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The Politics of Abolition - Instead of prisons: a handbook for abolitionists

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The Politics of Abolition

, pp. 24-25. 36.

Ibid.,

p. 208. 37. May, pp. 99-100; Ryan, p. 242. See also, C. Wright Mills,

The Sociological Imagination

(New York, Oxford University Press, 1959) p. 40. 38. Gene Sharp,

The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

See Chapters I and II for further analysis and examples of these concepts. Instead of Prisons Table of Contents > Chapter 2

2. DEMYTHOLOGIZING OUR VIEWS OF PRISON

Crime: Myths & realities

Many citizens take comfort in the belief that most crimes are committed by a handful of people from certain groups within society-poor people, Blacks, "hippies," "radicals," "drug users." This belief is based on the myth that there are two classes of people-the "criminals" and the rest of us. This we versus they mind-set contributes to the labeling of "criminals" as the "violent," the "lawless" the "abnormal," and even the "subhuman"—in short, a "criminal type." [1] Altho our culture professes obedience to the law, crime is widespread thruout society. Crimes are committed by persons of every class, race and age group. Studies indicate that an "overwhelming majority of the general population has committed criminal acts, many of them extremely serious. Almost all of these crimes went unreported and the criminal escaped arrest and prosecution." [2] We are all "criminals" if the word means one who has committed an illegal act. Only a very small proportion of crime in the U.S. is committed by those who are convicted and imprisoned. The President's Commission on Causes and Prevention of Violence estimated that only 1.5 percent of the perpetrators of the approximately nine million crimes committed annually ends up in prison.

Who gets defined as "criminal?"

No discussion of the Texas prison system can be meaningful without consideration of the issue of race and imprisonment .... The figures show that altho Black Texans have always been over-represented in the Texas prison system, the most dramatic increase has taken place ... between 1960 and 1969 ... a 32 percent increase .... Black Texans are the target of higher incarceration rates because of the severe economic disadvantages that they suffer. --Richard Vogel, "Prison Reform in Social Perspective," The Texas Observer, January 31, 1975, pp. 3-5 Primary questions in developing an abolitionist perspective on crime include: What is crime? Who is the criminal? The true criminal, by whom I mean the man who will deliberately sacrifice others for his own advantage, is found in all ranks of society. He may never have occasion to transgress the law, and his true character may be disguised in rich apparel, showing forth only to the keen observer, in a number of actions which no law can punish and may even be made to support, and in which the brutal nature of the man comes out. [3] Law in any society reflects the values, interests and demands of those who hold power. Historically, crimes in Western society have ranged from "murder and forgery to astronomy and atheism, from homosexuality and bribery to treason and bankruptcy." [4] The intent of criminal law has been to uphold a selective moral code and to maintain economic and social power. Abolitionists recognize that altho criminal acts are committed by people of all races and socioeconomic classes, the overwhelming proportion of those arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned are the poor, the Black, the unconventional and the young. [5] These segments of the population are imprisoned, not because they are "criminal" and because white, middle class people are "noncriminal," but because they have been labeled as targets of "law enforcement" and are systematically discriminated against by police, by courts and within prisons (just as they are by the larger economic and social structures). There is much empirical evidence to support this point, but the most convincing proof comes from the realm of daily observation, not the computer printout. In this country today, decision makers are predominantly "white by race, upper middle by socioeconomic class, male by sex, suburban by residence ... and professional, proprietary or business by family background." Rarely punished by imprisonment are the crimes committed by persons from the more powerful sectors of society. These include "white collar crimes" such as embezzlement, price fixing, tax evasion and consumer fraud, as well as other crimes: Members of university faculties have participated in illegal research on welfare clients, subjecting them to pain, providing them with placebos instead of birth control pills they had requested, and refusing them their legal allotments in order to establish scientific control groups. Other scientists have engaged in lethal experiments on prisoners, many of whom were incarcerated for far less immoral or illegal conduct.... The government is not prosecuting these illegal acts. Lawless conduct in these cases is socially acceptable. We validate as serious all crimes of physical or psychic violence, whether labeled "white collar," "corporate" or "street." Secondly, certain crimes committed by persons from the more powerful sectors of society are not now illegal. Persons committing these crimes include:

  • Manufacturers of unsafe cars which annually cause thousands to perish in flaming highway wrecks.

  • Absentee landlords who charge extortionist rents for rat-infested slum apartments.

  • Madison Avenue copywriters whose job it is to manipulate the gullible into buying shoddy merchandise.

