Tackling Debtors’ Prisons: Reflecting on the Death of Eileen DiNino
from Truth Out, June 21, 2014
Tackling Debtors’ Prisons: Reflecting on the Death of Eileen DiNino
from Truth Out, June 21, 2014
Since my CounterPunch article last November which assessed the state of the movement against mass incarceration, the rumblings of change in the criminal justice have steadily grown louder. Attorney General Eric Holder has continued to stream his mild-mannered critique by raising the issue of felony disenfranchisement; the President has stepped forward with a proposal for clemency for people with drug offenses that could free hundreds. In the media, we’ve seen a scathing attack on America’s addiction to punishment in the New York Times and the American Academy of Sciences has released perhaps the most comprehensive critique of mass incarceration to date, the 464 page The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. In late May, several dozen conservatives including Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist, and former NRA President David Keene pulled together the first Right on Crime (ROC) Leadership Summit in Washington DC. The ROC, an organization which boasts a coterie of members with impeccable right wing credentials, reiterated the need for conservatives to drive the process of prison reform. The Conference “call to action” argued: “In our earnest desire to have safer neighborhoods, policy responses to crime have too often neglected core conservative values — government accountability, personal responsibility, family preservation, victim restoration, fiscal discipline, limited government and free enterprise.” Gingrich engaged in similar kinds of soul searching: “Once you decide everybody in prison is also an American then you gotta really reach into your own heart and ask, is this the best we can do?”
All of this has precipitated another round of optimistic cries about the possibilities of a Left-Right Coalition on mass incarceration, including a high profile Time Magazine op-ed co-authored by Norquist and MoveOn.org co-founder Joan Blades.
While the spirit of reconciliation in criminal justice attracts most of the media attention, a number of pieces have also emerged rejecting any rush to positive judgment. For example, fellows at the Brennan Center compiled a statistically based report which contends that careral change has not yet turned the corner while Black Agenda Report co-founder Bruce Dixon asserted that Obama’s clemency measures would have no significant impact on mass incarceration.
However, another process, likely at least as important in the long run as number crunching, coalitions or clemency also has been gaining steam. The official voices of incarceration- politicians, corrections officials, private prison operators, prison guards unions and county sheriffs, are exploring changing discourse and cosmetic reform in order to avoid systemic restructuring. In the business world, they call this re-packaging.
Re-Packaging Mass Incarceration: Carceral Humanism
Currently this re-packaging assumes several forms. One of the most important is carceral humanism or what some people refer to as incarceration lite. Carceral humanism recasts the jailers as caring social service providers. The cutting edge of carceral humanism is the field of mental health. According to a recent report by the Treatment Advocacy Center, in 2012 the US had over 350,000 people with serious mental health issues in prisons and jails as compared to just 35,000 in the remaining state mental health facilities. Prisons and jails have become the new asylums and the jailers are waking up to the fact that mental health facilities also represent a new cash cow. Likely the most important examples of carceral humanism are happening in California. There Governor Jerry Brown has played a shell game called realignment in which he’s transferred thousands of people from state facilities to county jails in order to comply with a Federal court order to reduce the state prison population. To help counties adapt to all these new prisoners, the Governor put up $500 million to the state’s sheriffs to build extensions onto their jails. In response, the Sheriffs had to come to Sacramento to pitch for a slice of that money. They didn’t come talking about public safety. Their mantra focused on caring-providing opportunities and improved circumstances for those in custody. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s summary from Lake County, one of the 15 winners out of 36 submissions, is illustrative:
“$20 million for a new Type II, 40-bed women’s jail with a new stand alone 39-bed Medical/Mental Health Services building with program space, a new administration building, and renovations so that existing space can accommodate programs.”
The new jails are about institutionalizing the funding of mental health and other services behind the walls, further diverting money from the already bare bones social services in communities. The Lake County proposal also featured another prominent strain of carceral humanism- a woman’s jail or in the present corrections jargon, a “gender-responsive” facility. Since mainstream research now argues that women experience incarceration differently than men, law enforcement is waving the gender banner to access more funding for construction. Los Angeles lies at the cutting edge in this regard. In March the LA Board of Supervisors authorized $5.5 million for consultants to draw up a plan for what some law enforcement people are calling a “women’s village.” Deputy Sheriff Terri McDonald of Los Angeles suggested that the new facility could be a place where “women and children could serve their time together.”
Carceral humanism has also surfaced in the repackaging of immigration detention centers. The latest immigration prisons carry the label “civil detention” centers. The GEO Group, the nation’s second largest private prison operator, opened their latest such facility in Karnes Texas. The LA Times called it a “pleasant surprise for illegal immigrants.” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials boast that people detained in Karnes won’t be housed in cells but in “suites” holding eight people. Those detained will be supervised not by guards or correctional officers but by “resident advisers.”
