Are Prisons Obsolete?
April 17, 2019 10:37 AM   Subscribe

“As prison abolition moves from margin to center, it's important to spotlight those who have theorized and practiced it, like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, so we don't, to paraphrase Beth Richie "win the mainstream and lose the movement." Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind (NYT magazine) “Prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba wants us to explore some truly radical notions that force us to inspect those instincts towards punishment. Hear her dismantle what she calls the current "criminal punishment system" and instead employ the ideology of restorative justice.” (Chris Hayes’ Why Is This Happening?) “Outspoken opponents of abolishing the prison industrial complex typically portray abolitionists as politically inactive academics who spout impossible ideas. None of this could be further from the truth. ” Jailbreak Of The Imagination (Truth Out) Prisons and Class Warfare: An Interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Verso) “They Are Trying To Kill Us In Here. (The Appeal) “Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.” (Transform Harm)
posted by The Whelk (35 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
 
I look forward to reading all of this. Today I heard (half of) a wonderful radio documentary about an inmate who had educated himself while in prison and moved on to a much better life. And one of my friends has built a prison which is very inspired by the one in this documentary: USA Correctional officer visits the most luxurious prison in the world which is currently being attacked by the far right (elections coming up here in Denmark).
As Gilmore says in the first article: Where life is precious, life is precious. It's that simple.
posted by mumimor at 11:41 AM on April 17


CW for a bunch of terrible racist shit:

One of the things I took away from Shane Bauer’s otherwise frequently insufferable book about going under cover in a for profit prison is that the US prison system as we know it has always been a continuation of, and fig leaf for, another kind of slavery. IIRC the traditional stocks and corporal punishment type stuff wasn’t scaling well, and then someone got the idea to profit off of prison labor, and they sold it explicitly as a way to police and profit from black people who could no longer be legally enslaved. The prison in Auburn, New York was the model. It proved very popular. Into like, the 1950s or something, there were black prisoners picking fucking cotton on chain gangs on land owned by the state and out for hire. One of the ...entrepreneurs... who ran these operations now owns one of the largest private prison companies in the US. I guess this should come with as many asterisks as you think necessary for an author who also cited the Stanford Prison Experiment as proper science; I’m not a historian, I didn’t fact check. But, you know. If the slavery by another name shoe fits...

So burn it all the fuck down, basically.

You can’t have justice with a system designed for profit and oppression. I don’t know what a system based on harm reduction and restorative justice would look like (and like...harm reduction for victims should also be a priority), but I’m sure people smarter than me have been thinking about it for a while, as evidenced here.

A fun thought experiment is what kind of prison you think we should build for the oligarchs who currently own private prisons. It’s how I know I should not, in any way, shape, or form, be in charge of this.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:48 PM on April 17 [18 favorites]


I would strip them of their fortunes and sentence them to a permanent 100% tax rate on all future earnings (wages and investment income) above 20k a year. They would be allowed to walk amongst us, they could even take executive-class jobs if they wanted... but no matter how much they were paid they would never get to keep more than 20k a year of it. And they’d never be able to amass a fortune to pass onto their children.

I would sentence them to permanent poverty. Not deep poverty — hell, there’s a lot of people here on mefi who would love to make 20k a year. But poverty nonetheless.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 12:55 PM on April 17 [9 favorites]


I think the average person has a stronger memory and formative experience around the way that crime has impacted them - being robbed, being assaulted, raped, losing a loved one to a drunk driver etc etc - than the material conditions that led to that crime being committed. People have very strong emotions tied to the way that others have hurt them - and it's hard to ask people to think harder about the conditions that led to someone hurting someone else.

What is the utility in trying to sell the public on the idea of abolition before you have tried to sell the public on the underlying cause of crime? It feels like a good way to build up a straw man that the conservative right is all to eager to sharpen their knives for. A perfect blend of callousness towards victims and naivete about the nature of man.

