Reforming a Prison Nation

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 United States is only really possible because of a series of bureaucracies, federal, state, and local institutions, law enforcement tools, sentencing laws, and so on that we have inherited from the past and that, with some modification, can be used in today's climate to incapacitate a growing percentage of the country's population.

It's too tempting, sometimes, to only deal with the past superficially, given that today we seem to be at an entirely anomalous moment in terms of the numbers we imprison and the amount of money we spend on our criminal justice systems (plural) around the country. What do you think the past tells us about the prospects for significantly reducing America’s unprecedented incarceration rate in the near future?

GOTTSCHALK: First, a closer look at the past should indeed disabuse us of the simplistic notion that the origins of the carceral state rest with one man, Barry Goldwater, who caught the law-and-order fever in 1964 that then infected the Republican Party and, after that, fearful Democratic leaders playing catch-up. The construction of the carceral state was a bipartisan project with complex political, institutional, and deeply historical roots. Leading Democrats played a key role from early on, as did certain social movements -- some of which are not usually associated with conservative causes, like the women’s movement.

This understanding of the past should dampen some recent speculation that fiscally conservative Republicans, troubled by the economic burden of the country’s jails and prisons, are ready to roll back the carceral state in a Nixon-to-China scenario. It was mistakenly assumed three decades ago, in fact, that shared disillusionment on the right and left with the rehabilitative ideal would shrink the prison population. Instead, it exploded.

While some of the recent economic arguments against the carceral state are compelling and politically useful, opponents of the prison boom need to resist the temptation to reduce this mainly to a question of dollars and cents. Historically, penal reform movements, like many other successful social movements in the United States, have had strong moral and religious overtones.

ABRAMSKY: Yes, that's true. We need to keep in mind that earlier penal reformers, such as the journalist George Washington Cable who helped expose (and ultimately reform) the appalling conditions in Southern convict-leasing camps in the late 19th century, did not cast their arguments primarily in economic terms. Going back even earlier, the early 19th century prison-builders in Philadelphia and elsewhere stressed moral arguments as they built the first real penitentiaries anywhere on earth, to replace wholesale corporal punishments. A few generations later, reformers devised probation and parole to divert some offenders out of those prisons, and later established a juvenile justice system to remove teenage delinquents from the harsh environs of adult correctional facilities.

GOTTSCHALK: Likewise, today some prominent conservatives associated with the religious right are starting to embrace the cause of prison reform for non-economic reasons. Their conversion to this cause does raise some disquieting questions about the separation of church and state. Nonetheless, the right’s newfound interest in penal reform cannot be dismissed merely as a cynical gesture strategically designed to further the broader conservative evangelical political agenda. Dollars-and-cents arguments against the carceral state may not be enough to mobilize this potentially important constituency for penal reform.

ABRAMSKY: I think you're absolutely right -- that to get a meaningful critique of current incarceration trends and criminal justice strategies off the ground, there has to be a moral component, and also an understanding that both major political parties are, to a large degree, implicated in the current prison buildup. But economic arguments can't be entirely dismissed either.

There are some people who will respond to powerful moral claims. These claims can be based around, for example, statements about the immorality of sweeping up vastly disproportionate numbers of African Americans for drug using and dealing, despite the fact that most studies indicate blacks don't use or deal drugs at a greater rate than do whites. Or they can tackle the issue from the standpoint of felon disenfranchisement. My previous book, Conned, tackled the fact that there are currently about five million Americans left voteless because they live in states that disenfranchise former felons and people on parole or probation. Or they can say there's something wrong with a system that has lost sight of punishing people in a way proportionate to the severity of their crime -- hence the disturbing spectacle of the U.S. Supreme Court upholding California's right to put shoplifters in prison for the rest of their lives via three-strikes convictions.

Then there are other people who are comfortable with the moral component of today's incarceration boom (they might, for example, have a carefully thought-out rationale for defending three-strikes laws), but they're not happy with the effect this whole process is having on public finances. Those people need to be brought aboard the policy debate, and their arguments need to be given full weight.

Now the question is, will the moral and the economic critiques come together into a powerful enough set of arguments to actually permeate the mainstream political debate in a long-term and significant way?

GOTTSCHALK: I agree with you that “moral” and “economic” arguments can be used to justify a vast array of policies -- some that can help bolster the carceral state and others that undermine it. My main objection is to a certain kind of economic argument that goes something like this: Fiscal conservatives will lead us to the promised land of progressive penal reform because the carceral state has become just too darn expensive. By that logic, penny-pinching conservatives should have been at the forefront of downsizing the military and securing the “peace dividend” after World War II and the end of the Cold War.

Other types of economic arguments are essential to forging an effective movement to reverse the prison boom. While the prison-industrial complex was not a central factor in constructing the carceral state, it helps sustain it today in many states. Prison guards’ unions, private prison companies, and the suppliers of everything from telephone services to Taser stun guns continue to press on local communities, states, and the federal government to maintain the carceral state. Precisely how the economic burden of the carceral state is portrayed can help neutralize these vested interests.