Repackaging 2: Non-Alternative Alternatives to Incarceration
A second form of repackaging mass incarceration falls under the heading of non-alternative alternatives to incarceration. These non-alternatives purport to change things but in essence simply perpetuate the culture of punishment. The most common forms of these are Drug Courts, Mental Health Courts and Day Reporting Centers. While many of these may be well-intentioned and in some cases have positive effects, they typically involve heavy monitoring of a person’s behavior including frequent drug testing, limitations on movement and association, a whole range of involuntary but supposedly therapeutic programs of dubious value and very little margin of error to avoid reincarceration. Perhaps the most extreme example of a non-alternative alternative to incarceration, and one which is likely to gain increasing traction, is electronic monitoring.
While advocates claim electronic monitoring facilitates employment, building family ties and participation in community activities, my interviews with a number of people on a monitor have revealed a different experience. Jean – Pierre Shackelford, who spent two years on an ankle bracelet in Columbus, Ohio said that he felt like his probation officer had him in a “choke hold” while he was on an ankle bracelet. He labelled monitoring “another form of control and slavery, 21st century electronic style.” Shaun Harris, on a monitor for a year in Michigan called it a form of privatized incarceration, “it’s like you just turned my family’s house into another cell” was his comment. Shackelford and Harris, like many others I spoke with, both reported difficulty getting movement for family activities and a lack of clarity about what was and wasn’t permitted. Shackelford finally took to going to church because that seemed to be the only activity his probation officer would approve. Both Shackelford and Harris, like most people interviewed, complained that they could be put on 24 hour “lockdown” (meaning they couldn’t leave the house at all) for any reason for an indefinite period and there would be no way to appeal such a decision. Even a late return home from work due to a delay in public transportation could result in a re-arrest. To make matters worse, most electronic monitors come with a daily user fee which ranges anywhere from five to twenty dollars a day.
While the punitive nature of ankle bracelet regimes is a cause for concern, the potential to implement exclusion zones with GPS-based monitors contains more serious long-term implications. Exclusion zones are places where monitors are programmed not to let people go. At the moment authorities mainly use exclusion zones to keep individuals with a sex offense history away from schools and parks. But such zones have the potential to become new ways to reconstruct the space of our cities, to keep the good people in and the bad people out. This technology, which can be set up via smart phones, holds the possibility to turn houses, buildings, even neighborhoods into self-financing sites of incarceration. In the meantime, firms like the GEO Group, which owns BI Incorporated, the nation’s largest provider of electronic monitoring technology and backup services, are experimenting with new target groups for ankle bracelets. In parts of California and Texas they’ve used electronic monitors on kids with school truancy records. Under a $370 million contract, BI already has thousands of people awaiting immigration adjudication on monitors. Packaged as an alternative these bracelets actually represent a new horizon for incarceration, finding ways to do it cheaper with technology through the private sector and then getting the user to pay, likely a model that would line up squarely with Right on Crime’s notions of reform..
Re-Packaging: Why Now?
Most commentators attribute the spirit of change in criminal justice to a belated recognition of the fundamental irrationality of spending so much money locking up so many people for so long. As Grover Norquist put it, “Conservatives may have wanted more incarceration than was necessary in the past, so what we’re trying to do is find out about what works.”
Such analyses make perfect sense but they also ignore a big picture political question. Mass incarceration is becoming a flash point of rebellion and resistance, with African American communities the most visible hot spot. Mass incarceration and the racialized vagaries of criminal justice have been going on for decades but recently we’ve seen new levels of anger and frustration in reaction to the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, as well as to the sentencing of Marissa Alexander. Even mainstream Black commentators like Melissa Harris-Perry appear incensed. At the grassroots level we’ve witnessed campaigns against stop and frisk, solitary confinement, mandatory minimums, crack cocaine laws and a host of new jails and prisons. On the ideological plane, the notion of the New Jim Crow, categorizing mass incarceration as a new form of slavery and segregation is catching on. People are latching onto the idea of mass incarceration as a systemic problem that can only be solved with a vast redirecting of resources into the communities that have been devastated by imprisonment. In other words, mass incarceration requires a total paradigm shift. The situation has the potential to explode. Politicians and business people don’t like explosions. When explosions appear a genuine possibility it is time to talk reform, time to re-package.
To make matters worse for purveyors of the carceral status quo, the immigrants’ rights movement has also been erupting over the last decade. From the immigrant worker strikes and demonstrations of 2006 to the endless string of demonstrations by the Dreamers and the Dream Defenders in the face of continued mass deportations, a steady stream of unrest has materialized. With the changing national demographics, key players in criminal justice need to be seen to be doing something if they want to maintain their power.
Lastly, there is the movement inside the prisons themselves. The hunger strikes at Pelican Bay in California and in Washington’s Northwest Detention Center coupled with the outpouring of solidarity these actions prompted, pose a serious threat to the already heavily smeared image of US prisons. In addition, even once notorious political prisoners are gaining increasing legitimacy. Captives from across several generations are attracting large coteries of supporters. This includes high profile individuals who have served decades behind bars, individuals like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Albert Woodfox, Oscar Lopez Rivera, Russell Maroon Shoatz and Leonard Peltier, along with more contemporary prisoners like Lynne Stewart (recently released), Marie Mason and Chelsea Manning. Inside and beyond the walls, there is rebellion in the air.