  • Doctors getting rich off Medicare who process their patients like so many cattle.

  • Manufacturers of napalm and other genocidal weapons. [8]

These crimes cannot be ignored any longer. A third category involves crimes against humanity. Most of these behaviors are not now illegal; the criminal law focuses on individual acts. Crimes against humanity involve threats to human survival resulting from collective action. These include war, starvation, overpopulation, resource depletion and exploitation, poverty, the possibility of nuclear holocaust, environmental pollution, pestilence, to name a few. [9] If we hope to function under a system of law, whole systems, such as multinational corporations and governments, [10] must be held responsible.

Crime wave statistics & public fear

The "law and order" rhetoric of certain political leaders is gross hypocrisy. It ignores the root causes of crime and merely whips up public fear, calling for increased police power and heavier criminal sentences. These politicians rely heavily on F.B.I. crime statistics. Each year the Uniform Crime Reports (U.C.R.) indicate an increase in the number of street crimes. There are several reasons for this apparent increase, including improved technology in reporting procedures by police departments around the country. However, there is evidence that the figures are often manipulated for political purposes. In at least one instance, the U.C.R. failed to publicize statistics showing a decrease in violent incidents. [11] The National Moratorium on Prison Construction points out: If the F.B.I. wish to report annual increases in crime of ten percent, it could do so for the next 16 years before catching up to the number of actual crimes—assuming a stable population and a stable crime rate. The F.B.I. usually reports crime rises of about five percent a year.... A recent victimization survey showed that victimization rates, when viewed according to sex, age, marital status, in- come, etc., showed little or no fluctuation.... If these results should hold it would mean that crime is stable, a theory proposed by Durkheim in the last century. [12] Most criminologists regard the U.C.R. as highly suspect and yet these misleading statistics are the basis for much public fear. What political purposes are served by increasing fear of "crime in the streets?" Public attention is focused on the myth of the criminal class, reinforcing a we/they view. Attention is diverted from serious crimes committed by persons other than "street criminals." Fear of a "crime wave" builds support for increased police repression of certain segments of society.

Myth of the criminal type

Based on the absurd assumption that a "criminal" can be identified according to behavior, appearance, and ethnic or racial origin, the myth of the criminal type has persisted a very long time probably for as long as crime itself. This labeling of the criminal as "a sub-human species to be treated as a non-person," [13] persists today in popular culture as well as in professional circles. Over 100 years ago, Charles Loring Brace published a book called The Dangerous Classes of New York... in which he warned society that juvenile delinquents -homeless, antisocial children of the streets- were "children of poverty and vice," and a terrible danger to society.... Their riots were close to revolution. They threatened the very social order; they resented the rich and looked on "capital" as a "tyrant." "Let but Law lift its hand from them for a season, or let the civilizing influences of American life fail to reach them, and if the opportunity offered, we should see an explosion from this class which might leave this city in ashes and blood." [14] The notion that the "criminal" is mentally deficient has given way to a belief in mental illness as the causal force. Testing of convicted felons, however, shows them to have the same incidence of psychiatric problems as the general public outside the walls. [15] The labeling of a "criminal class" serves several functions. Most notably, it acts as a rationale for control and punishment of dissident and unassimilated groups. It legitimizes imprisonment of the unemployable, a surplus labor force burdening our increasingly technological society. [16] It also provides employment and a degree of political control, by surveillance, patronage and other means for "middle Americans" employed in the prison industry. Starting at the top, who is the greater criminal, the poor kid from a ghetto who snatches a purse, shoplifts and steals cars, or the president of a country which he betrays by treasons or greed and abuses of power? Why is it, for example, that Richard the Great, our former president, can walk on the beach at San Clemente instead of in a cell at San Quentin? Is it an accident that Spiro Agnew never spent a day in prison, altho his criminal acts in the vice-president's office almost rival those of Nixon in the oval room? —Judge Bruce McM. Wright, address to prisoners at Green Haven Prison, New York, August 17, 1975

What causes crime?

