Monthly Archives: January 2012

Criminal image

Black men in this country have a 32% chance of spending time in prison. Latino men have a 17% chance. White men have a 6% chance. Women as a whole are vastly less likely to go to prison than men, but women of color make up the overwhelming majority of women who do. (For these and more solid basic facts, check out the Sentencing Project’s fact sheet.)

It is tempting to assume that that’s because people of color are the ones committing all the crimes. But what if it had more to do with the fact that when people of color break the law – especially Black people – we notice, and we call the cops. When white people break the law, we give them the benefit of the doubt, or decide not to call the cops even though we know what they’re doing is wrong.

Think that’s unlikely? Or perhaps true to a limited extent, but only a little and certainly not enough to explain the differences?

Please, please watch this segment of NBC’s “What Would You Do?” I promise you it will be one of those things you bring up in casual conversation all the time.

Watch the video here.

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Nancy Drew justice

It would be an understatement to say that I am a Nancy Drew fan. Nancy does so many things well. She can scuba dive and ski, she’s a top-notch golfer, she plays tennis and table tennis with aplomb.

No one can compete with Nancy when it comes to spotting false bottoms in old trunks, cracking codes, analyzing handwriting, and following hunches. Frank and Joe Hardy, eat your hearts out.

I love Nancy Drew, and despite all of my college-graduate-level cynicism and worldliness I still read her books all the time.

But — there are some issues with the way crime and punishment gets approached in Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew mysteries. I know, you’re shocked, but hear me out. For one thing, Nancy can almost always identify a bad guy (usually guys, but not always) upon first meeting him/her. Thank goodness judges and jurors never put any stock in superficial, snap judgments of defendants. Har har har.

Also, there are moments in all of the books where Nancy gets away with something exclusively because she’s an upper class white woman who can represent herself quickly and articulately. This left me, as a kid, thinking that law enforcement was generally on my side. For example, from The Haunted Showboat, #35 (Grosset & Dunlop, 1957 pages 18-19):

“Young lady,” he said sternly, “don’t you know what the speed limit here is?”

“Yes, sir, I do,” Nancy replied, “but we’re after a thief who stole another car of mine.”

“Another car of yours?” The officer looked skeptical. “What kind of story is this?”

“It’s true!” Bess spoke up earnestly. “Please help us catch the man who stole it.”

“Well, okay. Follow me,” the police officer directed.

Then again, that’s probably a pretty realistic portrayal. Nancy and I are, after all, part of the demographic least likely to be perceived as a threat, least likely to be a victim of property crime or violent crime (except as a victim of domestic violence), and least likely to be arrested, charged, or incarcerated. So either Nancy told it like it is, or we based our criminal justice system on Nancy Drew books, or – like pretty much all examples of crime in the media – it’s a combination of both.

Most significantly, all of Nancy’s stories end with justice being served. The little old lady, young, innocent child, or hardworking business owner get the money and security they deserve; the evil ex-con or devious femme fatale is behind bars for “a long time,” and everyone can go back to chiding Bess about her weight in peace – at least until the next mystery comes along. This is a recurring theme in media portrayals of crime and criminal justice. Too bad it’s not a recurring theme in the actual criminal justice system. But more on that later.

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Harm minimization

In 1999, Portugal had a serious drug problem. One percent of the nation’s people were addicted to heroin. Folks were dying of overdoses, health complications, and H.I.V. due to sharing needles. The prisons were full, and the government was exasperated.

In a last ditch effort to do something, Portugal decriminalized personal drug use. They still prosecute drug dealers and traffickers, but people with less than a ten-day supply of pretty much any drug are generally sent to counseling, not prison. They call this “harm minimization” because it’s focused on reducing violence, disease, overdoses, and other threats to the health and safety of both addicts and the rest of the population.

I recently read Michael Specter’s “Getting a Fix,” a New Yorker article that compares Portugal’s approach to that taken in the U.S. He asks whether the “harm minimization” approach is working: Are incarceration rates down? Hospitalizations due to drugs? HIV and AIDS? The answer, for Portugal, is yes.

But he misses what I believe is the more important point when he fails to discuss the qualitative benefits of resisting the urge to incarcerate folks picked up once, or twice, or even ten times for simple possession. Above all, those people are allowed to continue living their lives. They can be productive employees, parents, partners. They won’t have to worry about re-entry stresses like finding a new job, getting a driver’s license back, or simply re-learning how to grocery shop. 