This reality raises another question: whether a Left-Right Coalition can deliver even enough change to calm the waters. Mass incarceration has become such a fundamental part of how the US addresses issues of race, crime, poverty, gender and inequality, it appears unlikely to collapse from gradual reforms whether inspired by carceral humanism, punitive alternatives to incarceration or more genuine critique. As with civil rights, pressure from below will be required, from a social movement that has the creativity to envision an alternative, the skills and legitimacy to mobilize the people who are most directly affected, and the political power to make their voices be heard and get others to join them. Perhaps this social movement is, to borrow a phrase from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, making the path by walking at this very moment.
James Kilgore is a Research Scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). He is a frequent commentator on mass incarceration, a social justice activist, and the author of three novels, all of which were written during his six and a half years of incarceration. He is currently working on a primer on mass incarceration to be published by The New Press in 2015. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org His writings are available at his website, www.freedomneverrests.com
Natasha Frost, associate dean of Northeastern University’s school of criminology and criminal justice
After more than three decades of “tough on crime”, the New Jim Crow, truth in sentencing and three strikes, the law and order project looks adrift with no one rushing to bring it back on course. The bubble of prison construction is about to burst, if it hasn’t already. Pretty soon it may be difficult to find anyone who admits they once advocated serial prison building and trying fourteen year olds as adults. Crime figures are down while other distress meters rise into the danger zone- unemployment, homelessness, and deteriorating public education. No longer can Directors of Corrections masquerade as first responders and lay claim to unlimited funding streams. Budgetary and social justice alarm bells are ringing loud and clear. On top of this, as Soros Justice fellow Tracy Huling notes, a “newfound political will” from state Governors of both parties “to close prisons and, in some cases, to reduce the overall size of their incarceration systems” has emerged. At a local level, more than 40 municipalities and counties from, Kalamazoo to Jacksonville, have passed Ban the Box legislation which removes questions about criminal background from job applications. Even people with felony convictions seem to be getting a fair shake.
For those of us who have spent years of our lives in cages and for everyone who has been fighting mass incarceration, this reality is encouraging but also a little unsettling. We have perfected our mantras, honed our talking points of condemnation for everything from supermaxes to technical parole violations. Now everyone speaks like they are on our side. In a battle where the lines were once clearly drawn, the division between them and us is getting murky. After six and a half years inside Federal and state prisons, I’m getting pressure to call prison guards “correctional officers,” being told I must find commonality with them as “exploited workers.” Such urgings push me into an uncomfortable corner. Time to take a deep breath and survey the lay of the land.
Capturing the big picture requires looking at several aspects of what some of us call the prison industrial complex. The first is the numbers game: do we really have less people behind bars? The answer is, yes. For the past three years, the total number of people in prisons in the US has fallen for the first time since 1972, a post-2009 decrease of about 43,000 out of a prison population of more than 1.5 million (2.2. million including jails). No massive celebrations are in order, however. Some disturbing new trends are creeping into the mix-like the meteoric increase in the incarceration of women in the last few years. Besides, even with the reductions, the US still far outdistances the rest of the world in per capita incarceration rates and states like Pennsylvania continue to promote massive prison construction projects.
Also, the numbers game isn’t everything. We need to ask what happens to people who have been taken out of prison. Do they find jobs? Are substance abuse and mental health treatment programs available? Are they managing to avoid constant harassment by police? Do they really have a future or are they destined to live at the margins, in the gutters, alleys and board ups of U.S. cities? And most importantly, how many of them are locked up somewhere else just to keep the state prison statistics looking good? Answering these questions is difficult. That trending catchall, “alternatives to incarceration,” can become a shell game where punitive policies submerge themselves in benevolent clouds of risk assessment tools and evidence-based practices. Punishment adopts many pseudonyms.
A quick snapshot of the nation’s four largest prison systems sheds considerable light on the complex dynamics involved. Let’s begin with the good news, New York, where the most significant changes have occurred. Since 1999 the prison population in New York State has decreased by 24% with eleven prisons closed. Law enforcement officials have been quick to attribute these shifts to reduced crime produced by “hot spot” policing and “zero tolerance.” Activists Judith Greene and Marc Mauer call the decreases the result of “a remarkable change in drug enforcement policy in 1999 that entailed an unprecedented curtailing of NYPD’s ‘war on drugs.’” These policy changes didn’t come about through a spontaneous change of heart by police, nor did legislators simply wake up to budgetary pressures. Rather, the work of civil society groups like the NYCLU, the Correctional Association’s “Drop the Rock” campaign, and the Drug Policy Alliance’s Real Reform coalition exposed the bankruptcy of aggressive drug prosecutions. Eventually the public and then key officials like District Attorney Joe Hynes began to see the light.