Coded maps showing how much Connecticut spends on prison, probation, and parole for people living in certain urban neighborhoods helped build momentum for major penal reforms in 2003 and 2004 that have slowed one of the fastest growing prison populations in the country. The identification of nearly three dozen “million-dollar blocks” in Brooklyn, where so many residents have been sent to prison that the total cost of incarcerating them will exceed $1 million, helped build support for penal reform in New York state.

ABRAMSKY: I'm glad you brought up the infamous "million-dollar blocks," because mapping is a great way to visualize how seemingly different social problems relate to each other. Race and poverty are a sort of über-backdrop to the carceral state. In looking at the million-dollar block maps, it's easy to see that the state is spending enormous amounts of money locking up people in the poorest ghettos and barrios of New York, places like the South Bronx, East Harlem, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. That allows a viewer to think about crime and mass imprisonment as being, to a large degree, products of poverty and inequality.

GOTTSCHALK: Economic arguments can be effective in other ways. Police chiefs, prosecutors, and other law enforcement officials have concerns about how the escalating cost of corrections is leaving less money available for services like policing and crime prevention. Their concerns mirror recent public opinion surveys that show overwhelming support for spending more on the police, crime prevention programs for young people, and drug treatment for nonviolent offenders. They also indicate strong public opposition to additional spending on prisons.

Some foes of the carceral state have been particularly effective at demonstrating how the costly race to incarcerate has been run on the back of higher education, leaving many public colleges and universities strapped for cash. As Ruth Gilmore shows in her new book Golden Gulag, anti-prison activists in California are using creative economic arguments and forging new rural-urban coalitions and alliances with environmental groups to unhinge the carceral state. For example, a coalition of family ranchers and farm worker families in Farmersville successfully fought the construction of a new prison in their community by showing how prisons not only fail to solve the economic problems of impoverished rural areas but also create new ones -- endangering the water supply, aggravating class and racial inequality, and raising rates of domestic violence.

ABRAMSKY: One of the things that interests me about the current presidential election season is the fact that Democrats this time around are talking far more about structural poverty than has been the case in the recent past. John Edwards, in particular, is explicitly modeling his rhetoric and approach on the antipoverty themes that Martin Luther King Jr.and Robert Kennedy made their own 40 years ago. Now if Edwards and the others are serious about addressing growing inequality in American society, at some point they're going to have to grab the political hot potato of the criminal justice system; they'll have to find a way to discuss over-incarceration that doesn't leave them open to charges of being soft on crime.

It's a real challenge, because for 30 years now, anyone who's dared to talk about the structural problems that lead to poor peoples' large-scale involvement with the criminal justice system has been eaten alive by right-wing commentators, talk-radio hosts, and so on.

GOTTSCHALK: In the conclusion of American Furies, you discuss the initial optimism felt by many that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger might cast California’s penal policies in a new direction that emphasizes rehabilitation and reducing the number of people in prison. With the governor’s and legislature’s approval in April of an $8.3 billion prison construction plan, the largest in the nation’s history, it now appears that California is attempting to build itself out of its overcrowding crisis and expand the carceral state.

ABRAMSKY: Yes, when push came to shove, legislators, prodded by Schwarzenegger, did opt to put billions of dollars into a crash-building program to expand the state's already enormous prison system as a way to tackle a chronic overcrowding crisis. But, for a year or so before they took this wrong turn, legislators were seriously considering alternatives, including the creation of a sentencing commission to make criminal penalties fairer and more proportionate, and an increased emphasis on diverting more drug offenders and the mentally ill out of prison and into treatment.

Some of that still remains in play. A major bill now under consideration, for example, would significantly ratchet up the state's investment in community mental health services. And the reason these reforms haven't entirely died is that there are an increasing number of state-level politicians who are simply fed up with this endless expansion of the criminal justice infrastructure at the expense of other critical public services. It seems to me this is a long process; there'll be some bad moments, as with the recent prison building bill in California. But there will also be some smart changes.

GOTTSCHALK: I agree with you that some of the most promising developments are occurring at the state level. But the spurt of sentencing and drug law reforms in the wake of the 2001 recession has yet to make any real dent in the overall size of the incarcerated population. While states have relaxed some drug laws, the penalties still remain very stiff. Moreover, many states recently toughened up their sanctions for sex offenders, which will likely result in a rapid explosion in the number of prisoners serving time for sex crimes over the next two decades. In 2005, the total incarcerated population grew by 2.7 percent, compared to an average of 3.3 percent annually over the previous decade. An ominous new report on prison population trends commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts predicts that the growth rate of the state and federal prison population will markedly accelerate over the next five years.

ABRAMSKY: Historically, at least since the New Deal, the federal government has taken the lead in big-picture institutional reforms and in pushing new philosophies around social policy to the fore. These days, the most innovative changes on drug policy, on treatment of the mentally ill, and on the creation of alternatives to incarceration are occurring at the state level.