I like the phrase “harm minimization.” It’s an appropriate description of the way we approach loved ones with substance abuse issues. If you find out that your mother is an alcoholic, for example, you might be angry or frustrated, but my guess is that your ultimate goal will be to minimize harm – help her recover from her dependency while impeding as little as possible on the rest of her life. In fact, the vast majority of legal and illegal substance dependency problems are already treated this way, in America and elsewhere, through family intervention, private treatment, and emotional support.

No ones likes when someone they care about has an alcohol or drug problem, but we don’t typically advocate for our friends and family to be incarcerated, either. As a nation, Portugal has starting treating their citizens as though they care about them, and their families. Wouldn’t it be neat if we adopted a similar national stance?

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Troop 1500

Words alone cannot capture the experiences of parents and children who are separated by incarceration. This exploration of Troop 1500, a girl scout troop that brings together incarcerated women and their daughters, offers a valuable snapshot of some of the challenges and joys that incarcerated parents and their children face while in prison and after release. Check it out and let me know what you think.

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Why aren’t we making it easier to visit prisons?

Prison visits offer a lot of advantages. For incarcerated men and women in prison, getting visits from family, friends, clergy, and others is humanizing. It helps people remain connected with the world outside the prison. It gives them a reason to act responsibly, and helps maintain relationships that are often crucial to their welfare after release.

For family and friends on the outside, prison visits allow relationships to be maintained, parents to stay connected to their children, and marriages to weather the storm of imprisonment. It is difficult to see someone you love in prison, but most of the time it’s more difficult to have that person ripped out of your life completely.

Prison staff benefit from visits as well. If they have visitation rights to hold over someone, that person is much more likely to follow rules and go above and beyond to protect what little freedom they have. One of my friends moved from a prison where he had a good job, good friends, and quite a bit of freedom to a prison that was worse in almost every way exclusively because they offered trailer visits for married couples. A visit is a powerful thing.

A recent study from the Minnesota Department of Corrections illustrates another benefit of prison visits: a reduction in recidivism rates. They measured recidivism and visitation in a variety of different ways, and across the board found that as rate of visitations went up, rates of recidivism went down (way down).

So should we assume that because of this great news DOCs across the country are lining up to encourage visits?

Of course not. Arizona, for example, always a front runner for biggest jackass in the incarceration world, has recently enacted a one-time $25 fee for visitors over the age of 18. (Check out the full article here.) Freakin’ sweet, Arizona. Guess what socio-economic segment of the population is primarily going to be saddled with that little responsibility?

When Middle Ground, an inmate-advocacy group, challenged the fee, a judge supported the legislation and argued that those paying the fee will benefit from it since it will pay for prison upkeep. Is she confusing those who visit prisons with those who live there? Jeez Louise. Imagine if an argument like that was made for a hospital, or a retirement home. It’s a mad, mad, mad world.

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Collateral damage

There are a whole bunch of things that people who have been convicted of crimes have to worry about and the rest of us do not. The American Bar Association recently released a list of more than 38,000 punitive provisions that affect people convicted of crimes (38,000!), including everything from housing and welfare laws to licensing for certain professions.

One of the biggest challenges for folks getting released from prison – or even people who are only arrested for crimes – is finding a job. In today’s job market, this is a struggle for just about everybody, but for people who can’t get through a background check unscathed, getting a job is incredibly difficult. At the same time, an income is especially crucial for people who are barred from Section 8 affordable housing, unemployment benefits, etc.

A recent Op-Ed for the New York Times argues that we should put caps on the length of time that criminal records are available. In some states, for example, misdemeanors are sealed after five years while most felonies are sealed after ten. The emphasis in the editorial is on making things more equitable for people who were convicted of only one infraction many years ago.

It’s pretty nuts that we still bar some of these folks from jobs today, but we also need to be thinking about the people who have been convicted of multiple crimes, and more recently. Anyone who is getting out of prison, even with RAP sheets as long as their arms, needs employment and/or financial support. If we aren’t willing to think about providing resources necessary to help people stay on the up-and-up after release then we may as well not release them. (By the way, I don’t think not releasing them is a good option.)

And just to end on a personal note, I’ll share an anecdote about my time at the transitional housing facility in Vermont:

I was asked to help one of the residents draw up a budget: weekly, monthly, etc. He was having a hard time paying rent which, at this place, was $75/week including three meals a day. He worked full time, so they were wondering why he couldn’t pay the bills.