Profit from the incarceration of human beings is obviously bad. Why is not enough to say that justice should be reform oriented only -- why is a certain segment of the left so eager to purposefully frame the question in terms of having prisons or not having prisons? I don't understand the strategy. Unless the strategy is to purposefully create inflammation and perpetuate an ideological conflict that will never burn out.
posted by the_querulous_night at 1:21 PM on April 17 [5 favorites]


One must include Angela Davis' short book, Are Prisons Obsolete?
posted by Saxon Kane at 1:50 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


I think the average person has a stronger memory and formative experience around the way that crime has impacted them - being robbed, being assaulted, raped, losing a loved one to a drunk driver etc etc - than the material conditions that led to that crime being committed.

Depends on who you think the average person is. The average black person in the U.S. probably has stronger memories and formative experiences around the arbitrary operation of the system on a day-to-day basis, the long slow expensive misery of incarcerated people's family and friends, the failure to secure justice for their communities.

I don't think I'm quite at abolition yet, but if you perceive prisons as essentially institutions for disciplining and extracting wealth from undesirable social groups, which don't even provide safety for the people left behind, why would you be interested merely in reform?
posted by praemunire at 1:56 PM on April 17 [17 favorites]


I would strip them of their fortunes and sentence them to a permanent 100% tax rate on all future earnings (wages and investment income) above 20k a year...

I would sentence them to permanent poverty. Not deep poverty — hell, there’s a lot of people here on mefi who would love to make 20k a year. But poverty nonetheless.


That seems like an unnecessarily generous allowable income. If I'm reading things right, in the U.S. a single working-age adult isn't even considered to be living in poverty if their income isn't below $13,064. You'd have to be supporting a spouse and child for $20k annual income to put you officially in poverty, nevermind deep poverty. Which is depressing when you consider the 2017 census stat which says 12.3%* of Americans are living in poverty.

* This number doesn't include poor people who are homeless but not living in homeless shelfters, or people living in College dormitories, Military barracks, Nursing homes, or prisons.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 2:09 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]


One of the things I took away from Shane Bauer’s otherwise frequently insufferable book about going under cover in a for profit prison is that the US prison system as we know it has always been a continuation of, and fig leaf for, another kind of slavery.
It isn't even a fig leaf:

Amendment 13, Section I:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:09 PM on April 17 [9 favorites]


Profit from the incarceration of human beings is obviously bad. Why is not enough to say that justice should be reform oriented only -- why is a certain segment of the left so eager to purposefully frame the question in terms of having prisons or not having prisons?

Because the US prison system is itself an injustice, regardless of the existence of a for-profit segment of it. Even if every for-profit prison was eliminated tomorrow, we would still be left with a massive government funded institution centered around destroying the lives of black and brown people.

If you want to fight simply for the elimination of for-profit prisons, cool, go do that. I am not your enemy just because my goals stretch further.
posted by parallellines at 2:12 PM on April 17 [12 favorites]


I think the average person has a stronger memory and formative experience around the way that crime has impacted them - being robbed, being assaulted, raped, losing a loved one to a drunk driver etc etc - than the material conditions that led to that crime being committed.

I am a person who has suffered through the murder of a family member, and I am an abolitionist.

Our current carceral state does no one any favors, and only serves to line the pockets of the already wealthy and create more human suffering. We need to burn it down and start over. The system is terrible for people who don't have support systems (and even those who do), and for people with mental health problems. The prison system is not a solution to the mental health and drug crises this country is facing.

I don't have answers on how to deal with violent and sexual offenders, but it has to somehow be different than what we have now.
posted by bibliogrrl at 2:14 PM on April 17 [17 favorites]


It isn't even a fig leaf:

I continue to think of the "prison-industrial complex" concept as something of a misdirect, though. The only studies of the actual significance of prison labor to the economy in the U.S. that I'm aware of come out with quite low numbers. Most of the people in prison are worth far more to the economy in terms of wealth extraction--commissary fees, video visit charges, justification for high salaries for corrections officers, etc.--than they are in terms of their unskilled labor with its need for intense supervision for security purposes. I think it makes more sense to regard mass incarceration as replacing the cultural and social functions of slavery than the more literally economic ones.
posted by praemunire at 2:19 PM on April 17 [13 favorites]


I mean the "prison-industrial complex" is a thing, it's just less about the labor performed by the prisoners than some people would suggest.
posted by atoxyl at 3:52 PM on April 17 [2 favorites]


I would sentence them to permanent poverty. Not deep poverty — hell, there’s a lot of people here on mefi who would love to make 20k a year. But poverty nonetheless.

