Revelations: #MikeBrown

August 09, 2015 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Arts and Culture, Criminal Injustice Series, Education, Police Brutality, Police State, Prison Industrial Complex

Ferguson Tankas, Francisco Alarcón – Author and Educator, Davis, CA

Ferguson Tankas, Francisco Alarcón – Author and Educator, Davis, CA

Criminal InJustice: To Break the Chain

June 24, 2015 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Gun Culture, Intersectionality, Media Conglomeration, Prison Industrial Complex

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.


To Break the Chain
by nancy a heitzeg

Charleston.  The latest USA edition of the “race-tinged death story”.

Although the racial motivations were clear from the outset (survivors told the tale), this did not deter mainstream media and invested policy makers from spinning the familiar script. Liberals pointed towards guns and debate erupted over which language of the carceral state to adopt — was this hate crime or terrorism? The Right feigned confusion or claimed that it was really just Christians who were under attack..

The white shooter, typically,  was both isolated and humanized – arrested without a scratch, fed Burger King, described as a lone wolf who may be mentally ill or exceptionally evil, ultimately unknowable. In the words of South Carolina Governor Nikki Hayley, “We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”

Until we did. The discovery of Dylann Roof’s last racist screed laid bare the motives, and set off another round of spin. The fact that Roof named the Council of Conservative Citizens, as both source and inspiration, induced a panic-stricken flow of returned campaign contributions, the fine line between “extremist” hate and the GOP mainstay, erased.

Exposed now, attention then turned quickly to the Confederate Flag and calls for its’ removal as remedy. The flag, which should have never flown, was long embraced by slavers and segregationists, and served as key code in the deployment of the ostensibly color-blind “Southern Strategy”. But perhaps now the costs had finally come to outweigh the benefits. Perhaps too, in keeping with the climate of premature forgiveness and healing, it was time for rapid reversal from those who had ridden the undead Confederacy to power.

As Glen Ford notes in The Perils of the Politics of Symbolism:

The demand that South Carolina remove the “Stars and Bars” from in front of the state capital building is wholly symbolic, directly affecting one pole and one piece of cloth.  The state’s governor and top Republican legislators would never consider letting go of the flag if it had not already become as much a burden as an asset to the Party… “Reconciliation,” therefore, comes cheap – and, in fact, redounds to the benefit of the former offender. Whites in South Carolina will get the chance to feel as good about voting the Confederate-free Republican ticket, as white Democrats in Iowa felt voting for Obama. Power relationships are unaffected…”

So the Flag may come down – forever or just for one day. Or it may not. It may be banned from Wal*Mart and Amazon and eBay for as long as Duck Dynasty was off the air or more. Regardless, the effects of the performance of contrition and distancing will have been achieved for those who rose to power on this very white supremacist imagery and the blood money it raised.  And we will be approaching peak color-blindness, an entire uninterrupted landscape of racism without racists, replete with complete denial-ability but deep structures which remain, untouched.

The juxtaposition of last week’s news-maker, the “trans-racial” Rachel Dolezal, with the trajectory of the unfolding Charleston story is unsettling. The singular message is this: race and racism are individualized performances that allow for both white appropriation of Blackness when convenient and white supremacist denial of structural racism viz a viz its’ projection onto a disposable Symbol. Elusive; ephemeral.

The reality is, flag or no, the structural white supremacy that is the bedrock foundation of this country has never been redressed. The Civil War has never been over. Slavery has been unwilling to die, morphing via the “reform ” offered by the 13th Amendment into the prison industrial complex and the punishing state. And the promises of “due process”, “equal protection” and the franchise, continue to be denied.

Until there is that full accounting – in word, deed and reparation – that flag, even figuratively, will continue to fly.

