Category: mass incarceration

Obama: mass incarceration is having ‘a disabling effect on communities’

Nadav Kander for TIMEBy Alan Bean

The criminal justice system was hardly mentioned during the 2012 election season.  No one was banging the tuff-on-crime drum and we certainly didn’t hear anyone calling for reform.  With violent crime ebbing steadily, politicians are no longer locked in a Tougher Than Thou race to the bottom.  And although he didn’t press the issue during the campaign, President Obama has been dropping hints that his second term will address the problem of mass incarceration.

I have pasted the relevant section of Obama’s December conversation with Time magazine below.  As one would expect from a politician, he begins by burnishing his tough-on-crime credentials.  But pay close attention to his focus on non-violent criminals, a euphemistic reference to drug dealers.  The president isn’t simply arguing that the war on drugs has been a failure.  In fact, he wisely avoids any mention of drugs.  His point is that our ill-considered war on drugs is destroying low-income neighborhoods.  This is a moral argument.  Moreover, it shows that the essential features of Michelle Alexander’s critique is beginning to sink in.

One of the other things that I’ve heard is being discussed when you think about a second term is the idea of criminal justice reform. What would your goals be in that area? What is the problem you think can be solved in the next few years? (more…)

Catching Stones for Jesus, Bryan Stevenson

By Alan Bean

Bryan Stevenson dedicated himself to defending death row inmates after the justice-evangelicalism he imbibed at Eastern College collided with the entitled secularism of Harvard Law School.  The way he sees it, we are either throwing stones or we’re catching them.  Consider this bit from late in the piece:

Stevenson turns frequently to the Bible. He quotes to me from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says of the woman who committed adultery: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” He tells me an elderly black woman once called him a “stone catcher.”

“There is no such thing as being a Christian and not being a stone catcher,” he says. “But that is exhausting. You’re not going to catch them all. And it hurts. If it doesn’t make you sad to have to do that, then you don’t understand what it means to be engaged in an act of faith . . . But if you have the right relationship to it, it is less of a burden, finally, than a blessing. It makes you feel stronger.

Churches must choose, he says.  We can be stone throwers or stone catchers.  Or, after the manner of Saul of Tarsus, we can hold the coats for those who throw the stones in the mistaken belief that this absolves us of responsibility.

Stevenson draws parallels between the slave trade and the current blight of mass incarceration.  He knows people, particularly white people, won’t want to hear it, but he won’t let that deter him.

Chris Hedges, who wrote this piece for the Smithsonian Magazine, is open to Stevenson’s “mass incarceration is the new slavery” argument, but then Hedges is convinced the world is going to hell before the next decade is out.  Likewise, the folks who heard Stevenson’s TED talk were thrilled with his message.  So it isn’t as if all white people are resistant–just the 80% of us who have never been forced to wrestle with the full tragedy of America’s racial history.

I’m not sure a full frontal assault can reach these people, but I’m glad folks like Stevenson and Michelle Alexander are giving it a go.  Somebody needs to speak the full truth even if people can’t hear it.  Stevenson is right, mass incarceration really does define us as a nation, as does our immigration policy.

Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As a Society

By Chris Hedges

The Smithsonian Magazine

Bryan Stevenson, the winner of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in social justice, has taken his fight all the way to the Supreme Court

It is late in the afternoon in Montgomery. The banks of the Alabama River are largely deserted. Bryan Stevenson and I walk slowly up the cobblestones from the expanse of the river into the city. We pass through a small, gloomy tunnel beneath some railway tracks, climb a slight incline and stand at the head of Commerce Street, which runs into the heart of Alabama’s capital. The walk was one of the most notorious in the antebellum South.

“This street was the most active slave-trading space in America for almost a decade,” Stevenson says. Four slave depots stood nearby. “They would bring people off the boat. They would parade them up the street in chains. White plantation owners and local slave traders would get on the sidewalks. They’d watch them as they went up the street. Then they would follow behind up to the circle. And that is when they would have their slave auctions.