For rich people this punishment is meaningless. It effectively exonerates them. Rich people have networks and means of disguising and concealing assets from the state that totally bypass any concept of what normal people like you and I would consider 'income'.
posted by um at 4:59 PM on April 17 [5 favorites]


I'm always interested in reading stuff like this. Obviously my experiences with first-hand handling of crime and its victims gives me a different perspective and when I read things like these I'm always looking for concrete suggestions for alternatives. I couldn't actually find any concrete suggestions in the first link.

The second link did have some. One was a neighborhood phone tree for noise complaints. Mariame Kaba posits that she would be able to go outside and tell the kids to turn the music down and they would. Maybe that's her experience. I can tell you with authority that that's not always the case. Some kids would tell her to get fucked. Some would slap her. Some would beat her unconscious. Some would shoot or stab her. What happens then? How does this system scale across the country? Is there funding for it? What happens when no one wants to handle the 6th 3AM noise complaint this week? Does Mariame Kaba live in one of our neighborhoods were gunfire is a many times a day, every day occurrence? If so do we really think it's morally correct to send a single lady out into the alley at 3AM to address the noise complaint? Really?

Another suggestion appeared to be "we'll get the accused into a room with the victims and confront them." What if the accused refuses to come? What if the accused says they're innocent? How is proof handled? What if the accused says "fuck you I don't give a shit"? What if the accused tearfully apologizes and promises never to do it again and then does it again tomorrow?

What about the victim? Auto theft is a persistent problem in my city, typically when people leave their vehicles running and unsecured ("it was just for a minute!"). Auto theft is a non-violent property crime. It is also a very serious problem for its victims. No one gives you a free car just because yours was stolen. People lose their jobs because their car was stolen. Stolen cars are typically in fact driven like they're stolen, which means a lot of property damage and hit and run crashes (we do not have the resources to address the thousands of these each year in my city and unless patrol gets lucky and finds the suspect vehicle hit and runs are not investigated, period). Thousands of dollars of property damage and occasional injuries. No one makes those victims whole. Most of the suspects in auto theft in my city are juveniles. During the summer especially I will pull the same juveniles out of stolen cars week after week. The passengers are IDed and the driver is cited for possession of stolen property. Depending on time they may be cited for curfew. All are then released. Unless you're actually recognizably recorded on video participating in the theft of the vehicle there is essentially no consequence in my county for stealing cars. No one makes any of those victims whole, nor do the suspects (when apprehended) have any means to do so. I still remember the guy living out of his car whose car was stolen. All of his belongings were in the car and were discarded and/or destroyed. The vehicle was destroyed. What does restorative justice do for him? How do we prevent the people that stole his vehicle from stealing the next one they find unsecured?

That's kind of my fundamental question. Crime happens when people are unwilling, for whatever reason, to abide by the rules our society has established. What is the restorative justice answer for when the accused says "fuck you"? You get the circle of healing together and the accused says "I don't give a shit, I'm not coming"? Who forces them to come, and what happens if they resist that force? What happens when you bare your soul to your rapist and he laughs in your face, a possibility that isn't anywhere near the worst response available in that scenario?

Roughly 35,000 people die on US roads every single year. Many many more are injured. I think most of us would agree that there should be a licensing requirement to drive.

