While my two teenaged sons, Michael Kepler and John Dominic, were attending the much-anticipated Free Speech pro-Trump rally in front of City Hall this last weekend, getting onto the front page of the British newspaper the Guardian, I went to a prisoner-support group which was holding its first-ever meeting in Portland.
First, let me add the click-bait by reproducing the picture the Brits went with:
— and point out that the wearer of the black t-shirt saying “Free Speech is more important than your feelings” is Michael Kepler Meo; and the head an inch or two of which is visible above and behind the helmet belongs to John Dominic Meo.
I think it fair to say that this is an unlikely venue to promote the change we want to see in the world. Rather, although it draws all the attention, it certainly seems more than likely to produce net negative results.
The group with whom I met, on the other hand, is quite shy of publicity: we realized, after some consideration, that the proposed activity in support of prisoners which we had at first considered would only terminate any effort to contact and support those members of our group who were still within the walls. So I am not going to provide pictures or names in this post, although, given the tools available to the Surveillance State, it is certain that the effort will do nothing to conceal whom i’m talking about from a government effort to find out.
What’s the problem we want to address? Well, as is already recognized, this country has gone off the deep end in incarcerating its citizens. One way of looking at it is to compare countries by crime rate versus incarceration rate. Here is a chart, with the incarceration in the vertical scale and number of victims of crime on the horizontal.
from the Washington Post of 7 July 2015
We are an outlier, orders of magnitude more likely to imprison our citizens.
Not only that, but we lock up brown and black people much more easily, and for longer periods of time, than those we see as white.
African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males,
says the current [22 June 2017] issue of the New York Review of Books, quoting a report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
How shall we address it? The prison authorities, here in the local state prison (one thing I wonder whether we might do is, consider expanding our charge to include people in local jails) have been okay with activities to help prisoners learn to read books. Organizing to protect their rights, support for their own efforts to improve their conditions of living and working, and anything that draws attention to their condition at all, is quashed — indeed, is prohibited in writing by the authorities of anyone requesting visiting privileges.
So we talked for a couple of hours about how to address the problem(s) confronting us. We listened to a video of national leaders of prison reform; the consensus was, that particular tactics could be adopted and changed, as the opportunity comes and goes, but that we would be undercutting our efforts to obtain real change if we were satisfied with attempts at co-operative efforts within the present obviously oppressive system. In the most general terms, we recognize that capitalism oppresses, and that locking people into cages oppresses, and that the two are connected, and that we’re engaged in a much broader effort than simply bringing books into prisons. Although, as we have so far seen, that’s a start.
A most suggestive parallel came this morning from an unlikely source, my old collection of the scholarly Journal of Modern History. Its September 2012 issue has an article by an Oxford academic on the silence of the British press during the 1930s while British colonial response to Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance produced hundreds of victims of police brutality — including house burnings, arbitrary detentions, and killings. The answer the author arrives at has a lot more to do with general world view than specific efforts by the colonial establishment.
“The metropolitan press certainly did not silence Indian voices in 1930s Britain,” writes Nicholas Owen of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University.
On the contrary, publishers and editors were probably keener than ever before to bring them forward as newsworthy native informants, providing insight into, though more rarely analysis of, Indian affairs. . . . The case study presented here . . . questions the assumption that knowledge of the violence practiced by colonialism led naturally or easily to an anti-imperialist politics. My account of the Raj suggests that an ethical case could be made for imperialism that was actually strengthened by exposure of its violence.
What had to happen for the British to relinquish control of India was for the citizenry in general to turn away from an imperial world view. That came with the Second World War. What has to happen for real change in the prison system in the U.S. is for us to change the attitudes of the whole country about incarceration.
Confirmation that the problem will not be addressed by bureaucratic tinkering (as the unrest in India was not) comes from the aforementioned New York Review article. Changes in drug laws are not to blame, the author states. Citing statistics collated by a professor at Fordham Law School, the National Legal Director of the ACLU indicates that
the vast majority of those in prison for drug-related offenses — by one measure almost 95 percent of this group in state prisons and 98 percent of this group in federal prisons — have also been convicted on more serious charges, including violent crimes.
If we released every prisoner who has been sentenced solely for a drug crime, we would still be the world leader in incarceration.
Consequently there must be some other driving reason for the increase in incarceration, he argues, and finds it in the decisions of thousands of country prosecutors to bring serious charges against those arrested.
Lots of indicators show that this author is not to be entrusted with setting our agenda, the agenda of those who are horrified at the incarceration of so many of our fellow citizens; just note, for example, the phrase above quoted, “have also been convicted on more serious charges. . .” Drug offense are felonies, or at least the ones we’re talking about are, and as the article author himself admits
In the District of Columbia, for example, a first-time conviction for selling a small amount of cocaine can lead to a 30-year sentence; a second conviction can result in up to 60 years behind bars.
In those circumstances, the qualifier “more serious charges” seems meaningless — there are capital crimes, I suppose, but no one is trying to reduce the convictions of murderers. In fact, drug charges are very serious indeed, and that is part of the problem; but here is an argument asking us to set aside that fact while arguing that the drug offenses are not the crucial issue. Similarly, all through the article, this David Cole is restricting our view to trimming around the edges.
A potentially more promising suggestion is either to insulate prosecutors from political control. . . or to change the politics of district attorney elections by supporting reform candidates in those contests.
Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, used to work as an attorney for the ACLU, and it is part of her experience that that kind of advocacy does very little, if anything, actually to address the core issues of mass incarceration. We want to have clearly in mind that mass incarceration, which was adopted within our lifetimes, can be overturned, but not by arguing that the bureaucracy, which profits in manifold manner from it, ought to change. Like colonialism, it needs to be opposed altogether.