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Locked up in the land of the free

NICKI JAMESON | 29.07.2004 08:40 | Analysis | Repression | London | World

Crime and punishment in the US - a warning to British activists

On 30 June 2002 the US prison population reached two million for the first time in history. By 30 June 2003, 2,078,570 prisoners were held in Federal or State prisons or in local jails – equivalent to the imprisonment of 480 of every 100,000 US residents. No other country imprisons its population on anything like this scale, and prison is just the end point of a massive all-powerful, omnipresent ‘criminal justice’ and policing system, under which up to another five million people are on probation or parole at any one time. 65% of prisoners are from minority ethnic groups, although those groups make up less than 25% of the overall population.

Although the USA has always had a relatively high per capita prison population, the current incarceration explosion began in the 1980s under the late unlamented Ronald Reagan. By 1995 spending on imprisonment by the state of California had exceeded that on higher education, and this shift was reflected nationwide.

Among the US socialists who have sought to explain the economic and political background to mass imprisonment in the US are Christian Parenty and Richard D Vogel. Their writings are invaluable for anyone seeking to understand not only the current US situation, but the direction in which British ‘criminal justice’ policy is being guided by social fascist Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett.

Economics and imprisonment
Vogel’s essay, ‘Capitalism and Incarceration Revisited’ (Monthly Review September 2003) begins with his conclusion 20 years earlier that the ‘overall trends and year-by-year correspondence between economic conditions and imprisonment establish quite clearly the relationship between capitalism and incarceration - prisons under capitalism are, as Marx pointed out long ago, dumping grounds of the industrial reserve army. In very few respects are the social consequences of the un- and under-employment of people under capitalism as clear as they are in the fluctuations of the prison population.’

Vogel then tests this thesis by overlaying graphs of incarceration and employment for the period 1926-1996. This reveals ‘a high rate of incarceration accompanying the economic dislocation of the Great Depression when, in 1931, 52 persons per 100,000 civilian population were sent to prison. Correspondingly, the lowest rate of imprisonment occurred during the Second World War (28.4 per 100,000 in 1944) when unemployment dropped to 1.2 per cent.’

As soon as the war ended, both unemployment and incarceration began to increase, and continued doing so with little interruption until the 1960s when the Vietnam War led to a drop in both rates. The ‘current and most dramatic trend of incarceration’ then began following the US defeat in Vietnam.

The rises in unemployment and incarceration immediately after the Vietnam War continued to reflect the same relationship that existed in the earlier decades of the 20th century. However, the sudden upward curve in imprisonment after the early 1980s, with no concomitant surge in overall unemployment, demonstrates what Vogel calls ‘a fundamentally changed relationship between capitalism and incarceration’.

This relationship is one in which simply comparing overall figures for incarceration and unemployment tells us nothing. The additional factor that must be included in any meaningful analysis is race. ‘The Bureau of Justice Statistics…predicted that a young black man aged 16 in 1991 had a 28.5 percent chance of spending time in prison during his life. This prediction counts only felony convictions and does not include time spent in local or county jails. When social class differences within the black population are factored in the prospect of poor black males being incarcerated is probably double this figure – closer to 60 percent. And, if we add the differential jail incarceration rates for blacks, a 75 percent likelihood of going to prison is not an unreasonable estimate.’

And the large number of black and minority ethnic prisoners is not simply a result of prejudice among sentencers, although this too is present. It is a direct product of the role that the non-white working class plays in US capitalism.

‘Liberal critics are quick to lament racial discrimination in the criminal justice system but always steer clear of the basic structure of capitalism that accounts for the concentration of national minorities in prison. The heavy concentration of minority inmates, however, comes as no surprise in view of the economic dislocation and instability endured by national minorities in the United States. The unemployment rate for black males is consistently twice that of white males…[who] have faced serious unemployment only during times of economic recession, while…minority males have faced recession (and depression) level unemployment since the end of the Second World War…national minorities have traditionally served as the reserve army of wage laborers for American capitalism – a function that accounts for their overrepresentation in American prisons.’