What is the restorative justice process for people driving without valid licenses? In my county driving revoked is currently an offense without a consequence. We can't tow your car. We can't arrest you. We can write you a ticket, but nothing happens if you don't pay it - what are they going to do, revoke your license? License revocation, by the way, used to be a lever to try to compel people to pay child support. In most of the state it still is. In my county there is literally 0 reason to maintain a valid driver's license. It is a substantial minority of the people that I stop that have a valid license. Any suggestions on what we as a society should do about that? My county has decided that towing cars and custodial arrest are never the answer. Ok, fine with me, I just enforce the law that my local society has decided on. However we have not, as yet, provided an alternative for those options.

For what it's worth, when towing and arrest were options they weren't unconditional and they weren't the norm. Those are the options we would exercise when an individual's history showed that a simple citation was unlikely to have any effect. What it meant to have those options was that the citation had meaning it now lacks. It's now an empty document with no actual force behind it. In comparison we are still allowed to tow vehicles without valid registration and license plates. Almost every vehicle on the road has valid registration and plates as a consequence.

None of this means that I think any aspect of our current penal system is the best possible iteration. It just means that my primary concern in these conversations is to see concrete, implementable alternatives to whatever the current system is. And I want to see consideration given to the worst outcomes and failure states. What I mean is this:

Returning to the noise complaint scenario, Kaba and her interviewer both agreed that she would be willing to handle that problem whenever it popped up, able to do so, and that there would be no bad consequences for doing so. I would argue that they were both deeply mistaken on all of those counts. For comparison let me give readers here a broad look at what noise complaints look like in my city, with the proviso that there are no absolutes:

First, noise complaints are the lowest priority call. Even in the quiet precincts they will typically wait for at least a half hour before getting a squad. A two hour wait or more is not uncommon. Second, our response is very different from "a grenade". Most of the time by the time we get there the complaint has solved itself. If it's ongoing we'll typically knock on the door or approach the vehicle and say "hey, people are trying to sleep." Then we leave. If we get called back we could theoretically issue a citation. In my years of policework I have literally never written that citation. I don't know a cop that has. It has been written, for sure, but the bar is high. The citation is itself a petty misdemeanor, meaning it's a civil citation. Arrest - much less incarceration - isn't even a possibility. So I'm a little dubious about the idea that "handling noise complaints" is an example of the restorative justice approach to eliminating incarceration since noise complaints are not actually a driver of incarceration in the first place.

I also feel like that's an extremely low-stakes example to use to "sell" restorative justice or community intervention. What does the phone tree do when the call isn't loud music, but instead a gun fight in the street? A man chasing someone with a knife? When the caller is locked in her bathroom and her husband is banging on the door threatening to kill her? Is there any group of people that responds to those situations with proper training and equipment that, whatever you call them, isn't just the police?

What do we do about addiction? How my state and county handle addiction right now is basically this:

People drink or do whatever drugs they do until they either pass out, stop breathing, seize on the sidewalk, etc. Police and medics load them onto an ambulance and they go to the hospital. The nurses and doctors in the local ER are abused, spit on, peed on, and assaulted by them on a regular basis. Hospital social workers try to get them into treatment. For the most part they don't go unless forced to. Without a court order they can't be forced to for more than a couple days and there aren't enough beds to force all of them anyway. Then they get out and the process repeats until they die in their 40s in some of the ugliest deaths you can imagine.

Have people given a lot of thought to what "violent" crime is? What "non violent" crime is, or what "minor property crime" means? I arrested a man a while ago who was drunk and found a woman alone in her car, stopped in traffic at a stop light with no way to escape. He took his erect penis out and slapped it on the window next to her face while screaming and alternately banging on the roof of her car and yanking on the (thankfully locked) door handle. According to the laws of my state, his crimes amounted to disorderly conduct and indecent exposure, both "non violent" crimes. The grad student whose elderly laptop was stolen from his car was the victim of a minor property crime because the laptop itself wasn't worth much. He told me that it contained essentially the entirety of his work on his PhD. No backup.

I will agree that many of our prisons aren't doing a good job of rehabilitation. However I do honestly believe that there are people who need to be removed from society, at least temporarily. A warning: following the asterisks below I am going to describe some of the bad things I have seen. These will contain death and sexual assault. Please skip over them if you don't want to read about those things.

