The American Prison System
Racism, Propaganda, Oppression, Incarceration, Dehumanization, Genocide, and Capitalism
After binge watching Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of The United States, I like to read the book of Ecclesiastes as an antidote to the inescapable nihilism.
Oliver Stone's Untold History of The United States
Untold History of The United States presents our unlearned history, drawing on archival findings from around the world…
Meaningless. Meaningless.… Everything is meaningless.
That’s the wisest man in the world telling it like it is.
The President-elect has not been telling it like it is. One cannot trust a con man to tell anything remotely resembling the truth. So, it is refreshing when ancient scriptural wisdom is not afraid to tell us the disturbing truth that things are not what they seem. I would venture to say that, if this Teacher in Ecclesiastes was the absolute monarch of the ancient kingdom of Israel, the one we know as Solomon, then he had built an empire that truly warranted the respect and tribute that the Queen of Sheba brought to him from afar. Yet, even his empire fell. Solomon built his empire by oppression and slave labour. Because he broke the laws ascribed to the king, the kingdom was taken away from his descendants and eventually handed over to foreign empires. As we know, history tends to repeat itself.
Redeeming the time, because the days are evil
I have been fighting off an influenza virus for the past week, so the coughing has been keeping me awake. As an antidote to the insomnia, I try listening to podcasts. I was born into an overachieving Chinese family. When I was about 14 years old, our family travelled to Hong Kong to visit our grandmother. This was the first time I had been able to put a face to the name. We always seemed to be in a hurry. I often have my grandmother’s words ringing in my ears.
Fai di. Fai di. Fai di la!
That is “Hurry up!” in Cantonese. Then, she would add in English:
Time and tide wait for no man.
So, when I am listening to podcasts, I can learn something whether I am awake or asleep. It may not cure the insomnia, but it can redeem the sense of wasted time.
Last night, I was listening to the David Cayley archives, selected from the thousands of hours of radio shows amassed over 30 years of broadcasts for the CBC program, Ideas. I thought I would fire up the six-part series first aired in 1994, Beyond Institutions.
An Introduction by David Cayley
With this post, I will complete my tribute to Nils Christie, who died on May 27th of this year in Oslo. He is featured in the final broadcast of this six part series, first broadcast in 1994. My starting point in this work was a claim made by American community organizer John McKnight in a profile I had done of him the year before, and also available on this site, called Community and Its Counterfeits. In this series John McKnight claimed that society is composed of two distinct domains: an institutional domain, governed by legal, contractual and administrative norms — in a word, bureaucracy — and a community domain, where citizens associate for their own purposes, and people matter for themselves. These domains are distinct and incommensurable, but they are often confused. This series explored various attempts to address situations normally treated institutionally within community. It was recognized by the Canadian Association for Community Living with a plaque that hung proudly by the door of my office for many years afterwards.
The first three programmes of the series are taken up with an account of the work done by my friend David Schwartz when he was the director of the state of Pennsylvania’s Developmental Disabilities Planning Council and related in a book he had then just published called Crossing the River: Creating a Conceptual Revolution in Community and Disability. Two of his associates in the work of creating community alternatives to institutionalization, Sharon Gretz and Nancy Lee, are also featured. The fourth programme begins with sociologist Peter Berger discussing a book he co-authored with Richard Neuhaus called To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy — a work that pleaded for a reinvigoration of civil society as a buffer between individuals and monopolistic mega-institutions. It continues with Jerry Miller telling the remarkable story of how he dismantled the juvenile corrections system in Massachusetts after he was made the state’s Commissioner of Youth in 1969, a story he also tells in his book Last One Over the Wall. In the fifth programme Miller goes on to talk about his work with the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, an organization he found to deal with the ills of the American criminal justice system as a whole. The series concludes, as I mentioned, with Nils Christie talking about his long association with Vidåsen, a Camphill community in Norway for people whom Nils liked to call “extraordinary” in preference to some more pejorative name. Nils wrote about Vidåsen in a book called Beyond Loneliness and Institutions which also gave its name to the series.
Beyond Institutions, Part Six
One of the things that he stresses about them is that they really are villages, and not therapeutic communities in disguise. People without handicaps live in the villages as coworkers, so called, but they are in no sense a staff. In fact, Christie says, part of the culture of these communities is a deep distrust of titles, labels, and formal classifications.
