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Opposing Mass Incarceration Is “Trendy,” but Can We Stop the Train of Piecemeal Reform?

How do we halt the advance of Donald Trump without totally capitulating to piecemeal reforms of the criminal legal system?

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

Part of the Series

If we look back to the 2012 presidential election, the criminal legal system, much less mass incarceration, were not even on the list of issues to be debated. Though we still had 2.3 million people in prison and jail, it was a non-issue. Yet today candidates from Rand Paul to Bernie Sanders have condemned excessive levels of incarceration and overspending on criminal punishment, and have called for reform.

We have also seen the increasing presence of these issues in the media. Witness The Marshall Project, a liberal online news platform led by former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, which publishes on nothing but the criminal legal system and injustice. The publication won a Pulitzer Prize in its first year of operation.

When I see a quick change of heart by those who have crafted and benefited from a system of oppression like mass incarceration, I get uneasy.

Some concrete advances have also taken place — Obama releasing 6,000 people from federal prison in one fell swoop last November, the state of Mississippi reducing its prison population by 14.5 percent in one year alone, the reduction in juvenile incarceration in Texas and several other states. Most noticeable are bills floating around in state legislatures and Congress pressing for reform-reducing mandatory minimums, providing more money for re-entry, slashing the cost of prison phone calls, decriminalizing substances, reducing solitary confinement and curbing police powers.

Unlike mainstream pundits might have us believe, the inspiration for this momentum for change is not primarily financial, but a result of mass mobilization. We’ve had immigrants’ rights activists, largely led by Latino youth, mobilizing against deportations and pushing President Obama, whom they labeled “Deporter-in-Chief,” to ease some of the heat on immigrants. Most important has been Black-led resistance to violent police and vigilante abuse, a critique that became national news with Trayvon Martin, but then rose to a new level with the murder of Mike Brown and all the others that followed. These rebellions catalyzed the formation of organizations and the emergence of a movement. Alongside the spread of the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” we’ve seen the birth or expansion of groups like the Black Lives Matter Network, the Ferguson Action Committee, Baltimore Bloc, We Charge Genocide, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Million Hoodies, Black Youth Project 100, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Assata’s Daughters and the Dream Defenders.

In the face of all this, politicians at many levels recognized they had to do something before they faced a rebellion they totally couldn’t control. Woven in with this groundswell of activism was a series of prison insurgencies. Most prominent were the Pelican Bay hunger strikes, but immigration detention centers along with state prisons in Texas and Alabama have also been the sites of rebellions. The political establishment hasn’t felt fear of mass uprising in decades. That’s why they are looking for compromise, reaching out hands, why we see Van Jones and Newt Gingrich co-hosting a conference sponsored by the Koch Brothers, and Cory Booker and Rand Paul co-sponsoring legislation. This is how the rich and powerful respond when they are under an attack they think they can easily weather. They look for quick fixes, try to calm the rebellious, maybe welcome a few of them into their ranks. Then they try to move onto the next issue before any deep-seated changes seriously take hold.

Insights From South Africa

Personally, all of this provokes feelings of déjà vu. This particular déjà vu takes me back to the early ’90s in South Africa, that period between the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990 and the country’s first democratic elections, which brought Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) to power in 1994. In Johannesburg, where I lived at the time, as elections drew closer and closer it became increasingly difficult to find a white person who admitted to having supported apartheid. For more than 40 years, whites-only elections had returned the white supremacist, segregationist National Party to power. By the early 1990s whites in South Africa saw the inevitable. When Nelson Mandela and the ANC won the election, it all turned into a fairy tale. We began to hear about the South African miracle and the Rainbow Nation of forgiveness. All this was about bipartisan unity, crossing the aisles, mending fences, level playing fields, Black and white together. The hymn of racial reform has many choruses.

The power brokers behind mass incarceration are regrouping, repackaging their punitive products, coating them in “service to humanity” rhetoric.

Now, after this enormous transformation, after all the celebratory rhetoric, after Invictus and the other Hollywood pablum versions of post-apartheid society, 22 years after apartheid, we find startlingly little change in South Africa. Black people do occupy virtually all positions of power in the government at all levels. And formal segregation has been eliminated. While this is incredibly significant, in the end, the whites were willing to accept that form of change. Yet conditions of living for the Black majority have not improved dramatically.

While there are a few Black millionaires and even a couple Black billionaires, there is greater economic inequality today than at the end of apartheid in 1995. The whites have clung to ill-gotten economic power. Perhaps even more strikingly, the prison population has gone up in absolute numbers by about 30 percent in the last 22 years. More surprisingly, whereas in 1995 there were about 400 people doing life sentences in South Africa, today there are more than 13,000. Democracy in South Africa has come with mandatory minimums, “truth in sentencing” laws and even private prisons owned by the GEO Group and G4S. White economic power and the punishment paradigm remain hegemonic. South Africa failed to heed the warning of a great US freedom fighter who transitioned recently, Daniel Berrigan, who once reminded us that “a revolution is interesting insofar as it avoids like the plague the plague it promised to heal.”

So when I see a quick change of heart by those who have crafted and benefited from a system of oppression like mass incarceration, I get uneasy. Admittedly, I would rather have presidential candidates opposing mass incarceration than continue talking “tough on crime” or threatening to ban all Muslims from entering the country. I would rather see Hillary and Bill Clinton squirming when they are asked about the 1994 Crime Bill than being able to boast publicly about what a great piece of legislation it was. And I would rather see the state of Mississippi reducing its prison population by 14.5 percent in one year than building more maximum-security facilities and dragging more Black bodies behind its walls. But as someone who fights for systemic change, for transformational change, as someone who advocates abolition, I recognize that the forces of power are not sleeping, are not lying down and waiting for us to come up with the solution.

