Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky is a senior fellow at Demos and a writer on social justice issues. His latest book is The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives.

Recent Articles



Watching Steven Soderbergh?s Che as Obama begins his presidency was a curious experience -- a chance to ponder both the power of personality and the seductive notion that change can be embodied in one individual. Ernest ?Che? Guevara was of a different moment, of course ? the Argentine doctor-turned-revolutionary was an uncompromising man more interested in blowing up bridges than building them, more interested in war-tinged rhetoric than that of service. Che earned his revolutionary stripes in his campaign, alongside Fidel Castro, to liberate Cuba from the despotic US-backed leader Fulgencia Batista. His record in the wake of peace is spottier, however -- he had disastrous turns as the commander of La Cabana prison, in charge of purging Batista?s ranks, and as head of Cuba?s National Bank and the minister of industry. He left behind those positions to foment revolution in other countries, including the Congo and Mozambique -- victory in Cuba seemed conditional and fraught with the...

The Misshapen Mind

Two new books argue that the human brain's haphazard evolution has left us at the prey of irrational behaviors and self-defeating instincts.

The human mind, we like to think, is an embodiment of perfection. For those with a religious inclination, our ability to think through issues logically, to construct narratives about our surroundings, and to recall events that happened decades earlier is proof positive of a divine hand at work. For the nonreligious, the mind is a secular miracle, an indication that, left to its own devices, evolution produces something akin to a Panglossian vision of the best outcomes in the best of all possible worlds. Two new books beg to differ. The first, New York University psychologist Gary Marcus' Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind (Houghton Mifflin, April 2008) sets out to show the many ways in which the human mind is an evolutionary hodge-podge, a series of good-enough solutions to the problem of understanding and responding to our environment. The second is The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't -- and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger (Dutton, June 2008), by...

A Worthy Diversion

Pennsylvania has developed a model program to keep offenders with mental illness out of the criminal-justice system.

One night last winter, Sally Judson was arrested for prostitution and disorderly conduct. She was also charged with resisting arrest and possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia. Judson, who has schizophrenia as well as a heroin addiction, is one of hundreds of thousands of Americans clogging the criminal-justice system for drug offenses. Many, like Judson, are also mentally ill, and the system often fails to treat the mental illness and instead ends up just submerging it in the criminal behavior. But Judson (not her real name) was fortunate to be arrested in Pittsburgh, one of several U.S. cities pioneering a new and promising approach to treating mentally ill offenders that uses a diversion strategy supervised by newly created mental-health courts. After being arrested and placed in the intake area of the jail, Judson was identified as mentally ill by staff of the Allegheny County Office of Behavioral Health, according to the office's Amy Kroll. Two hours later, Judson went for...

Reforming a Prison Nation

Two students of mass incarceration in America discuss the current political moment and the prospects for rolling back the carceral state.

Sasha Abramsky is the author of American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment and a senior fellow at Demos. Marie Gottschalk is the author of The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America and associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. In the e-mail exchange below, they discuss the current political climate surrounding issues of crime and imprisonment and the prospects for changing American criminal justice policies. --- ABRAMSKY: Marie, one of the common themes in both of our books is the notion that the past always haunts the present. Political, racial, and economic divisions from bygone eras influence contemporary social attitudes toward crime and punishment and affect which individuals and groups are most likely to fall under the control of one or another criminal justice agency. Institutional legacies also matter. Today's experiment with wholesale incarceration in the...

Fear and Loathing in Middle America

A new book in the Gonzo journalism vein tries to explain to coastal elites what they've never understood about the working-class small towns in the middle of the country.

Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War by Joe Bageant (Crown, 288 pages) - - - Every so often, you pick up a book and two pages in your nose is glued to it. Not necessarily because of the subject matter per se -- though good subject matter certainly helps -- but because the prose is so damned electric. Usually, I've found, when it comes to reportage like this, the book's author has a single name: Hunter S. Thompson. Recently, though, I've added another name to my stuck-nose lexicon, having been utterly ensnared by Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting With Jesus . Bageant grew up in a fundamentalist Christian, ultra-working-class family in a claustrophobic little Virginia town named Winchester. Then, in his own terminology, he made his escape. He moved west and made a pretty decent career for himself in the world of journalism. A few years ago, though, he felt a craving for his childhood home and, now deep into middle-age, decided to relocate once more. So the self-...