“Institutions, very often, are transition zones, places one passes through. These are simply places to live.”
“Those who arrive tend to stay, and the ideal is that you could be there forever. This is very complicated, particularly for doctors, to understand, because it should be a help so that you can develop out of it, be cured. You are not cured from being extraordinary. It is a permanent condition. It is a question of using your resources to the utmost. And this is a place you can use your resources to the utmost, but you are not improving out. It’s not an ideal for the village that you should do that. If there should be any increase or any movement, it would be to create more villages to give more people the opportunity for this life, not to go through it.”
Beyond Institutions, Part Five
In Part Five of Beyond Institutions, Jerry Miller begins:
“The violence, particularly in some of the inner cities, is more a product of law enforcement than law enforcement is a response to the violence. It begins to produce the very thing that you claim to be treating. But you cannot understand this with the paradigms that are being used in research today, so that, when you say these things, people think you are off your rocker or they don’t know what you are talking about.”
In the United States in 1980, there were half a million people in prisons and jails, a very high proportion by the standards of Canada or other Western countries. In the years since, violent crime in the U.S. by a number of measures has decreased. But today, there are nearly a million and a half Americans behind bars. More than half of them are Black or Hispanic, and the U.S. is planning for more people in jail. In November, the Senate passed a so called anti-crime bill, which allocates $3 billion dollars for 10 new high-security prisons, $3 billion more for boot camps, $8.9 billion to hire more police. The bill has already been endorsed by Bill Clinton. The politicians promoting more prisons, more police, and stiffer sentences, say that crime makes these things necessary. They tell stories about Americans cowering fearfully in their homes, two-year-olds who come to daycare with vials of crack in their pockets, and 13-year-old boys who kill just for the kick of it — this last a quotation from the President himself. Dr. Jerome Miller believes that matters stand precisely the other way around. He thinks that the institutions of criminal justice are often the cause of crime. Dr. Miller has run the Juvenile Corrections Systems in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and now heads the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, an organization he founded in 1977. Its purpose is to develop alternatives to institutions, for, in the Center’s own words, for the mentally ill, developmentally disabled, adult and juvenile offenders, the aged, and children. His reflections on what Carl Menninger called the crime of punishment, comprise Part Five of Beyond Institutions, by David Cayley.
The failed product of a century and a half’s dependents of custodial institutions haunt us.
So begins Jerry Miller’s book, Last One Over the Wall, the story of how he closed Massachusetts’ ten scandal-ridden institutions for delinquent youth and moved all but forty of the thousand children committed to that system into community-based programs. This was the start of what has so far been a 25-year career in rescuing people from institutions. In the mid-’70s, in Pennsylvania, he rescued a thousand more youths, this time moving them from adult prisons into community settings. Since then, he has pioneered what are called alternative sentencing proposals. These involve intervening in court with well-researched, well-considered plans which offer judges alternatives to imprisonment. His organization, The National Center on Institutions and Alternatives, has now done more than 10,000 of these.
One of the first things that came to Jerry Miller’s attention when he first took over Juvenile Corrections in Massachusetts was a piece of research done at the Lyman School for Boys, one of the department’s institutions. It showed that the longer a boy was in the institution, the more likely he was to reoffend. Miller’s own observations confirmed him in the view that punishment breeds crime. Believing this, he has watched in growing alarm over the last 10 years as all the institutions of American criminal justice have grown steadily more punitive and more simplistic in their understanding of crime. The more people are imprisoned, he believes, the more the culture of the prison infiltrates the communities from which the prisoners come. A vicious circle is then created in which prisons create crime and this crime mandates even harsher prisons.
In 1993, I visited Jerry Miller at his National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. The Center is in Alexandria, Virginia, adjacent, as you will occasionally hear in what follows, to the Washington, D.C. Airport. Our conversation ranged over alternative sentencing, the loss of narrative in criminology, and the plight of African American males in the criminal justice system. It began with the growing influence, strongly evident, for example, in rap music, of prison culture.