GOTTSCHALK: But while states can lead, they cannot dismantle the carceral state on their own. The federal prison system has become the largest in the country, surpassing California and Texas, and continues to grow at a rapid clip. Washington casts a huge shadow over penal policy at the local and state levels. The federal government helped propel the state-level prison boom in the 1990s by providing financial incentives for states that enacted tougher “truth-in-sentencing” laws. The Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, which Congress enacted with the approval of the Clinton administration, created enormous, often insurmountable, legal hurdles for prisoners attempting to use the federal courts to challenge unhealthy and inhumane penal conditions. It desperately needs to be reformed. Under Bush, the Justice Department has been an ardent champion of capital punishment, pressuring federal prosecutors to pursue the ultimate sanction in cases where they recommend against it.

One of the most ominous developments at the national level is the attempt to cast the immigration issue as a law-and-order problem. The number of immigrants held in special detention centers and elsewhere on any given day has increased more than 11-fold since the early 1970s. The U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) has become a mini-Bureau of Prisons, and the private prison industry is mobilizing to enter the immigrant detention market in a big way. I was astounded to discover that a proposed amendment to the immigration reform bill that imploded earlier this year called for mandatory detention of anyone who overstayed his or her visa.

ABRAMSKY: Yes, there's a worrying possibility that the next chapter in America's penal expansion could come about as a result of us adopting a punitive, lock-em-up approach to illegal immigration that, in many ways, is simply an adaptation of the failed “war on drugs” model.

GOTTSCHALK: And then there’s September 11. The “war on terror” handed the White House a warrant to further expand the federal government’s authority in domestic crime control and law enforcement in ways that are likely to prop up the carceral state. These include enlarging the role of the military, intelligence services, and the FBI in domestic law enforcement and domestic intelligence and clamping down on dissent through measures like the USA Patriot Act. The Bush administration has used the far-reaching powers of the Patriot Act, intended to combat terrorism, to pursue criminal investigations that have no real connection to terrorist activities, like drug trafficking, white-collar crime, and child pornography.

Since 9-11, the United States also has been instrumental in creating an archipelago of secret prisons scattered around the globe that raises vexing human rights and constitutional issues. Even prior to the September 11 attacks, the United States was actively involved in exporting its model of tough justice abroad through programs like the International Criminal Investigative Training Program. Created in 1986, based in the Justice Department, and funded with the help of the State Department, this program has propped up police and prison systems in a number of countries with poor human rights records, including Haiti, Indonesia, the states of the former Soviet Union, and now Iraq. Moreover, for at least a decade now, conservative U.S. think tanks and policy-makers have been aggressively promoting the tough U.S. law-and-order model abroad and have made some significant inroads with policy-makers in Europe, especially in Britain.

In short, we need bold national leadership to dismantle the carceral state. But that leadership will only come about with sustained pressure from below. What do you see as the most effective way to mobilize that pressure?

ABRAMSKY: That's a hard question. Partly this is about the broader political climate. In a time of fear and uncertainty, structural reform of this nature is hard to generate. The best shot of leveraging reform is to convince progressive political candidates to talk about this as part of a much broader, more holistic analysis of inequality and skewed priorities in modern-day America. Earlier I mentioned Edwards's antipoverty campaign. Whether this comes from Edwards or someone else, it should be talked about as part of a bigger story -- about the minimum wage, about job training, about educational opportunities in poor neighborhoods, about better after-school programs for kids, and so on.

I don't think it's purely a matter of Democrats pushing this and Republicans stalling. In the recent past, Democrats have played the tough-on-crime card just as opportunistically as have Republicans. But I do think the broader discussion of poverty issues is more likely to originate from the donkeys than the elephants at this point.

GOTTSCHALK: You are absolutely right that a wider discussion of issues related to poverty has to be at the center of penal reform -- and indeed immigration reform as well. But for that discussion to take place, the general public first needs to be convinced that the carceral state is a national problem that touches all of us -- and not just a problem confined to poor, inner-city communities.

The carceral state has grown so large that it now threatens fundamental democratic institutions, everything from free and fair elections to an accurate and representative census. Moreover, the rise of the carceral state has helped to legitimize a new and disturbing mode of “governing through crime” that has spread well beyond the criminal justice system to other core institutions, including the executive branch, schools, and the work place, as Berkeley’s Jonathan Simon shows in his excellent new book. Mass imprisonment also has erased many of the political and economic gains hard won for blacks by the civil-rights movement, as Bruce Western painfully documents in Punishment and Inequality in America -- raising fundamental questions about race and claims of equality in this country.

ABRAMSKY: That’s true. And, at the end of the day, I’d argue that in many ways our prison system is coming to play as central a role in our culture as did the gulag in the now-defunct Soviet Union. So many millions of citizens have experienced it, either as prisoners, as family members of prisoners, or as employees within the system that it’s becoming one of the core shared experiences in our national life. For a democracy, that’s a catastrophic cultural development. I’d like to conclude, I guess, by asking: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for changing this trajectory?

GOTTSCHALK: I take solace in some important recent victories, like the enormous strides against the disenfranchisement of former felons, and in what I see as the stirrings of a major social movement against the carceral state, as local community groups, women’s groups, human rights organizations, and some civil-rights groups begin to embrace this issue. In my more pessimistic moments, I remind myself of what the Norwegian criminologist Thomas Mathiesen once said about how major repressive systems have succeeded in looking extremely stable almost until the moment they have collapsed.

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