Category Archives: Behind Bars

What’s Prison For? A Review

  • What’s Prison For? Punishment and Rehabilitation in the Age of Mass Incarceration is published in the US by Columbia Global Reports
  • The Guardian — October 1, 2022
  • Charles Kaiser
    The statistics are familiar but remain startling: America’s incarceration rate per 100,000 is “roughly twice that of Russia’s and Iran’s, four times that of Mexico’s, five times of England’s, six times Canada’s” and nine times that of Germany. In addition, “parole and probation regulate the lives of 4.5 million Americans” – more than twice as many as are confined in prison.

Keller is a veteran journalist who won a Pulitzer for his first New York Times posting as a foreign correspondent, in Moscow as the Soviet Union collapsed. He went on to be executive editor and then a columnist, but in 30 years, criminal justice was never one of his specialties. That all changed when Neil Barsky, a journalist turned investor turned philanthropist, tapped Keller to be founding editor of The Marshall Project, an ambitious effort to produce great journalism about the “causes and consequences” of mass incarceration.

Keller’s book highlights many of the best pieces by Marshall Project reporters, but he also uses plenty of his own reporting to illuminate this particularly dark side of American democracy.

The “good news”: the incarcerated population has actually been in slow and steady decline, from a peak of 2.3 million in 2008 to 1.8 million in 2020, including an unprecedented drop of 14% spurred by early releases because of Covid.

America’s unfortunate exceptionalism on this subject is actually a fairly recent development. From the 1920s through the 1970s, the rate of incarceration mostly held steady at around 110 out of every 100,000 Americans. But it is nearly 500 today.

Liberals and conservatives were equally responsible. A Democratic House speaker, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, sharply overreacted to the crack cocaine overdose of Len Bias, a Boston Celtics draftee, pushing through the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, “which imposed mandatory sentences, asset forfeitures and outlandishly severe sanctions on crack cocaine” favored by Black ghetto residents, while white consumers of powdered cocaine faced much more lenient penalties.

As Keller writes, “Rehabilitation was denigrated on the right as coddling”. But a Democratic Senate judiciary committee chairman, Joseph R Biden of Delaware, made everything much worse by championing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which not only spurred a prison-building boom but also eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners enrolled in college courses. President Biden has acknowledged his mistake.

It was President Reagan who inserted the profit motive into the prison business, allowing the Corrections Corporation of America to pioneer “the idea of privately run, for-profit prisons”. As Keller explains, “Since the new prison owners were paid the same way as hotel proprietors, by occupancy, they had no incentive to prepare prisoners for release.” Private prisons now house about 7% of state inmates and 17% of federal.

Keller makes an unintentional argument for sending more Republicans to jail, by pointing out that three of the more unlikely advocates of prison reform are Republican officials who ended up in prison.

Patrick Nolan was the minority leader of the California assembly when, in 1993, he was indicted on charges of racketeering and extortion. He served 25 months in a federal prison near San Francisco. When he was paroled, he was recruited by Charles Colson, a famous Watergate felon from Nixon’s White House who found religion “shortly before serving seven months himself in a federal prison”.

The Rikers Island jail complex in New York.
The Rikers Island jail complex in New York. Photograph: Seth Wenig/AP

Colson campaigned for more humane treatment of prisoners. Nolan became director of a new Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation. Meanwhile, Bernard Kerik, Rudy Giuliani’s police commissioner who then did three years in federal prison for tax fraud and other crimes, became an advocate for voting rights for ex-felons.

It’s not all good news. By the end of Trump administration, Nolan had succumbed to a rightwing conspiracy theory that “billionaire George Soros was masterminding a ‘Trojan horse’ strategy to elect soft-on-crime prosecutors and bring down the entire criminal justice system”.

Keller points to Norway and Germany as providing the best examples for systemic reform. While American prison guards rarely get more than a few weeks of training, Germans get two years of college courses in psychology, ethics and communication. American visitors to German jails are amazed to see unarmed guards “shooting baskets, playing chess, sharing lunch” and having conversations with prisoners.

One reason Europe is so far ahead is its depoliticization of the criminal justice system: judges and district attorneys are appointed, not elected.

