Prison Nation: Driven by fear, the US has surrendered to "Carceral Keynsianism"

Sasha Abramsky

There is a prevalent image in the US of a violent lumpen underclass, what the Victorian journalist Thomas Wright, describing 19th century London's slum-dwellers, termed "the great unwashed," controllable only by punishment. it is an image that influential conservative criminologists such as james q. wilson, urging a far more expansive recourse to imprisonment, pandered to back in the 1970s and 80s, when the groundwork for today's massive prison system was laid.
And, to a degree, it's true: The country does have a phenomenal number of murders and murderers, gangsters, mercenary drug pushers, kidnappers, rapists, and armed robbers. Arguably, since the very birth of the nation -- complete with the roving gangs of brigands in Appalachia and privateers off the Atlantic seaboard -- it always has had. And, like all things American, violence here, whether it be the gang violence associated with illegal drugs, or the urban upheavals of the rioting poor, happens on an epic scale. At the height of the crack wars of the 80s, more than 25,000 people were being killed annually. Parts of inner-city Los Angeles, Washington, Detroit, New Orleans, New York, Chicago, and several other cities, are, indeed, virtual war zones.
No two ways about it, but there are an awful lot of angry, brutal, and trigger-happy men in the US. And there are an awful lot of weapons available to these people to carve out their twisted realities on the national landscape.
Super-maximum-security prisons such as the notorious Pelican Bay -- nestled in the coastal Redwood forests of California's northernmost county, surrounded by two high razor-wire fences and a lethal electronic barrier, and more escape proof than the island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay -- house thousands of men, many of them mass murderers, rapists, kidnappers, and other seriously disturbed individuals.
But no matter the hysteria, there aren't nearly enough US psychopaths, enough real-life Hannibal Lecters, to justify a prison and jail population that now hovers in the two million range, incarcerated in hundreds of facilities across the 50 states.
In fact, for the first time in history, most US prisoners -- over a million people -- have been convicted of nonviolent, often victimless crimes: offenses, just as marijuana possession, that hurt nobody but the person arrested. Hundreds of thousands are now serving ten-, 15, and 20 year terms for crimes that in Europe or Canada would generally result in noncustodial sentences and commitment into drug rehab programs. And so, in addition to housing the violent menaces that they were intended to incarcerate, maximum-security prisons have seen an increasing number of nonviolent inmates pass through their phenomenally secure gates. Meanwhile, in many cases, the big-time criminals go free: trading information, snitching on subordinates, hiring million-dollar attorneys who will do anything possible to limit the years their clients spend in jail. The land of the free has become a place where rural backwaters -- catapulted into economic collapse by deindustrialization and the oft-vaunted global market -- now bid for the privilege of building new high-tech prisons to incarcerate the urban unemployed, and the urban addicted. People like Lillie Blevins.
Lillie Blevins is a diabetic in her mid-50s. She has chronic high blood pressure, back problems, knee problems. A couple of years ago her appendix ruptured. She is scheduled to spend the rest of her life in Carswell Federal Medical Center, inside the Forth Worth army base, just outside Dallas, Texas.
Her crime was conspiracy to sell crack cocaine, allegedly head of a family operation involving three of her sons and her brother. The evidence against her: the word of a snitch who was friends with her drug-dealing sons, along with three grams of crack cocaine found in her Mobile, Alabama house by federal agents. Her status is a nonviolent, minimum-security federal inmate, no prior time served in prison, no money, and hence no lawyer working on her case; at the time of her sentencing, her husband was in jail on an unrelated charge.
An African American woman born in Selma, Blevins was pulled out of school in the third grade to look after her seven brothers and sisters. Her father had just died. Her mother, Pearlie, was in the fields all day, picking cotton. Lillie had her first child, a boy, when she was 14, and moved south to Mobile, on the hot, sultry Gulf Coast, shortly after. Over the next decade and a half, six more sons followed. Lillie was an active member of the Shallow Baptist Church. But in a world of grinding poverty and limited horizons, no amount of religion could prevent some of her boys, and at times herself, from being tempted by drugs.
