Review: Are Prisons Obsolete?

Review: Are Prisons Obsolete?

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite the important gains of antiracist social movements over the last half century, racism hides from view within institutional structures, and its most reliable refuge is the prison system.

If you know anything about Angela Davis—anti-racist activist, Marxist-feminist scholar—you know that her answer to the question posed in the title is “Yes.” This is a short primer on the prison abolition movement, written at a time (2003) when criminal justice reform was not an especially popular topic in mainstream politics. Though mass incarceration was already well underway by the time Angela Davis published this book, it would take the public over a decade to come to grips with this disturbing transformation of the American criminal justice system.

Angela Davis spent some time in prison herself. Indeed, she was the third woman to make it onto the FBI’s 10 most-wanted list, when guns registered under her name were used in a deadly courtroom attack. (After a nationwide campaign, a court ruled that mere possession of the arms used in a crime was not enough evidence to entail guilt, and she was released.) Davis already considered herself an anti-prison activist in the late 1960s, when the national prison population was about 200,000. By the time she published this book, that number had gone up by 1,000%.

Davis provides some valuable background into the rise of prisons. Though nowadays the prison—like public schools and office jobs—seems like an inevitable part of life, it is worth remembering that, like so much we take for granted, it arose under particular historical circumstances in the not-too-distant past. In the case of prisons, it arose in the context of the Enlightenment, specifically when ideas of the social contract and individual rights became more widespread. After all, it does not make much sense to punish somebody by depriving them of their rights if they did not have any to begin with. (This is also why prison was not used as a punishment for slaves or, for many years, women.)

Another historical root of the prison is Christianity. The name ‘penitentiary’ indicates what early prison advocates hoped it would accomplish: by giving criminals time to reflect upon their evil ways, they would repent, reform themselves, and be able to return to society as a productive member. It does not take much imagination to see the continuity between the monastery and the jail, where the inhabitants occupy cells, follow strict routines, and endure much time alone.

Thus, prison originally arose as a far more humane alternative to the sorts of corporal and capital punishments common in America and Europe—lashings, removal of limbs, burning, hanging, and so on. And of course, however brutal prisons may be, I think we must acknowledge that they are certainly more humane than what came before. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge that much of the rhetoric of reform and repentance has fallen away. Considering the brutal conditions inside prisons, and the high rates of recidivism upon release, talk of personal transformation nowadays would sound insincere at best.

Davis then goes on to offer a series of other critiques of the prison system. The anti-racist perspective—that the criminal justice system disproportionately targets people of color—will be familiar to most Americans nowadays. Davis also has much to say on the subject of female prisons, the most disturbing of which is the widespread sexual assault that occurs in these institutions. Last, Davis talks about the perverse economic incentives of prison: cheap labor, captive markets, and a way of dealing with otherwise ‘unproductive’ members of society. In short, the criminal justice system, as it stands today, exacerbates and reinforces existing inequalities.

The last chapter is on potential alternatives, and this is where I thought the book was most lacking. Davis is fairly vague on the possible alternatives to prison. She does, however, make the important point that there is not one, single replacement, but a variety of options for different sorts of problems. Some of these are obvious: expanding mental health resources, legalizing and regulating sex work, drug rehabilitation programs, and other usual suspects. But the great stumbling block to prison abolition is not the many non-violent acts that are currently criminal, but violence. What shall we do with rapists, armed robbers, and murderers (which, it is important to note, commit a minority of crimes)?

Davis does not directly answer this question, but instead ends with the story of Amy Biehl, a young white American woman who was killed in South Africa during the unrest of Apartheid. The four men convicted of her murder were pardoned as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; two of them eventually met Biehl’s parents, and were hired to work in the NGO established in Amy’s name.

Davis offers this story as an example of “restorative,” rather than “retributive,” justice. However, I think that reliance on such stories does sidestep the essential issue at hand, and that is the issue of deterrence.