The sheer number of prisoners is now so great that imprisonment is no longer a response to unemployment, but an alternative to it. Just as there was less unemployment in wartime because the working class were drafted, ‘the prison system now holds enough of the reserve army of wage labourers for extended periods of time to actually keep the official unemployment rate down.’

Social apartheid - ‘Quality of life’ for the rich; ‘Zero Tolerance’ of the poor
Parenty’s 1999 book Lockdown America - Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, guides the reader through the massive militarisation of the US police and immigration service, which began with Republican President Richard Nixon’s quest to re-establish social control after the turbulent late 1960s, when ‘capitalism hit a dual social and economic crisis and it was in response to this crisis that the criminal justice buildup of today began…Initially this buildup was in response to racial upheaval and political rebellion…’

In particular, the enforced retreat of three police forces from the 1965 Watts rebellion had caused a crisis of police confidence and the realisation that they had not been properly equipped to deal with urban insurgency. Consequently, just as 15 years later in Britain, inner-city uprisings would lead the police to draw on the experiences of the occupying army in the north of Ireland, the US police looked to the military in Vietnam for ideas. This resulted on the one hand in the rapid buying up of helicopters, computers, microfilm fingerprint files and electronic maps, on the other in ‘soft’ strategies of incorporating sections of the community, buying off key people and gathering intelligence.

Nixon was prevented from fully realising his plans due to continued resistance and the scandal of Watergate. The drive for militarised social control ultimately took off in the 1980s and has been built on by every successive administration to date.

This second stage is described by Parenty as ‘more a response to the vicious economic restructuring of the Reagan era …To restore sagging business profits, the welfare of working people had to be sacrificed. Thus the second phase of the criminal justice crackdown has become…a way to manage rising inequality and surplus populations. ‘

So, from then until now, there has been an unrelenting build-up of weaponry by the state, both in terms of actual hardware, with even transport police and prison guards armed to the teeth, and in the shape of laws and powers that pervade every area of life and seek to control every form of behaviour. These laws are universal on the statute books but selective in their application. They are ‘sold’ to the population in the guise of ‘the war on drugs’, ‘the fight against organised crime’ or even under the seemingly innocuous, even desirable quest to improve the ‘quality of life’. but in reality they make up the elements in an all-encompassing method of social and racial control of the working class.

‘Quality of life’ (QT) is the other side of the much-discussed coin that is ‘zero tolerance’ (ZT). This form of policing should be studied by readers in Britain, where it is being brought in under the guise of dealing with ‘anti-social behaviour’. The ‘quality of life’ under discussion is that of the mainly white middle class, which is perceived as threatened by the mere existence of poor working class people on the same streets as them.

According to Parenty, the chief protagonist in spreading the use of ZT/QOL policing has been ex-New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton. His doctrine is one of ‘vigorous enforcement of even the most trifling municipal codes in the theory that preventing “disorder” will prevent violence.’ Under Mayor Rudi Giuliani, Bratton developed the doctrine first propounded by right-wing criminologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling into a method of beat policing. ‘Police were advised to…control “panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.” According to the theory, enforcing laws against public urination, graffiti, and inebriation will create an aura of regulation that helps prevent brutal crimes like rape and murder’ (p70).

Like former British Home Secretary Jack Straw, Giuliani had a particular hatred of ‘squeegee operators’ who, apparently had ‘been harassing and intimidating people for years’. A one-sided war was declared on these mainly African American unemployed people and their method of scratching out a living in the big city. Victorious, Bratton and Giuliani next went for school truants with what Parenty describes as ‘a level of fanfare usually reserved for serious narcotics busts’. Kids were herded into buses, shielding their faces from the glare of the assembled TV cameras, taken to makeshift detention centres and their parents hauled into court.

Multiplied across the city of New York and spawning clone versions across the country, ZT/QOL policing appeared to be a success - between 1994 and 1998 overall crime in New York dropped 43 per cent. But at what cost? - ‘During the same period another set of statistics has also emerged. Complaints of police brutality…jumped by 62 per cent...while…the city has paid out more than $100 million in damages arising from police violence…Bratton’s response was “That’s too damn bad” ‘ (p83).