Reforms to laws such as the removal of mandatory minimum sentences, contributed to a decline in drug arrests, from 40,361 in 2008 to 29,960 in 2012. Moreover, while the stop and frisk policy has deservedly landed New York City with a New Jim Crow label, figures from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services show that Black drug arrests have actually been decreasing- from 42% of the total in 2008 to 35% in 2012. More people now receive citations for minor possession. In other cases, instead of offering penitentiary time, authorities channel thousands through treatment-based diversions like drug courts. Relaxing conditions of parole is also part of the new approach, precipitating a huge reduction in returns to prison for petty transgressions like missing a meeting with a parole agent or failing to look for work. Still, even with all these changes, New York State’s per capita incarceration rate remains at 425 per 100,000, well below the national average of 728 but about four times that of the United Kingdom and five times the rate in Sweden. Though New York has made great strides, forgiveness and mercy have not yet been thoroughly etched into the logo of the New York State Department of Corrections.
California presents another version of the reform scenario: a set of administrative changes forced down the throat of the governor by a Federal Court decision. Despite its reputation as a Blue state, California has been at the cutting edge of racialized mass incarceration. As recently as 2007, the state assembly voted 70-1 to pass AB 900 authorizing the construction of 53,000 new prison and jail “beds.” But a high profile campaign by Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), a coalition of over 50 organizations and an advocacy heir of prison abolition pioneers Critical Resistance, slowed the state’s capacity to roll out the construction. Then in 2009 the Federal Courts intervened. In a landmark move resulting from legal action by prison resident Marciano Plata, the court upheld the plaintiff’s allegations that medical care in California’s prisons was inadequate. The decision pointed to overcrowding, rather than lack of services, as the root problem. The court then ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to slash the population from its then 200% of capacity to 137.5% within two years. Failure to comply would mean the Feds would step in and run the system.
In response, Jerry Brown, first as state Attorney-General, then as governor, bought time with legal appeals while he developed his plan of “realignment.” Vowing not to release people early, the Governor “realigned” individuals from the state prison system by shifting them into county jails and community-based programs. AB 109, passed in 2011, was the enabling legislation, removing the cap on county jail sentences and clearing the deck for people to serve unlimited time in county lockups as long as they were “non/non/nons” –non-serious, nonviolent, and non sexual. Despite disturbing results like one man being sentenced to 43 years in LA County Jail, Stanford law professor Joan Petersilia responded with typical Golden State hyperbole: “The importance of California’s realignment experiment cannot be overstated…This is the biggest penal experiment in modern history.”
This mega- “penal experiment” came with a local sweetener, extra funds for counties to accommodate the “realigned.” Some sheriffs opportunistically used this money for jail construction rather than placing people in alternative programs. A few prosecutors developed their own pushback strategy “upping ” the charges, to make sure a person’s conviction would warrant a prison rather than a jail sentence. Despite these obstructions, the plan succeeded in moving some 25,000 people out of the state system over the next two years, but fell short of the court-mandated target. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court issued a final verdict: the state had to reduce to 137.5% of capacity by the end of 2013. Brown then added a second round of “bonuses” to local authorities for his pass the buck strategy – $315 million in extra funding to county sheriffs to accommodate their new immigrants from CDCR with the figure to almost treble by 2015.
On the surface, Petersilia does seem to have a point – that the importance of this “cannot be overstated.” The issue is defining that importance. While Brown’s counter to the Feds has bounced thousands out of state prisons, medium- and long-term impact remain in doubt. As more money drifts down to the county level, more sheriffs may opt to expand jail capacity rather than fund programs. If this occurs, the net result could be no significant reduction in the ranks of the incarcerated but simply more people in county jails, less people in state prisons. This would be a clear cut loss for the men and women behind bars, since nearly any state prison, even California’s violent and racially segregated facilities where I spent a little over three years, offers programs and services vastly superior to those of most county jails.
On the other hand, if realignment were to succeed and keep reducing the number of people incarcerated in the Golden State, Governor Brown would have discovered a way of decarcerating by administrative fiat rather than a philosophical shift or significantly modifying draconian legislation and carceral practice.
Ultimately, the importance of Brown’s initiative may actually be in realigning the CDCR with private prison providers. While California has largely avoided private prisons, with Brown under the gun to reach the 137.5% by the end of 2013, the Governor signed an agreement with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to lease a minimum security facility in the Mojave Desert which holds 2300 beds. While the privates generally are staunchly anti-union, the deal allegedly would staff the facility with guards from the ultra-right union, California Correctional and Parole Officers Association (CCPOA), a major backer of Brown’s campaign.
In the meantime, CURB and many other groups continue to pressure against any expansion of the CDCR’s capacity, consistently calling for the release of people with non-violent cases as a more meaningful alternative than Brown’s administrative restructuring.