After going through his expenses and balancing that with what he was making working full-time at a Wendy’s overnight drive through window (the kind of work available for someone with a criminal record) we calculated that, assuming he made it to all his shifts and if no unusual expenses came up, he could afford to maintain his half-a-pack-a-day smoking costs and still come out ahead ten dollars every week. Ten dollars! With a full-time job! If I was working full-time at a Wendy’s drive through, I’d probably expect to have a little more spending cash myself, frankly.


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Private prisons are freaky

There are a whole lot of things wrong with the private prison industry, but nothing is freakier than the most basic quality of the business: private prisons make the incarceration of human beings into a for-profit enterprise. This gives me the willies.

I recently read the new report from the Sentencing Project on private prisons; it’s great, and you all should read it, too. If you do, you’ll see that private prisons have more problems with violence, sexual assault, health hazards, mental health hazards, etc. than public facilities do. This is perhaps due to the fact that their employees are trained less well and paid less well than employees of public facilities, so they’re less well qualified, less well prepared, less happy, and less likely to stick around for awhile. I’m not real pleased about any of that. The report also emphasizes that, contrary to popular belief, it’s not clear that we’re really saving any money with private prisons, and certainly not enough to justify all the problems they present.

But one part of the report that leapt out at me like a jungle cat was the section on political lobbying. Good lord. Lobbying is weird enough already, but it becomes a lot weirder when you let people make a buck on incarceration. Now companies have a vested interest in putting more folks in prison and detention, and they can back up that interest with hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians. No longer are people driven to lock their fellow human beings away simply because they think they’re going to break into their homes and carry off everything they hold dear.* Now they stand to see their stock portfolios improve as well. 

On the other hand, public facilities are full of things from private corporations; everything from prison uniforms to phone services come from private companies. There are also private companies that utilize prison labor, exploiting people in prison and taking jobs away from workers who aren’t incarcerated. (See a great article about this from The Nation here.) That said, corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group (formerly known as Wackenhut) are especially big stake holders here since their businesses completely rely on incarceration. Woof.

And of course we shouldn’t forget that private prisons have a whole bunch of downsides for the people who actually have to spend time locked up in them. I worked for awhile at a transitional housing facility for people getting out of prison and jail in Vermont. Vermont is a small state and a pretty wealthy one, and they don’t have a ton of good throw-away space for prisons. So about a third of the people who get sentenced to prison sentences in Vermont have to go to private facilities in Kentucky.

One guy I spoke with told me about his experience with private prisons. On the bright side, he said, guards didn’t give a hoot about their jobs, so they were much more likely to smuggle in drugs for the inmates (whoopee). On the down side, he described a pretty horrific twelve-hour ride on a school bus from Vermont to Kentucky during which time the inmates were allowed to use the bathroom once, in another prison at a midway point. They were shackled for the drive with those nifty things that connect hands to ankles through a ring at their waistline, which was adjusted to such a length that they couldn’t sit up straight. I bet that was fun. And best of all, most of the incarcerated men at his prison never received a single visit from a family member. It stands to reason, really, because folks in prison aren’t known for their wealthy families, and traveling from Vermont to Kentucky doesn’t come cheap. I would guess it’s even tougher for the folks from Hawaii who get sent to Kentucky, too.

This is why I get all bent out of shape about private prisons.

*Just thought I ought to clarify that I don’t really think that’s a realistic possibility OR the real reason most people support increasingly punitive policies. But it is what we say, mostly, as a country, and it stands in sharp contrast to the motives of prison entrepreneurs.


Four ideas from Angela Davis

Why should we get rid of prisons? Nobody said it better than Angela Y. Davis in her amazing little book Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, 2005). In a mere 115 pages Davis can take you from completely uninformed to possessing a pretty sophisticated degree of understanding. She is so cool.

But if you don’t feel like reading 115 pages today, or if you’re confined to your home due to mobility issues, or if your library doesn’t have a copy, or if for any other reason you are not currently able to read her absolutely brilliant text, I’ve compiled a little “greatest hits” list: four of my favorite quotes from the book, in order of appearance.