In the early 80s, the police arrested her for growing what she terms a "reefer bush" in her garden. Later on, she was hauled in for possession of crack. Neither arrest resulted in prison time. Then, in 1990, three of the Blevins boys, now living in an apartment away from Lillie, were caught up in a federal drug sweep, turned in by a friend who bartered 28 names to federal agents in exchange for probation. For good measure, the friend, who had once lived down the road from Lillie, added her name to the list. One morning, when Lillie was at home, the agents knocked on her front door. She opened it, and they stormed into her house. They found three grams of crack -- and carted the 42-year-old woman off to jail. The snitch said she was in charge of the family operation. Her sons denied she had any knowledge of their actions. Their denials counted for little: Blevins was sentenced to life imprisonment in a federal prison.
As of summer 2000, 144,750 people were serving time in federal prisons -- convicted in the federal courts for crimes ranging from the murder of a federal employee to drug trafficking across state lines to simple drug dealing in a place where the state police passed the arrest on to federal agents. The latter had become common practice, because federal law allowed for the local police to keep a high percentage of any moneys or assets confiscated from drug suspects in federal busts. As long as the courts judged a law enforcement officer's suspicions to be justifiable, you didn't even have to gain a criminal conviction in order to seize a person's car or cash or even, on occasion, their other property and bank accounts. And, as a result, agencies had fallen over themselves trying to take advantage of their easy new source of revenue. Asset forfeiture was proving such a bonanza that even the Bureau of Land Management had set up their own antidrug SWAT team. Six in ten of these inmates were serving sentences for drug crimes. Fully 56,238 were African American.
The sentences handed down by the federal courts are staggering: 33,168 have bought five-to-ten; 21,439 are serving ten-to-15; 10,057 are doing 15-to-20; and 10,731 are locked up for over 20 years. According to the Rand Drug Policy Research Center, these sentences "reduce cocaine consumption less per million taxpayer dollars spent than spending the same amount on enforcement under the previous sentencing regime. And either enforcement approach reduces drug consumption less than putting heavy users through treatment programs.
"Warehousing millions of people for petty crimes has become the number one US Public Works program, what the radical sociologist Mike Davis calls "carceral Keynesianism." The reference is to the economist who urged governments to spend their way out of the Great Depression, through throwing vast sums of money into public works programs and providing the unemployed with enough spending money to rejuvenate depressed local economies. Now, Davis argues, instead of dams, roads, and great public buildings, instead of rural electrification programs and hospitals, the public works of our age are the sprawling concrete prisons. Nowhere is this more true than in California.
California's incarceration industry is big business. super-hi-tech prisons are sprouting up across the state, no money spared. take a drive down any rural highway and you will pass a new prison. local newspapers advertise job fairs at which these institutions seek out the local talent and local politicians trumpet their achievements in bringing such employment into the district. each prison costs hundreds of millions to build, and guards, represented by the politically powerful california correctional peace officers association, are attracted to the industry by the relatively high salaries. says bruce gomez, the community resource manager at the 1.7 million-square-foot super-maximum security corcoran prison (home to, along others, charles manson and bobby kennedy's assassin, Sirhan b. Sirhan) "a correctional officer, with a high school education's starting salary is $2,500 a month. their counterparts round here [in a remote agricultural region in the central valley] make $1,200 to $1,600 a month outside. so it's a real sought-after job.
"Behind the razor-wire fences, the deadly electronic barrier (covered with netting to stop the birds from flying into a nasty surprise), the computer-operated gates, and the watchtowers, a vast complex is laid out. Low-lying under the immense blue California sky, concrete blocks -- each one housing hundreds of prisoners, each either confined to a private cell or double-bunked with another inmate -- lead onto large exercise yards, watched over by gunners ready at the first hint of trouble to set the red alarms off. Deep inside the complex, a series of "pods" contain the Secure Housing Unit inmates -- men, like Charles Manson, who are segregated from the general population and kept in conditions of near isolation. Even deeper inside are the workshops -- a dairy, a metal-working unit, a furniture shop. There is a medical facility and a mental unit, convenience stores, and a gym -- currently being used to house overflow prisoners. In a real sense, this is a town, albeit a highly autocratic, violent sort of town, unto itself.