*** scroll past below to avoid descriptions of violence ***








A few years ago I responded to a call from a victim of a knifepoint robbery that had just occurred. She was extremely shaken but provided a good suspect description and direction of travel. Another responding officer located a suspect matching the description given and attempted to stop him on an isolated, dark walking path. The officer - a friend of mine I came on with - was assaulted and had to fight alone with the suspect until assistance arrived. The suspect was arrested without injury to him (the cop was hurt) and the knife and victim's belongings were recovered from his person.

That suspect - who has a long history of theft and robbery - was released pending trial and then failed to appear. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but a LOT of people have warrants and we only have so many cops. Before he was arrested for his warrant he committed another knifepoint robbery. This time his victim tried to hold on to her purse and he stabbed her in the chest. I was there when she died.

However we want to run our prisons I firmly believe we do need them. That man can not be a part of society as-is. He will not voluntarily go to whatever counseling you want him to go to. He does not care about his victims or their families healing. If it is even possible to rehabilitate him he must be forced to at least start that process.

Another time I responded to a 911 call made by a woman who was being followed by a strange man. By the time I found them he had dragged her by her hair into an alley, beaten, and sexually assaulted her. The sexual assault was ongoing when I arrived. The victim later told the investigator that she felt certain she was going to be killed. I fought alone with the suspect for approximately two minutes until help arrived and he was taken into custody. The suspect was not injured in the arrest. The victim had significant injuries and I had minor scrapes.

That suspect fired two PDs and later represented himself in court. As a consequence of the way our constitution is written he was able to cross examine his victim, who then fled the courtroom in tears. His defense was that he was drunk, he didn't remember what happened, he didn't do it, but if he did do it she had wanted it. That man can not be allowed in society.

Another person I have watched die was stabbed numerous times. She was stabbed by another woman in retaliation for spraying her with mace during a verbal argument over perceived disrespect of the stabber's boyfriend. Most of her blood was on the floor around her by the time I arrived but she was still alive. She was trying to scream or yell but could not because of the stab wounds in her throat.

Early in my career I responded to a call of a fight in front of a hotel. On arrival I was directed to the rear of the hotel. As we went to the back of the hotel I saw a man walking past us alone towards the front of the hotel. There my partner and I found a woman lying in a pool of her own blood. Some of it was spattered up the wall next to her about 5 feet high. She was making a gurgling, gasping noise that I have come to know as one of the sounds people make then they are dying. My partner stayed with the victim so he could start CPR if she stopped breathing before medics got there. I made contact with the male we had seen in the hotel lobby. I saw his shoes were covered in fresh blood, consistent with kicking the victim in the head and causing her blood to spatter on the wall. I later found out she was his ex girlfriend. Unbeknownst to me he also had a warrant for his arrest for robbery. I fought alone with him in the hotel lobby surrounded by his hostile screaming family as well as an unrelated crowd of people variously gawking or recording but none, of course, helping.

The victim lived with permanent brain damage. I do not believe that that man can be allowed in society or that he would submit voluntarily to any rehabilitative or restorative process.

I've been to the expensive apartment of a wealthy attorney after the neighbors called about the sounds of a fight in the apartment. He was gone by the time I arrived. His wife had a broken nose and heavy bruises on her arms and thighs, consistent in my training with violent sexual assault and in various stages of healing consistent with assault over a period of time of at least days. The victim denied that anything had happened. I did my best to document as much as I could, encouraged her to talk to domestic violence advocates, and notifed local DV resources of her case. The attorney has a prior conviction for stabbing someone with a knife in a high-end steakhouse over a verbal disagreement. I do not believe that he can safely be allowed in society and I worry to this day that he will kill his wife and/or their children.








