It's nearly a priori that they won't impanel me for death penalty or war-on-drugs type cases, since I'm up front about exercising my right to jury nullify in the case of unjust laws or state sanctioned murder.*
But I have no idea what to do with respect to someone who has both broken a just law and who should not be on the streets.
How can anyone in good conscience send another human being to an American prison?
But as a juror the only choice they give you is sending the person to prison or releasing them. And many people are too predatory to be allowed to operate in normal society.
I've got two weeks until I have to go in. Any advice about from people agree with me that this is a genuine dilemma** and/or have some experience negotiating the system would be greatly appreciated.
Last week, I suggested that there was no meaningful difference between a “botched” execution and a “proper” one. Today, I will develop this claim and offer some phenomenological support for it. The analysis that follows is rooted in my present geopolitical context – Tennessee – but the issues apply to the US death penalty as a whole. Thank you to Geoff Adelsberg for his research assistance on the legal cases, and to Kelly Oliver for sharing this research with me.
The Supreme Court case Baze v Rees (2008) upheld the constitutionality of the standardized three drug protocol, which consists of 1) sodium thiopental (an anaesthetic), 2) pancuronium bromide (a paralytic), and 3) potassium chloride (an electrolyte which, administered in the right way, stops the heart). Building on Louisiana ex rel. Francis v. Resweber, the Court argued that an “isolated mishap alone” (say, a botched execution) does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because “such an event, while regrettable, does not suggest cruelty or a “substantial risk of serious harm.””Baze established a 3-part standard involving an assessment of “(a) the severity of pain risked, (b) the likelihood of that pain occurring, and (c) the extent to which alternative means are feasible.”
Last week's botched execution in Ohio has raised questions for many people about the ethics of experimenting with untested lethal injection protocols. But it’s not clear that the standard drug protocol is any less cruel, even if it is less unusual.
On Thursday, January 16, Dennis McGuire was injected with a combination of the sedative midazolam and painkiller hydromorphone. Witnesses report that he gasped, snorted, and struggled for air for over ten minutes before being pronounced dead. Why would Ohio turn to such a controversial and untested execution method?
Since 2011, one of the drugs in the standardized lethal injection protocol has become unavailable thanks to a combination of global capitalism and European law. This protocol consists of three drugs: sodium thiopental (an anaesthetic), 2) pancuronium bromide (a paralytic), and 3) potassium chloride (an electrolyte which, administered in the right way, stops the heart). Until recently, the only US manufacturer of the first drug, sodium thiopental, was Hospira.
Last week, I wrote about Tennessee's unprecedented push to execute 10 prisoners, beginning on January 15, 2014.
Today, I'm happy to report that the January 15 execution of Billy Ray Irick has been postponed to October 7, 2014. Why? Because of legal challenges to Tennessee's new lethal injection protocol.
Next week, I will fill in the context for this legal challenge, but this week, I want to bring your attention to an open letter by Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice, which calls on Governor Bill Haslam to suspend all scheduled executions immediately, and to commission a full and transparent review of capital punishment in Tennessee.
While it may seem hyperbolic to describe these planned executions as a form of "mass murder," I believe that the hyperbolic nature of capital punishment warrants such a description. And the state of Tennessee seems to agree, at least on some level. The standard way of recording the "manner of death" on an executed prisoner's death certificate in Tennessee is as "homicide." A homicide committed by the state, and by proxy by the people of Tennessee.
Over the next few months, I will explore some of the issues raised by state homicide in a series of blog posts on New APPS. I welcome your constructive and critical feedback.
Earlier this week, U.S. District Court
Judge Thelton E. Henderson ruled that prisoners on hunger strike in
California may be force-fed, even if they have signed an advance directive to
refuse medical resuscitation.
Joyce Hayhoe, a spokesperson for California
Correctional Health Care Services, commented on the decision: “It's
better to err
on the side of life.”
She cited claims made by the California Department of
Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) – and refuted by the Hunger
Strike Mediation Team – that some prisoners have been coerced into signing
Do Not Resuscitate orders by prison gang members.
These claims form part of the CDCR’s broader public
relations campaign to discredit the strike action by representing it as a “gang
power play.”I have critiqued this
arguing that the term gang and the CDCR’s policies for gang validation and
debriefing, function as a mechanisms of social and civil death, criminalizing
both the collective resistance and the collective existence of people behind bars.
