Original Version, Tikkun, January 1, 2009.
During two years of supporting Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, I often clicked through his online Blueprint for Change, seeking his views on the proliferation of U.S. prisons. I found them, usually in comments about assisting prisoners re-entering society and altering sentencing and drug laws. Such comments were lodged under “Civil Rights” and “Crime and Law Enforcement.” It is time for national leaders to address the problem of mass incarceration within another more radical paradigm, that of social reconstruction.
There are 2.3 million in our prisons, a figure grown nearly 7-fold since the late 1970s, now making the U.S. the most imprisoning nation on earth. The brutal culture within prisons is also of special concern, since incarceration practices tolerate and promote prisoner degradation, rape, torture and brutalization by both guards and prisoners. In his book Harsh Justice, Yale comparative law professor, James Whitman, contrasts U.S. prisons with Europe’s, showing how U.S. systems transpose “doing time” into a soul-killing bludgeon, dehumanizing prisoners in almost every part of their being.
Both religious and secular voices of conscience today decry U.S. prisons as violating the basic dignity that no one should lose as human beings, because of the near slave-like treatment of the confined. Early in the present era of mass incarceration, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens lamented that a 1984 ruling suspending prisoner rights “declares prisoners to be little more than chattels.” Hitting the bookshelves in the second half of Obama’s first term, was a best-seller by legal scholar, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, arguing that even when released, the imprisoned enter little more than a new racialized caste prepared for them, thus strengthening yet another regime of racial dispossession that recycles the travail of racial injustice that long has weighed-down the entire body-politic.
Burgeoning prisons and the brutality within them are not just problems for those “behind walls.” Millions of children of the incarcerated live in our midst with their hearts creased by the bars that confine their parents. Their families must move to the rhythms of the imprisoned. Prisons release every year some 700,000 people into our communities, and are a festering wound for our whole body politic, circulating social neglect, brutality, and failing lives – from prison to society and back again. American Indian, Black, Hispanic and immigrant communities suffer especially from these circuits of neglect. Southeast Asian youth swell the juvenile detention centers in key areas of the country. In 1996, the National Criminal Justice Commission already described prisons as “social catastrophe” for black communities.
We have become a “carceral” society, a way of living with a bad “prison habit,” one that incarcerates also the nation’s allegedly “cherished values.” The ranks of an engaged citizenry are reduced when those labeled “Felons” are denied voting rights. Equality, justice, peace, as well as environment and healthy families – all these suffer. The travails of a carceral society are now clearly documented by scholars like sociologists, Bruce Western, in his Punishment and Equality in America, and geographer, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag.
We must press U.S. Attorney General Holder to be proactive on two fronts. Let me address Holder directly, and by extension, Obama, too. First, increase support for re-entering prisoners, as part of the comprehensive employment and public works project that our entire nation now needs. This entails mobilizing teachers for job training and education inside prisons, as well as outside in communities to which prisoners return.
Second, thin the numbers of prison populations. Perhaps we cannot now implement the calls for “prison abolition” that activist-scholars like Angela Davis issue. But you and your policy-makers can recognize that filling prisons does not correlate with substantively reducing crime, and that in fact unchecked prison habits tend to foster crime and fuel carceral blight. Following advice from sociologist Bruce Western and others, you could reduce prison populations by (1) decriminalizing drug offenses and other “victimless” crimes, (2) reworking sentencing laws so that life-sentences and draconian decades-long terms are kept to a minimum, (3) reducing time spent on probation and parole that generates new prisoners, often for only technical violations, and (4) ceasing to re-imprison people for technical violations.
Other efforts in social reconstruction are important. Racial disparities and bias, for example, are more evident in imprisonment practices than in almost any other social sector of suffering, with catastrophic effect for communities of color. Youth of color experience both harsher and more frequent confinement for drug-related offenses than do white youth. Proactive pursuit of racial justice must be integral to social reconstruction.
Health care, too, is essential. Truly “universal” plans should address the burgeoning health needs of the carceral class. Remembering the imprisoned and their families in new health care programs benefits all society. Beyond health care, other economic planning is crucial, especially for empowering city neighborhoods.
In short, one of your administration’s challenges is to ask at every stage in developing new projects, “How do these policies redress our nation’s imprisoned and those affected by them?”
Many a seasoned prison activist warns that your promises are at best illusory, and the first term performance by both you and your Attorney General, Eric Holder, have failed to provide bold leadership on the problems of mass incarceration. Instead, not only have you been silent on that systemic problem, but your policies have entrenched habits of torture and indefinite detention, extended and strengthened the surveillance powers of corporatized government, and shown total silence on the claims to justice by political prisoners in the United States, such as the internationally reknowned Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier.
Most of us laboring on these issues do not ask you to do as President what must be mobilized by the power of the people, by their local communities and organizing. But with your office and leadership skills, we insist that communities be listened to, that a strong light be shone on mass incarceration as the blight it has become on this society. We urge you to summon strength for reversing decades of the fear-based incarceration habit indulged by both Republicans and Democrats.