[Marxism] Prison History’s Horror and Hope

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Oct 5 05:35:59 MDT 2016

Prison History’s Horror and Hope

By Baz Dreisinger

"Ma’am, are you OK?"

My Uber driver shot me a worried glance through the rear-view mirror. 
Sniffling, I assured him I was fine. More than fine. These are tears of 
joy, I promised him.

I’d just come off the stage of a City University of New York graduation 
ceremony, where my student Devon had received his criminal-justice 
degree. It was, no hyperbole, the proudest moment of my life. Devon had 
served 15 years in prison for a crime he committed at the age of 17. He 
was released some 16 months ago and, as a student in the John Jay 
College of Criminal Justice’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program — of 
which I am founding academic director — he transitioned directly into 
college, credits under his belt from classes he’d taken in prison. Here 
he stood, diploma in hand: P2CP’s first graduate.

All of which is to say, I had good reason to leak tears all over my Uber.

In recent years, mass incarceration has moved to the forefront of public 
discourse in ways even the most committed among us could not have 
imagined. President Obama’s visit to a federal prison, investment by 
major companies like Google in criminal-justice reform, the number of 
calls I get per week from television producers looking for formerly 
incarcerated people to feature in this or that program — all are 
evidence of this change. But really such proof isn’t needed; it’s become 
axiomatic that prison reform and justice work are in vogue. We’re 
witnessing a profound moment. And this is clearly cause for optimism.

Or is it?

I got to thinking about that question, and about optimism in general, as 
I delved into two recent books that rained — stormed, really — on my parade.

First, the fastidiously researched, densely informative From the War on 
Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America 
(Harvard University Press), by Elizabeth Hinton, an assistant professor 
of history and African-American studies at Harvard. Starting with the 
vile, oft-cited statistics that landed us in this moment — the prison 
population has increased by 943 percent over the past half-century; 
blacks and Latinos are 25 percent of the population yet 59 percent of 
the prison population — Hinton’s book is a grand indictment of how our 
carceral state, the "vast and ever-expanding network of institutions 
responsible for maintaining social control in post-Jim Crow America," 
was erected "by a consensus of liberals and conservatives who privileged 
punitive responses to urban problems as a reaction to the civil-rights 

Essentially all criminal-justice policy in the 20th century has been 
driven by one thing: fear of young black men. Like Naomi Murakawa’s The 
First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (Oxford University 
Press, 2014), Hinton’s book amplifies, even one-ups, Michelle 
Alexander’s classic The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2010), arguing that the 
roots of our mass-incarceration mess are deeper and uglier than we 
think. "This long War on Crime," Hinton writes, "has today positioned 
law-enforcement agencies, criminal-justice institutions, and jails as 
the primary public programs in many low-income communities across the 
United States."

Guiding us through administration after administration, Hinton traces a 
devastating pattern: racist assumptions about black and brown "social 
pathologies" — what the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad has called "the 
criminalization of blackness" — undergirded poor policy decisions that 
were bolstered by bad data. Instead of addressing mass structural 
inequalities, government response to urban unrest has generally been 
simple: intensify militarized policing and build prisons.

It started with President Kennedy’s 1961 Juvenile Delinquency and Youth 
Offenses Control Act, which resulted in an unprecedented level of 
federal involvement in the "inner city"; this was an outgrowth of 
already growing postwar anxieties about "juvenile delinquency" as a 
national issue, reflected in the fact that from 1949 to 1957, the number 
of young people under criminal-justice supervision more than doubled. In 
1965, anxious about growing urban black centers like Cleveland, Detroit, 
New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and St. Louis, President Johnson 
passed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which for the first time 
established a direct role for the federal government in local police 
operations, court systems, and state prisons. His Office of Law 
Enforcement Assistance invested in weapons development, crime 
technology, and mobile surveillance units. Ramped-up policing in public 
housing meant that instead of community leaders, the police became the 
government’s arm in low-income black communities.