So, the day-to-day actions of the poorest sections of the working class are increasingly criminalised, with virtually every form of street activity being ‘ticketable’, ticketing an excuse to register details on databases, and non-payment of tickets grounds for further harassment and eventually imprisonment. At the same time, war is taking place against the immigrant populations by combined police and immigration authorities. Writing in 1999, Parenty described vicious state racism against the African American and Latino communities. Post-2001, many of the three million Arab American citizens now have experience of the same treatment.

Parenty describes an immigration round-up in Arizona along the US-Mexico border, in which ‘the combined force stops Latino drivers and pedestrians at random, conducting warrantless searches, …cops and INS officers humiliate Latinos on public highways and interrogate children on their way to school.’ In this raid 432 undocumented migrants and two US citizens were deported, some wearing only their underwear. Among those stopped and harassed were Arizona’s top-ranked amateur golfer and people whose families had resided in California and Arizona for the last 150 to 200 years’ (p140).

The aim of this terror is to ensure that immigrant workers live in fear, do not organise, do not rebel, do not ask for higher wages or better conditions. They remain a cheap, expendable source of labour. At the same time, they can play the role of convenient scapegoat for the economic problems now beginning to affect the whole of US society.

And naked and overwhelming force is increasingly the shape of every-day policing of black and Latino working class areas of cities. Parenty describes the operations of the ‘super-cops’ of the Fresno, California Violent Crime Suppression Unit (VCSU) as ‘a sneak preview of a future American police state’. The VCSU began operations in a massive overkill response to genuine problems of crime and gang warfare but continued the heavily armed, paramilitary operations long after every gang member for miles had been incarcerated. The Unit acts unashamedly as an army of occupation - ‘If police are soldiers instead of civil servants, and their task is destruction and conquest, then it follows that the civilian community will be the enemy.’ (p112)

Resistance and repression
The US state learned from its policing experiences, that it must employ multiple layers of repression in order to continue to rule. It has learned the same lesson in relation to the prisons themselves. As a consequence, despite the unprecedented rise in numbers of prisoners over the 33 years since the highly politicised revolt at Attica Correctional Facility in New York, which was put down by maximum force by two hundred state troopers who shot dead 33 prisoners and 10 guards who had been held hostage, there have been very few incidents of major rebellion within the prison system.

To keep the imprisoned population subdued, the US state has employed a wide range of tactics, including sensory deprivation and isolation, forced labour, chain-gangs, shooting of prisoners on exercise yards, the use of informants or favoured bullies, and the encouragement of gang warfare. Perhaps the foremost among the prison control strategies, however, has been the use of the total lockdown prison or ‘supermax’. By using a type of prison where every prisoner is effectively in permanent solitary confinement, and only leaves their cell when chained and escorted by paramilitary guards, the prospect of organisation or rebellion can be prevented.

Like capitalism itself, the prison system contains the seeds of its own destruction. Vogel ends his essay with a description of a system heading for an economic and political crisis:

‘Current indicators suggest that the chronic economic recession that was avoided during the last twenty years is upon us. This recession, like the economic contractions of capitalism in the past, will provide a flood of new prisoners that will have to be accommodated in a system that is presently at, or near, capacity. The economic costs of mass incarceration and correctional control…are already staggering and cannot be maintained…As the economy contracts and tax revenues dwindle, federal and state governments are slipping deeper into deficit. Prisons are already being targeted for budget cuts…Ironically supermax prisons might the be the first to go – the cost of keeping masses of men in concentrated solitary confinement has proven to be much greater than even regular maximum security incarceration. The closing down of supermax facilities alone could spark widespread prison insurrections because it would put the “troublemakers” back among the general prison population. Once that happened, protest and resistance would follow and the voice of American prisoners, silenced for so long would be heard again – it would echo the “sound before the fury of those who are oppressed” proclaimed at Attica in 1971’.

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