A prevalent sociological theory of crime causation is that of the "criminal subculture." Crime is seen as an outgrowth of society's unequal distribution of goods and resources. Government commissions, sociological texts, educators and students of criminal behavior all point to the relationship between unemployment, poverty, slums and crime. Individual developmental patterns, family disorganization, faulty training and poor education are singled out as contributing causes of crime. Therefore, responses to "criminal" behavior must be directed not only at the individual "offender" but also at the "malfunctioning" of the individual's environment—the "community." But only certain communities are singled out as criminogenic. The most commonly cited is the "slum." The "criminal" is the "slum-dweller." The President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice explains that we must "eliminate the conditions in which most crime breeds .... Warring on poverty, inadequate housing and unemployment is warring on crime." [17] We agree that much responsibility for crime lies within the community, but we take a broader view of "community" and "crime." We concur that poverty, lack of meaningful employment and educational opportunities, disease and lack of medical care, malnutrition, poor and dilapidated housing all contribute to feelings of hunger, rage, alienation and powerlessness. These feelings can encourage a person to commit a crime. However, we must go further in identifying the causes of crime. The entire social value system, not just that of the "slum dweller," must be examined. Crime-including violent aggressive crime-is found at all levels of society, among all classes of people, all races, and in all neighborhoods. There is no one explanation of criminality, no one cause of unlawful behavior. The dominant culture is the predominant key to crime. The most obvious way our social structure encourages crime is by creating and perpetuating economic disparities. The economic and social system fails to provide equal opportunities for meaningful work and adequate income and fosters a value system which emphasizes consumption, moving up the economic ladder, competitive individualism and personal success, all of which are defined in monetary terms. Such values provide a framework in which some individuals-both rich and poor-choose illegal options to solve economic or status problems. Decisions made on an individual level can play an important role in the commission of a criminal act. However, in a culture where "Everyone has a price," where "If you stay legal you stay poor," where "Everyone is on the take" and "Everyone has his/her game," the ultimate message is "Do what you can, but don't get caught "survive by any means necessary. Exxon, Gulf, Mobil, Northrop, Del Monte, I.T.T., United Brands and others have learned the lesson the hard way. But it remains to be seen whether they and others will conclude that the only lesson is "Don't get caught!" -New York Times editorial, April 20, 1975 Mr. Casey [a food store owner and manager in Connecticut] told me, "The reason I buy stolen goods is, somebody's gonna buy them anyway, so why not me?... The government never cares about the small businessman, so we have to care about ourselves, legal or not legal ..." This theft is similar to employee theft. The stock boy, Al ... figured it was a part of his salary, and, after all, Mr. Casey was making money on stolen goods, so why not him? -Ellen Wheeler, "Boosting Poverty," NEPA News, November 1973 The business community, thru the ethic of "anything for a price," has unwittingly established a climate in which corruption is rationalized as just something "everybody" is doing. This ethic has led businessmen into being a major source of corruption. -John Burns, Vice-President of Urban Affairs, Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, as reported in Fortune News, August 1975 Options for solving economic problems vary according to age, race, sex and economic status. The severity of the problems differs accordingly. What is constant is the backdrop of values which accepts the choice of illegal options over legal ones. Legal options are extremely limited for the poor. For the middle class, more options are available but as they move up the ladder of "success," their economic needs-real or artificially imposed-increase. Many people from all strata of society are willing to break the criminal law in pursuit of their economic goals.

The culture of violence

Certain violent crimes are condoned by prevailing values. The use of violence is widespread and accepted as a means of solving problems and disputes, of acquiring wealth and of establishing power over persons and groups. [18] From the brutal extermination of Native Americans to the murder of early labor leaders; from lynch law brutality to destroy and terrorize Black Americans to the racist gang rape of southern Black women by white men during Reconstruction, violence has long been a part of the American tradition. Being a victim of violence is nothing new to the powerless in America, just as being the violent aggressor is nothing new to the powerful. The media contribute to violent crime thru ceaseless repetition of the concept that human problems can be solved by violence and aggression. In the Surgeon General's Report on Television and Social Behavior, Alberta E. Siegel points out: In T.V. entertainment, children may observe countless acts of murder and mayhem, may learn thru observation how to perform these acts and may even learn that such acts are admired by other people. Thus commercial television itself is a school for violence. [19] In the three years since the Surgeon General's report: ...watchers have been treated to uncounted thousands of brutal homicides, rapes, robberies, fist fights, muggings and maiming ... One scientist estimates that by the age of 15 the average child will have witnessed 13,400 televised killings. [20] Movies, magazines, comic books and newspapers often provide heroic models of criminals and a glorification of their violence. Too often the media makes violence appear to be the first alternative.