This produced a self-perpetuating cycle: The more that blacks were 
pathologized and criminalized in the government imagination, the more 
they were policed; the more they were policed, the more contact they had 
with the criminal-justice system — thereby producing so-called data to 
support overpolicing. "Block grants" established by Johnson’s 1968 Safe 
Streets Act placed nationally funded programs under the control of 
governors rather than community groups, and were used by the federal 
government to press states to increase punitive and carceral efforts.

Thus, Hinton argues, it was two liberal presidents who produced the 
architectural tools that built mass incarceration.

The rest of her book depicts the ensuing downward spiral, from Nixon’s 
$500-million plan to expand and modernize prisons, to Ford’s Career 
Criminal program for "chronic offenders" — a precursor of the "super 
predators" of the ’80s — to Carter’s Justice System Improvement Act, 
which paved the way for privatization, deregulation, the War on Drugs, 
and, ultimately, the draconian sentences, mandatory minimums, and 
police-force militarization that characterized the Reagan era.

Hinton shows that a philosophical concept — how we understand free will 
— was at the heart of these failures. Bad policies were a product of 
emphasizing individual agency — the so-called delinquency of black 
Americans — over and above racist structures that produced and sustained 
systemic poverty. Essentially all criminal-justice policy in the 20th 
century has been driven by one thing: fear of young black men. In 1968 
the president of the National Bar Association’s Cleveland chapter 
compared blacks to the North Vietnamese, who might similarly move, he 
remarked, from "passive acquiescence in riots to active participation in 
rebellion." Everyone is blameworthy, even well-meaning liberal 
politicians and academics whose bogus research informed policy. Case in 
point: the Harvard Law professor, cited by Hinton, whose federally 
funded 1974 study on gangs included not a single conversation with a 
gang member.

Despite the ugly historical reality, our onus is to keep doing the work, 
and to choose optimism. And, finally, our leaders have been racists. 
This simple, ugly fact applies not just to the usual suspects like Nixon 
("There has never in history been an adequate black nation," his chief 
of staff H.R. Haldeman quoted him as saying, "and they are the only race 
of which this is true"), but also to less overtly offensive leaders like 
Kennedy and Johnson, whose administrations were quick to buy into bogus 
studies and statistics about so-called Negro pathology. And this truth 
urgently matters not simply because it makes our former presidents 
unsavory human beings, but because it made them susceptible to racist 
ideas that produced dreadful policy — and decimated lives.

David Dagan and Steven Teles seem to be bearers of better news. Their 
Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration 
(Oxford University Press) traces — in medias res, as the story is still 
unfolding — how the conservative movement went from its "tough on crime" 
stance to Newt Gingrich in 2011 deeming the criminal-justice system 
"broken" and saying "conservatives must lead the way in fixing it."

"In no other case during the era of polarization has one of our 
political parties changed so thoroughly, and so suddenly, as Republicans 
have on criminal justice," they write. Prison Break is a narrative about 
shaping policy in an uber-partisan era, a case study in how tipping 
points are reached and change happens.

It’s a story of strange bedfellows, both behind the scenes — the 
Christian group Prison Fellowship collaborating with the secular think 
tank Vera Institute of Justice — and in front, as when the Koch brothers 
teamed up with a trio of liberal-leaning foundations to create the 
Coalition for Public Safety. In the end, "resources, reputations, and 
strategic acumen" led to a "rebranding" of justice reform as a 
conservative issue.

The blow-by-blow narrative serves up protagonists, in the form of such 
conservatives turned evangelical prison reformers as Pat Nolan and 
Charles Colson, both of whom served time in federal prison. (What do you 
call a conservative who goes to prison? A justice reformer.) Dagan and 
Teles describe how Georgia became, as the Marshall Project news site put 
it, "the laboratory of criminal-justice reform." As crime rates dropped 
drastically and terrorism displaced crime as the public’s main security 
concern, a fiscally conservative stance on criminal justice was suddenly 
marketable to the public.