California’s process demonstrates how decarceration is about far more than numbers. The recent hunger strike by men in the Security Housing Unit in Pelican Bay provides evidence that the punishment paradigm remains alive and well in California. Brown and CDCR officials’ steadfast refusal to negotiate with hunger strikers who were demanding an end to isolation cells in which some of them had remained for over four decades, revealed that little had been realigned in the minds of criminal justice authorities in the Golden State. Only continued pressure from below by organizations like CURB is likely to yield more permanent results.
The upbeat version of recent criminal justice history in Texas characterizes the state as a poster child early adopter of prison reform. The narrative goes like this: when 2007 budget projections showed Texas would need 17,000 prison beds in the next five years at a cost of $1.6 billion, a now –retired, cherry Red state legislator named Jerry Madden stepped in. A series of startling reforms ensued – including the spread of drug courts, mental health and substance abuse treatment and lower parole case loads. The resulting changes freed up some 12,000 “beds” in the state system, though Texas continued to carry out contracts with more than a dozen private prisons.
In policy terms Texas, once the beacon for the “make my day” set , did soften, especially when it came to releasing people on parole. In addition, a broad-based coalition which included the ACLU of Texas, Grassroots Leadership, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, AFSCME Local 3807, the Texas Inmate Families Association and several other groups successfully foiled attempts at private prison expansion. While the state managed to free up enough “bed space” to close two institutions, a look at the overall numbers is equivocal. Texas did register a decrease of almost 3,000 people in the state prison system from 2011 to 2012, but the numbers remain at 2005 levels of slightly over 152,000, still the US’largest state prison system. Furthermore, with an astronomical per capita incarceration rate of 923 per 100,000, Texas doesn’t amount just yet to any beacon of hope. As a recent post from high profile blogger “Grits for Breakfast” asks: “If Texas justice reforms were so great, why does the state still have the nation’s largest prison population?” Good question.
Where Texas has succeeded is juvenile justice. After a set of scandals involving abuse of youth in state lockups in 2007, authorities closed nine facilities and built community-based alternatives. Perhaps adult corrections officials should study their juvenile counterparts more seriously.
The Federal System
Lastly, we come to the Federal system-the nation’s key carceral growth area. Despite the recent chest-beating by Attorney General Eric Holder about setting aside mandatory minimums, the Federal Bureau of Prisons(BOP) has not succumbed even to the rhetoric of decarceration, let alone the practice. Instead, the Feds have adopted an expansion-oriented business model, partnering with private prisons to tap into the “niche market” of immigration detention leading to an 84% rise in the number of people in immigration detention since 2005. In addition, Congress has imposed a mandatory quota of 34,000 immigration detainees- ICE cannot let the number fall below that figure, despite declines in actual “illegal” border crossings. Coupled with harsher immigration laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, all this has led to a spiking of deportations, with 2012 numbers surpassing 400,000 for the first time in history. In a previous Counterpunch article, I have termed this wave of deportations “The New Operation Wetback”, after an actual US government program in the 1950s which repatriated hundreds of thousands to Mexico. But nowadays deportation is not the only issue.
Under the current regime people with a prior illegal entry conviction can be sentenced to up to two years in prison before being repatriated. Those with a previous felony conviction who enter the US illegally can receive up to ten years, 20 years if it was an “aggravated felony. Locking up the undocumented has become the primary face of mass incarceration with the Feds leading the charge. The outcome has produced a drastic change in the demographics of those in prison. Since 2000, the number of African Americans in prison has actually fallen slightly but the ranks of “Hispanics” have increased by more than 50%. This has provided a lifeline for an almost moribund private corrections sector. While the privates control only 8% of the “beds” in the system nationwide, in the immigration detention sector they own and/or operate roughly half of the “beds.” Although the rate of African American incarceration remains about 50% higher than that of “Hispanics” the large-scale operations of mass incarceration may increasingly be led by the troops of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rather than drug squads or SWAT teams.
In New York a popular mobilization along with politicians waking up to fiscal realities helped precipitate important changes. In Texas and California, the results have been much more uneven with political pushback and bureaucratic manipulations like realignment stalling comprehensive shifts. While the national and state level conversation has altered, we stand at the precipice of a very complex period- the bursting of the bubble of prison construction can assume many forms. Tracy Huling points out some of her concerns in this regard: I am worried that … entrenched special interests, including unions representing prison workers and for-profit private prison companies, might somehow combine to create the perfect storm.
Citing California Governor Brown’s dealings with private prison kingpin CCA, Huling goes on to add, “In that kind of scenario, given the extent to which campaign contributions and other kinds of bribes already corrupt the democratic process, all rational public policy considerations about the costs and benefits of prisons might be thrown out the window.”
A key point which grows from Huling’s analysis is that significantly changing the prison industrial complex entails wresting money and resources from corrections for programs and ultimately transformative processes that attack the problem at its core. In short, there is no stopping mass incarceration without redistribution of wealth and tax revenue, without attacking poverty and inequality.