“The talk of the streets is the talk of the prisons. It’s prison jargon. It’s prison language. It’s prison ethics. It’s prison norms. We’ve just succeeded in creating this society on the street which is a mirror image of the society we would like to put people in, only it’s out on the street. I don’t have any doubt if you were to go to a busy part of the city in D.C., a poorer part of the city, where there is a fair amount of crime and violence, that the great majority of people out there will be alumni of this or that prison or juvenile detention centre. And not only that, but they will have gone into that system originally for nothing approaching a violent offence. They would have gone on for something relatively minor. And they would have gone in initially primarily because of their socio-economic status. You know, two-thirds of people awaiting trial in this country that are sitting in jail are there because they do not have $500 in a bondsman. There are there on $500 or less bond. So it means, by definition, they are poor people. Anyone of minimum means would be out. But, you get sucked into this system, and it teaches you some pretty awful lessons.”
“One of the lessons young people growing up in criminalized cultures learn is not to trust anybody. And this mistrust, in Miller’s view, is actively fostered by the institutions of criminal justice. These institutions are so obsessed by crime, he says, that they routinely destroy every decency within the communities they are supposedly protecting.”
“One example that has struck me is the law enforcement’s now routine technique of using informers and of setting people up in sting operations. That was so easily taken in this country. It began with ABSCAM in Congress, where they set up a number of Congressmen, 15 or 20 years ago. It got great public support, but that sort of thing eats away at the norms of a society. If you have, as we do now in the city, a situation where you have primarily young African American males being arrested — about 80% to 90% of the drug arrests are of this group, even though they are not serious arrests, that is what they’re about — so you have that large a percentage being brought into the criminal justice system, at least briefly, and then you’ll overcharge a young man. Although he hasn’t done much, you’ll charge with something that can carry a horrendously long sentence, and then you’ll say, “But if you’ll give me information about who else you know who has dealt drugs or whatever, we’ll consider something lesser” — which they may or may not do — it’s very common in this country for law enforcement to lie through their teeth at every step and no one says much about it. It’s just routine. It’s part of the procedure. So you can’t plan on those promises. But even if you could, it turns a community, particularly a certain age group, into informers. Or those that are not informers, it turns them into a situation where they are concerned that someone might be informing on them. And so, you have a very volatile situation. If you look at the prison, for example, as a metaphor for society, I think you’d find that those prisons that have relied on informants and snitches to maintain the management of the place, are potentially the most violent prisons. If you look at the Santa Fe riots in this country, ten years or so ago, the most violent, brutal, bloody riot of this century in this country, most of it inmate-on-inmate violence — the warden of that prison, when he saw four or five inmates talking, he would say to visitors, “I own three of them. They are mine. I own them.” The place was run on the basis of snitching. Once the lid breaks on that, the hatred, the anger, the lack of social bonding is fantastic. And that’s essentially what we’ve accomplished in the inner city. You have basically a latent prison riot sitting there all the time, where no one knows whom to trust at any level. Even childhood buddies are fair game in this, if someone gives a bit. And then you throw into that volatile mix handguns, willie nillie. Everyone has handguns. It would be akin to going into a prison run in that fashion and handing out guns and saying, “Now, let’s see what happens.” No one can trust anyone. Everyone for themselves. You have to do what, in prison parlance what they call fronting. You have to do a lot of that to show that you are your own man, which means that you have to show that you can be brutal, that you have no feeling for others, and if you threaten anyone, you have to deliver in action, very soon, or you will be a victim. So you don’t just mouth off, “I’m going to get you someday,” or “I may shoot you.” You shoot them or you are going to be the next person. We have so criminalized and prisonized the inner city that we have brought the prison ethic, the prison culture into the street.”
Jerry Miller uses the word “culture” here in its full anthropological sense. He believes that for young African American males, particularly, criminal justice processing has become a puberty rite, the available and obvious way of becoming a man. This rite may begin on streets already dominated by older prison alumni, or it may be initiated by the police. Between 1987 and 1990, for example, the Los Angeles Police Department and the County Sheriff’s Office pulled in 50,000 kids in an anti-gang dragnets that consisted of virtually random sweeps through their communities. And once people are in the system, Miller says, certain consequences will inevitably follow.