Today was a big day for criminal justice in the US.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced a ""Smart On Crime" plan which includes asking prosecutors to remain silent on the amount of drugs involved in non-violent, low-level drug offenses in order to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences:
"For example, in the case of a defendant accused of conspiring to sell
five kilograms of cocaine — an amount that would set off a 10-year
mandatory minimum sentence — the prosecutor would write that “the
defendant conspired to distribute cocaine” without saying how much. The
quantity would still factor in when prosecutors and judges consult
sentencing guidelines, but depending on the circumstances, the result
could be a sentence of less than the 10 years called for by the
mandatory minimum law, the official said."This is an interesting use of policy to trump
law (which still remains in place, but is more selectively enforced -- which begs the question of why we should have mandatory minimum sentences in the first place, but anyway...).
Meanwhile, New York's Stop and Frisk policy was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge. Here was have a case of law supervening on policy, although it's not clear how effective the ruling will be in curbing the practise by which a disproportionate number of people of color are stopped and searched by police. I blogged about this policy about a year and a half ago, in response to Adam Gopnik's endorsement of the policy.
On July 8, 30,000 people joined together across racial lines to
participate in the largest
hunger strike in California history.These people are prisoners at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and other California
prisons.Their current strike action
renews a two-year peaceful protest against conditions of extreme isolation,
arbitrary punishment, Kafka-esque policies, and inhumane living conditions in
California prisons, particularly in the SHU, or Security Housing Unit. The SHU is a euphemism for solitary confinement, which in turn is a
euphemism for living
death.Prisoners are held for 22½
hours a day in an 8 ft. x 10 ft. windowless cell that looks something like
The art of letter-writing is dead – except in prison.While people on the outside exchange staccato
texts and tweets, people on the inside still compose long letters by hand or on
typewriters.They write with their whole
hand, not just with their thumbs.
We shouldn’t get too misty-eyed about this persistence of a
lost art behind bars; after all, it’s a sign of deprivation.If prisoners had access to cell phones and
the internet, they would be tweeting, too – and perhaps their voices would be
more difficult to silence.
And yet, everyday practices such as letter-writing or
texting cannot help but shape our Being-in-the-world.A letter is a material thing: you can hold it
in your hands, and you can lose it.The
temporality of letter-writing is much slower than texting; you can’t expect an
immediate response, and so there’s more time to reflect on the impact your
words might have on the receiver.If you
know that the mail is delivered at a certain time every day, then there’s no
point in obsessively checking your inbox.This might not help to decrease your anxiety, especially if you feel
like your life depends upon the response; but it also doesn’t feed an addictive
relation to delivery mechanism.
Somewhere in between the letter and the text message is the
There’s a nice little experiment undertaken by Christopher Chabris and
Daniel Simons at Harvard University in which subjects were asked to count
the number of times a basketball was passed back and forth in a short
video.Half of the subjects tested were
so absorbed in their assigned task that they did not even notice a person in a
gorilla suit walking into the middle of the action, thumping its chest, and
leaving.This experience of missing what
is right before your eyes because you are focused on something else has come to
be known as inattentional blindness.
How does a person snap out of inattentional blindness?You don’t need an argument to show you that a
gorilla was in the scene, you just need someone to point it out to you.Both the demonstration of your inattentional
blindness and the “cure,” as it were, is a simple re-orientation of
perspective.Maybe you will need to
watch the video again, or maybe the simple prompt, “Did you see the gorilla?”
will be enough to make the missed phenomenon snap into place.
I want to suggest that there are forms of collective
inattentional blindness, which are harder to discern and even harder to snap
out of, but that a socially-engaged practice of phenomenology can help us with
both.My example will be – not
surprisingly for those who have read any of my previous blog posts – the
invisibility of mass incarceration in the US.
Every chance I get, I remind people that the US incarcerates
more people than any other country in the world.It can get pretty annoying, actually, both
for me and for them.But it’s a point
that still seems to float, like a gorilla pounding its chest, into the middle
of each and every scene of everyday life in the US, without being noticed.
Look at this image, for example.It’s a planner’s sketch for proposed
developments in a part of Nashville that they are trying to get people to call
“SoBro.” (You can click on the image to see more of the details.)