As the white South Africans did, the power brokers behind mass incarceration are regrouping, repackaging their punitive products, coating them in “service to humanity” rhetoric, something I call carceral humanism. They will strive to do what the white South Africans succeeded in doing — playing along with the game for as long as necessary, then mounting a counteroffensive when the insurgent forces are resting on their laurels or puzzling over next steps.

While I have sketched this scenario of liberal reform of mass incarceration, if Donald Trump wins the presidency, the terrain changes again. A different question emerges: How to halt the advance of Trump without totally capitulating to piecemeal reform? There is no easy answer, but we definitely need to continue to build a social movement in opposition to mass incarceration and criminalization and for systemic change. And despite all the horrors of the possibility of a Trump presidency, the only way to effectively resist is growing the grassroots political power that has emerged in recent years. In the absence of such a social movement, Clinton will walk us down the road of piecemeal reform or Trump will run us over with a steamroller. We need the creativity and imagination of a transformative force.

Social Movements

Ultimately, no elected politician will drive systemic change. They might modify or scrap some laws, or change some of the discourse, but only a grassroots movement with a heavy presence of leadership from the formerly incarcerated, their families and community members will push for the kind of transformation required to smash mass incarceration. On their own, elected political leaders won’t do what it takes to bring the US into par with incarceration rates of the other industrialized countries or with the US levels before mass incarceration. That would mean reducing our prison population by about 75 percent. That means about 1.7 million people back out on the streets. This scale of change can never happen without pressure from below. Ultimately, it is not just a movement that focuses on the criminal legal system. Mass incarceration is a subset of a racialized mass criminalization of poor and working people. To address this, we need to go beyond sentencing reform and changes in bail systems. Even reducing the prison and jail population, often referred to as decarceration, is not enough — necessary, but not enough. We need to transform society, build a movement that explores new forms of democracy and intersectionality, and that finds ways to ask difficult questions about its past practice and future.

Perhaps the most important thing to imagine is a formal political process that tackles the big picture. There is no magic formula, but some interesting ideas have come forward which help put this notion onto the agenda. Such processes embody a way of thinking rather than a specific set of events or actions. Here are three examples.

First, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, a political prisoner for some three decades, has argued for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the oppression of African-American people in the US. This idea, which builds on the South African experience, has been implemented in a number of countries in post-war or post-dictatorship moments. While what Dr. Shakur has proposed is different in scope than addressing mass incarceration and mass criminalization, there is considerable overlap between the oppression of African-American people generally and what has happened in the criminal legal system in recent decades. In fact, the Jericho Movement has adopted Dr. Shakur’s ideas for an upcoming campaign directed at freeing political prisoners.

A second example comes from the Ella Baker Center in California, which advocates a notion they call Truth and Reinvestment. This entails formation of community-based justice teams tasked with exposing the truth of racialized police abuse and the criminal legal system at the local level. In addition, these justice teams will build campaigns to divert funding away from incarceration into programs and projects that improve people’s lives and reduce jail and prison numbers.

The third example connects to reparations. We saw a successful example of this just last year in Chicago when a constellation of organizations forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his corrupt city government to pass an ordinance to create monuments in the city commemorating torture victims, made it mandatory for schools to teach about police torture in their curriculum, and provided free college education to torture survivors and their families. They also won payouts to certain individuals who had spent decades in prison (much of it in solitary confinement), after being tortured by Chicago police into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. That’s the power of mass social movements.

There are three keys to making processes a success. The first is the agreement by all parties to participate. This is a difficult challenge, but the political pressure of mass social movements can make the rich and powerful do things they never dreamed of doing. Ask Rahm Emanuel or F.W. deKlerk. The second component is truth telling. The oppressed must have the opportunity to tell their stories publicly and compel the oppressors to listen. Truth telling lifts up those whose stories have been ignored or denied. Plus, it is an important step in contributing to how we record and remember history.

The third and most difficult part of the process is redistribution, getting the rich and powerful to sacrifice because they have to. The crucial part about redistribution is not that it doles out checks to individuals, but that it redistributes the money and resources of the state and the wealthy in a way that moves the impacted individuals and communities down a path of collective opportunity. In the US, activists have called this Justice Reinvestment: ploughing some of that $80-plus billion spent on criminal punishment every year back into the urban Black and Brown communities, poor white rural towns and Native American lands from which bodies have been snatched for the prison industrial complex. Without this redistribution, the story telling part becomes a feel-good exercise. Those good feelings don’t last very long in the face of empty stomachs and permanent residence in shelters for the homeless.

Such processes lie very far off for a fledgling movement trying to find its feet and consolidate a base. Along the way, there are a lot of race, class and gender issues to address. But the board of Corrections Corporation of America and the top layers of state departments of corrections are spending lots of time and money these days thinking about where they will end up in five or 10 years and how they can secure their political power and revenue streams. A movement in opposition must also be keeping that big picture in mind as it moves ahead. In the meantime, we need to stop jail construction projects, pass sentencing reform, eliminate cash bail, reign in and restructure the police. But we must always remember that it all takes place inside a big picture — a picture we must paint with our own colors as we move forward.

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