In my view, the strongest justification for prison is as a deterrent to socially destructive behaviors, and its continued existence should depend on how effective it is as a deterrent. Admittedly, this is not how most of us think about prison. The natural human tendency—so strong as to be almost irresistible—is to think of punishments as vengeance. The idea that somebody could commit a horrid act and get away with it can be deeply disturbing. It is as if the whole universe has been set wrong, and harsh punishment is required to set it right.

This compulsion is so strong that even many people arguing for police defunding or decarceration ask for vengeance. After all, one common demand is that offending police officers be themselves arrested and imprisoned. It is remarkably upsetting to consider that, say, police officers could bust into Breonna Taylor’s house and kill her in her sleep, and not even lose their jobs. And yet letting go of this sense of vengeance is exactly what activists such as Davis are asking us to do.

In cooler moments, we may consider that no amount of punitive action for those officers will bring Taylor back. And, of course, the same is true of most crimes: the punishment may seem to correct the cosmic scales, but it rarely undoes the crime (unless, say, a thief returns stolen goods). The truth, however, is that punishment is not really about the criminal; it is a negative consequence imposed to deter further criminal acts by others. In other words, the punishment is really for all would-be criminals. Thus, punishment is justified if, say, imprisoning the police responsible for Taylor’s death would make other atrocities less likely.

(Of course, in some cases there is also a public safety element to imprisonment. If a person is potential danger to their community, then it is justifiable to remove them. Thankfully, the number of serially violent criminals is fairly low.)

To revisit the case of Amy Biehl, if every murderer was pardoned and then offered a job, I think it is fair to say that this would create a perverse incentive structure. This is the challenge of radical criminal justice reform. And this leads us many empirical questions: How effective are prisons at crime deterrence? Does the crime rate depend on the incarceration rate? Does the crime rate depend on the severity of the sentencing? Is there another sort of deterrence that would be more humane? While considering all these points, the guiding ethical principle must be to inflict the least suffering consistent with a safe community.

Judging for myself, it seems implausible that the incarceration rate and the stringency of sentencing have a decisive effect on the crime rate. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and yet the country is hardly a paradise of lawful behavior. On the contrary, by many metrics the US experiences far more violent crime than comparable nations. Clearly other factors—widespread poverty, a poor social safety net, the availability of guns—are playing a big role. Furthermore, the continued use of the death penalty in the US, and the use of long sentences and brutal ‘supermax’ prisons, does not seem to have had an appreciable effect on the crime rate.

There is also the question of how our prison system is even contributing to the crime rate. After all, if we incarcerate huge numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, subject them to dehumanizing conditions, and then release them saddled with criminal records—effectively barring them from many jobs and forms of housing—then it stands to reason that criminal behavior will often result. And it does: recidivism rates are persistently high. Ideally, any justice system would not only deter crimes, but would help to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes. After all, the whole community gains when a former inmate becomes a productive citizen. Our current system, by contrast, traps former inmates into second-class citizenship.

If we want to examine a justice system built along different lines, we may take a look at Norway. There, prison sentences are much shorter (the average is around 8 months), and prisons themselves can look very different from what we imagine. In many prisons there are no security cameras and no barred windows, and the security guards are unarmed. (Also keep in mind that Norway’s incarceration rate is nearly ten times lower than America’s!) The consequence of this light treatment has not been an explosion of crime. On the contrary, Norway is one of the safest countries in the world. The recidivism rate is also low, meaning that most former inmates find work and lead productive lives.

Now, one may argue that the Norwegian way could not work in the United States, since it is a country with much less poverty and a stronger social safety net. But this is precisely the point of anti-prison activism: By discouraging us from seeing the prison as a dumping ground for undesirable members of society—a kind of human trash bin—it helps to focus our attention on improving our communities in other, less punitive, ways. A thriving society will simply not need as many prisons as one that is struggling. Imagining a decarcerated world thus requires that we imagine a world where government support comes in the form of jobs programs, affordable housing, drug addiction support, mental health resources, functioning schools—and not simply in the form of a baton and handcuffs.