The Myth of “Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform”: Mississippi Close-up

May 28, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Corrupt Judiciary, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Smoke and Mirrors

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 Myth of “Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform”: Mississippi Close-up

by Nancy A. Heitzeg

“The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social, and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough.” “End Mass Incarceration Now”, The Editorial Board, New York Times, May 24, 2014

Yes. Agreed. The numbers are staggering, The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. We hold, according to Prison Policy Initiative, the U.S. holds ” more than 2.4 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,259 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.”  The racial gulfs are glaring; “Blacks are incarcerated five times more than Whites are, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as Whites.” The economic costs – astronomical, more than $80 billion on direct correctional expenditures alone, with total costs (including police, legal and court services) approaching a quarter of a trillion dollars. The social costs? Immeasurable. As Maya Schenwar observes, “prison inflicts mass violence.”

“The American Experiment in mass incarceration… cannot end soon enough.”

Increasingly, many also agree, as there are widening calls for “criminal justice reform.” Often, as in the aforementioned New York Times Op-Ed, these reforms are described as “bipartisan.” But are they? And what does this “reform” really  look like?

As noted in this series, many calls for “bipartisan criminal justice reform” are thinly masked appeals for right-wing driven policies that seem “reasonable” in the short run, but in the end make the prison industrial complex even more entrenched with new avenues for profiteering, a rejection of federal Civil Rights protections via an extreme states’ rights agenda, and new color-blind policies that magnify the structural racism that lies at the root.

The reality of the “Right on Crime” agenda is most simply more privatization. Privatization ensures that any possibility for public accountability vanishes. Further privatization of criminal justice, coupled with a rejection of federal oversight, serves to pave the way for expanded privatization of other public programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, education, food and nutrition assistance, and more. Expect more of this in the upcoming months and years ahead.

Case in point: Let’s consider this CNN segment that aired immediately following the Right on Crime Leadership Summit of May 2014.

Joint Outrage: Prison system failing America Newt Gingrich and Van Jones, CNN, May 21, 2014

On the surface, all this “joint outrage” may seem “reasonable” and warranted.  But pay careful attention to the rhetoric, which at once both obfuscates and reveals.

Notice that the two problem states singled by Gingrich are the Deep Blue states of New York and California – and that is no accident. While their particular incarceration challenges, especially with regard to overcrowding, have been in the news, both states actually incarcerate at a rate below the U.S. average of 716 people for every 100,000 residents. The U. S. leaders — in fact, world leaders in imprisonment – are overwhelmingly Deep Red States such as Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Georgia and Texas who imprison at a rate of over 1,100 per 100, 000 residents. (See Prison Policy Initiatives’ Breaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010 Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity for a detailed look at all 50 states). Ironically as we shall see, these states are often touted by Right on Crime as models of smart on crime reform. This, despite having barely dented their exceedingly high incarceration rates.

Notice too that Gingrich misleads by suggesting the money is spent to keep inmates “hired,” as if we are paying prisoners $168,000 per yer. But the money isn’t spent this way – this figure is the per capita cost of incarceration for jails in New York City. The choice of this exorbitant outlier as the talking point is also misleading. Yes, the costs of incarceration are too high, but on average, the annual average taxpayer cost is $31,286 per inmate. New York State is the most expensive, with an average cost of $60,000 per prison inmate. The high costs of New York City’s jail system – yes, $168,000 per year –  is an anomaly, with expenditures driven by long delays for inmates awaiting court appearances and/or trials, a wait time that averages 90 days and can extend for years.

Gingrich certainly isn’t proposing that we use any money saved to send inmates to Yale or seek meaningful efforts to reduce the structural conditions that contribute to incarceration.  Nor in the specific example of Rikers Island, where 40% of the population faces mental health issues, is he addressing the lack of funding for meaningful mental health services. No, he is complaining about money “wasted on prisoners.” In fact, his primary concern – as well as that of his colleagues on the Right – is “wasteful government spending” and so-called “public safety.” No surprises here.