What would it take to see this sketch as a scene of mass
So I’m sitting here in Berlin, thinking WTF?25 years ago, this was a divided city.70 years ago, it was part of the Third
Reich.Today, it is a place where art
and culture flourish, where you can take public transit everywhere from the
Wannsee to Potsdam (with your bike or your dog, for that matter), and where abandoned airports
are turned into beautiful parks.Babies splash naked in fountains, teenagers bring bottles of beer down
to the canal and watch the sunset, women walk down Kottbusser Damm with cell
phones tucked into their headscarves for hands-free networking.
At all hours of the day and night, people are in the streets:
walking, riding bicycles, waiting for 24 hour buses.Fresh, healthy, and even affordable food is
available on almost every block, and even on hiking trails. No, not even the forest is a food desert in
Berlin!And if I fainted from too much
beauty, as I very well might, I am confident that I would receive medical
treatment without emptying my bank account.
Sure, there are problems.Potsdamer Platz is a nightmare of capitalist realism.The caravan parks and squats that flourished
in the 90s are struggling to survive, and they want the Yuppies ‘Raus (although
someone spray-painted a P over the Y, making it Puppies ‘Raus). Turks, Eastern Europeans, and other immigrants
face overt racism and systematic forms of social, political and economic
Berlin isn’t perfect.And yet, it’s remarkable how this city has managed to come back to life
from almost unimaginable conflict and terror, and from not one but two massive carceral systems,
within the past century.
Contrast this with the wreckage and diaspora of
the Ninth Ward, still evident seven years after Katrina. With the ruins of Detroit.With California’s Golden
Gulag.With the wall
we are building in the US-Mexico borderlands.Or even with my own suburban neighborhood in Nashville, where the only
time people come out of their houses is to cut the lawn.
You know the facts: 2.3 million Americans in prison, 80,000
or more in solitary confinement for up to 23½ hours a day.But it’s hard to understand the meaning of
these facts without a more direct encounter with the prison system, and with
the people who inhabit it.Enter Herman’s
House(2012, dir. Angad Bhalla).
For over forty years, Herman Wallace has lived in a 6x9 box
at Angola Prison in Louisiana.Since
2003, Herman has been collaborating with artist Jackie Sumell to design and
build his dream home.His vision is to run the house as a community
center for at-risk youth.The film
documents this collaboration and follows Jackie from the gallery to the empty
lots of New Orleans, where she hopes to build Herman’s house someday.
As loyal readers of NewAPPS may recall, I warmly welcomed the founding of Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHL), which has been a wildly succesful blog. While I have followed BHL regularly (and sometimes blog about issues of shared interest [e.g., here, here, here, etc.), I had also grown a bit wary of the general fondness for expert-rule among some of the BHL crowd. (As always with a group blog, one is not allowed to make claims about the whole group.) But ever since Sarah Skwire started blogging at BHL my enthusiasm has been rekindled. (Take a look at, for example, this post--trigger warning it discusses rape.) She challenges Libertarians to live up to their own best principles and, in doing so, challenges us all to think through how fondness for state institutions (the military, prisons, etc.) facilitates a rape-culture.
'In the of challenging Libertarians to live up to their own best principles (and reminding us all of the vitality and the need of the tradition today) genre' is a another post by Roger Koppl, who does not blog at BHL (but is certainly a kind of fell0w-traveler), about the significance of income-inequality at Thinkmarkets.
Apparently, they had
voted to ratify the amendment in 1995, but someone forgot to file the
It took Dr. Ranjan Batra, an associate
professor of neurobiology and anatomical sciences at the University of
Mississippi Medical Center, to set the wheels in motion for the state’s
eventual ratification of the amendment to abolish slavery.
Dr. Batra saw the
film, "Lincoln," and wondered about the rest of the story. He did some googling and discovered that
Mississippi had “ratified the amendment in 1995, but
because the state never officially notified the US Archivist, the ratification
is not official.”
Recently I posted about some fine 'law & economics'-style reasoning in Thomas More's Utopia. In the midst of a critical treatment of the practice of executing convicted thieves, a further argument is added (during an exchange between Raphael Hythloday and John Morton, Archbishop and Cardinal of Canterbury, and at that time also Lord Chancellor of England):
To be short, Moses' law, though it were ungentle and sharp, as a law
that was given to bondmen; yea, and them very obstinate, stubborn, and
stiff-necked; yet it punished theft by the purse, and not with death.
