Saturday, May 25, 2013
Why I Am Not an Abolitionist
Examining what might be the beginning of the decline of prison as a massive mode of governance (and government expenditure) sometimes makes me think about abolitionist criminology - that is, a perspective ruling out the usage of prisons as a mode of punishment at all, and sometimes challenging the very concept of crime. I spend a lot of time on this blog decrying the evils of mass incarceration, and with good reason; the prison complex has become a monstruous apparatus controlling the lives of an astonishing percentage of Americans. That this massive project is shrinking a bit because of the economic downturn can be read as a sad testament to the prism of profit as the main perspective on crime and punishment. If we could execute and confine massive amounts of people on the cheap, somehow, we would do it. And that is horrific, and the goal of bringing this system down certainly merits our energy, passion, time, and money.
But I am not an abolitionist, and I don't think I ever was. A lot of what Gilmore and Davis say is true, but I don't come out of this with the same conclusions. This post is my attempt to clarify to myself how I feel about the prison project in general, and it is more reflective than decisive.
The bottom line is this: Despite everything, despite Discipline and Punish, despite Visions of Social Control, despite The New Penology, despite From the Big House to the Warehouse, I still think that prison is preferable to a regime of corporal punishment. And I think that some people - a very small minority of the people currently doing time in correctional institutions - should be in prison, and should be kept there for a long, long time. My objection to mass incarceration is aimed at the scale of the operation, not at its rationale. I would be at peace with a much, much smaller apparatus, designed to confine the very small percentage of people whom I regard non-redeemable, or whose deeds are abominable to the extreme.
A couple of months ago we had the great honor and pleasure of hosting Marc Klaas on stage at the California Correctional Crisis conference. I have fought Mr. Klaas's politics for much of my professional life, and I truly believe, and always have, that extreme punitive measures advanced as being presumably in the interest of victims are unfair, inhumane, and do much more harm than good. But not only do I have an immense amount of sympathy for Mr. Klaas and the terrible loss of his little girl, I also have a lot of admiration and respect for his commitment to public service and his devotion to what he thinks (and I disagree) is best for California. He is not part of the prison industrial complex. He genuinely believes his work is world-improving, and I have respect for genuine advocacy. And I think some of it, especially the KlaasKids foundation's work to help identify and locate missing children, is very worthwhile.
I also have some understanding of the retributionist perspective, even though I'm not a big subscriber to its punitive corollary. A few months ago I saw the chilling and depressing film An American Crime, which, to my horror, is faithful to the trial transcript in the very real murder case of Sylvia Likens. I can't really recommend the film or the trial transcript - I had nightmares for many weeks and wouldn't wish them upon my readers - but it awakened me to the distressing fact that crime is real, it is sometimes (happily, rarely) truly horrific, and victimization is devastating. Interestingly, the Indiana jury decided, in that trial, not to impose the death penalty. Is the death penalty horrific from a humanistic and systemic perspective? Yes. Would I lose sleep over someone like the defendant receiving it in that case? Probably not. Hannah Arendt, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, found a way to justify the death penalty in that specific case. I consider myself a death penalty abolitionist on various grounds and still agree with her conclusions.
If I have to choose a criminological camp to belong to, therefore, I pledge my allegiance to Jock Young's left realism. Crime, says Young, is real, and victimization is real. Any effort to present the crack epidemic and its immense devastation as nonexistent, or some sort of fantastic FBI conspiracy, should be rejected (and if you want to know more, read David Kennedy's Don't Shoot.) Any effort to present violent street crime as "community organizing" should be firmly rejected. As Jimmy McNulty says in The Wire, an underground economy can and should exist without horrific violence and the devastation of entire neighborhoods. I don't think I'm feeding into the establishment and justifying mass incarceration by acknowledging crime and victimization.
Yes, crime is situational. But there is almost always a modicum of responsibility. We have to believe in responsibility if we believe in change. Yes, help and initiative and welfare and reform is essential to bring about that change. It cannot happen on its own. But to argue that deprivation, racial and class discrimination, and other situational factors necessarily produce violent crime is an insult to the vast majority of poor people of color who do NOT engage in violent crime. In that way, the abolitionist radical position, that would interpret any criminal act as having political meaning, is as reductionist and offensive to me as the right-wing race- and class-blind position that expects everyone to conform to the law regardless of their status in life, or worse, that assumes that race and class are criminogenic because the perpetrators subscribe to a different set of values.
Moreover, radical criminology does a disservice to poor people of color when it decries stop and frisk wholesale and argues for underenforcement. As Sasha Natapoff convincingly argues in Underenforcement, street crime tends to victimize folks who live in low-income, minority neighborhoods. Yes, police brutality and abuse of power should be fiercely protested and stopped. But no policing at all throws the baby in with the bathwater.
So, let's all fight the good fight. Let's demolish the California correctional monster. But let's not forget that the distinction between offenders and victims is false; let's not forget that prisons, while instruments of incapacitation, profit and corruptions, are the right place for a small minority of the people who inhabit their walls; and let's not subscribe to an essentialist view that, by denying crime and its devastating consequences, defies reality.
Such a short post cannot possibly do justice to many topics we could discuss, such as the false distinction between street crime and other forms of crime, and the roots of American incarceration in the abolition of slavery. I acknowledge their importance and welcome thoughts and comments.