*** descriptions of violence stop here ***

To summarize: I am absolutely sympathetic to some complaints about our prison system, our justice system, etc. They are human institutions and far from perfect. But no matter how much you believe in rehabilitation, community intervention, and so on, I would argue that a system without coercive power will have little to no effect on the behavior of many people. I think the US specifically enumerates really significant rights for the accused but (even with the CVRA) generally does a really shitty job for victims. I think any system reformers want to put in place must explicitly address failure states. I didn't really see any of the provided links devoting any thought whatsoever to these questions.

This was really long. I'm sorry I haven't really proofread it, I'm sure there are some poorly formed sentences/typos. These threads have a tendency to turn into me vs. everyone if I respond so I probably will not. I want to reiterate that I'm not defending any particular aspect of our current prison system. The only statement that I would really firmly defend would be "there must be a mechanism to forcibly separate dangerous people from society." Please do your best to take my comment here into consideration as a whole instead of grabbing a pullquote and doing a worst-possible reading of it in isolation.

As a side note I want to just briefly talk about when Hayes talks about filing a report on his stolen bicycle and the feeling of futility doing so and also the feeling that the cops didn't take it seriously.

It may be that the cops in his case didn't do an especially good job of developing a rapport with him. They may in fact have been salty old dayshifters who resented taking more paper, or maybe they just had a shitty day, whatever. I've had to go directly from a victim who was drugged, abducted, and raped and then dumped in the street to a woman who was pitching a fit because she didn't like the customer service at her hotel. Although I try to be professional and purge my brain between calls in that case I was not kind to the woman at the hotel.

As far as futility goes: it's true that thefts with no suspect information or evidence are infrequently solved. The reports are still important, however. Crime happens in patterns and is typically related to specific, repeat offenders. It may take a couple years but we DO catch them and when we do we sometimes recover a LOT of stolen property. My city has a whole warehouse that's just recovered stolen bicycles. I have personally recovered and returned a bike to the same guy I took the robbery report from when it was stolen. I have, a few times, gotten lucky and caught people breaking into cars. Etc.

If you're the victim of a crime please report it. I can't guarantee that the cops who respond will be ideal. I can't promise you'll get your stuff back (you probably won't). But you might, and property crimes are a never-ending process of trying to keep it from getting TOO bad. Without your help we can't do much and it will just get worse and worse.
posted by firebrick at 5:23 PM on April 17 [39 favorites]


And there is a small but non-negligible number of people from whom society needs to be protected; predatory dark-triad types, compulsive sadists and such, whom you can't reliably heal back into being a good person. So then the choice is to have prisons (by whatever name) to contain them, to have prisons to contain them but name them euphemistically (“hospitals for the criminally insane”, “reëducation centres”, &c.), or to extend surveillance and policing to the extent of turning the entire world into an open prison, maintaining an equality of confinement and hoping that it keeps them from causing harm.

I think some kind of prisons will always be necessary; though they should be at least an order of magnitude smaller than the US system, and run along humane lines (think the Netherlands or Norway), with every effort made to divert offenders from them.
posted by acb at 5:30 PM on April 17 [6 favorites]


It might be better named the Prison-White-Supremacy-Complex.
posted by latkes at 5:40 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


What does restorative justice do for him?

What does putting the offender in jail do for him? All your examples assume that incarceration is (a) an effective deterrent and (b) in some way compensates the victims.
posted by praemunire at 5:46 PM on April 17 [6 favorites]


I really appreciate all these links. I plan to go through them. But here’s something that struck me about Kaba’s discussion of a student of hers. She says: Well, it was a killing, unfortunately, between two young people in a teen dating violence situation ...

What that means is that he killed a young woman. I am glad that he had an appropriate juvenile justice outcome and could become a productive member of society, but the deceased at least deserves the active voice. I don’t mean to come over all “what about the rights of that little girl”; it’s just that she really elides right there.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:06 PM on April 17 [11 favorites]


just wanted to plug Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism here - definitely one of the best books i read in 2018!
posted by LeviQayin at 7:48 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


Mariame Kaba also has a children's book about incarcerated parents - Missing Daddy
posted by The Whelk at 9:04 PM on April 17


The aforementioned Ruthie Gilmore's book Golden Gulag is a good introduction to some of the mechanisms at work here.