And let us not think that God in the new law of clemency and mercy,
under the which he ruleth us with fatherly gentleness, as his dear
children, hath given us greater scope and license to execute cruelty,
one upon another. Utopia
In context, Hythloday ("talker of nonsense") offers a battery of arguments against the severity of the criminal law of England. Now one of these arguments appeals to the authority of revelation to insist that much capital punishment may be immoral. As if Hythloday is a traditional natural law thinker, he claims that even a "law made by the consent of men" does not make it moral. (More is writing in a period in which the Tudor dynasty has just consolidated its rise to power by the force of arms.) After all, "why may it not likewise by man's constitutions be
determined after what sort whoredom, fornication and perjury may be
But Hythloday's appeal to revelation is also a bit unusual. For, in the passage quoted at the top of this post Hythloday relies on an explicit and a more daring implicit contrast. The official contrast (i) is between Moses's legal code and the more gentle rule of Christianity. But there is also an implied contrast (ii) between the way one rules a barbarous people (recently liberated from tyranny) and the way one rules a more civilized people. (The implied contrast between the barbarous and civilization, which is extremely popular in later early modern writing, would have been familiar to More from Aristotle's Politics.) The implied contrast (ii) effectively historicizes the Bible, whose commandments are now understood as fitted to a people at a particular time and place in need of strict rule. This strategy is pursued more relentlessly in Spinoza's Theologic0-Political Treatise (e.g., chapter 5; III/75).
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Jason. My response will be a
bit long-winded, but I am thankful for the chance to think about these
issues more systematically.
It's true that I did not intend to offer an argument against
the death penalty, but rather to bring a different perspective to the
discussion. It's fair to ask for a
defense of my claims, which I will try to offer here. But I also want to make it clear that I do
not intend these claims to add up to an argument in the *debate* about capital
punishment, because I think the terms of this debate are already immoral. I am absolutely against the death penalty. To enter into a debate about when and whether
capital punishment is warranted, when and whether it is properly, justifiably,
or "reliably" applied to someone, is already to concede too much. (I
put "reliably" in quotation marks in reference to Jennifer Culbert's
excellent book, Dead Certainty, in which she analyzes the US Supreme Court's
efforts to secure "fair, equitable, and reliable outcomes" in capital
cases (Culbert 47).)
Every Wednesday, I go to Riverbend
Maximum Security Prison in Nashville to facilitate a discussion group with
prisoners on death row and philosophy graduate students. It’s a nice prison, as
far as prisons go: clean, suburban-feeling, with a soapy smell that lingers on my
hands and clothes after I leave. The
reception area is filled with motivational posters of determined mountain
climbers and goal-oriented rowing teams.
Beyond the checkpoint, an ordinary sidewalk leads to death row. The path is lined with beige wooden fences
and topiary shaped like giant bathtub stoppers.
We pass through a series of grey doors and empty hallways until we reach
the smiling faces of ten men who have been condemned to death by the state of
WUI Collective and REACH Coalition, Postcards from Death Row (2012)
Last week I had a post with a version of
'Umbabarauma' featuring Mano Brown, the emblematic rapper of the rap band
Racionais MCs. This week, I want to post
a song by the Racionais MCs themselves, and not just any song: 'Diario de um detento', the
diary of an inmate (the lyrics were written by a former inmate). It was ranked
52nd best Brazilian song of all times by the Brazilian Rolling Stone magazine
The song is about the episode which became
known as 'Carandiru massacre'. Carandiru was a penitentiary (demolished in
2002), one among many in the cruel Brazilian prison system. On October 2nd
1992, a prison revolt arose, and before attempting any kind of negotiations, the
military police was sent in; 111 inmates were killed. The episode is now widely
considered as one of the major human rights violations in the history of Brazil.
(I remember it very well; I was in high school at the time and the massacre was
one of the main topics of conversation even during classes for months.) Still
now, it represents all that is (still) wrong with Brazilian prisons:
overpopulation, police brutality, overrepresentation of Afro-Brazilians in the
prison population. The song narrates the moments just before the revolt erupted
(lyrics here in Portuguese, you can try your luck with Google translator); it was the first time ever that the life of inmates hit the music charts in
It's been almost 20 years since the massacre, and it's good to be
reminded from time to time that something as horrible as this could have taken place.