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Review: The End of Policing

Review: The End of Policing

The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A kinder, gentler, and more diverse war on the poor is still a war on the poor.

Like many white Americans, I was complacent about the problem of police violence for many years. I figured that there would always be tragic accidents, always a few bad officers, and that we must make allowances for people doing what is, no doubt, a very difficult job. My attitude started to change when I left the country, and realized that the levels of police violence and incarceration in America are exceptionally high. Still, I figured that the United States was always going to be a uniquely violent country, and that an over-aggressive police force was simply one aspect of this.

The killing of George Floyd and the recent protests have been a turning point for me, as they have been for many people in the country. The death of yet another unarmed black man in police custody—yet another citizen choked to death by government workers, as he repeated that he could not breathe—was gruesome enough. But the seemingly infinite videos of flagrant police abuse that surfaced during the protests pushed me from complacent, to skeptical, to indignant. Peaceful protesters and journalists were shoved, beaten, sprayed, gassed, shot with “less-lethal” ammunition, and arrested.

Few people, I hope, can see the video of Martin Gugino—a 75-year old man pushed to the ground by Buffalo police, bleeding from his head as police march past him indifferently—without a sense of outrage. The only way to rationalize such an obviously unnecessary use of force is to embrace ridiculous conspiracy theories, as the president recently has. Meanwhile, the police response to this incident is entirely typical: after the two offending officers were suspended, the rest of the 57 members of the emergency response team resigned in protest.

It is in this context that the rallying cry “Defund the Police” has begun to circulate. In other circumstances, such a statement would strike me as absurdly Utopian; but once I learned that its proponents were not proposing to eliminate policing entirely, but to reduce it and divert resources to other social services, it began to sound all the more reasonable. (I do I fear the slogan is poorly chosen, however, since it gives many people the mistaken idea that nobody will be around to solve murders or investigate thefts. If a slogan requires a lengthy clarification, then it is not an effective slogan; and it risks alienating people by making the idea seem more radical than it really is. Personally, I think something like “Reimagine Policing” may capture the idea much better, even if it sounds a bit twee.)

This book is an excellent resource for those who wish to reimagine the role of police in America. (It is now available for free download on Verso.) Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College, examines the many ways that police are asked to do a job they are ill-suited for, and proposals to replace them. His first essential point is that the problem goes far beyond the conventional discourse about police reform. Body cameras, implicit bias training, and diversifying police forces do not reliably reduce police violence. Certainly, there are reforms that can and should be made—such as stopping the 1033 program which transfers military equipment to police departments, or changing the training regimes that instill a “warrior” mentality into police officers—but even the best of these reforms miss the point.

As with the issues of healthcare and higher education financing, there is a tendency in America to frame the issue of policing in terms of technocratic fixes, as if value-neutral reforms could be instituted that would make the police a perfect institution. But this ignores the greater moral and philosophical question: What do we have police for?

The police are distinguished from other public servants in being armed and authorized to use violence. Their presence is warranted if somebody poses a violent threat—as in the case of an assault, a sexual predator, or someone on a shooting spree—and even then, it is their responsibility to use a minimum of force. The problem, however, is that the vast bulk of police work does not consist in dealing with violent threats; it consists of traffic stops, border patrol, noise complaints, domestic abuse calls, drug busts, school fights, or prostitution. What connects so many of these situations is not the threat of violence, but poverty—which in America is inevitably racialized.

The life of George Floyd exemplifies the problem with policing. Born into difficult circumstances, he had many run-ins with the police during his life, none of which helped him. He served ten months in a state prison for a $10 drug deal, and then five more years after a plea deal for armed robbery. In the incident that led to his death, he was allegedly trying to pay for cigarettes with a fake $20 bill. What ties these together is that they are crimes of poverty—and that the only government intervention available came in the form of a punitive criminal justice system.

