a bird and a bottle

How Did We Get Here?
April 17, 2007, 7:43 pm
Filed under: activism, civil rights, criminal justice, news

I’ve been writing a lot about prison reform issues recently, and for all of you looking for more about abortion rights and other feminist issues, I apologize. But there’s been some great journalism recently about prison issues. And given that so little Mainstream Media (MSM) time and breath is given to prison reform, I’m doing my piece here.

That said, AlterNet has had two insightful and interesting pieces about American prisons over the last few days.

The first is an interview with Sasha Abramsky, author of the new book American Furies: Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment. Given that in less than thirty years, the U.S. has grown (or devolved) into a nation that incarcerates over 2.13 million people, when in the 1970s the number was 475,000, it’s fair to ask how we got here. And that’s the central question driving the interview (conducted by AlterNet’s Prema Polit). Abramsky’s answers are interesting and not totally predictable.

He says:

I think one of the reasons is that America took a distinctly conservative turn in the 1970s. Other countries went through their conservative moments, England being a case in point with Margaret Thatcher, but they didn’t quite have the sort of populist conservatism that we have here. One of the effects is that there has been a pandering to really very ill thought out prejudice on an array of issues. Then a result of that in the criminal justice debates are very simplistic laws like “three strikes and you’re out.” They sound good in 15-second sound-bytes, and they’re lousy public policy.

I think that the other reason, paradoxically, is that we’re extremely wealthy, and extremely powerful. Most states, when they’re at the zenith of their power, in addition to projecting themselves out onto the world also seem to impose order on their own populaces. America is the big cheese at the moment, so we’re seeing those social policies playing out in America in a way that they’re not playing out anywhere else right now.

Strange that the richer the US becomes, the worse our civil liberties are. Though perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising if we just take a quick look around schools. It’s always the coolest kids in middle school who inflict the most misery on the nerds (I speak from nerdly experience), even though the cool kids don’t need to in order to maintain their power.

He also addresses growing victims’ rights movements, which advocate for both harsher sentencing and more voice for victims in the criminal justice system. While he acknowledges the importance of giving voice to victims, he warns against their policy goals more broadly:

My argument with the victims’ rights movement is that it has outgrown its original role, and that it’s channeling the emotional response of the victim into making public policy. And I think that’s dangerous, because when you’re victimized you’re almost certainly going to have an extremely emotional response. As an individual, that response makes perfect sense. If I were a crime victim or my family was, I would have an emotional response, and I would want that emotional response to take center stage in the criminal justice system. But that’s not how the system is supposed to work.

Finally, he touches on how the criminal justice’s involvement with (really, its enabling of) the War on Drugs has affected women — the issue that first got me thinking about the problems of the American prison system in the first place. The image he gives is startling:

I went out in 100-degree heat into the desert early one morning with a group of women. They had mostly been convicted of parole violations or probation violations, but very minor offenses. For the next three or four hours I watched them lower coffins into a pauper’s grave, in the desert, next to an air force base. There was this extraordinary image, surrounded by these shotgun-toting sheriff’s deputies. And they’re these two-bit characters, these women who were addicted to cocaine, young women convicted of welfare fraud, that kind of thing. They’re chained at the ankles, and they’re sweating and they’re miserable, and there’s no point to their work.

Well said. Though he fails to mention that the majority of those women are mothers. My guess: programs that help these women avoid/kick addictions and become more responsible parents would go a much longer way toward societal improvement. Anyway, his book is on going straight onto my Amazon Wishlist.

AlterNet also had a column up today about the Angola Three. Nope, not a rock band out of the African country but a group of three men who have been held for thirty years in solitary confinement in an Angola prison. That’s Angola, Louisiana. The one in the U.S. I bet you didn’t think we treated people like this anymore. But we do. The three men were convicted thirty years ago by an all-white jury of murdering a correctional officer. There was no physical evidence tying them to the crime and all the “eyewitnesses” against them were promised leniency and favors by the warden for their (truthful, I’m sure) testimony. Yet despite all this, and despite the biweekly farcical “hearings” these men endure regarding their conditions of confinement, they remain in solitary. Even if the men had committed the murder, a thirty year stint in a 6×9 concrete solitary confinement cell is inhumane and should be, in the U.S. today, unthinkable. But there these men have sat. For thirty years. Apparently, they still hold a glimmer of hope for themselves and for the broader implications of their case:

According to Sam Spital, one of the attorneys from Hollland & Knight, which represents the Angola Three in the civil suit, the lawsuit also challenges that there is “no legitimate penological reason for keeping our clients in CCR, and (2) there is persuasive evidence that, in light of the duration of their confinement and their advancing age, our clients are at risk of and/or have already suffered serious physical and psychological harm — it is cruel and unusual punishment to keep our clients in CCR, which violates the Eighth Amendment.” Should the suit go to trial as expected within the next few months and should a verdict be rendered in the three men’s favor, the face of (and regulations surrounding) solitary confinement in America could change drastically for good. The case could serve as a precedent, forcing accountability by prison administrators to reserve solitary as a last-ditch and temporary measure with sharply defined restrictions. In an age of Supermax prisons where huge populations of prisoners spends months and years in solitary, the ramifications could be enormous.

With this Supreme Court, my hopes are not high. It’s a joke that the U.S. holds itself out as an arbiter of international human rights. The story of these three men is just one example of why.


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