Additional obfuscation is created by Democrat Du Jour™ Van Jones. Jones is justified in his condemnation of the exploding California prison system and Governor Brown’s “doubling down” in his refusal to follow U.S. Supreme Court orders to decarcerate. (Since this interview aired, California voters have passed Proposition 47: The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act of 2014, which reclassifies several drug and property crimes as misdemeanors and promises to reduce the state prison populations. Questions remain about implementation, the role of private contractors, and exactly what the educational funds will be spent on. More on this to come in future editions of Smoke and Mirrors). Despite the warranted outrage over the state of affairs in the “Golden Gulag,” Jones is sadly mistaken if he thinks Mississippi’s “prison reform” is to be lauded as an example of a leader in efforts to reduce mass incarceration. Instead of doing his homework, he bought wholesale the Right on Crime talking points.

“Forward -leaning and progressive”? “Smarter”?

To the contrary. “Reform” no longer means what we might hope it does.


CI: The Fallacy of Right-Wing Appeals to Race in Criminal Justice Reform

April 23, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: 2014 Mid-term Elections, 2016 Election, Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Injustice Series, Economic Terrorism, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Smoke and Mirrors

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 Fallacy of Right-Wing Appeals to Race in Criminal Justice Reform
by Nancy A. Hetzeg

Mid-November 2014.  Ferguson and cities across the world took to the streets in continued protest of the police homicide of Mike Brown and a seemingly endless list of mostly young Black males killed by police — 1 every 28 hours. The events in Ferguson had shone a light – not just on the anti-Blackness that shapes policing/police killings in the U.S.A., but towards the entire criminal legal system, one emergent out of slavery and always attendant to policing and punishment by race, class, and gender. The Ferguson Movement had sparked, too, not just demands for the indictment of Darren Wilson or reforms of the police, but calls for -finally! – an uprooting of the structural inequality which pervades the system.

Worlds apart, in sterile San Diego hotel conference rooms, “policy makers, experts, and other key decision makers from more than 30 states… [met] to discuss the past, present, and future of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI)” convened at the Justice Reinvestment National Summit . “Success” in “reform” was touted by reference to a checklist, one devoid of the devilish details of definitions (Mississippi’s reclassification of drug offenses actually increased penalties) or actual incarceration outcomes (a tiny footnote states “The number of policy reforms in a state does not correspond with the impact on prison populations or costs”). One devoid too of discussion of demographics or any indication that actual people — overwhelming people of color, the poor and those otherwise outside the bounds of “normative” white middle/upper class hetero-patriarchy –  are the subject/object of these policies.

How is it possible to advocate for criminal justice reform without taking account of the central role that race and class play in shaping the past and present of criminal injustice? As we asked in Smoke and Mirrors: Essential Questions:

 Why don’t most of the foundations and advocacy organizations participating in the “prison reform” public relations blitz talk specifically about the “overcriminalization” of people of color, particularly Black, Latino/a, and American Indian/Indigenous communities?  Why don’t they make clear recommendations regarding the racially-biased enforcement of “race neutral” laws and law enforcement policies, ranging from “stop and frisk” to “gang” laws and policies, in and out of prison?  Why isn’t structural/systemic racism explicitly named as the major contributor to mass incarceration?  Where are the solutions that address larger societal contributors, such as poverty, segregation, defunded public educational institutions,  racial profiling and more?

In short, it isn’t possible to address the current crisis of mass incarceration without explicitly naming the racist and classist roots. The criminal legal system, at the core, involves the policing and punishment of race — the protection of whiteness as both literal and figurative property and the repression of Blackness in particular. Slave Codes become Black Codes/Jim Crow, that echoed the restrictions associated with slavery, re-inscribed the property interests of “whiteness,” and criminalized a range of activities only if the perpetrator was Black.