Patriarchy & violence

In our patriarchal culture, [21] girls and boys gain their first understanding of what it means to be feminine or masculine. To be "masculine" is to dominate and control thru force; to be feminine is to submit and be controlled. Children are considered to be property of the parents, and wives property of the husband. This traditional property right is translated into the right of the parent or husband to physically control and punish the child or wife. [22] While the culture romanticizes womanhood and childhood, forcible control of women and children is an integral part of our lives." [23] Often people who have been abused as children engage in violent behavior as adults-thus repeating the cycle of violence. Crimes against women and children —physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse— occur at every socioeconomic level. Abuse of women and children in affluent families seldom comes to public attention because these families are not scrutinized by public agencies and their "problems" are often not reported to central registries by private physicians, teachers or clergy.

Official violence

The government itself is a leading promoter of violence. In the past decade, Americans have seen their government conduct a brutal and illegal war in Southeast Asia, exonerate the murderers of Kent State and Jackson State students, cover up the My Lai massacre and support the harassment, subversion and murder of foreign leaders. In addition to serving to legitimize violence, these official acts have fostered alienation, hostility and a lack of faith in American justice. [24] The United States Civil Rights Commission "has received hundreds of complaints charging that policemen have barged into homes and terrorized inhabitants, beaten suspects far beyond the point of resistance, shot fleeing juveniles suspected of minor offenses, and broken up nonviolent demonstrations in a violent way." [25] While the public is made very aware of the murder of police officers by civilians, they are rarely informed of the murder of civilians by the police, particularly Black civilians: What is generally not known by the public, and either not known or certainly not publicized by the police and other officials, is the alarming increase in the rate of deaths of male citizens caused by, in the official terminology, "legal intervention of police." ... Black men have been killed by police at a rate some nine to ten times higher than white men.... In proportion to population, Black youngsters and old men have been killed by police at a rate 15 to 30 times greater than that for whites of the same age. It is the actual experiences behind statistics like these that suggest that police have one trigger finger for whites and another for Blacks. [26] When the police use excessive and often fatal force as part of the "war against crime;" when they use violence indiscriminately to punish suspected "criminals" and to maintain control in minority communities; when they are rarely held liable for their violent crimes; when Black and other Third World people have no effective way to protest or stop this brutality and harassment, then the resultant feelings —intense resentment against law enforcement officials, frustration, anger, fear, hostility and alienation— are a predictable reaction to such social pressures. The police form the front line of repressive control of potentially disruptive groups. Their main function is the preservation of a social order based on class, racial, sexual and cultural oppression that undergirds our present economic system. [27] Thus individual instances of police violence are part of a deeper pattern of repressive roles assigned to police to control groups labeled "criminal," a pattern which is inseparable from the needs of the dominant culture. The existence of vague laws and overextensive laws, which must be interpreted and enforced selectively at the lower echelons of the criminal justice system-at the level of the police-has given rise to a serious problem: the misuse of discretion by police. Following their unofficial mandate and utilizing the discretionary power granted to them, police in America do not primarily enforce the law. Instead they maintain order, often heavy-handedly. In accomplishing this goal they selectively enforce laws against individuals and classes who they, or the dominant political and economic interests, see as threats to the social order. -Struggle for Justice, p. 130 Our society cannot promote the values of honesty, cooperation, autonomy, freedom and self-determination and expect citizens to be peaceful and law-abiding when the government carries out violent policies which systematically deny citizens their right to self-determination, and, in some cases, the right to live at all. Short range abolitionist goals should focus on making the police accountable to the community. Police policies should be set by neighborhood representatives, police should be drawn from the communities they serve and police practices should be reviewed regularly by community groups. [28] Longer range goals include the decentralization and disarmament of police. There is a need for humanization of the role of the individual police officer. Recruitment and training should be oriented toward the peace-keeping role of the police, with screening procedures to exclude or remove from the force persons who are overly aggressive and violence prone. Training should provide instructions in interpersonal relations, dispute settlement, conflict resolution and other nonviolent peace-keeping techniques. Community members should both participate in and monitor this training. The para-military structure of the police should be broken down so that law enforcement cannot be used for political ends of the "top cops" without input and consent from the rank and file. Once the caring community has been developed, then members will be individually and collectively responsible for crisis situations. Given this consciousness, the educational system and the media will encourage nonviolent crisis intervention and counseling to all people, firmly placing value on cooperation, support, trust and collective responsibility. With this preparation, the need for an elite group trained to "police" the community will diminish. Community-run programs and groups-rape crisis centers, drug abuse projects, neighborhood walks, community education and peer counseling centers-have begun to make some of these necessary changes, empowering the entire community as well as potential victims, and lessening the need for police intervention.

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