“Anybody they didn’t sell that day they would keep in these slave depots,” he continues. (more…)

A house divided still

By Alan Bean

Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” pulled in $34 million over the Thanksgiving weekend, third best behind the new Twilight and James Bond movies.  When I saw the film over the weekend, the audience  applauded as the credits rolled–something you don’t see very often.

The film,  loosely based on Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, is relentlessly historical.  Lincoln is portrayed as a bucolic Christ figure, but Spielberg stops short of turning The Great Emancipator into a comfortable citizen of the 21st Century.   Constitutional equality applied to Negroes, said Lincoln; that meant abolishing the slave trade in every corner of the Union and little else. (more…)

DEA agent told not to enforce drug laws in white areas

Posted by Pierre Berastain

From Colorlines:

Meet Matthew Fogg, a former U.S. Marshal whose exploits led him to be nicknamed “Batman.” When he noticed that all of his team’s drug raids were in black areas, he suggested doing the same in the suburbs.

“If we were locking up everybody, white and black, for doing the same drugs they would’ve done the same thing with prohibition, they would’ve outlawed it,” Fogg says in the video produced by Brave New Films. “If it were an equal enforcement opportunity we wouldn’t be sitting here anyway.”

Task Force to Host Historic Restorative Justice Conference at Harvard Law School

By Pierre R. Berastain

Over the past year, the Massachusetts Restorative Justice Task Force has prepared to convene a daylong restorative justice summit at Harvard Law School. On November 3rd, 2012, Building Communities of Care Wherever We Are will seek to equip participants with tools to build restorative justice and transformative practices in their communities, schools, youth centers, domestic violence and sexual assault centers, faith communities, and prisons, among other contexts. The conference will be held from 8:30am to 5:00pm in Milstein East in Wasserstein Hall at Harvard Law School at 1585 Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge, Mass.

The initiative comes at a particularly important time given the alarming statistics that reflect the inefficiency of the criminal justice system, mainstream domestic violence and sexual violence programs, and the inimical zero tolerance policies implemented in school districts nation-wide. Today, for instance, the United States comprises five percent of the world population, but holds 25 percent of world prisoners. According to the NAACP, “Combining the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, one in every 31 adults is in some form of correctional control.” The cost of these correctional programs amount to over seventy billion dollars annually. The system disproportionately impacts people of color — or people of the global majority. For instance, according to the NAACP, “five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites.” And according to The Sentencing Project, “African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).” These issues have special implications in Massachusetts, which spends six times more per prisoner than per public school pupil — a greater disparity than in any other state. In 2007, Massachusetts spent $78,580 per prisoner and only $12,857 per pupil. The disparities in justice and the surging cost of our punitive criminal justice system demand new paradigms of addressing offenses in our society.

(more…)

The Newsroom’s middle ground politics is no answer

By Alan Bean

HBO’s new Aaron Sorkin series The Newsroom has conservative bloggers beside themselves.  In the clip below, fictional news anchor Bill McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, launches into an extended rant in which he compares the Tea Party to the Taliban.  Both groups, McAvoy suggests, trade in “Ideological purity, compromise as weakness, a fundamentalist belief in scriptural literalism, denying science, unmoved by facts, undeterred by new information, a hostile fear of progress.”

Here’s the entire clip:

No thanks.  The Tea Party is a mishmash of often contradictory complaints and enthusiasms.  Many, perhaps most, Tea Party folk merely tolerate the brand of fundamentalist obscurantism The Newsroom excoriates.  A lot of Americans enlist in the Tea Party because they are pro-business but anti-Wall Street.  The bailout of the financial “industry” had more to do with growing the Tea Party than religion fanaticism.  In fact, if Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party people were ever able to sit down for a beer they would agree on a lot of things.

