Saturday, January 6, 2018

Prison Abolition: Good Idea?

I can't remember the cartoonist's name but somewhere in my home I have an old newspaper comic cut out that shows a smirking sheriff about to hang a depressed looking criminal. The comic's caption is a quote from the sheriff. It reads something like "Of course I realize that society is partially to blame for your crimes. Unfortunately I only have enough rope for you!"

If you talk to most people about their ideas on individual responsibility, punishment, crime, rehabilitation and the like you will find that many people tend towards one of two differing schools of thought. Many (not all) conservatives will be clustered around the idea of "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime!". Some will (knowingly or not) have a pretty healthy dollop of bigotry mixed in as well. They think the individual is responsible for committing the crime, and must pay the cost. Punishment is important. These folks usually aren't that concerned with rehabilitation or repayment. They are interested in punishment. They are often indifferent to why someone committed a crime. If one group of people commits more crimes or has more run-ins with law enforcement than perhaps those people have some personal problems to fix. People who think like this can be still be persuaded to look beyond punishment as the key purpose of the criminal justice system but only if other important (to them) points are raised like cost. Saying that prison is too harsh usually won't evince too much sympathy from these citizens. They will retort that the criminal should have realized that before they committed a crime. There is an axiom that a liberal is a conservative who just got arrested. With the opioid epidemic in full swing some conservatives have suddenly become open to non-prison alternatives for those who look like them.

People tending towards the liberal (using liberal here as shorthand for anyone more on the left from classical liberals to moderate corporatists to devout socialists to liberal reformists) school of thought will concede some individual responsibility for crime, but will swiftly pivot to say that terrorizing and brutalizing people in prison is a horrible thing to do to anyone, even the guilty. Most prisoners eventually will be released. Returning broken people to society is a waste of resources. Ideally the person should come back perhaps chastened from their experience, but not scarred or broken. Because if it's the latter the person will have difficulty re-integrating into society. If all they know is institutional abuse and viciousness then they will probably pass that on to their loved ones: spouses, romantic partners, children, parents, other relatives and so on. If too many people go to prison, then prison loses its deterrence effect. In some circles prison may even be seen as an adult rite of passage. The liberal person will point out that a society that treats people differently by race, class, and gender will impose prison disproportionately on those who are at the bottom of those hierarchies. In short in this society black people, especially black men, are singled out for the harshest treatment possible any chance that the system gets. But white judges, prosecutors and juries will often go out of their way to prevent whites from going to prison for similar crimes. 

Violations that might get a wink and a nod or go unnoticed in wealthier whiter areas get the full force of the law and then some in blacker, poorer areas. This is not only for explicitly racist reasons as we saw in Ferguson or for that matter NYC, it also is a financial tax based on race. The more liberal person will argue that societies that treat people better will produce fewer criminals. Some who think like this will want to go as far as severely reducing the frequency of imprisonment for all but the most depraved crimes. Other people will want to eliminate prison completely. Just as the death penalty won't bring a victim's loved one back, neither will throwing the criminal into hell on earth for the next forty years or the remainder of his life. Recently I ran across a variety of related arguments calling for prison abolition.
My study and formulation of a prison abolitionist politic was deeply influenced by my own upbringing and current reality as a poor person, always noticing the ways that my hood was policed not protected, and knowing that prisons were filled with a vast majority of poor people. All the while we walk by business people, lawmakers, and murderous cops on sidewalks daily who rob us of millions, construct our deeply racist structuring of poverty, and violently police said poverty.
If the notion of prisons is to “keep murderers, thieves, robbers, and rapists off our streets” (as one of my students told me in class last year) then why are so many of those same folks allowed to walk freely among us without any fear, all because we’ve created a carceral system that they are not criminalized within? We have to examine what is criminalized and why; that actions that are most criminalized those are typically a threat to the state and to capitalist apparatus.
As DSA grows and takes up more ambitious campaigns, we will confront state repression in entirely new ways. Prisons, the police, and a growing army of semi-private security contractors are all repressive forces. They are clear existential threats to any movement for socialism and justice. Therefore, the abolition of police and prisons must be an explicit and institutionalized goal for DSA.
It is a core responsibility of the NPC to plan for issues which will impede the organization and threaten our members. Violent state repression in the form of the police and prison system is an issue the new NPC must take seriously.
Many activists today are calling for disinvesting in, if not totally abolishing police departments. What do you think of that?
I understand it completely. I consider myself a prison abolitionist, in the sense that I think we will eventually end the prisons as we know them. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think we don’t need to remove people from the community who pose a serious threat or who cause serious harm for some period of time. But the question is do we want to create and maintain sites that are designed for the intentional infliction of needless suffering?
Because that’s what prison is today. They are sites where we treat people as less than human and put them in literal cages and intentionally inflict harm and suffering on them and then expect that this will somehow improve them. It’s nonsensical, immoral, and counterproductive, and that is what I would like to see come to an end

I think that for reasons of cost and pragmatism as well as simple decency that the US should stop using prisons as the primary option for dealing with many non-violent crimes. I think that when it comes to most juveniles, the system needs to bend over backwards to find a way to keep them out of prison. I think that too many states, corporations, and localities are making money from prison. I think that just as the Black Codes were put into place in post-bellum America to oppress recently freed citizens, the current prison-industrial complex machinery is aimed at Black citizens for the same reasons. So yes there are too many prisons and too many people being sent to prison. The US has the highest prison population in the world. This is probably because of a multitude of factors, not just racism but also the high inequality and our dominant Puritanical streak.

That said though, referring back to the cartoon I referenced earlier, even though a given miscreant might have all sorts of reasons for his actions, those reasons don't excuse the actions. There are people who murder, who rape, who molest children, who beat mentally challenged people and laugh about it to their friends. Given time and motivation, perhaps many of these people can one day find forgiveness and redemption. Maybe. However, I think that for both their punishment and protection of society, certain people must be removed, sometimes permanently, from society. This means prison. There are many people I could be persuaded shouldn't be in prison. But murderers, rapists, robbers and child molesters should be put away, if not put down. I don't think prisons will ever go away. Even in an entirely fair and equal society people will still have larcenous, lustful or murderous urges. And some will act on them.

What's your take?

Does the US imprison too many people?

Should prisons be abolished?

blog comments powered by Disqus