Also I know Foucault is a bit out of vogue (and some of the history is questionable and it's a bit chunky) but Discipline and Punish lays out a ton of the problems surrounding the idea of a prison system, and is still a pretty foundational text if you're trying to wrap your head around some of the more theoretical problems of penal systems. Security, Territory, Population probably does a better job, but the previous work is much more frequently cited.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:22 AM on April 18


my primary concern in these conversations is to see concrete, implementable alternatives to whatever the current system is.

Literally paying people not to commit crime hasn't been tried very hard.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:26 AM on April 18


A 30 paragraph comment that starts with a refusal to even acknowledge the existence of abolitionists arguments, segues into a bunch of descriptions of crimes with "What will abolitionists do about this?!" stapled onto the end of each of them, and then declares halfway through that you just won't engage with any responses is honestly a perfect example of how disingenuous the defenders of the carceral state tend to be. A cop that disagrees with the prison abolition movement? How unexpected.
posted by protocoach at 9:17 AM on April 18 [7 favorites]




declares halfway through that you just won't engage with any responses

This strikes me as ironically dishonest. I mean, you say this as you refuse to engage with any of the descriptions that you dismiss as “anecdotal?” I’m not generally sympathetic to LEO based on personal experience, but if I had just written out, at length, some of the most traumatic things I’d experienced in the course of law enforcement work, I wouldn’t be engaging with responses either, especially not here. I mean, we have a monstrous prison system, and anything designed to punish, rather than protect and rehabilitate when possible, will be monstrous. But it sure as shit won’t be fixed by people who also refuse to engage with the reality of violent crime.
posted by schadenfrau at 3:12 PM on April 18 [9 favorites]


This is like discussing healthcare. Somehow, a majority of Americans cannot at all imagine that things can be different, in spite of plenty of evidence from all over the world that it can indeed be very different. A minority of Americans can only accept a radical solution that no other countries have tried. In the US, the suggestion that there might be a compromise that is better than the current state is seen as extremist by the majority and as capitalist treason by the minority. I shouldn't care, but I do because your politics influence the rest of the world, including my little corner.
posted by mumimor at 3:29 PM on April 18


It’s not like discussing healthcare in that we’ve seen government run healthcare enacted on a nationwide scale multiple times with quantifiably superior results.
posted by Selena777 at 3:58 PM on April 18


And we have seen humane justice including humane prisons run by governments with quantifiably superior results.
posted by mumimor at 4:55 PM on April 18


She isn’t talking about humane prisons - she thinks that’s an inherent contradiction in terms.
posted by Selena777 at 6:27 PM on April 18


This strikes me as ironically dishonest. I mean, you say this as you refuse to engage with any of the descriptions that you dismiss as “anecdotal?”

What is there to engage with in that litany? I live in Chicago; I could spend the next week researching and writing out the various horrors visited upon the citizens of this city by the police and the prisons and I wouldn't even have reached 2015. Saying we have to "engage with the reality of violent crime" without engaging with the reality of the retaliatory violence visited upon both the people who are accused of crimes, the people convicted of crimes, and the people who just had the shit luck to be born into one of the many groups that don't have the same free license to interact with the police that firebrick appears to assume everyone has is disingenuous at best, monstrously ignorant at worst. For example:

The [noise complaint] citation is itself a petty misdemeanor, meaning it's a civil citation. Arrest - much less incarceration - isn't even a possibility.

Actually, arrest is very much a possibility. Escalation to outright murder is also very much a possibility. Cops have murdered kids in Chicago for decades for petty shit that escalated. Doing the math about whether or not whatever someone's doing is bad enough to expose them to the possibility of death absolutely has to be part of the equation when you call the cops, because cops carry guns and shoot people at a rate of about 3/day in the US.

I can't guarantee that the cops who respond will be ideal.