I see Sorkin’s screed as an attempt to define a sensible political middle occupied by moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats.  In the middle of McAvoy’s rant, this middle ground is identified as true Republicanism, but the speech has generally been denounced by Republicans and hailed by Democrats.  According to McAvoy, real Republicans believe in “a prohibitive military” and “common sense government”.  They believe there are “social programs enacted in the last half century that work, but there are way too many costing way too much that don’t.”

Moreover, real Republicans believe in free market capitalism, and law and order.

In other words, we’re talking about Reagan Republicans shorn of the small government libertarians and evangelical theocrats . . . in short, the people known today as Democrats.

It is not accidental that most Democrats have no problem with Sorkin-McAvoy’s “real Republicanism” while the real real Republicans hate it.  Reagan style Republicanism is the new political middle; the turf currently defended by politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Politicians to the right and the left of this safe middle ground, Sorkin implies, should be thrown under the bus.  The real Republicans should come over to the blue side and the Tea Party and progressive Democrats can just go to hell.

Yet it is precisely this combination of global military imperialism and unrestricted free market bubble building that has brought our economy to its knees.

Ron Paul libertarians say we can’t afford to be the world’s policeman, and they are dead right.  We currently spend more on our military than all the other children of earth combined.

International corporations get fat shipping American manufacturing jobs to the Third World while feeding off one speculative bubble after another.  The anti-Wall street wing of the Tea Party calls this madness, and they are right. Ross Perot said much the same thing back in the Bill Clinton era and, come to think of it, he was right too.  You really can hear that “giant sucking sound”.

The “centrist” politics of Sorkin’s Will McAvoy is a creation of the Wall Street gamblers that drove us into a deep recession.  These people feed American militarism, anti-immigrant sentiment and the demons of mass incarceration because they hope to grow fat off the private contracts associated with such ungodly madness.  Over half the military personnel in Afghanistan at the moment are private contractors.  The war on drugs and the war on migrants is fueling a private prison boom of spectacular proportions.

Here’s the sad truth.  You can’t get elected to either the Senate or the US presidency (or survive in much of the academic and religious world) without kissing the ring of Wall Street and what Eisenhower, had he survived into the twenty-first century, would be calling the military-prison-industrial complex.  The folks pulling the puppet strings are the real masters of America.  Unrestrained militarism and capitalism abide genuine democracy.  Sorkin’s “common sense government” exists at the pleasure of men (and a smattering of women) who control the wealth of America while producing little of value.

We get nowhere demonizing the radicals on the conservative and liberal fringes of American society.  These people are confused about a lot of things, but most of them are honest.  Fundamentalists have wandered into an intellectual cul de sac, but American evangelicalism, for all its weird excesses, remains the beating heart of American spirituality.  Casting conservative religionists into the outer darkness isn’t American, it isn’t Christian, and it isn’t wise.  We need these people and, though they scarcely realize it, they need us.

I am not suggesting, as frustrated radicals often do, that there is no real difference between Republicans and Democrats or that elections are meaningless.  Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will not pursue the same policy goals if elected.  But whoever comes out on top in November (this year and in the foreseeable future) must convince Wall Street and the military establishment that they are dependable guarantors of the status quo.  So long as this is the case, politicians cannot treat what ails us.

Immigrants for Sale

Posted by Pierre R. Berastaín

This video is from some time ago, but its message is as powerful today as it was when it first came out.  How do prisons make money and how do anti-immigration laws ensure these private prisons’ profits?

California bill would make simple possession a misdemeanor

A bill filed by California State Senator Mark Leno would shift the mere possession of small amounts of illegal drugs from felony to misdemeanor status.  This article in Capitol Weekly by Michelle Alexander and Alice Huffman summarize the argument against mass incarceration and explains why Senator Leno’s bill is a step in the right direction. AGB

Teeming Prisons Create a Permanent Underclass

It is no secret that our nation’s prison population has skyrocketed during the last forty years, thanks largely to the failed War on Drugs. The race to incarcerate has led to a quintupling of our prison population since 1980; more than two million people are behind bars today. What’s less well known, however, is that millions more are locked in invisible cages for which there is no key. These cages are not made of steel but of laws, policies, and practices that permanently relegate everyone labeled “felon” to an inferior second-class status. (more…)

Charles Blow: Plantations, Prisons and Profits

Charles Blow

By Alan Bean

If you really wanted to read the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s eight-part series on the state prison system, but only have time for one quick read, columnist Charles Blow has what you need: a quick summary of the high points. 

