† 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, and author of The School-to- Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline and Racialized Double Standards, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice and Considering Hate, is co-founder of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
Fall 2016 Edition ~ The Daunting Task of Decarceration
by nancy a heitzeg
The social media devil that I refer to as #Fedbook likes to surveil my thoughts and remind me of my “memories”. Occasionally it works out as I was recently reminded that a year ago, CI and then Truthout published The Daunting Task of Decarceration.
And daunting it remains. Despite continued calls for “criminal justice reform”, clamoring for police body cameras, and a much touted Federal announcement regarding the phasing out of private prisons, the challenges remain the same. And, so an update – as always with much gratitude to Prison Policy Initiative for the graphic displays of data.
In the swirl of campaign driven talk of an end “to the era of mass incarceration”, it is crucial to consider again: What exactly does this mean? How could it possibly be achieved?
The sound bytes are easy, and appealing to anyone who is appalled by our excessive and extreme reliance on policing and punishment. We know the statistics: 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its’ prisoners. 2.3 million people in prison or jail; another 5 million under other correctional supervision. Stunning race and class gulfs at every stage of the system from police killings to imprisonment. It has long been an egregious state of affairs.
But the challenges faced in dismantling nation on lock down policies are daunting. Beyond the difficulty of converting political rhetoric into any sort of legislation action, there is the sheer reality of numbers, of focus and yes, of profit.
As you consider the claims and calls for “reform”, remember…
Mass Incarceration is Primarily Driven by State and Local Practices
While incarceration at the federal level has increased at a rapid pace, the overwhelming number of prisoners are housed in state prisons and local jails. Any real dent in the numbers can only be attained by changing policy and practices here. Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2916 A Prison Policy Initiative briefing By Peter Wagner and Leah Sakala offers us a stark reminder .
(Click here to view full size image)
The proposed reforms that are most widely touted have implications for the Federal level alone, and beyond that , are focused on reentry options and criminal records. Despite the obvious benefits to those immediately affected, this legislation would have a negligible impact on overall incarcerations rates.
A recent investigation by the New York Times reveals the growing divide in incaceration rates bewteen rural adn urban/suburban counties. While rates in more populated areas have stabilized or declined, rural counties are relying more heavily on prison. From “This small Indiana county sends more people to prison than San Francisco and Durham, N.C., combined. Why?:
“…large parts of rural and suburban America — overwhelmed by the heroin epidemic and concerned about the safety of diverting people from prison — have gone the opposite direction. Prison admissions in counties with fewer than 100,000 people have risen even as crime has fallen, according to a New York Times analysis, which offers a newly detailed look at the geography of American incarceration.
Just a decade ago, people in rural, suburban and urban areas were all about equally likely to go to prison. But now people in small counties are about 50 percent more likely to go to prison than people in populous counties.
The stark disparities in how counties punish crime show the limits of recent state and federal changes to reduce the number of inmates. Far from Washington and state capitals, county prosecutors and judges continue to wield great power over who goes to prison and for how long. And many of them have no interest in reducing the prison population.”
As with the death penalty, proprietorial discretion plays a crucial role in decisions to seek harsh sentences, often driven by conservative politics and demands of constituents. ( See the Death Penalty Information Centers Report, “The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases At Enormous Costs to All“). All of this is to say that decarceration requires broad and deep changes in both attitudes and laws, and this at every level of government – federal, state, and especially local.
Ending Mass Incarceration Requires a Multitude of Policy Shifts
In addition to a focus on the Federal level, most reform efforts center on ending the War on Drugs and the harsh mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders. A new interactive tool from the Urban Institute, The Prison Population Forecaster, illustrates the need for a wide range of efforts.
Using data from 15 states and now the Federal government as examples, this tool shows the impact of various including fewer admissions to prison, shorter sentences, and various offense categories. The graphs below reveal a need for a much broader set of reforms than have currently been discussed.
The focus cannot be on drug crimes alone or less prison time for nonviolent offenses or reduced revocations of probation/parole. the charts show that any real effort to reduce our reliance on prisons must also imagine alternatives for violent offenses. To date, this level of discussion has been consider completely out of bounds. In fact, much of the current “reform” discussion further demonizes those convicted of violent crimes and draws a brighter line between “nonviolent offenders” who might be spared imprisonment and those assumed to require it. Unless a broader cultural shift about the efficacy of prison for anyone ensues, the numbers cannot be substantially reduced.
