Tag Archives: ferguson

The Dangerous Class

Not long ago I was meeting with a young man at Riker’s, New York City’s infamous island of jails, when an alarm started sounding. “That sounds like my block” he told me, intrigued, as a number of correctional officers (“COs”) started flooding into the corridor outside our glassed-in meeting room. To my surprise, without saying a word to either of us (or the other man whose lawyer had just left and who was sitting nearby in the same enclosure), a CO came over and locked us in. Then I watched as five, ten, twenty COs suited up in what looked like a cross between football pads and hazmat suits. They drew long wooden clubs out of a bin next to their gear cubbies, and several of them clipped massive spray cans to their belts. “Pepper spray?” I asked my client. “Worse,” he responded. “This is way worse than pepper spray. It’s made for bears.”

He told me that he’s been nearby when it’s been sprayed before, and even just being close is terrible. “I coughed so hard blood came up,” he said. Hearing this description, and watching guard after guard show up to get in gear, I wonder how much of the extreme level of security we’re seeing can be attributed to real risk faced by officers. Certainly there is some risk – anyone incarcerated at Riker’s will tell you it’s a dangerous place for prisoners – but to send in twenty or more guards, with clubs and bear spray, I would think they ought to have a good reason. So I looked for some numbers.

In a ten-year period between 1999 – 2007, 113 COs were killed on the job. In a smaller timeframe, from 2001 – 2007, 356 prisoners were victims of homicide (and, side note, 1,386 prisoners committed suicide). By comparison, from 1999 – 2007, 1,529 police officers in the U.S. were killed, and, just to throw in another dangerous job, 335 coal miners died at work. Deaths are, obviously, just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s also an important marker of how dangerous a job really is. And although any number of deaths is too many, 113 in ten years sounds relatively low to me. Note that there are about 470,000 people currently employed as correctional officers in the U.S. today, so over ten years a generous estimate would be that 0.003% of COs are killed per year.

So what’s with the riot gear, the clubs, the bear spray? What’s with the regular complaints of egregious violence at Riker’s and elsewhere?

It’s my view – and I’m not alone here – that this comes from the idea that prisoners are part of a “dangerous class” who, regardless of the offense that landed them in prison and regardless of their conduct while incarcerated are perceived as violent animals who are liable to strike out in any way possible at any time. And it’s easy to see the connection between the level of security and surveillance in prisons and jails to the treatment of people who are perceived as part of this “dangerous class” on the outside. For example, black men between the ages of 15-19 are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts are, and the average sentence for murder grew 238% in the 80’s and 90’s. These are all manifestations of an idea of dangerous, bad people whose sentence and even whose offense are secondary to a general inhumanity.

The really low rate of death among correctional officers is probably due in part to the extremely high level of security employed, but it comes at the price of a widespread dismissal of the humanity of the people who are incarcerated (literally using products designed to keep vicious animals at bay). This is not the product of individual failings among COs, nor is the policing statistic a reflection of individual assholes in police departments, nor is the sentencing statistic a product of bad prosecutors personally bent on creating more punitive systems. These are symptoms of a fundamental shift in the way that we understand people involved with the criminal justice system, and more generally people of color and poor people in our society. This is the new face of prejudice that Michelle Alexander was describing in her blockbuster critique of our criminal justice system, The New Jim Crow. It’s what protesters in Ferguson, New York City, Madison, Charlottesville, etc. are calling out when they insist that #blacklivesmatter. It’s the message that Right on Crime and other conservatives are reinforcing when they call for justice only for non-violent, low-level offenders and fail to call our system into question more broadly. And, in my humble opinion, it’s why we need to fundamentally rethink not only how prisons operate, but also whether we should have them at all.

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Mass Incarceration is a Symptom, not a Disease

Thank you to the Prison Policy Initiative for wrangling many different data sources for this comprehensive view.

The scope of incarceration in the U.S. is just one of the defining features of mass incarceration. That may seem counterintuitive. After all, the scale of the U.S. system is what makes it so infamous. It’s impossible to pick up a book about prisons in America without being quoted some relevant stats in the first handful of pages (we lead the world in incarceration rate, we have 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population, our incarceration rate has grown 500% in forty years). All of this is true and important, and – bonus! – tends to freak out even the most punitively minded audience.

But it also should be treated as a sign of a problem, not as the extent of it. In my post about Ferguson yesterday, I argued that the dystopian horror story of a criminal justice system that they’ve got down there, with more outstanding charges than citizens, was a predictable outcome of unbridled discretion handed to police officers and prosecutors (coupled with racism and classism, that is). Change may be effected in Ferguson as a result of protesting, federal investigation, and new leadership, but there’s more where Ferguson came from. Similarly, treating mass incarceration as the problem, rather than a very scary symptom of problems that we had before mass incarceration, is short-sighted and unlikely to produce lasting change.

See my thoughts on the conservative “Right on Crime” movement tomorrow for more on this note.

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Ferguson: Police State

Ferguson has been getting a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. Much has appropriately been made of the ridiculously racist emails the DOJ investigation turned up, as well as the preferential treatment meted out to friends and family while those who lacked connections were slapped with harsh sanctions and huge fines, ironically financing the very system that was sucking them dry.

But the story that the DOJ report tells is not only one of an egregiously racist system. It is also a story of an alarming scope of policing. I’ve never been a proponent of “small government,” but the sheer volume of outstanding charges, well described in this Huff Post Blog post, tells a dystopian story of an entire town under the thumb of a police force and prosecutor’s office – 16,000 of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents have outstanding charges against them; there were nearly 33,000 different warrants in 2013. Had the timing been different, the movement less well-organized, the inciting event less powerful, this kind of approach to “law and order” wouldn’t have come to light in Ferguson. In fact, even now it’s hardly receiving honorable mention as the media divides into two predictable camps and argues about whether the Ferguson PD is really all that racist, or whether they’re just indiscriminately terrible.

One thing that all police departments and prosecutors’ offices have in common when they engage in this kind of draconian law enforcement is this: they are acting entirely within the legal bounds of their discretion, and we are virtually powerless to stop them. In this case a social movement, the eyes of sympathetic media, and the influence of the Department of Justice may be enough to rein in Ferguson – at least for now. But as long as we exist in a society riddled with racism and classism, the kind of discretion and power afforded to police officers and prosecutors will permit problems to prosper silently. While we work on communicating the message that #blacklivesmatter, we should also be imposing reasonable limits and meaningful accountability on our police officers and prosecutors so that the kind of police state the DOJ found in Ferguson isn’t permitted to flourish unseen everywhere else.

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