Here’s his conclusion:

Louisiana is the starkest, most glaring example of how our prison policies have failed. It showcases how private prisons do not serve the public interest and how the mass incarceration as a form of job creation is an abomination of justice and civility and creates a long-term crisis by trying to create a short-term solution.

As the paper put it: “A prison system that leased its convicts as plantation labor in the 1800s has come full circle and is again a nexus for profit.”

The T-P’s groundbreaking series provides a “thick description” of a deadly interplay between a tragic racial history, a shrinking agricultural economy and tax base, a paranoid electorate, underpaid and under-resourced sheriffs, and a craven political class.  This is the kind of description I attempted in my Taking out the trash in Tulia, Texas and it is great to see the mainstream media, even in these belt-tightening times, taking their responsibility, and their readers, this seriously.

Plantations, Prisons and Profits

By Charles Blow

“Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.”

That paragraph opens a devastating eight-part series published this month by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about how the state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing, and how many with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it. (more…)

Growing old behind bars

By Alan Bean

It is good to see Human Rights Watch tackling the issue of aging prisoners.  I will never forget talking to Joe Moore, a brittle diabetic with bad knees, through the Plexiglass in the visitation room of a Texas prison.  The folks handling the medical contract for the state prison system were trying to cut expenses.  A doctor decided to take Joe off his insulin to see if he really needed the medication.  First Joe lost his balance; then his tongue doubled in size, then his eyesight went.  When Joe told the guards he was too sick to work, they forced him to dress and join the kitchen detail.  Joe tried to comply, but he fell unconscious to the floor of his cell and came within a whisker of death.  Without influential supporters in the free world, Joe would have died behind bars.

Joe Moore died a few years after being exonerated and released from prison.  His friends were with him and he was able to buy a little farm and work his own cattle after release.  He left this world with his dignity intact.

And then I think of Ramsey Muniz, the Latino politician and civil rights legend currently housed in a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas.  Ramsey is 70 years old and can’t walk without the help of a cane.  Like Joe Moore, Muniz is the victim of a shady drug bust and a rigged trial.  But what if, like most prisoners, Joe and Ramsey were guilty as charged?  Does it make any sense to warehouse aging men and women, at an average cost of $50,000 a year, who no longer represent a threat to public safety?

The excellent eight-part series on Louisiana incarceration in the Times-Picayune emphasized the growing geriatric wing of the state’s notorious Angola prison.  Decades of life without parole sentencing have created a pitiless system bereft of compassion and common sense.

In her summary of the 110-page report she produced for Human Rights Watch, Jamie Fellner underscores the senseless horror of forcing thousands of elderly offenders to die behind bars.

Among the more than 26,000 state and federal prisoners aged 65 or older are some who have severe physical and mental impairments.  One 87-year-old I met last year while conducting research on older prisoners could not tell me his name. He had been in prison for 27 years, 20 of them in a special unit because of his severe cognitive impairments.  I met prisoners who were dying and could not breathe without assistance; prisoners so old and frail they needed help getting up from their bed and into their wheelchairs; prisoners who lacked the mental and physical ability to bathe or eat or go to the bathroom by themselves.

Frail and Elderly Prisoners: Do They Still Belong Behind Bars?

As the US confronts a growing population of geriatric prisoners, it is time to reconsider whether they really need to be locked up. Prison keeps dangerous people off the streets. But how many prisoners whose minds and bodies have been whittled away by age are dangerous? (more…)