, she will be charged additional fees by the bondsman. After you are released from jail, you are reprimanded by your boss for missing work without calling in, and you are written up. Because your license has been revoked for traffic violations and an unpaid ticket, you now have to use the unreliable and underfunded public transportation system to get to work. You arrive late on the day you have been summoned to appear in court because the bus did not arrive on time, and thus you are forced to reschedule your court appearance and pay an additional fee. This scenario could go on and on and on …

What would an alternative look like? I invoke Fred Moten toward the end of the chapter on municipal finance because he reminds me that in the cracks of the carceral society, insurgent socialities already exist. People have an urge toward life, a need to gather, to jam, to conduct experiments in care when the welfare state and health-care system have failed us. It could be comrades taking turns to take the poet Anne Boyer to the hospital while she undergoes cancer treatment, or the creation of mental health collectives, or things more quotidian, not necessarily bound up with our brokenness and deteriorating bodies. It could be the sociality created in the Baltimore Feminist Reading group I was part of, the different mode of engagement we invented there, based on friendship and not the performance of mastery found in the academic seminar. This is not to glorify informal structures of care that emerge in the crucible of a capitalist system that would grind us all to pulp if it weren’t for our friends. But this is the unexpected underside of social precarity: its production of need and dependence can sometimes be socially binding.

Still, some people fall through the cracks. These informal structures are not always sustainable or functional. We don’t always have the resources to catch each other when we fall, when someone is laid off from their job or evicted. I would like a world where housing and food are not commodities, where everyone has health care and guaranteed basic income rather than compulsory debt, and everyone is free to move (without being policed or surveilled) and travel using reliable green transportation infrastructure. As for the city, it should not consist solely of commercial space, but also include true commons: public space for people to gather, for teens to loiter to their heart’s content. Who knows what will be created when congregation is not met with regulation.

Following the 1990s construction of the juvenile “superpredator” by John Dilulio Jr., racialized juvenile defenders became less and less distinct from their adult counterparts, while also being regarded as incapable of self-government and self-determination. How exactly did they earn the right to be punished as adults in the first place?

In the media they “earned” the right to be punished as adults by committing crimes that were cast as socially unforgivable (i.e., violent crimes such as murder). Essentially, the concept of the superpredator produces a type of subject that is incapable of “redemption,” insofar as they are considered constitutionally antisocial and psychopathic. In this view, the only way to protect the social body from the ungovernable juvenile hordes is to permanently confine the so-called superpredators.

Assumingly unbiased and neutral algorithmic/predictive policing uses assumingly error-free data to provide knowledge about where and when the next crime will occur. Why is it important to question who gathers data and how data is gathered in the first place?

Great question. There are some techno-critics who are also techno-optimists, in that they believe algorithmic bias can be corrected through the collection of clean, accurate data. Dirty data would be, say, the data on sexual violence manipulated by the Baltimore Police Department in order to bolster their appearance of being efficacious and responsive. Good datasets would consist of data that gives us some kind of accurate snapshot of the world based on records that have not been tampered with. When it comes to policing, I don’t think it makes sense to uncritically make appeals for better data collection (unless it’s on police conduct!), as such appeals will necessarily expand the domain of policing, and create a more totalizing surveillance state.

As I mention in the book, populations that are not heavily policed fail to generate reams of data. Who collects data, what they will use the data for, what their motivations are, what categories are being used for data collection — all of these factors reveal that data is always-already political. Why is it that only the rich have maintained their right to opacity? Maybe if the context in which data collection took place was not defined by capitalism and white supremacy, we could start thinking about other uses for data — we could use data to determine social needs and resource redistribution rather than punishment and profits. The system in which new technologies appear tends to structure how these technologies are used.”

–  M. Buna interviews Jackie Wang, “Carceral Capitalism: A Conversation with Jackie Wang.” LA Review of Books, May 13, 2018.

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“The incarceration rate and rising gender-based violence, paradoxically, track the growing levels of freedom and public activity among women. Compared with North American and Europe, the parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa where globalization has had its most severe effects have also undergone significant social changes: Young women face unprecedented pressures in education and work, including migration from rural areas and poor countries for jobs, while the expectation remains that they will still care for their families and children.

But civil-rights advocates wonder why, in a world of expanding freedom and inclusion for women and girls, they are simultaneously being disproportionately dragged down by incarceration.