A Fordham University professor, John Pfaff, has pointed out that in the US, during the 1990s and 2000s, “as violent crime and arrests for violent crime both declined, the number of felony cases in state courts” suddenly shot up. Because of political pressures, “tens of thousands more prosecutors” were hired, “even after the rising crime of the 1980s had stalled out”.

Pfaff attributed the racial inequality in numbers of prisoners to “an imbalance of political power – tough-on-crime prosecutors elected by suburban whites who see the community destruction of mass incarceration from a distance”.

Keller reports the most effective ways to reduce the prison population are also the most obvious ones:

  • Make low-level drug crimes “non-crimes”.

  • Divert people into “mental health and addiction programs, or probation or community service”.

  • “Abolish mandatory minimum sentences and encourage” judges to “apply the least severe punishment appropriate under the circumstances”.

  • Give “compassionate release to old and infirm inmates” who don’t pose a real threat to the general population.

The challenge is to get these common-sense ideas to prevail over the rhetoric of politicians who still rail against anyone who is “soft on crime” – the knee-jerk ideology which got us into this catastrophe in the first place.

  • What’s Prison For? Punishment and Rehabilitation in the Age of Mass Incarceration is published in the US by Columbia Global Reports

 

Memo to Florida Gov. DeSantis: DON’T You DARE Read This!

NOTE: “Don’t Say ‘Gay’”? Smacking around Disney’s Mouse?? Bullying teachers??? Squashing Drag Storytime?? Hectoring trans folk???

William Prynne (1600-1669)

Guv, you must have a secret stash of the more colorful works of William Prynne (1600-1669).  Back in The Day, old Willie P. Knew how to put the Pew and the Pure back into Puritanism. Let’s hear a bit more about him . . .]

In 1633, the irascible [but indefatigable] Prynne published Histrio-Mastix, a thousand-page attack on stage plays, actresses, the magistrates who permitted them (plays and women in them ) and the spectators who viewed them.  Women had long been banned from the stage, which evoked much cross-dressing and falsetto flouncing by male actors. But don’t call them the first drag queens, particularly if you’re a teacher in Florida, Texas, or other neo-Puritan jurisdictions: the anonymous tiplines will soon be buzzing with your name and address.

Part of the title page, which goes on and on . . .

Prynne settled for calling females who acted onstage simply “notorious whores.” He also denounced long hair on men as “unseemly and unlawful unto Christians”, while it was “mannish, unnatural, impudent, and unchristian” for women to cut it short.

Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria. They were not amused by William Prynne’s condemnation of such abominations as long hair on men, stage plays, women in stage plays, and women in stage plays who actually dared to speak. But while they lacked modern tools such as Twitter, they had other means to express their displeasure at bad reviews, as Prynne learned.

But this polemic about women on stage, among other horrors, earned the royal displeasure from the King (Charles I) who had enjoyed watching his queen (Henrietta Maria) perform at Court. In fact, just about the time Prynne’s doorstop tome appeared in print, the queen herself had starred in an elaborate dramatic masque, “The Shepherd’s Paradise,” along with several of her ladies, who even  <gasp!> broke new ground in public shamelessness by speaking actual lines.

“Paradise” was notorious, all right, and not only because of the women’s speaking. It was also one of many very expensive royal indulgences: it called for elaborate sets, enough for nine scene changes, and lasted for seven to eight hours.  The “plot” was something about a mythical

“pastoral community dedicated to Platonic love
[don’t ask], refuge for unrequited lovers of both genders [do ask: and all orientations?] — “a peaceful receptacle of distressed minds.” The Shepherd’s Paradise is ruled by Bellesa, “beauty,” who was certainly played by Henrietta Maria. . . .” [Wikipedia]

“Paradise” wasn’t a hit, except, it seems, with the royal couple. But the rule then was, “Don’t Say Nay”: and in those days, even without Twitter, the ones in power had ways to make critics rue their effrontery and ill manners, ways that today’s neo-Puritans can only envy and dream about (so far).

For his published insolence Prynne was sent to the Fleet prison [where William Penn was later confined], spent three days shackled in the public pillory, and while in it had both his ears partly cut off.

The pillory. Prynne spent 3 days in it.

Fleet prison also played “host” to “Freeborn John” Lilburne, a “Leveller” agitator for religious and political liberty. He was imprisoned there in 1638 for distributing “unlicensed” [aka censored] publications—not coincidentally, perhaps, one of Prynne’s own—and for which was whipped while being dragged behind an oxcart from the Fleet prison to the pillory at Westminster.