In the Post Civil Rights Era, there has been a corresponding shift from de jure racism codified explicitly into the law and legal systems to a de facto racism where people of color, especially African Americans, are subject to unequal protection of the laws, excessive surveillance, extreme segregation and neo-slave labor via incarceration, all in the name of “crime control.” “Law and order” criminal justice policies are all guided by thinly coded appeals to white fears of high crime neighborhoods, “crack epidemics,” gang proliferation, juvenile super–predators, urban unrest, school violence, and more. In all these case, the subtext reads clearly — fear of brown and especially black people.

Colorblind racism and “tough on crime” combine in deadly fashion in the War on Drugs, with its attendant spike in mass incarceration. This is a 40+ year project that now indicts both Republican and Democratic administrations. It is no mistake that the subtitle of Michelle Alexander’s epic indictment of The New Jim Crow is this – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The Drug War, from start to finish has always been racist: draconian sentences, crack v powder disparities, police patrol patterns, stop/frisk, and racial profiling, arrests, convictions, sentences, incarceration, and collateral consequences all fall heaviest on Blacks.

Nonetheless, Right has managed to avoid any discussion of  what they now refer to as “racial disparity” until recently. Ironically, the crowd that brought us the “Southern Strategy,” Willie Horton, and the coded race-baiting of “law and order” that they created, now claims that they are best equipped to reform the criminal legal system. Don’t be fooled. The new-found mention of race is both politically expedient and deceptive. It is explicitly argued that criminal justice reform is the “GOP’s best hope to reach minority voters.” This theme has been heavily worked since last summer, when, at a Koch Brothers panel,  right-wing “reform” was touted as a bipartisan,  “uniting left and right,” and a harmonic convergence  of “unexpected alliances” featuring select NAACP members and most recently Van Jones. This meme has been buttressed by the GOP’s libertarian wing, particularly via Senator Rand Paul, with the illusion that reducing Federal mandatory minimums for drug crimes. decriminalizing marijuana, and opposing the Federal militarization of the police somehow – magically – will address the underlying structural racism and classism at the heart of the criminal legal system. That merely changing the law will cause any race and class gulfs in criminal legal control to  “wither away”.

It won’t.  In fact, a closer look at this approach suggests that rather than reducing racial gulfs in arrest, prosecution and incarceration, these proposed reforms may actually magnify them and serve to solidify the criminalizing archetypes noted by Frederick Douglas nearly 150 years ago  as “the imputation of crime to color”.  What the Right actually means to do is best revealed by closely examining their central positions on overcriminalization and law enforcement, the issues most relevant to our discussion here.

Overcriminalization of Whom?

When many of us hear the term overcriminalization, we are imagining decriminalization of drugs and petty nonviolent offenses such as loitering that are often used to criminalize the poor or serve as a pretext for racial profiling, legalization of marijuana and/or other drugs, and an end to the proliferation of laws that criminalize style, often with race-neutral language but racialized intent.

This is not what the Right means. In fact, they have been largely silent on or supportive of the increased rash of laws which criminalize poverty and homelessness and create crimes of style which continue to ensnare people of color and the LGBTQ community into the widening criminal legal net. Even though overcriminalization has been a central theme in the Right on Crime agenda since their founding in 2010, their understanding of it is overtly shaped by the central pillars of state’s rights/anti-Federal government and private profiteering. Overcriminalization is the new Right on Crime code for deregulation of corporate and business activities. “Thousands of harmless activities are now classified as crimes in the United States. These are not typical common law crimes such as murder, rape, or theft.  Instead they encompass a series of business activities.” Undergirding this is a rejection of Federal authority and an explicit call for states’ rights.

The Conservative Solution

• Stop creating new criminal offenses as a method of regulating business activities. Regulation is better handled through fines and market forces, not the heavy stigma of criminal sanctions

• Avoid licensing new occupations and revise laws to eliminate criminal penalties that are currently associated with many occupations.

• Ensure that an appropriate culpable mental state is included in the elements of all offenses.

• Return the responsibility for prosecuting and punishing traditional crimes to the states.