Those who have benefited from mass incarceration will find new ways to resist change, new ways to brand and deliver their commodity. In 2010 private prison operator the GEO Group, bought the nation’s largest electronic monitoring firm, BI Incorporated. Clearly, GEO Group CEO George Zoley, who earned $7 million in 2010, thinks that GPS is part of the wave of the future. In a society where many people look for technological solutions to social problems, electronic home incarceration, especially as the surveillance capacity of GPS escalates, offers many attractive possibilities for investors and corrections power brokers. If prison and jails cells are rendered too costly, with home detention, families can shoulder the expense of room and board and the state can extract daily user fees for being monitored. Most programs already impose such user fees, typically from $5 to $17 a day.
Boutique prisons constitute a second reform which can sustain or expand incarceration. Not all forms of carceral punishment come with orange jumpsuits and electrified fences. Now we have a range of product variations designed to “humanize” the captive experience: “gender-responsive” institutions (which were part of Brown’s realignment), mental health lockups (the GEO Group has also heavily invested here), and family friendly immigration detention centers where mothers and fathers do time with their children while awaiting adjudication. And lastly, in a society predicated on dividing the rich from the poor, we have the pay to stay facilities where folks in Beverly Hills or Anaheim can fork out $150 a night not to have to sleep with the riff raff. All of these “alternatives” keep the resources and the focus on detention and deprivation.
Ultimately, the reversal of mass incarceration necessitates not only designing genuine alternatives but transforming the dominant national mindset. Perhaps the biggest challenge to current thinking relates to notions of innocence and guilt. Often when I speak to people about decarceration or ending prison construction, they accuse me of advocating for the release of Charles Manson or backing drive by shootings in inner city communities. But hundreds of thousands of people behind bars fall between the “non-non-nons” and the Mansons. They should be released long before their ridiculously long sentences have expired.
These people and their families are the major victims of mass incarceration. They carry the violent label in a legal system that has been structured to punish the violence of the poor, particularly that of poor people of color. African American youth catch a violent label for possessing an unregistered gun or get an assault on a police officer resulting from an aggressive stop and frisk. Latinos and poor whites earn the violent tag when they commit a robbery born out of the desperation of addiction or just plain old no food in the house and no access to food stamps because of a drug conviction. The bottom line dictates that if we change peoples’ social and economic realities, we can change the way they act.
I have walked prison yards with many people I would not like to see back on the streets any time soon. But I have walked with far more people who were doing life or 30 years because they got backed into a corner where doing something destructive felt like or perhaps was the only option. To reduce US incarceration rates to the relatively sane levels of other industrialized countries, we have to decarcerate more than the non-non-nons. This will only come about when the social movement addressing mass incarceration grows stronger and begins to grapple with the complex racialized nexus of incarceration, poverty, inequality and the state.
Let me end on an optimistic but contradictory note. For the past eighteen months I have been involved in a campaign to stop a $20 million jail project in the county where I live- Champaign, Illinois. After lots of ups and downs, just two weeks ago the county sheriff, who had been the chief inspiration behind the jail plans, stated that he had shifted in his thinking, was no longer asking for a cent for construction and was ready to experiment with policies that would keep people out of jail and avoid spending money on incarceration. At the end of the meeting, after considerable discussion, he reached out to shake my hand and I accepted. I thought about washing that hand as soon as I got home but I didn’t. Still I’m not ready to call anyone a “correctional officer” just yet. Old habits die hard and they usually hang around for a reason.
By James Kilgore, Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice
When we began our campaign to stop jail construction in Champaign County in early 2012, I thought we were doomed. The grand plan to spend $20 million on this project seemed like a done deaI. The Sheriff was driving the initiative; the leading lights in the County Board seemed to think jail construction was the only prudent course. Yet, nearly two years later we have a very different scenario. The 2014 budget for Champaign County doesn’t include a single cent for jail construction. In fact, the county has allocated more than $200,000 in new money for social programs aimed at keeping people out of jail. In a county of slightly more than 200,000 residents, this is an important start.
How did this happen? The answer is simple- a campaign of ordinary people, led by a core from the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ), turned the situation around. This campaign is proof that action by people at the grassroots level can make a difference.
Here I want to briefly reflect on the key measures we took to make our campaign a success. But I also want to issue a word of warning. The campaign is not over yet. We are actually just beginning a much longer and more complicated process of changing the criminal legal system in this county from the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach that has dominated not only Champaign County but much of the country for the last three decades.
Background to No More Jails
Champaign County has two jails, one in downtown Urbana, another at Brookens in East Urbana. The impetus for the proposed jail expansion came from the supposed deterioration of the downtown facility, built in 1980. By 2012 local officials as well as an inspection team from the National Institute of Corrections declared that the downtown jail was in “deplorable” condition, actually beyond repair. They wanted to close it down and bring in the construction crews.
