CI: The Promise/The Peril of This Moment

March 12, 2014 at 6:47 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights, What People are Doing to Change the World

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

The Promise/The Peril of This Moment
by nancy a heitzeg

” Well, I think we have to act as if there is hope. “ Angela Davis, March 2014

In a recent interview with Democracy Now! , the miracle that is Angela Davis reminds us again that there is power in struggle, there is opportunity in the moment, but warns us too of the potential pitfalls of  “criminal justice reform”.

Well, yes. I think that this is a pivotal moment. There are openings. And I think it’s very important to point out that people have been struggling over these issues for years and for decades. This is also a problematic moment. And those of us who identify as prison abolitionists, as opposed to prison reformers, make the point that oftentimes reforms create situations where mass incarceration becomes even more entrenched; and so, therefore, we have to think about what in the long run will produce decarceration, fewer people behind bars, and hopefully, eventually, in the future, the possibility of imagining a landscape without prisons, where other means are used to address issues of harm, where social problems, such as illiteracy and poverty, do not lead vast numbers of people along a trajectory that leads to prison.

CI has expressed similar concerns here ( See Smoke and Mirrors?, Confidence Men and Prison Reform, Con Artists, Profits, and Community Corrections ) . There are many questions to be asked about the ostensible movement away from mass incarceration   embraced by the right, most notably by Right on Crime. As Kay Whitlock notes, ‘the right reinvented as prison reformers”. If this makes you nervous, it should.  Expanded privatization schemes, profits and deregulation are, per usual, the ultimate end game.

It is easy to be suspicious of the right-wing agendas. But well-meaning Scandinavian model liberals can do their own sort of damage. I was reminded of this again at a  panel hosted by the League of Voters last week, Interrupting the Prison Pipeline: Partnerships, Prevention, Advocacy, Intervention. The panel included a host of well-connected Minneapolis political, non-profit and faith-based “leaders”.  And despite the claims of “interrupting” in the title, the primary focus was in providing services to those already incarcerated or to ex-offenders in the form of increased employment opportunities via Ban the Box legislation, expanded voting rights for probationers, and more Second Chances.

And of course we are for that. But where was discussion about prevention, alternatives to criminal justice, dismantling the school to prison pipeline, the impetus for the first chances?


Angela Davis on Prison Abolition, the War on Drugs and Why Social Movements Shouldn’t Wait on Obama (Full Transcript)

Here’s the truth: Minnesota, a couple of anomalies not withstanding, is a Deep Blue state. Minneapolis an even Bluer city. The state has the second lowest incarceration rate in the nation (with fewer people in prison in the entire state than the two largest maximum security prisons in the U.S.. combined), and a Department of Corrections that advertizes its’  “bold set of reforms that created one of the best correctional systems in the nation.” Still, the racial disparities are staggering, with Blacks and American Indians dramatically over-represented, and more than 100,000 on probation/community supervision, a rate, that while declining,  is near the top of the nation.

So Minnesota runs a kinder gentler correctional industrial complex, where mostly “nice” white liberals seek to control vast percentages of select populations (read Black, Latino@, Hmong, East African,  and American Indian) in the community while offering an array of “re-entry’ services to those released from our prisons. The entire endeavor is funded and blessed by a complex web that includes Hennepin County government services, the local non-profit industrial complex, including an array of powerful state-wide foundations, “socially responsible” corporations, interfaith coalitions, and the  think tanks of the University of Minnesota Research I elite of academe.

It is an obvious improvement over mass incarceration or raw “Right on Crime” profiteering, but it is still a nearly impenetrable economic web that creates and sustains a huge, and heavily unionized,  employment sector.  These interests insure that the system is always needed, and no issue is ever “solved”, that any grassroots groups that wants funding must jettison the more radical aspects of their agenda, and that innovative community-centered models, such as restorative justice, are immediately co-opted and institutionalized.

So, the question is: How does one address the needs of prisoners by instituting reforms that are not going to create a stronger prison system? Now there are something like two-and-a-half million people behind bars, if one counts all of the various aspects of what we call the prison-industrial complex, including military prisons, jails in Indian country, state and federal prisons, county jails, immigrant detention facilities—which constitute the fastest-growing sector of the prison-industrial complex. Yeah, so how—the question is: How do we respond to the needs of those who are inside, and at the same time begin a process of decarceration that will allow us to end this reliance on imprisonment as a default method of addressing—not addressing, really—major social problems?

Maybe more on all this at a later date. For now, “act as if there is hope”. Because there actually is.

As always, For Abolition.







So at the end of the day, the real villain is the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, is it not? It's all about the Almighty Dollar, and getting more of them into the pockets of the already wealthy old white guys... How do I fight back, without monetary power of my own? I find myself thinking - "well, when I have the money, this is what I'll do with it..." Or "when I'm running my own business, I will make socially conscious hiring choices"... But those are 'what if' and 'when' statements. What is the course of action right now? Speak up, of course. Open the conversation with friends, family, co-workers, classmates, etc. I do that all the time. Not much changes, at least not that I can see. It seems that at the root of deconstructing racism, and helping to tear down the systems so deeply entrenched in our society, is access. Basic needs must be met. People need access to food, clean clothes, a roof over their head, education, jobs... Education, access, empowerment, agency... These are the ways I can see that people might actually be able to interrupt the School to Prison Pipeline. So how do I help put these things in motion? If even the non-profit industrial complex is now a thing - and I believe it is - then there is more of the Almighty Dollar controlling our society. I cannot fight that fire with fire, as I have none. So what does my bucket of water look like? And how do I get others to join my bucket brigade? 


Yes.  To all of it.  When they say, "You people are never satisfied," we simply say, "Why are there no clear responses to these questions?  Why no commitments made to addressing them head on?"  1.)  What in these reforms addresses the pre-emptive criminalization of communities of color and poor people (and queers, women, and others at the intersections of same)?  2.)  What in these reforms helps to dismantle the profiteering prison industrial complex?  3.)  What role does privatizing "community corrections," ranging from monitoring parole and probation to treatment centers to community re-entry play?  4.)  Since accountability for prison profiteers has failed so abysmally, what in these reforms addresses public/community accountability more effectively?

& etc.


@nancy a heitzeg @KayWhitlockThank you.  Oh, and question 1 should be expanded to add:  "And what in these reforms works to intentionally dismantle the structural racism which defines the prison system and much of the criminal legal system?"