• Revise criminal laws to remove ambiguities and consolidate redundant laws to help prevent prosecutorial abuse.

At rock bottom,  criminal justice reform for the Right is about protecting corporate profits from pesky Federal governmental regulations that seek to protect consumers, workers, investors, the environment and the general public from economic and physical harm, This position, for example, rejects the criminal charges in a case like BP’s Deepwater Horizon gulf disaster, suggesting that the market or Louisiana were best equipped to handle this. It is evidenced too in the early debates over “food police” which rejects food labeling or criminal penalties for poisoning small children with E-coli laden hamburgers. As illustrated by Radley Balko in his Cato Institute days, this position suggests that we all live in a world of personal consumer “choices” where we can all “equally” decide whether or not to eat junk food or GMOs or get in our Mercedes and drive out of that food desert. It is a world without structural inequality as an impediment to “choice”; there is nothing but “personal responsibility,” a loaded term too often touted in all right-wing criminal justice reform efforts.

Even as the Right has expanded their current rhetoric to include some lessening of penalties with regard to the War on Drugs, the states’ rights agenda and the primacy of private profit underlie these efforts. Rand Paul’s much touted legislative proposals are all targeted at the Federal level, leaving states to their own devices, however draconian. Further, as we have seen in Community Corrections: Profiteering, Corruption and Widening the Net, diverting drug offenders from prison under these right-wing reforms, does not lessen legal control, but in fact, serves to create new pathways for profiteering and an expanding web of legal and economic control.

Beyond this, failure to address the structural racism and classism at the heart of the Drug “War” may result in increased disparity as these “colorblind “ reforms are enacted. Consider recent  changes in marijuana legislation in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Washington. Two of those states (Colorado and Washington) completely legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for adults 21 and older, while the rest reduced criminal penalties for small amounts across all ages. A new report from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice found this:

  • “All five states experienced substantial declines in marijuana possession arrests. The four states with available data also showed unexpected drops in marijuana felony arrests.
  • States that decriminalized marijuana for all ages experienced the largest decreases in marijuana arrests or cases, led by drops among young people and for low-level possession.
  •  Staggering racial disparities remain — and in some cases are exacerbated — following marijuana reforms. African Americans are still more likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses after reform than all other races and ethnicities were before reform.”

In the states studied, African Americans  were more than 5 times more likely than all other races/ethnicities to be arrested for marijuana even after legalization or decriminalization. This result is not an aberration. Nationally, according to the ACLU in The War on Marijuana in Black and White, “Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.” Consider, too, that as a recent report from The Minnesota ACLU reveals, Blacks in the City of Minneapolis were 11.5 times more likely to be arrested than a white individual for marijuana possession – this, despite the fact, that possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized in the state of Minnesota since 1976.

Clearly, calls for reduced penalties in Drug War legislation are not enough to address the structural racism and classim that underpins criminal injustice, and the Right remains silent here. Overcriminalization alone is not a singular issue; policing plays a significant role in shaping the race, class and gender contours of the criminal legal system.

Law Enforcement: The Missing Mention of Racial Profiling

Given their Law and Order history, it is unsurprising that the Right’s plans for criminal justice reform include no critique of police/policing. The Right on Crime position on Law Enforcement emphasizes the use of more technology, surveillance, collusion with private security, and of course, profit for the companies who produce monitoring equipment and the like.

The Conservative Solution

• Increase the utilization of data-driven policing and related performance measures such as CompSTAT and CLEAR.
• Involve private security in data-driven policing to expand the knowledge base and expedite responses.
• Expand the use of GPS monitoring of parolees and probationers.

More recently, the libertarian right (along with segments of the left) has decried the increased militarization of police, made fully possible by Ronald Reagan.  Reagan declared the War on Drugs a “national security” issue and encouraged Congressional passage of the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act of 1981. The Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act allowed local, state, and federal police access to military bases, research, and equipment, and further allowed military personnel to train police. The floodgates now open, additional legislation in the late 1980s and 1990s permitted the National Guard to aid in drug investigations/arrests and authorized the Pentagon to donate surplus military equipment to local police departments. Of course, this situation was further exacerbated by 9/11.