“Most people that get involved in serious crime were not involved early on. There are a few, but they would be so small in number, such a small percentage, that it would be negligible in terms of the horrendous national statistics we have. You have a society and a structure now that will take relatively naive people, people who are not into crime, and will make them so angry along the way, in terms of the handling they see, either themselves or their relative or their friends, and you pound it home day after day after day. For example, there is no reason police have to do what they do in arresting people, routinely now. There is no reason people have to be thrown on the ground or humiliated in front of their friends. Again, much of it may be related to the lack of what used to be authentic community policing, where the policeman walked around and knew the people in the community, and they knew him. Most of these things could be negotiated and they could talk about an incident with the people involved, and involve others, and what have you. There is no room for any of that now. Things are handled by the book, and they are escalated very quickly. And if you move away from those models, you are considered unpatriotic or a wimp or whatever. There are few, I think, who understood this, like Lee Brown, the former Police Commissioner in New York City, who is a very bright, studied, intelligent, sensitive young man. He disbanded the Narcotics Tactical Squads, took great heat for it, but, in fact, after that, crime went down in New York. The number of incidents went down. These squads were not going around looking for people to throw on the floor and make a scene over dealing drugs. You didn’t ignore the dealing of drugs, but you do not go in and stimulate these things. You know, most crime in this country, a good portion of crime, is not reported crime. Most of the arrests are not necessarily in response to a report of a crime. They are in response to a policy that has been implemented by the local police force or the local prosecutor. They will decide to go out and raid or go out and make this a primary issue and they will look for it. They will screen, mostly. They will set up road blocks. They’ll go into communities, usually minority communities, and start knocking down doors, on the basis of information, etc. But they are not on the basis of reports of crime. In a sense, policy is driving much of this. It comes with its payback. It’s become really, in an anthropological sense, for a young African American male in this country, it’s their rite of passage, the rite of passage where you become a man in American society is to go to jail, to be arrested in front of your peers, usually hand-cuffed to your peers, and dragged off at least for a few hours to the jail and humiliated in front of everyone. By the second time, as I have know for years, working with the young delinquent kids in detention, you learn the strongest, who have the most potential, learn quickly to front, learn quickly to show to their friends that this is no bother at all. I can take this standing up. It builds an attitude.”
“If this were happening to tow-headed white kids in the suburbs to the degree that it is happening in the city, in terms of the police practices, they would be up in arms. They would be dragging these kids off to therapy after the awful experience they had or what they’d seen. But it’s taken as a matter of course when you move into the inner city and no one seems to question.”
Studies done by Jerry Miller’s National Center for Institutions and Alternatives reveal the extent to which the War on Drugs and the War on Crime are actually wars on Black America. In Baltimore, Maryland, for example, on an average day in 1991, 56% of all African American men between the ages 18 and 35 were under the supervision of the criminal justice system. That is, they were either in jail, on probation or parole, out on bail, or being sought on an arrest warrant. Fifty-six percent on one day. And as the number of African Americans in custody has increased, Miller says, so has the brutality of the system.
America, You Have Options
White, Born-Again/Evangelical Christians
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Now, think of what America has turned religion into. When 80% of Evangelical Christians in America were voting for their law and order candidate, we know exactly what they were voting for: the continued subjugation of the slaves they stole to work the land they stole from the original inhabitants who died from disease and genocide so they could get rich off the backs of the oppressed around the world, unnecessarily drop atomic bombs on civilian populations, take credit for the defeat of Nazi Germany bought with the blood of tens of millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians, split Korea in two, bring the earth to the edge of nuclear winter in the Cuban missile crisis, napalm Vietnamese civilians into oblivion, and use Agent Orange to render the country a wasteland, all to defend a form of democratic capitalism that has dehumanized all supposed opponents in all its forms by any means possible, including deception, fraud, theft, surveillance, violence, incarceration, torture, assassination, and war.
We may continue fanning the flames of moral outrage by remembering the various wars the U.S. has benefitted from and perpetuates by the sale of armaments in so many countries around the world, that we have lost count. No Canadian expresses this outrage better than our very own Bruce Cockburn:
Conjecture and Speculation
I do not know of these things, nor do I understand much of prophecy and eschatology. All I know are the Christian horror stories that I was told when I was young, that kept us obedient and fearful, about hell, the rapture, the late great planet earth, the thief in the night, and those who would be left behind.
I think of the fictions that some American people tell themselves about their own identity, finding it so difficult to deal with the truth that they would rather believe a man who constantly spouts fictions to suit his mood.