In poor communities around the world, criminalization and abuse go hand in hand. A girl growing up in a refugee camp might be pressured to exchange sexual favors to avoid homelessness. Perhaps supporting a child as a single mother means serving as a drug mule for an abusive boyfriend. As economic exploitation deepens, the line further blurs between victim and perpetrator, especially when women get picked up by police or framed for partners’ offenses,

At a recent conference hosted by the ICPR in London, where activists and scholars discussed the imprisonment experience for women and girls around the world, Teresa Njoroge of the Kenya-based NGO Clean Start, discussed her own experience in a women’s prison. As Njoroge lived among the inmates, she realized all had been systematically socially isolated, stripped of family ties, reduced to identification numbers: “I understood their hurt and pain, and I learned that crime is not what really brought these women to prison. Far from it. It started with a lack of education, whose supply and quality is not equal for all. It starts with a lack of economic opportunities, which pushes these women to the petty survival crimes. The broken health system, the broke criminal system, the broken social-justice system. If any of these poor women fall through any of these cracks, the bottom of that chasm is a prison.”

Women also suffer from a lack of social support before and after prison. According to Catherine Heard of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme, women in prison “are often primary carers for one or more children or older family members. This surely suggests that the economic and social costs of imprisoning women will, in most cases, outweigh the supposed benefits.”

In the United States, for example, the mass incarceration of women is correlated highly with racial segregation, poverty, mental-health problems, and childhood abuse. Moreover, women are also disproportionately burdened by childcare responsibilities and so require targeted support to restore their family lives post-release.

Today rising imprisonment is the bleak upshot of women’s growing presence in the economy and in public life. But liberation should not lead to added risk of criminalization. Why should a sex worker be criminalized for struggling with economic hardship and exclusion from other avenues of employment? Why is a woman who steals to feed her family given a prison sentence instead of food assistance? Gender segregation across society imposes a criminalization tax on women simply pursuing the right to lead independent, self-sufficient lives.”

– Michelle Chen, “It’s a Worldwide Trend: More Women Are Being Imprisoned Than Ever Before.” The Nation. February 1, 2018.

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“The system of incarceration sucks up the most disadvantaged in society, disproportionately recruited from amongst foster kids, or kids with parents with a history of incarceration or drug abuse. 36 percent were in receipt of public assistance. 11 percent were homeless. 58 percent have mental health issues. Research compiled by the White House report shows that the individuals in question were on the whole marginalized from the labour market “even prior to conviction. Estimates from different data sources suggest that as little as 10 percent of this group have positive preincarceration earnings and that real pre-incarceration yearly earnings range from $3,000 to $28,000.” If the prison population has one thing in common, it is that they were poor on the outside.

“These disparities continue when we turn to the broader felony criterion. Nationwide, about 8 percent of all adults have had a felony conviction, but about 24 percent of African American adults share the same distinction. When parsed by gender, a staggering 33 percent of African American adult males have a felony conviction history (as compared to 13 percent of all men).”

This is a gigantic machine for destroying life chances. And the bitter irony, of course, is that it is immensely expensive. A prison bed costs between $ 14,000 and $ 60,000, varying by state and federal institutions. The cost of a single inmate in one of the higher-cost institutions is comparable to the cost of the police officer who puts them there. It is also, needless to say, comparable to the cost of the College education which virtually none of the inmates have enjoyed. Through the US criminal justice, the American state is spending more money on the inmates than it ever spent on them on the outside.

The impact of this machinery on education, employability and the possibility of forming stable family and social ties are obvious. The vast majority of employers conduct criminal background checks on potential recruits. Thousands of jobs require licenses and certification from which felons are excluded from the get-go. Not surprisingly, therefore, non-participation in the workforce for prime age men who have been incarcerated is three times higher than for those who have never been arrested. For white prime working-age men with a prison record, the non-participation rate in the labour force is 17 %. For black men with a prison record it is 27 percent. The non-participation rate for prime age men untouched by the criminal justice system is 6 percent. Once we include the multiply-disadvantaged groups who have been stigmatized by it, that percentage rises to 9 percent. i.e. by 50 percent.” 

– Adam Tooze, “America’s Political Economy: Lost Generations – cumulative impact of mass incarceration.” October 28, 2017.

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