However opposed many of us are to this merger of police and military, a focus on police militarization as the essence of current problems ignores the long history of state terror against communities of color and the extent to which a militarized response has always been the first resort here. It is insufficient, as Rand Paul recently did, to stumble into Ferguson claiming that it is militarized policing that makes Africans Americans “feel as if their [Federal] government is targeting them.” The Federal government did not kill Michael Brown; an employee of the City of Ferguson did. Militarized policing did not kill Michael Brown; plain old every day racial profiling did.

Here the Right is silent. Nothing in their proposed criminal justice reform addresses the rampant racial profiling and attendant police murders furthered by “Broken Windows”, public order policing and the dubious Compstat data that legitimates it.  Nothing to say about GOP-led stop and frisk initiatives in NYC that resulted in nearly 700,000 stops per year, 87 percent of them Black or Latino. Nothing to say about ongoing police harassment of the homeless and those try to feed them. Nothing to say about racial disprortionality in lower-level arrests that can only result from racial targeting, such as statistics like those seen in Minneapolis where Blacks are 8.86 times more likely to be arrested than a white individual for disorderly conduct, 7.54 times more likely to be arrested  for vagrancy; and 16.39 times more likely to be arrested than a white juvenile for curfew/loitering.”

These are their policies. And when the silence is broken, it is filled more often that not, with some race-baiting screed such as that exhibited by former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani – yes one of the architects of Broken Windows – where victims of police violence are “thuggified,” police protected at all costs, and white supremacy further enshrined.

 Which Side Are You On?

As cynical latecomers to a discussion of the role of race in the criminal legal system, the Right hopes to garner a few votes and perhaps further the illusion of  a “bipartisan” agenda here.  This is a calculated effort to expand their demographic reach, but there is an extreme irony in states’ rights supporters of Stand Your Groundopponents of the 14th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act and more making coded appeals to the Black vote that they are simultaneously attempting to suppress.

Further, the Right’s plans for criminal justice reform may ultimately magnify the structural racism and classism at the root of the creation, proliferation  and maintenance of the prison industrial complex. In addition to the examples already cited, there are rumblings in the ostensibly race-neutral conservative rhetoric that suggest that further divisions be made between “reformable” offenders and irredeemable “others,” now  relegated to even harsher conditions, and new calls for “personal responsibility,” respectability politics, and ultimately, increased conflation of Blackness with crime.

These are the sorts of smoke and mirrors proposals that are promoted by Koch-funded panels held in those sterile hotel conference rooms, devoid of demographics, of real people and the communities most impacted. And, devoid of the bold confrontation of structural racism and classism that is emerging in the streets of Ferguson and so many other communities. Choose your vision.

Many, eager for any sign of relief after 40 years in the mass incarceration desert, will be ready to support anything that looks like “reform.” The urge to embrace superficially sane-sounding criminal justice reforms is understandable. The era of mass incarceration must end.

But please do not be tempted to support policies that seem “reasonable” in the short run, but in the end make the prison industrial complex even more entrenched with new avenues for profiteering, and new colorblind policies that solidify structural racism. Make no mistake; any attempt at  “reforming” criminal injustice must take account of its roots in white supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchy, must propose remedies that address the roles that race, class, and gender play in the both the creation and operation of the prison industrial complex, must ask hard questions about the purported need for extensive control of any sort for the vast majority of those who are criminalized.

We must ask for nothing less.

Or we will be forty years on asking again:  how was it possible we ever thought that the Master’s Tools could – somehow? – Dismantle the Master’s very own House?

Originally published for Criminal InJustice  at Critical Mass Progress.


