Prison justice issues are garnering more public exposure today than ever before. In June 2012, the United States Senate held its first hearing on solitary confinement, the second in February 2014. This past fall, the New York Times ran a series of prominent exposés on conditions on Rikers Island that resulted in substantive shifts in staffing and conditions. Even the immense success of the TV show Orange Is the New Black suggests that what happens to people locked up is no longer a fringe issue, but part of our public consciousness.… Yet there are so many contradictions bound up in the way we talk about prisons. Solitary confinement is torture for children, but not for terrorists; the death penalty is unjust, but locking people up for life is not; “inmates” are terrifying beings, except the ones who look or speak like us. Therefore, for many progressives, the question is not whether prisons “work”—but how to make them more humane for those who “deserve” time on the inside.
Modern capitalism, sociologist Max Weber famously observed early in the twentieth century, is based on “the rational capitalistic organization of (formally) free labor.” But the “rationality” of the system in this sphere, as Weber was to acknowledge elsewhere, was so restrictive as to be in reality “irrational.” Despite its formal freedom, labor under capitalism was substantively unfree.… This was in accordance with the argument advanced in Karl Marx’s Capital. Since the vast majority of individuals in the capitalist system are divorced from the means of production they have no other way to survive but to sell their labor power to those who own these means, that is, the capitalist class.… The result is a strong tendency to the polarization of income and wealth in society. The more the social productivity of labor grows the more it serves to promote the wealth and power of private capital, while at the same time increasing the relative poverty and economic dependency of the workers.
Since 9/11, the war on terror and the campaign for homeland security have increasingly mimicked the tactics of the enemies they sought to crush. Violence and punishment as both a media spectacle and a bone-crushing reality have become prominent and influential forces shaping U.S. society. As the boundaries between “the realms of war and civil life have collapsed,” social relations and the public services needed to make them viable have been increasingly privatized and militarized. The logic of profitability works its magic in channeling the public funding of warfare and organized violence into universities, market-based service providers, Hollywood cinema, cable television, and deregulated contractors. The metaphysics of war and associated forms of violence now creep into every aspect of U.S. society.
In the epilogue of Planet of Slums, Mike Davis gives us a glimpse into the militarization of urban spaces and what the military elite are doing about the world’s cities. Davis cites an article published in the US Army War College journal: “The future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and the sprawl of houses, shacks, and shelters that form the broken cities of our world…. Our recent military history is punctuated with city names—Tuzla, Mogadishu, Los Angeles, Beirut, Panama City, Hue, Saigon, Santo Domingo—but these encounters have been but a prologue, with the real drama still to come.”… [T]he militarization of cities around the world, in both the core and the periphery, is the main focus of Stephen Graham’s fascinating and accessible book, Cities Under Siege. For Graham…this book represents the culmination and synthesis of much previous research… The end result is a theoretically and empirically rich study of how violence, control, and surveillance have come to “colonize the city landscape and the spaces of everyday life in both the ‘homelands’ and domestic cities of the West as well as the world’s neo-colonial frontiers”.
Roger N. Lancaster, Sex Panic and the Punitive State (University of California Press, 2011), 328 pages, $24.95, paperback.
As the articles in this section indicate, the new corporate schooling in the United States combines many of the worst aspects of capitalist schooling in a period of economic stagnation, financialization, and militarization/securitization together with a strategy of privatization of the schools. Public education is being degraded, regimented, and increasingly racially segregated—while the resulting worsening conditions in the schools are used to justify the restructuring of the entire education system.
With the military’s ready and waiting personnel, infrastructure, and resources, no one should be surprised that the JROTC [Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps] is now offered as the alternative to physical education in urban school districts, or that the Department of Defense has responded to the educational crisis by opening and staffing public military schools. Currently, the military is education normal.… [P]ublic schools [have become] recruiting entities, and their targeting is not race, class, or gender neutral.
One of the most powerful metaphors in critical education literature is “the school to prison pipeline.” The phrase conjures a vivid, unambiguous image, the meaning of which few would debate: poor and black and brown children being sucked into a vortex from mainstream educational environments and heaved onto a conveyor belt carrying them onto a one-way path toward privatized prisons, where the economic outcome of under-education and discipline is most evident.… Excessive discipline is often a critical first step out of schools for select youth—black boys, in this case—who disproportionately find themselves in prison. Being designated as disabled nudges the other foot out of the schoolhouse door.
John Malpede has never worried much about transgressing the line between brave and crazy. Otherwise, he would not have started a theater company in Skid Row Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, when few services existed there, and most people, including his own theater members, predicted the idea would never fly. Nor would he have thought it a cool idea to join members of his L.A. troupe with Bolivian actors this August to tour Bolivia—where coca is a major cash crop—with a play about the War on Drugs.
Civil rights lawyer Jeffrey Haas, a founder, in 1969, of Chicago’s People’s Law Office, has written one of the top books of the year: The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2009). The story could not be more worth telling. Police response to the 1960s upsurge of the black community was immediate and brutal, especially after the growth of a mass student and youth movement opposed to the Vietnam War. The FBI, as the leading U.S. secret police force, engaged in a nationwide campaign of provocation, infiltration, and assassination, code named the Counterintelligence Program, or “COINTELPRO.” The resulting murders, on December 4, 1969, of charismatic, twenty-one-year-old Chicago Black Panther state chairman Fred Hampton and twenty-two-year-old Black Panther Mark Clark were a pivotal event in the suppression of militant black resistance and the emergence of today’s U.S. police/prison state. The gradual collapse of the Nixon presidency and public outcry against White House-ordered burglaries opened a window permitting the exposure of secret police crimes, including the Hampton assassination. Jeffrey Haas and his partners at the People’s Law Office made good use of this opportunity through determined and creative litigation, and uncovered the story recounted in his book. But the window was slammed shut in succeeding years, and was finally removed entirely—to be replaced by the blank prison wall of the USA Patriot Act. Hampton’s story is no longer primarily a U.S. concern, but one that affects everyone in the world. It is the story of the path to Abu Ghraib. We interviewed Jeffrey Haas in late September 2009.
In a recent article entitled “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis” (Monthly Review, June 2009), Hannah Holleman, Robert W. McChesney, John Bellamy Foster, and R. Jamil Jonna sought to account for the surprising stability of civilian government spending (non-defense government consumption and investment) as a percentage of GDP during a period, roughly 1970 to the present, when the power of capital over labor increased, inequality grew, and cuts in government programs for the poor and working class continued more or less without abatement. One solution to the paradox, the authors persuasively argued, was the growth in spending for “the penal state,” a political regime marked by the mass incarceration of the poor and the vulnerable who posed risks to the stability of the prevailing economic and social order.
As a rule, crime and social protest rise in periods of economic crisis in capitalist society. During times of economic and social instability, the well-to-do become increasingly fearful of the general population, more disposed to adopt harsh measures to safeguard their positions at the apex of the social pyramid. The slowdown in the economic growth rate of U.S. capitalism beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s—converging with the emergence of radical social protest around the same period—was accompanied by a rapid rise in public safety spending as a share of civilian government expenditures. So significant was this shift that we can speak of a crowding out of welfare state spending (health, education, social services) by penal state spending (law enforcement, courts, and prisons) in the United States during the last third of a century.