1. Prison abolitionists are dismissed as utopians and idealists whose ideas are at best unrealistic and impracticable, and, at worst, mystifying and foolish. This is a measure of how difficult it is to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families. The prison is considered so “natural” that it is extremely hard to imagine life without it. (pages 9-10)

Why this is excellent: We can’t do anything about prisons until we are willing to at least momentarily suspend the assumption that we absolutely need to have them. There’s a lot of other crap that goes along with prison abolition, but none of it matters unless we’re willing to say “OK, so what if we could get rid of prisons?” Thank you, that’s a start.

2. The prison … functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers … It relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism. (page 16)

Why this is important: Like any good twelve step program, we can’t get anywhere until we admit we have a problem. The prison system is a problem, but that is conveniently overlooked most of the time. Instead, we like to pretend it’s a solution. Thus not only does the system trick us into ignoring how much of a problem prisons are, it also helps us forget about how much we should be doing about other issues, like poverty and racism. Got a social problem? Call it a legal problem, lock some folks up, and you don’t have to think about it anymore. Remember how the Jim Crow laws of the postbellum South eased the social and economic transition away from slavery for white folks who wanted to hold onto white supremacy and an incredibly affordable labor pool? How about that time that the “War on Poverty” was replaced with the “War on Drugs”? 

3. Positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we [should] try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment–demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance. (page 107)

Why I’m into this: We can’t think about how to deal with the prison system unless we recognize that what we’re dealing with is way bigger than that. This is not a prison problem, this is an everything problem. Pick a social issue, any social issue. Prisons are probably partially responsible for it, in some way a product of it, and are probably helping to keep that problem around. Heterosexism, sexism, racism, classism, American exceptionalism: I could go on all day. In the same way that you can’t go about addressing sexism without addressing racism, there is (fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not sure) no way to fix prisons without fixing a bunch of other shit, too.

4. The alternatives toward which I have gestured … which can also include job and living wage programs, alternatives to the disestablished welfare program, community-based recreation, and many more … are associated both directly and indirectly with the existing system of criminal justice. But, however mediated their relation might be to the current system of jails and prisons, these alternatives are attempting to reverse the impact of the prison industrial complex on our world. (page 111)

Why this one, too: OK, so this may sound a little bit like number three, and God knows there’s enough of value in that book so that I probably could have picked a more diverse selection, but there’s something special about this one. The crucial point here is that everything that we do, from a reduction in sentencing to the establishment of a great transitional housing facility to family sentencing circles for youth, must be focused on “[reversing] the impact of the prison industrial complex on our world.” It’s not good enough to do something better than what already exists because reforms function – intentionally or not – to entrench the prison system in our world. It sounds a little like I’m saying let people rot in horrible conditions, because the worse prisons are now the more likely it is that we’ll get rid of them in the future. That’s not completely true, but it’s not completely false either. Food for thought, and more on this (and all the other points in this post) soon.

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Where to start

If you’re new to the concept of prison abolition, there are way too many places to start.

You could start historically: the first American penitentiary, ye olde Walnut Street Jail, began as a method of reform courtesy of Pennsylvania Quakers. Incarceration as punishment was considered enlightened compared to corporal punishment, fines, public humiliation, and the death penalty.

… or with problems: America incarcerates more people per capita than any other developed nation in the world, in many states they get more funding than public universities, they’re riddled with violence, and roughly two-thirds of the people who get out of prison end up back behind bars within three years. Ouch.

… or with solutions: folks are trying to address problems with the prison system by creating things like drug courts, family courts, sentencing circles, etc. etc. Some solutions work better than others, but it’s mad good that people are even thinking about the issue.

… or with current events: with the upcoming presidential election, for example, voting rights for people convicted of crimes are a hot topic. So happy to hear that Mr. Romney doesn’t think anyone convicted of a violent crime should ever be able to cast a vote. There’s an outside possibility that Mitt knows that the folks convicted of violent crimes are mostly poor, a.k.a. disproportionately liberal. Just sayin’.

The list goes on. Personally, I always tell people to read Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? It is a small book, but mighty. Davis is really freaking smart, and she’s covered the issue so concisely and thoroughly that I honestly have a hard time thinking about prison abolition in any framework other than hers. Hit up or perhaps a library (don’t you just love libraries?) for the book, or holla at me and I’ll send you one of the many copies I’ve mysteriously accumulated over the years.

Or just read my next post for a not-at-all-good-enough but much-shorter-and-more-instantly-gratifying “best of” Are Prisons Obsolete?, and then I’m assuming you’ll get so excited you won’t be able to control yourself and will immediately drive/bike/jog to your local library; don’t forget to put on shoes.

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