CI: The Perils of Criminal Justice “Reform”/The Promise of Abolition

March 12, 2014 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

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 Perils of Criminal Justice “Reform”/The Promise of Abolition
by Nancy A. Heitzeg

In an interview with Democracy Now! in early 2014,  Angela Davis reminded us again that there is power in struggle, there is opportunity in the moment, but warned us too of the potential pitfalls of “criminal justice reform.” Given all that has transpired this year, her words are well worth revisiting now as 2014 grinds to a close.

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.

Prescient words. 2014 was a year of much Smoke and Mirrors. It was a year filled with Right on Crime and Justice Reinvestment Leadership Summits, Koch Brothers funded panels where right-wing criminal justice “reform” was touted as a bipartisan “uniting of left and right,” and a flurry of proposed Federal legislation (right-wing in origin but billed as bipartisan) that would purportedly tackle mandatory minimums for drug crimes, decriminalization  of marijuana, federal prison recidivism, and the militarization of the police.  With “criminal justice reform” now on the national radar, careful examination of the details of these proposals becomes more important than ever.  As James Kilgore observes in Prop 47, Immigration Reform and More: The Contradictory Road of “Reforming” Mass Incarceration:

Mass incarceration has landed on the political agenda at both the national and local levels. But sometimes separating real change from rhetoric and contradictory processes, depicted as “much-needed reforms,” poses major challenges. Moreover, at times, liberal observers and certain nonprofits may have an emotional or financial stake in presenting a picture far rosier – or more dismal – than reality.

The complexities of … policy changes remind us that to advance the struggle against mass incarceration further, the growth of a social movement capable of unpacking those complexities and mobilizing people into action remains the key to transformation of the criminal justice system.

Unpacking these complexities requires a look behind the veneer of buzzwords – sentencing reform! decriminalization! evidence-based! cost effective! community safety! – into the devilish details of proposed legislation. It requires too, the demand that the structural racism, classism and hetero-patriarchy at the heart of the mass incarceration machine be centered in all proposals for reform, hitherto ignored in the reformist agenda. Ultimately, it requires an interrogation of the “logic” of reform itself, and an eternal vigilance with regard to the question of whether the proposed reforms actually decrease those under correctional supervision, or instead, widen the net in both expected and unanticipated ways.


CI: Stand Against Solitary

February 26, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Civil Rights, Corrupt Judiciary, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Injustice Series, Military Industrial Complex, Prison Industrial Complex

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.

Stand Against Solitary
by nancy a heitzeg

For Roses in Concrete


“Prison policy is usually shaped out of public view, but the duration and visibility of the hunger strike has helped make the subject politically urgent. Last week, New York State agreed to extensive new restrictions on whom it could confine to its SHU. This week, in Washington, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing titled “Reassessing Solitary Confinement.” Other states have also curtailed the use of isolation recently—Indiana, where change was compelled by a federal judge’s ruling, and Maine, Mississippi, and Colorado, which had faced pressure from prisoners’-rights groups. These changes are too few to constitute a total rejection of the practice. But for the first time, it has begun to seem plausible that the American attachment to this special kind of imprisonment is not a national peculiarity so much as a generational one, and that a 25-year experiment may be ending.”  ~ “The Plot from Solitary”, by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, New York Magazine

The struggle to end the tortuous use of solitary confinement is a grim one. Like the movement to abolish the death penalty, it forces us to grapple with horrifying details of life in box, buried alive, slow motion death – the gradual, state-sponsored decay of both body and mind. Worse still even,  victory in the abolition of these practices will never be enough. They are mere symptoms of the pathology of mass incarceration, mere branches never the root, that end up afflicting a numerical minority of those 2.3 million persons who languish, one way or another, in the context of the prison industrial complex. Yet resist we must.