[Lilburne] later thanked God (in defiant verse) for sustaining him through his ordeal:

When from Fleet-bridge to Westminster,
       at Carts Arsse I was whipt,
Then thou with joy my soul upheldst,
       so that I never wept.

Likewise when I on Pillory,
       in Palace-yard did stand,
Then by thy help against my foes,
       I had the upper-hand.”

Prynne was similarly punished but not deterred. He published at least 200 pamphlets & books, upholding presbyterianism and culturally strict Calvinism, and calling for the monarch to rule over all religion in England. He also strongly opposed a plan to permit Jews to return to and settle in England (after being banned since 1290).

In 1654, he took time to issue a blast against a rising new movement, titled, The Quakers Unmasked, and clearly detected to be but the spawn of Romish frogs, Jesuites, and Franciscan fryers; sent from Rome to seduce the intoxicated giddy-headed English nation . . . [yada yada]

It was William Prynne’s fate (and  William Penn’s, ours; and that of Gov. DeSantis) to live in what are called “interesting times.” Prynne passed through years of religious conflict in England, which led to three civil wars, a revolution which overthrew the British monarchy and established church; and a failed attempt to build a “Commonwealth” in its place. The Commonwealth’s collapse was followed by the restoration of the monarchy and the official church. Quakers, among other surviving Dissenters, then faced and, at high cost, survived decades of persecution.

William III giving his Royal Assent to the Toleration Act, 1689.

By 1689, some of the “interesting” trends had begun to simmer down, enough that several generations of continuing religious turmoil finally produced an Act of Toleration. It wasn’t ideal, but opened the door to legal status for dissident groups like Quakers, and ushered in a long period of often “uninteresting” Quietism among them; which ultimately produced more interesting times. But by 1689, Prynne did not object, as he had been dead for twenty years. (William Penn, OTOH, saw the inside of several more prison cells in those last pre-Toleration decades.)

Prynne and Histrio-Mastix are pretty much forgotten today; but some of the penalties he faced, and even practices he supported, seem to be having a kind of revival. His attitudes are also recognizable; he wasn’t exactly a apostle of critical thinking and open inquiry. I see the impact of these echoes in, for instance, the numerous and credible reports of a nationwide teacher shortage. 

Clearly, low pay and respect from officials are big drivers here; but my sense is that the push from culture war zealots and extremists is making it worse. Beyond schools, libraries and other forums for public expression are feeling the pressures. Too many among us show symptoms of being part of what Prynne deemed an “intoxicated giddy-headed English [or American] nation,” drunk on the brew of revenge, race and reaction.

What are the rest of us gonna do?

Well, one thing: keep this article away from DeSantis, and his ilk. It will just give them some new bad ideas; and they’ve got plenty of those already. And otherwise, bring everyone out to vote pro-democracy; then get ready to tough it out, on every front.

 

Thanks to — Andrew Murphy for material adapted from his biography of William Penn, and help from Wikipedia.  

Let Prisoners Read More Books!

 

Reading While Incarcerated Saved Me. So Why Are Prisons Banning Books?

Credit…Ben Denzer

Mr. Blackwell is an incarcerated writer.

SHELTON, Wash. — During my first decade in prison, I busied myself with exercising and hanging out in the big yard. I hardly grew as a person, aside from developing muscles that I really used only to intimidate others.

I stopped going to school at around 14. After multiple stints in juvenile detention, I was too far behind all my classmates to catch up. By my mid-20s, I was sentenced to a total of 45 years in prison, first for a robbery and then for taking the life of another person during a drug robbery. Every day I regret what I did. It wasn’t until I began college in prison in my 30s that I started to realize my full potential.

In my classes, I met people who were intelligent, spoke with confidence and understood structural forces I had almost no knowledge of, despite the huge role they played in my life. I realized I didn’t want to feel like the most ignorant person in the room. I, too, wanted to participate in an intellectual conversation and have people think I was smart and well spoken.

Shyly, I asked a classmate and fellow prisoner in my class if he’d be willing to help me. He jumped at the task. Before I knew it, I was absorbed in David Foster Wallace and Michel Foucault and using concepts and terms in conversations that were previously far over my head.

Continue reading Let Prisoners Read More Books!