Dagan, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Johns Hopkins 
University, and Teles, an associate professor of political science at 
Hopkins, conclude with a strong case for optimism about the current 
climate of justice. They cite a tangible change in prosecutor culture, 
the growing number of studies that suggest people age out of crime, and 
the notion that federal reforms can be templates and potential funding 
sources for state reforms. They note "low-hanging fruit" that 
conservatives might still take on as part of their new agenda, such as 
jail reform — our overcrowded jails are filled with potentially innocent 
people who often wait years for a trial — and cite the Koch family as a 
potential bankroller of such work. "With every day that passes," goes 
the book’s final line, conservative "eyes open a little wider."

It’s quite the high note to end on. But I closed the book feeling angry 
and depressed. For one, the authors’ considered reasons for pessimism 
were convincing. The possibility that the current momentum "fizzles out" 
seems real. An excessive focus on "nonviolent offenders," when just 16 
percent of those incarcerated by the state are in for drug crimes, could 
very well work against extensive overhaul of the system. The refusal of 
conservatives to make race central to their discourse is maddening. And 
conservative alternatives to mass incarceration are potentially 
problematic: expensive drug courts and addiction treatment may not be 
scalable, and recent private-prison investment in the business of parole 
and probation could very well mean the birth of a new prison-industrial 
complex on the other side of the bars.

Like Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, Dagan and 
Teles’s history is a disheartening record of the sinister, 
shape-shifting nature of politics and politicians. In the political 
realm, both books argue, facts and data are either dreadfully incorrect 
or they don’t really matter — they’re cited only when convenient, to 
shore up agendas. After all, conservatives knew the facts all along: 
Prisons are inordinately expensive and thus well out of line with 
conservative fiscal policy. Yet conservatives marshaled such facts 
publicly only after they’d decided on a policy about-face. That is 
because, Dagan and Teles explain, "identity … precedes information." 
Citing what psychologists call "confirmation bias," they explain that 
people, clinging to set identities, give selective attention to 
information that does not threaten those identities. Truth, then, is 
essentially beside the point.

Isn’t that dismal? Here’s something more dismal: The very work I spent 
graduation season feeling so proud of, the work of the Prison-to-College 
Pipeline, is — in light of the horror show that has been 
criminal-justice history for at least the past century — merely an act 
of undoing. We’re really just trying to clean up the mess made by 
decades of bad policy and racist ideas. P2CP shouldn’t have to exist. 
The mess shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

Yet it was, and here we are. And despite the ugly historical reality, 
our onus is to keep doing the work, and to choose optimism. Optimism is 
a justice worker’s moral imperative. Optimism is the antidote to the 
manic-depressive nature of justice work, in which progress can wax and 
wane. Optimism is itself an act of justice.

And optimism is what drives the P2CP. The idea was to give incarcerated 
students approaching release the best of both worlds: an opportunity to 
accrue credits on the inside and, upon release, make higher education 
the centerpiece of their re-entry process, being guaranteed a slot at 
CUNY and benefiting from the full-on campus experience that comes with 
college on the outside. The P2CP steadily mushroomed into a bigger and 
broader initiative, aimed at fostering connections between the 
university system and the prison system, and promoting higher education 
among incarcerated and formerly incarcerated students more generally. 
Now the P2CP has its first graduate, Devon, and federal support. As a 
beneficiary of President Obama’s Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, the 
P2CP will multiply our student-body numbers.
So optimism is, finally, an act of vision. Picture the famous optical 
illusion of a female figure: Look first and she’s a young lady; on 
second glance she’s an elderly woman. The cartoon asks your eyes to do a 
sort of visionary dance, seeing one thing and then another — yet it 
never permits you to see both at the same time. Such is the damning 
force of history in conjunction with the beautiful possibility of 
change. Both are real, even if they cannot be gazed upon simultaneously.

To be an optimist is to grapple with just this kind of envisioning; it 
is to see the ugly past while still seeing a future in which that arc 
finally bends toward justice. It is to read Hinton and celebrate my 
student Devon at the same time. Fear, after all, has been the engine of 
criminal justice for centuries. Our task is to hand the reins to a more 
nuanced force, to see what could be as well as what is and what was. 
Call it, optimistically, something bolder than revision: re-vision.

Baz Dreisinger, an associate professor of English at the City University 
of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is the founding 
academic director of the Prison-to-College Pipeline program and the 
author of Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around 
the World (Other Press, 2016).

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