Excessive and extensive use of long term solitary confinement is amongst the most egregious of the many human rights violations in US prisons and jails. The practice is now so pervasive that, according to Solitary Watch: “Based on available data, there are at least 80,000 prisoners in isolated confinement on any given day in America’s prisons and jails, including some 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons.” These stints are no longer the “proverbial “30 days in the hole” but regular conditions of confinement that last for decades, sometimes, as in the cases of Hugo Pinell and Albert Woodfox  ranging up to 40 years. There is widespread agreement that this is tantamount to torture.

The routinization and expansion of long term solitary confinement in the late 20th century is intended to control – not just individual inmates, but the general population as well. Indefinite and ambiguously administered solitary confinement looms as a threat to all. It is no accident that the proliferation of control units and SuperMax prisons emerges in the aftermath of successful inmate organizing and a growing connection between “imprisoned intellectuals “ and the community outside. ( See Strategizing to Defeat Control Unit Prisons and Solitary Confinement –An interview with author/activist Nancy Kurshan ) Control units serve decidedly political functions – they are meant to quell dissent and stymy inmate organizing.

Despite some particular and short-lived successes, even here the Carceral State has failed. The legal victories noted below all emanate from inmates themselves who have managed to be heard, to reach out, to organize and mobilize, even from 6 feet under. Roses that grew in concrete. More power to them.

Melanie Cervantes and Dignidad Rebelde

Melanie Cervantes and Dignidad Rebelde


CI: Feds Finally Take Action to End School to Prison Pipeline

January 15, 2014 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Education, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, What People are Doing to Change the World

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.

Feds Finally Take Action to End School to Prison Pipeline
by nancy a heitzeg

Last week, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division responded to more than a decade of data-driven critique of zero tolerance policies, the criminalization of education, and the creation of a school to prison pipeline. The Departments jointly issued extensive new guidelines urging schools to abandon zero tolerance policies, reduce a “policing” approach, and rely instead on restorative justice .

Persistent and consistent disparities in rate of suspensions and expulsions are the heart of the official critique. As the New York Times notes in “The Civil Rights of Children“:

“The guidance documents included striking data on racial inequities. For example, African-American students represent only 15 percent of public school students, but they make of 35 percent of students suspended once, 44 percent of those suspended more than once and 36 percent of those expelled. Statistical information does not in itself prove discrimination. But research has shown that black students do not engage in more serious or more frequent misbehavior than other students.

The treatment of disabled students should be a source of national shame: They represent 12 percent of students in the country, but they make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”

This is consistent with a growing national concern over the school to prison pipeline.  The U.S. Department of Education and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice committed in 2012 to addressing disparities in the school suspensions and expulsions as a civil rights matter, including filing suit against the State of Mississippi for operating a school to prison pipeline in Meridian. In December of 2012 the first ever Congressional hearings on the school to prison pipeline were held and featured expert testimony that detailed both the scope of the problem and solutions including calls for decreased funding incentives for police, increased funding for counseling, support staff  and educational resources, mandatory nation-wide data collection on suspension, expulsion and arrests at school, and support for evidenced-based solutions to end the persistent racial disparities that shape the contours of the pipeline.

The guidelines leave some questions – especially around the police presence at schools-but they are a much welcome step forward that reminds us too of the importance of federal framing and leadership. The complete set of resources is included below.


CI: More Than 1000 Words…

December 11, 2013 By: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Civil Rights, Corrupt Judiciary, Corrupt Legislature, Criminal Defense, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex, Prisoner Rights

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.

More than 1000 Words…
by nancy a heitzeg

How many tens of trillions of words have been written here and elsewhere about the state of Criminal InJustice? How ever many, it has not been enough. Despite claims of and calls for reform, the USA remains Incarceration Nation, with a brutal system of harsh sentences, extreme conditions, with a racial dynamic that persists, perhaps because it is precisely the point.

The scope and scale are stunning. So tonight, let’s just look. The following graphics are from a new fact sheet from The Sentencing Project: Trends in US Corrections. The numbers and images speak  for themselves.


sp3NG (more…)