Yeah, because they may be Jason Van Dyke or Daniel Groth or any of their thousands of spiritual descendants. And all of that is before we even get into what happens if they do manage to arrest you without killing you. They closed the Homan Square black sites in 2015. Darrell Cannon lives in Englewood right now and if you come to Chicago you can go visit the Chicago Torture Justice Center where he works. This is some reality; let's engage with it.
posted by protocoach at 9:45 PM on April 18 [4 favorites]


She isn’t talking about humane prisons - she thinks that’s an inherent contradiction in terms.
I know, but I can see that humane prisons are an important step on the way to no prisons. Countries with humane prisons have much lower levels of incarceration.
posted by mumimor at 5:09 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


I don't really know where I land on any of this. I'm right behind the idea that prison conditions are inhumane, but at the same time I can't help feeling that part of the reason the world seems to be constantly teetering on the edge of catastrophe is because the court system won't LOCK THE FUCK UP the cockwombles who like it that way because it enables them to amass ever more wealth and power. I don't harbor any fantasies about President Fuckhead being fed feet-first into a wood-chipper but I would be greatly heartened to know he was going to spend at least a few years in a cell, and having to eat, exercise, shower, and work with a group of other inmates. Because otherwise he hurts everyone he can reach and right now? he can reach across the goddamn planet.
posted by um at 6:34 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]


Prison should not be abolished entirely, but they definitely do need to be completely rethought. There are people for whom confinement is the only answer. It sucks, but it is what it is. That in no way means that most people we do lock up have any need whatsoever to be there. I suspect there is at least one if not two orders of magnitude more imprisonment in the US than is necessary to deal with the actual sociopaths who cannot be rehabilitated and will not moderate their behavior in response to the possibility of future punishment.

All that said, the present system as constituted in the US is literally a vehicle for torture and should be ripped out root and branch on that basis alone.

However, it simply isn't correct to say that prison work is rooted in slavery, at least outside of the South. In many states, prison work was seen as rehabilitative, in keeping with our country's usual Calvinist tradition. Originally, prisoners worked to improve the prison they lived in, growing better food than was supplied so they could have better meals, fixing up the roof so they didn't get wet when it rained, building new buildings so there could be more space, etc. It came from the same place that current prison reform movements spring: compassion.

Our institutions are corrupt because people chose to corrupt them and nobody else cared to stop them, for the most part, not because they were corrupt from the outset. When we allow malfeasance to erode our sense of the necessity and/or utility of institutions, we are falling into a trap set by those who want to see government and indeed all institutions that could counterbalance the power of wealth torn down.
posted by wierdo at 7:04 AM on April 19




protocoach, you really didn't understand what I was trying to say. Obviously you and I disagree on the state of the US criminal justice system, but that's irrelevant to this thread and my comment. There's no need to recite your complaints about the current system; I can simply grant them as true. Consider them as accepted and we have granted your assertion that prisons and/or police departments should be abolished.

Ok, now advance concrete plans for the replacements. My comment basically expresses doubt that reform advocates have given any serious thought to the alternatives or to complications or problems that can and would arise with any system. I also don't see that, for example, Kaba's assertion that they should "center the victim" is at all supported by what sparse recommendations she has made. In fact I think there's a pretty clear tension between that statement and her statement that victims are too emotional to be trusted with the process.

Your comments are a good example of my conflict with the reform movement as it stands. It's very good at enumerating complaints. It is very, very bad (in my view) at advancing suggestions for improvement other than "destroy all the current stuff" (cf. this comment thread). People talk about "root causes" sometimes but that feels pretty hand-wavey to me. It is very far from clear, in systems as spectacularly complex as human society, what those root causes are or what the solutions might be. Consider the abusive wealthy attorney, who doesn't seem to be subject to any of the things typically thought of as "root causes". The other things I see are the kind of imagined ideal-world scenarios given in the Kaba interview without any consideration given to what happens if the imagined perfect outcome doesn't obtain.
posted by firebrick at 12:22 PM on April 19 [7 favorites]


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