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Senate’s Assistant Majority Leader, will chair a hearing on the human rights, fiscal, and public safety consequences of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers. This is the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. Over the last several decades, the United States has witnessed an explosion in the use of solitary confinement for federal, state, and local prisoners and detainees. The hearing will explore the psychological and psychiatric impact on inmates during and after their imprisonment, the higher costs of running solitary housing units, the human rights issues surrounding the use of isolation, and successful state reforms in this area.
This hearing is open to the public. The list of witnesses will be announced on a future date.
Chairman Durbin invites interested advocates and experts to submit written testimony to be included in the hearing record. Statements should be less than 10 pages, and should be emailed to Nicholas Deml at Nicholas_Deml@judiciary-dem.senate.gov as early as possible, but no later than Friday, June 15, 2012 at 5:00 PM.
Below is my draft for a letter to the committee. If you have any constructive feedback, please post a comment here before the deadline of June 15. I have tried to write from a philosophical perspective that is accessible to non-philosophers.
Some comments from an anonymous reader have made me realize that my project in the last few blog posts may be misconstrued, and since I plan to continue this series of posts, I want to clarify the philosophical and political motivations behind the project.
First, I do not intend to weigh in on “the debate” about capital punishment. Rather, I wish to put in question the whole framework of death penalty discourse in the US, which has been structured as a debate between two sides, pro and con, since at least Furman v Georgia (1972). The content of these debates tends to be moral rather than political: Is it right or wrong, in principle, for a state to execute one of its citizens? What are the utilitarian, deontological, and other standard arguments for or against the death penalty? Do you agree or disagree?
This discourse is impoverished for two main reasons: 1) It neglects the social, historical, and political context within which executions actually happen, and 2) The debate can go on interminably without ever having to address or listen to those who are condemned to death.
These may seem like extrinsic factors to the debate – and they are. This is why the debate is insufficient. But philosophy is not just a debating club. There are good philosophical reasons to insist on the importance of engaging with the concrete situation of executions and the voices of the condemned. I will focus on the latter, since it is my project in these posts to make some of the voices of the condemned audible beyond the prison walls.
Why listen to the condemned? What could convicted murderers add to the discussion of capital punishment that trained philosophers have not already run circles around? What the condemned bring to the conversation may or may not yield new content to feed into the debating machine. That is not the point! What they bring is the singularity of their existence and the particularity of their situation. What do I mean by this?
Steve Champion, now Adisa Akanni Kamara, is an inmate on death row at San Quentin. He has been in prison for 30 years, since he was 18 years old. His essay, “The Sword into a Pen,” narrates his transformation from a gangbanger into an intellectual, poet, storyteller, and activist.
Together with Anthony Ross, now Ajani Addae Kamara, and Stanley “Tookie” Williams, he read and studied work by Plato and Fanon, Heidegger and Che Guevara, Marx and Machiavelli. “We had gone from thugs to bookworms,” he writes (65). How did this transformation happen?
The book opens with the testimony of Willie Francis, a 16-year-old black man who was condemned to death in 1947, in Louisiana, by a jury of 12 white men, solely on the basis of a written confession produced after Francis had been picked up for another, unrelated crime. Francis survived not one, but two massive electric shocks. His lawyer appealed, arguing that to attempt another execution would count as "cruel and unusual punishment," thus violating the Eighth Amendment. The case went to the Supreme Court, but ultimately, Francis lost, and he was executed by electrocution in 1947.
There are so many things wrong with this story, it's hard to know where to begin. What did Francis have to say about the experience of surviving his own execution - twice - only to be held in prison until a third and final death?
"I sure know how it feels to sit in that chair and have them strap me in and put a mask on my eyes. I know how it feels to have the shock go through me and think I am dead but find out I am not. I do not like to talk about it at all, but if it will help other people to understand each other, I want to tell everything" (33).
As we celebrate this victory and work towards abolition in other states, we need to remember that state execution is not the only ethically and politically questionable part of the US prison system, even if it is the most hotly debated.
It is arguably not even the only form of "death penalty," if by death we mean not only the cessation of biological life but also the destruction of psychic and social personhood.
Stuart Grassian, Craig Haney, Terry Kupers and others have shown that prolonged solitary confinement produces intense anxiety, paranoia, cognitive difficulties, perceptual distortions such as hallucinations, and physical illness in many prisoners. Charles Dickens called it "secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay." Atul Gawande calls it torture.
A lifetime of solitary confinement without the chance of release amounts to a death-in-life sentence.