The Smoke and Mirrors of “Reform” or Follow the Money
Recently there was great celebration as te Department of Justice announced it would phase out use of private prisons. And there is cause for celebration any time there is a move away from the most blatant profiteers in the industry. But the scope of this decision is very limited as analysts were quick to point out. From the Marshall Project, “What You Need to Know About the Private Prison Phase-Out”:
“The new policy affects a relatively small portion of the federal prison population, roughly 22,000 of 193,000 prisoners. These inmates are housed at 13 privately-run federal “contract” prisons, which primarily house “criminal aliens,” or noncitizens convicted of crimes, many of whom may be deported at the end of their sentences. They’re in California, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina. The Bureau of Prisons, by contrast, runs more than 100 prisons…
The policy shift has no bearing on the private operation of immigrant detention facilities. As of December, 62 percent of the 34,000 beds for people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement are in privately-run facilities. They are under the authority of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Justice. The vast majority of privately-run prisons in the U.S. are at the state level, and will be unaffected by the DOJ announcement. As of 2014 they housed 91,244 state prisoners, or 6.8 percent of the total state prison population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.”
Perhaps most insidious is the possibility that proposed “reform” isn’t meant to end mass incarceration at all, but rather create an opportunity for expanded profiteering in reentry services, probation, jails, policing, and mental health wings in existing prisons and jails. Kay Whitlock and I have written much about in the Truthout series: Smoke and Mirrors: Inside the New “Bipartisan Prison Reform” Agenda. I encourage you to take a closer look. The Marshall Project also reports:
“In recent years, following the overall decline of the prison population, these companies have shifted towards greater involvement with immigration detention — including the incarceration of women and children caught crossing the border — as well as reentry and rehabilitation services, including halfway houses. Last month, CCA announced a new contract with California to run a 120-bed “residential reentry facility” in San Diego, Calif. “We see the re-entry space as attractive because states are placing an increased emphasis on reducing recidivism back into prisons and utilizing re-entry services more commonly,” analyst Tobey Sommer of SunTrust Robinson Humphrey told The Tennessean last year. The DOJ memo notes that it has no bearing on halfway houses run by these companies for men and women leaving federal prisons. “
It is not called the prison industrial complex for nothing. After more than 30 years of expansion and entrenchment, it is difficult to map all the never ending sources of profit and economic growth in jobs, products and services. It is difficult to imagine too any political commitment to the nearly complete overhaul of our late capitalist post-industrial service sector economy that decarceration would fully entail.
At the time of the riginal posting, a New York Times piece, Prison Vendors See Continued Signs of a Captive Market, indicates that the profiteers aren’t worried about the current calls for “reform”. The products keep flowing – both for restraint and punishment and now too towards servicing mental health and reentry facilities with colorful vinyl furniture. In cheerful lime and mango.
In a blog post discussing the New York Times piece, Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Imitative asked us to consider “two important questions that long-time prison reformers should be grappling with:
How much of our support from unexpected allies comes from a real desire to treat other people humanely and how much comes from a desire to tweak the system in order to simply create new avenues for profiting off of other people’s pain?
How many of the “reforms” currently being considered in this country are no more innovative than taking a sleeping slab and coloring it mango?”
Ask we must. The questions are even more pressing today. And perhaps the answer will point us — not towards reform – but instead, towards Abolition.
In Mask magazine, guest editor and journalist Raven Rakia brilliantly introduces The Prisoner Issue in conjunction with the anniversary of the Attica uprising and on the cusp of the National Prison Strike. . She notes the pitfall’s of reform and rehabilitation both then and now, and how the words are used to disguise the same deadly practices. In Fire to the Prisons she writes:
“Many people associate New York State’s Attica prison with the brutal conditions that gave rise to the deadliest prison rebellions of all time. While it’s true that Attica prison became notorious for its brutal conditions after the riot, it’s notable that the uprising of Attica in 1971 happened during a time of prison reform. During that time, both New York and California were being heralded as a national model for their focus on “rehabilitation” and “treatment” as opposed to retribution and punishment. In fact, according to criminal justice textbooks, the 1950s to 1970s was the “rehabilitation period” of the prison system – right after the “Big House” period of large maximum-security penitentiaries and before the “Contemporary Prison,” which is whatever the hell we have today. …
If Ferguson is a prison rebellion as well, then #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, and recent #PrisonStrikes are more than just somewhat related but intimately intertwined; and piecemeal reforms like body cameras, community policing, better neighborhood jails, new risk assessment technology, and lowered mandatory minimum sentencing (coupled with new mandatory minimums) are so obviously far from being ‘solutions’ but just the opposite, steps that will solidify and acquire more power in order to imprison Black America.
Soon it may become apparent that reforms praised by the powerful are not just the opposite of the solution, but part of the reason why prisoners are resisting. And if that is made clear, then this time around, we should ask how we found ourselves here again and to listen – intently – because those in prison will tell us what comes next.”