Nobody is in favor of robbery or counterfeit money; but I think that such crimes are inevitable if people are forced to endure a low standard of living with few legitimate economic opportunities to improve their situations. The question we need to ask, then, is whether locking people away, or saddling them with police records—or, in the case of Floyd, outright murder—is the right way to improve our country. Put another way, the essential question is whether a criminal justice mentality—which treats crime as an individual choice, subject to moral sanctions—is appropriate for the many social problems besetting our communities.

The case of police in schools is illustrative of how this mentality is applied to social problems. In the United States, we have apparently come to accept the constant possibility of school shootings; and partly as a response to this, armed police officers have been stationed in tens of thousands of schools across the country. In fact, two-thirds of American high school students attend a school with at least one police officer present; many schools have officers but lack counselors or nurses.

In too many cases, the police are not present merely to prevent violence, but actively take part in disciplining students. In this way, schools become a microcosm of American society: Inequality of opportunity (since schools are funded by property taxes) and an increasingly narrow metric of success (in this case, standardized tests) lead to undesirable behavior, which is dealt with through increasingly punitive measures. Who benefits from this system?

Another clear illustration of the criminal-justice approach is the war on prostitution and drugs. One does not need to be in favor of either of these activities to see that criminalizing them has not worked. Anyone who wants to buy drugs or sex can do so, just as any college student under 21 (the legal drinking age in America) can find a way to buy alcohol. Meanwhile, this approach has resulted in millions of people—most of whom are non-violent—being thrown into prison. Not only does our approach fail to address the problem, then, but we multiply the social harm into the bargain.

Any visitor to Amsterdam can see that the legalization of prostitution and marijuana has not caused the social order to descend into chaos. On the contrary, the condition of sex workers in places where sex work is legal and regulated, such as New Zealand, is far better than in the United States (even though we justify our approach as preventing human rights abuses). The case of Portugal’s drug policy is even stronger evidence of the failure of our approach. After decriminalizing drug use in 2001, and treating it as a public health issue, Portugal now has the lowest drug mortality rate in Europe, fifty times lower than the United States—and this is on top of the huge reduction in drug-related arrests.

As a final point, we also must remember that America’s War on Drugs has not only had devastating consequences domestically, but has contributed to drug-related violence around the world. Indeed, the destabilizing effects of these policies have, in part, driven unauthorized immigration, a problem that we have chosen to address using—of course—more policing.

Prostitution, drug use, and policing in schools are just three of the examples that Vitale examines. In these as in so many other cases—such as homelessness and mental illness—we must ask: Should a police officer be handling this problem? That is to say, should we have armed personnel, authorized to use violent force, treating these problems as matters of individual choice that deserve punishment? In so many cases, I believe the answer is no. I am sure that many police officers try to do these jobs conscientiously and diligently, but a gun, a baton, and handcuffs are simply not the proper tools, and imprisonment is not the proper approach.

If we are to learn from the current pandemic, I think it should be that a public health approach to social problems is both more rational and more humane. We would, of course, never throw somebody in jail for testing positive for COVID-19, even if having the disease can put other people’s lives at risk. When it comes to disease, we do not think of it as a problem of individual choice, personal responsibility, and deserved punishment. Just so, I think that we should see drug use, prostitution, school misbehavior, petty theft, and unauthorized immigration as processes that are driven by factors that go far beyond individual choice, and which merit coordinated social support rather than criminal prosecution. Imagine if the thousands of dollars that were spent sending George Floyd to jail for a $10 drug deal were instead spent on improving his situation.

As one final point, I think there is a significant factor of police violence that is not addressed in this book: gun ownership. If we choose to live in a society where, at any moment, somebody can open fire into a crowd, then I think this puts serious constraints on the degree to which we can disarm or reduce police forces. So many stories of police killings involve somebody being killed for reaching into their pocket, holding a shiny object, or even for a car backfiring. In places where gun ownership is rare, this almost never happens. This is another issue that could benefit from a public health approach. But even if we eliminated all civilian guns in the country, we would still be left with policing practices that exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the immense social divides in America. With a little bit of imagination, I think we can find a better way.

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