And yet, this is precisely what Connecticut has substituted as an alternative to capital punishment! Solitary Watch reports (quoting from The Day):
Under the bill, those convicted [of Class A felony murder, which would have otherwise been treated as a capital offense] must be housed separately from other inmates, subjected to twice-weekly cell searches and must change their cells every three months. They would get no more than two hours a day outside their cells and would be allowed only “non-contact” visitation privileges.
Is this any better than a death sentence?
I will pose this question to the eight inmates on Tennessee's death row with whom I meet every two weeks, along with five other "outsiders," for a reading and discussion group. I will report back to you next Thursday.
Together, King, Wallace and Woodfox are known as the Angola 3. Their struggle for justice is not set in a repressive dictatorship on the other side of the world. It is not a horror story from the U.S. War on Terror. It is happening in our own backyard, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola Prison.
Angola Prison is named after the slave plantation upon which it was built, which in turn was named after the Portuguese colony where the first slaves on this land were transported. Even today, the forced labor of black prisoners working in the cotton fields of Angola Prison conjures up images of slavery.
I wanted to pick up on Mark Lance's rant with a rant of my own, and to invite further rants from readers. I kep thinking about the horrible shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and about the calls for justice in the wake of his murder. There is no doubt in my mind that, if Trayvon had pulled the trigger, he would have been arrested immediately, and the full force of the law would have been brought down upon him. And I agree that Zimmerman should be arrested, and the whole situation should be investigated. But at the same time, I keep thinking: What would justice look like for Trayvon? Would a murder charge for Zimmerman amount to justice?
I highly recommend today's New York Times article, "Life, With Dementia," to everyone who is interested in prison reform, care ethics, social change, community-building, mental illness... Well, really, I recommend this article to everyone. A brief highlight:
"“A year ago,” Mr. Baxter said, “I couldn’t have said, ‘You know what man, I’m going to go help this grown man get in the shower,’ ” and “get in there and help these guys wash theirself off.”
"Gold Coats say they are moved by the work. “I’m a person who was broken,” said Mr. Burdick, who during 35 years in prison lost a wife to AIDS and a 16-year-old daughter to suicide. Dementia patients often “don’t even say thank you,” he said, but “they just pat me like that and I know what that means.”
"Mr. Cañas said: “I didn’t have any feelings about other people. I mean, in that way, I was a predator.” Now, he said, “I’m a protector.”"
This is the kind of reform we need in prisons: Empowering prisoners to help each other, and themselves, rather than feeding the cycle of violence that spins out of control when people have no real stake in their own future, or in the well-being of others.
In a recent article in n+1 called "Raise the Crime Rate," Christopher Glazek poses an uncommon question: Where have all the violent criminals gone? Homicides in New York have fallen from 2,245 in 1990 to 536 in 2010. The number of sexual assaults across the US has fallen by 85% from 1980 to 2005. Has the US suddenly become a kinder, gentler nation? Or have "stop and frisk" policing strategies succeeded in preventing violent crime by separating the "sharks" from the "dolphins," as Adam Gopnik recently argued in "The Caging of America"?
Yes and no -- or rather, no and yes. Glazek argues that violent crime has not, in fact, fallen across the country; rather, the burden of violence has shifted from the street to the prison, where it has become largely invisible to the public. In the same time period that street violence declined, the US prison population quadrupled, reaching 2.3 million prisoners in 2008. The US now has the largest prison population in the world, second only to Stalin's USSR in the history of the world. The streets may be safer then they were 20 years ago, but in the meantime, we have become a prison state. We tolerate the arrest, incarceration and solitary confinement of a full 2% of our fellow citizens, and so we tolerate the conditions under which hundreds of thousands of prisoners are raped every year -- to the point where the United States may now be "the first country in the history of the world to count more rapes for men than for women."
Gopnik and Glazek agree that the mass incarceration of Americans has reached epidemic proportions. But while Gopnik's liberal solution only compounds the problem, as I have argued elsewhere, Glazek challenges us to find a radical solution to a radical problem:
The US prison system doesn’t need reform—it needs to be abolished. Like slavery in the 19th century, and civil rights in the 20th century, prison abolition in the 21st century can only be accomplished by a popular movement as radical and uncompromising as the movement that set up the prison regime in the first place.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik provides a useful example of how class and racial privilege can function as epistemic barriers, preventing otherwise intelligent people from understanding a situation in which they are keenly interested.