As noted above, in those early days they seemed destined to get their way. The sole voice in opposition was Board member and CUCPJ leader Carol Ammons, now an Urbana City Council member. Gradually a core of us rallied around her and formed what would ultimately be No More Jails. Our foundation was the decade of work CUCPJ had done on social justice issues, particularly focusing on race and the criminal legal system. CUCPJ’s campaigns against the use of Tasers by police, for jail phone justice and the mobilizations in response to the police killing of African American youth Kiwane Carrington in 2009 formed a core of awareness and experience on which we could build. Another precursor was a reading group based on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow in which many of us participated. Engaging with Michelle’s book helped us to see the plans for new jail cells in our county as the local face of the racialized mass incarceration that she described so vividly. We wanted no part of it. We began to meet regularly and attend the County Board meetings. Our journey had begun.
Keys to Success:
Number One: Standing Firm on the Basics
As I look back, I think there were five main reasons we managed to gain some measure of success. First, and most importantly, we stood firm on two principles: no new jail cells and the need for community participation in decision-making. When Board members and law enforcement came with explanations about how we needed a jail to protect the people inside, how we needed it because women and the mentally ill deserved better facilities, about how having one jail instead of two would save the county money, we refused to budge. We correctly identified the key issue -the priority was to spend more money on ways to keep people out of jail, not ways to make people more comfortable inside their cells or make the system run more smoothly. We were also adamant that this process should be public. We were confident that few people in our county really wanted to spend their tax dollars on jail cells. Our views were borne out: through the entire time of the campaign not a single person ever came to the County Board to speak in favor of building that jail.
Number Two: Adapting to Change
Though we stood firm, we recognized that as the campaign progressed, the terrain changed. We began by attending Board meetings on a weekly basis and making presentations during public participation. Though we got a chilly reception at first, after a while some County Board members began to listen. We responded to their newfound openness to dialog and altered our tactics. Instead of opposing their every move, we found ways to work with them to shape the debate and decision-making process. As a result, instead of hiring an architect and a construction firm, the County decided to contract a consultant to do a needs assessment – not only of the building issue, but of the criminal justice system as a whole. We then studied the firms that applied for the consultancy and advocated for the one we thought would be most likely to support an alternative course. When our favorite was selected, we connected with their Director. We organized public meetings for him to dialog with local residents. We communicated with him individually, lobbying for our alternative vision to inform his report. We assisted him where possible in gathering information and in getting a better understanding of how the local system worked. In the end, he wrote a report which put jail building on the back burner and prioritized the kinds of alternatives to incarceration which we had been advocating all along. Our engagement with his work and his willingness to open the door to our ideas was crucial to influencing the County Board’s final decisions.
We also pushed for another process, one that involved more public participation in the decision-making. This resulted in the Board setting up a Community Justice Task Force to develop proposals for alternatives to incarceration. Two CUCPJ members ended up on that Task Force and played a leading role in its operations and its lengthy final report of June 2013.
Once these processes got under way, we developed working relationships with various board members. We identified our allies and those that were undecided and held one-on-one meetings with them to discuss relevant issues. Gradually we made our dedication and knowledge apparent to them. Several members who were hostile to us initially began to listen.
Number Three: Research, Research, Research
We did our homework and became the experts on the issue. We spent hours building a profile of who was incarcerated in our county -demonstrating that our jails cells were teeming with people who didn’t belong there- those with traffic tickets, mental illness, substance abuse problems, women with non-violent charges. Most importantly, we identified the seriousness of the racial disparity in our jail population. We found that consistently more than half those in the jail were African-American in a county with a 13% Black population. This was a key point in exposing the pitfalls of building new jail cells-that ultimately they would end up caging more Black youth. We also uncovered the ways in which incarceration specifically impacted women in the jail, contributing to the separation of families and facilitating the unnecessary loss of child custody among parents in the jail population. All of this served to expose the irrationality of mass incarceration at the ground level.
We added a financial dimension to our research as well, uncovering how the County was spending taxpayers’ money, emphasizing the need to reallocate more of the $4.6 million collected every year in Public Safety Sales Tax. At the time, the county was spending 95% of that money on bond repayment for criminal justice construction and support for law enforcement. In pressing for a change in the allocation of these revenues, we encouraged a new framing of the idea of public safety. For us and for much of the community, public safety was about ensuring people’s access to healthcare, housing, employment, education and treatment not simply growing the number of police and jail cells.
Besides analyzing the local situation, we researched trends and successful changes in other communities across the country and brought them into our criminal justice debate. We spoke about prison closures in New York, the blocking of a jail construction plan in Bloomington, Indiana, a re-entry program in Richmond, California. All this helped Board members to realize they would not be alone if they opted for changes.