The American Prison System, Revisited
In a nation that pledges allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, the American prison system stands as a glaring reminder to the nation of its ongoing failure to stand for God, for unity, for liberty and for justice. The words of Jesus are a ringing indictment against the U.S.A. for abdicating its responsibilities as citizens of a constitutional democracy.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lordʼs favor.
Would it not be the greatest of ironies if the U.S. were themselves the victims of the ultimate self-deception, having imprisoned themselves by their own idolatry to ideology? What if the U.S.A. turned out to be Babylon the Great, the very enemy they thought they were fighting abroad, on distant shores, and in faraway lands? Which nation on earth sounds most like the embodiment of evil depicted in the Revelation of the Christ?
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
An apocalypse is an unveiling, the revelation of what was once hidden. Could it be that the surprise at the revelation will be that American White Evangelical Christians thought that they could be saved by their own good works and their “racial purity,” only to discover that they were selling a false gospel, preventing others from coming to know the Creator because they have themselves been taken prisoner by their own self-righteousness and self-deception?
For all the nations have drunk the maddening wine of her adulteries. The kings of the earth committed adultery with her, and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.
Who is now ignoring the pleas of Jesus himself by refusing to help the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the poor, the sick, and the prisoner?
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
It seems to me that 80% of those who would call themselves Christ’s benefactors are the very ones who just crucified Christ all over again by voting for a person who embodies the opposite of everything they claim to value: goodness, purity, and truth.
He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
To be sure, the one world government that the Christians fear is more likely to be the corporations who have taken on human form, at least from a legal perspective, without the human conscience required to prevent the lust, avarice, and reckless disregard for life that they embody. Really, what sort of self-deception would lead people to ignore reality and mindlessly continue along the same self-destructive path that continues to feed the economic Gods of growth and prosperity?
The First Nations of the world streamed to Standing Rock to fight the Black Snake. The Army Corps of Engineers had the sense to call off the confrontation. While the battle may have been won, the fight is far from over. The collusion of corporate and government power in the President-elect threatens to bring the earth to the threat of extinction on all fronts, whether we stand on the brink of economic crisis, social upheaval, world war, or environmental devastation.
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Faith, Hope, Love
The Creator has gathered his people, united in faith. With hope in their hearts, they stand together, in solidarity, for love.
There is a remnant who have taken up their crosses, who have sacrificed their lives to be the image of their Creator to their neighbours, to lay down their lives for their friends, to embody patience, kindness, and love. They protect, trust, hope, and persevere. They stand to protect the water of life from the dark serpent who wants to banish them from the garden.
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.
The struggle over our watersheds is a global effort. The victory won at Standing Rock is only the beginning. We all need to change the way we live, for ourselves, for our neighbours, for our planet.
As the toes were partly iron and partly clay, so this kingdom will be partly strong and partly brittle. And just as you saw the iron mixed with baked clay, so the people will be a mixture and will not remain united, any more than iron mixes with clay.
From the day the message of Christ was corrupted by Constantine, when he mixed the iron ore of the sword with the clay of faithful belief, Christendom has being spreading a false gospel of the rule of violence as the constant companion to the life of faith. This has never been good news. And it is this division that we most clearly see in the results of the recent U.S. Presidential election. The checks and balances that were put in place by the founding fathers to achieve an effective separation of church and state are crumbling beneath the weight of a leader with a head of gold, but feet of clay.
Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.
We may indeed see the end of the great empire as the United States of America breaks into pieces. We hope not. We hope for peace, for unity. But that will require the hard work of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, between genders, ethnicities, religions, and classes, to heal the deep divisions of this land. That is what I long to see, and what I hope for. Prayer is necessary, but it must be preceded with humility, and followed with repentance.
…if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
I pray that my own eyes have deceived me, and I have mistaken visions of a far distant future as much nearer than they actually are. “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” My perceptions deceive me, and I hope I am wrong. This is just wild conjecture and speculation.
Still, while we breathe, we can be transformed by the sweet fire of love.
God bless America.
Wildly Inclusive Love
In the meantime, I will be listening to the voices of those who are leading by example, through demonstrations of wildly inclusive love.
This is a kingdom where everyone belongs. This is a kingdom where no passports are needed, where there is no border agency, and no immigration detention centres.
— Sally Smith