Gopnik begins his article, “The Caging of America,” with an admirably concise account of the current US prison epidemic and its historical roots in two approaches to incarceration: the Northern penitentiary system, dedicated to reform and rehabilitation, and the Southern legacy of plantation slavery, which continues to shape carceral policies focused on punishment and retribution.
But Gopnik’s argument takes a curious turn when he begins to reflect on the “real background to the prison boom,” which he identifies as “the crime wave that preceded and overlapped it.” Gopnik does not cite sources or statistics to support this “reality”; rather, he appeals to his own traumatic recollection of the sixties and seventies, which “those too young to recall” may be tempted to dismiss as “mere bogeyman history.” But there is a palpable difference between the mean streets of New York in 1980 and the relative safety of New York in 2012; Gopnik can feel it. What could explain this change for the better?
Thanks to our "liberal Democrat" president, revocation of the Magna Carta is now permanent. Would it be too much to ask that people wake the hell up and take this seriously? Details here
Sadly, I think the answer to that question is "yes". And so I'm allowing myself a day of wallowing - exemplified by my title, which refers to this bit of brilliant despair - I'll no doubt come around to something more positive in a bit.
(I also know that "Political Music Friday" has begun to function like "Holy Roman Empire" but it is not dead, just resting.)
The New York Times reports that an Alabama inmate, Mark Melvin, is suing prison officials at the Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Alabama Commissioner of Corrections for the right to read a book. According to prison officials, this book is "too incendiary" and "too provocative" to be allowed within prison walls. It might incite "violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality, or disobedience toward law enforcement officials or correctional staff." What is this incendiary book, and why is it so dangerous?
The book is called Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon, a senior correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. It documents the history of the Convict Lease System, which sprang up across the South after the formal abolition of slavery in 1865. Through this system, thousands of inmates were leased to private and public corporations. They built railroads; they worked in coal mines; they even worked on plantations planting and picking cotton, sometimes for the same planters who used to own them as slaves. When their bodies were spent, they were sold to medical schools for dissection; their urine was collected and sold to tanneries.
Historian David Oshinsky has called the convict lease system “worse than slavery” because it granted white property owners access to a ceaselessly-renewed source of labor while removing the incentive to provide even a minimal degree of care for the workers. The inmates were not paid for their labor; they were leased at a flat rate from the prison. Often, inmates were not even fed but rather left to scrounge in the woods for food after a full day of heavy labor. Mortality rates were extremely high, with many prisoners dying before they could serve out their full sentence.
Convict lease systems sprang up in every former slave state; they operated between 1868 (with Georgia as the first state to institute such a system) and 1928 (with Alabama as the last state to outlaw it). During its period of operation, incarceration rates in those states skyrocketed, with a 10-fold increase in the prison population in Georgia from 1868–1908, more than a 10-fold increase in North Carolina from 1870-1890, an 8.5-fold increase in Florida from 1881-1904, a 4-fold increase in Mississippi from 1871-1879, and a 6.5-fold increase in Alabama from 1869-1919 (see Sheldon 2005). A vastly disproportionate number of these inmates were black, charged under the new Black Codes and later under Jim Crow laws.
How could such a thing happen after the abolition of slavery? To this day, the Thirteenth Amendment continues to this day to hold open an exception for prison inmates: "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" (emphasis added). By leaving open the possibility of treating convicted criminals as slaves, the Thirteenth Amendment did not simply abolish slavery, it relocated and reinscribed slavery within the prison system, and within the legal limits of the constitution.
Slavery by Another Name is indeed an incendiary book; it takes as its very subject-matter a "violence based on race, religion, sex, creed, or nationality." But this violence is only compounded by the censorship of reading material available to prisoners who remain caught in the space of exception held open by the Thirteenth Amendment.
Joy James has argued that, by leaving open a loophole for the enslavement of convicted criminals, the 13th amendment did not abolish slavery, but rather "resurrected social death as a permanent legal category in U.S. life, yet no longer registered death within the traditional racial markings. Breaking with a two hundred-year-old tradition, the government ostensibly permitted the enslavement of nonblacks. Now not the ontological status of “nigger” but the ontological status of “criminal” renders one a slave" (James 2005, xxix).
Mark Melvin is white; he has been in prison for almost twenty years, since he was convicted at the age of fourteen for helping his older brother commit two murders. What does it mean to deny him access to this book? What would it mean to let him read it?