Number Four: Network, Network, Network
We sought allies. We formed alliances with constituencies who would be affected by new jail cells. Groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the local Immigration Forum played a vital role in convincing Board members that opposition to jail construction wasn’t just coming from a small cohort of “fringe elements” in the community. Other local organizations from various quarters added their own contribution to the campaign along the way: the ACLU, Against War, Racism and Exploitation (AWARE), the Campus Labor Coalition, Citizens with Conviction, the Friends Meeting, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), the League of Women Voters, the Ministerial Alliance, the NAACP, New Covenant, the North End Breakfast Club, and the Planners’ Network. We further broadened our base by reaching out to the general public through door to door surveys, petitions, online appeals, building a social media presence and data base, tabling at events like the Farmers’ Market and C-U Days, holding public forums on key issues and using the airwaves of our local community radio station WEFT, especially the Saturday morning Higher Ground segment. One of our biggest successes was linking up with a local theater co-op to stage a showing of the anti-Drug War film, The House I Live In. We filled the house to capacity-more than 300 people, including three County Board members, and used the opportunity to inform people about our campaign.
We also extended our networks beyond Champaign County, connecting with other groups in other parts of the country who had organized campaigns similar to ours and sharing experiences. These links were enhanced by joining Nation Inside, a national social media network focused on criminal justice issues. Their support gave us a national exposure as well as a web-based platform to post messages, videos and other information about our work.
We used these connections to engineer a big final push as the time drew near for the County Board to vote on their next steps. We contacted our friends in academia and professional circles and got them to email, phone or meet face-to-face with their Board members. We upgraded our data base and did phone banking to bring people out to Board meetings and mobilize them to communicate with their Board member. We printed lime green t-shirts with “Build Programs Not Jails” on the front and wore them en masse to Board meetings. We bombarded the Board Chair and the Chair of Finance with hundreds of postcards signed by our supporters made from lime green card stock urging them to vote for alternatives to jail construction. We mobilized high profile national campaigners like Michelle Alexander to sign onto a letter to the County Board praising their efforts to consider alternatives and urging them to stay away from further construction.
Number Five: Mass Incarceration Is Always About Race
We kept the issue of racial disparity at the center of our campaign. We found new ways to repeat a message that many Board members, law enforcement gatekeepers and much of the public simply did not want to hear- that we had a problem of racial profiling in our criminal justice system that required serious action and building jail cells was only going to make it worse. We made sure that the Board knew this issue was not going to go away.
These are some of the reasons why we were able to stop the construction of jail cells. I wish I could say that we can now rest on our laurels, that the battle is over and our county is inevitably headed down a new path. Social change doesn’t work like that. It is an uneven process.
Already elements in the judiciary are pushing back -refusing to implement some of the recommendations of the needs assessment consultant and the Community Justice Task Force. No doubt as some of the new programs experience growing pains, others will want to turn the clock back and return to the old ways. We need to remain mobilized to make sure this doesn’t happen. We have accomplished a lot in this campaign, but we have only just begun the journey to change how criminal justice operates in our county. Moreover, we have to push harder to move more resources across to housing, job creation, mental health and family support in order to eradicate poverty and rebuild the communities that have been torn apart by mass incarceration. There is still a long way to travel.
We celebrate the life of a man who showed us how a leader could lead with humanity and determination. Words cannot adequately express our feelings. Let music try. The ten best songs about Nelson Rolihlala Mandela:
Check it out at: http://www.populist.com/16.13.sandronsky.html
After a nine and a half year absence, James Kilgore returned to South Africa in July to visit old friends and launch his latest South African publication: Freedom Never Rests (Jacana Media). He gave book talks at the University of Johannesburg, University of Pretoria, Wits, University of Cape Town, and University of KwaZulu-Natal and spoke to community groups in Durban and Cape Town. To read the text of his talk at University of Johannesburg visit: http://www.pmpress.org/content/article.php/20120731102630803
For a review of the book in the Natal Witness (Durban) visit: http://www.witness.co.za/index.php?showcontent&global[_id]=85586
To order Freedom Never Rests click here.
In this book, Kilgore tries a new genre-murder mystery. Check it out at: https://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=365
Freedom Never Rests is the much-awaited second novel from James Kilgore. It is an extraordinary novel which portrays the historical roots of the service delivery revolts that have swept South Africa in recent years.
With a precise and at times humorous eye for the details of backroom politics and street level organisation, Freedom Never Rests centres around an engaging and tragic couple: unemployed ex- shop steward revolutionary Monwabisi Radebe and his wife, Constantia, a former nursery school aide turned local councillor in the fictional Eastern Cape township of Sivuyile.
Their relationship is a metaphor for the new democratic order. As the council implements an American-financed project of prepaid meters, water cut-offs are visited upon dozens of households in Sivuyile. The idealistic Monwabisi faces the most difficult of choices: to remain loyal to his wife, the mother of his children who represents an increasingly discredited council or take to the streets with disenchanted residents.
Avoiding simplistic analyses and triumphant rhetoric, Freedom Never Rests lays bare the political and personal intricacies of community struggles. On a grand political canvas artfully drawn, Monwabisi and a host of other intriguing and compelling characters pull us into their moral and economic dilemmas and force us to confront the complexity of democracy in our country through a sensitive and insightful lens.