California's department of corrections estimated in the late 90s that the state's prison numbers might hit 300,000 in the not-too-distant future; although recently the state's prison population has given some signs of stabilizing, and possibly even declining slightly. since it costs over $20,000 per year to incarcerate one person, $35,000 to incarcerate them in solitary confinement, and over $60,000 to incarcerate and provide medical care to elderly inmates, the rand corporation and other researchers have concluded that over the next 20 years, california's investment in its once-vaunted public universities will dramatically wither away as the state struggles to find money to pay for new prisons and staff existing ones. Already, the state's elementary school system is in such disarray, partly as a result of two decades of spending cuts, that its fourth graders scored second to bottom in the country in a recent study of reading ability.
Over the past two decades, California's department of corrections, along with those of texas, illinois, pennsylvania, and handful of other states, and the federal prison system's facility at Florence, Colorado, have perfected the panopticon, a control mechanism dreamt up by 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The panopticon was a space in which a person in a central room could see into every nook and cranny of the institution, thus denying inmates even the barest modicum of privacy. California's computerized prisons, built as a series of bleak concrete cell "pods" radiating out from central control rooms, watched over by gunners, surrounded by razor-wire fences and lethal electric barriers, offer up as little chance of escape as nazi concentration camps. new "level four" institutions at corcoran, pelican bay, and high desert -- a prison deep within the mountainous landscape north of the preternaturally blue lake tahoe -- have been built specifically to house the worst of the worst, according to pelican bay's Deputy Warden Joe McGrath; to isolate predatory, dangerous prisoners, people "who preyed upon other prisoners and were assaultive." Since the new prisons were created ten years ago, violence within the prison system as a whole has indeed declined.
In Pelican Bay, a huge camp in the rainy north, just south of the Oregon border, on ground that used to be lumber land, 40 percent of the 3242 inmates are lifers. At any one time, between 1300 and 1500 -- those deemed a threat to other inmates, those with known gang affiliations -- are housed in a Secure Housing Unit (SHU). There, behind perforated orange metal doors, they remain isolated in their cells, eight feet by ten feet, approximately 23 hours per day. When they receive visits -- which is rare, since Los Angeles, where most of the prisoners are from, is a 16-hour drive to the south -- they visit through a bulletproof glass window. Anybody from the outside admitted onto the SHU has to don a bulletproof vest to guard against sharpened debris being launched through the perforated doors.
Most inmates are there for an "indeterminate sentence," often for years on end. They eat and they shit in their cells. They exercise, alone, in barren concrete yards ten by 20 feet. In some SHUs in the US, even the showers are built inside the barren cells. This is, says Lieutenant Ben Grundy, an African American and an ex-marine, "no picnic. We don't want to make this a fun place for them."
Although the prison now has an extensive mental health program -- a safety valve that is noticeably missing in Texas's enormous supermax prisons such as Huntsville -- senior psychologist Dr. David Archambault says that at least one person a month has some sort of psychotic collapse inside the SHU. When the mental health unit first opened, more than 100 prisoners were removed from the SHU with severe mental disturbances. Many isolated prisoners routinely self-mutilate as an expression of impotent rage at their confinement, slashing at veins and arteries until the spurting blood has covered the walls of their cells in a spectacular mosaic of deep red slime. Oftentimes, inmates "gas" guards through their doors with a pungent mixture of urine and feces. Violence feed on violence here, and the guards themselves have been known to abuse inmates in return.
In Corcoran in the mid-90s, guards routinely organized "gladiatorial" combats between rival gang members in the small triangular exercise yards. The guards would then proceed to shoot the antagonists apart. First round, wooden bullets. Second round, for those who didn't stop fast enough, high-impact explosive bullets. seven inmates were killed and numerous others injured over the years before the practice was eventually exposed, and the prison's administration was overhauled. Yet, despite grainy black-and-white videotapes of the incidents that were captured by the security cameras, juries in California refused to find any of the officers responsible for the deaths of these inmates.
In Pelican Bay, an African American inmate who had gone mad in isolation and had covered his body in shit, was dropped by guards into a tub of scalding water, and held down in it until the skin boiled off his legs. "Nigger, we're going to scrub you until you're white," the guards were quoted as telling their victim.Few Californians know about Pelican Bay and, according to McGrath, even if they did, hard time stories generally wouldn't concern them. "the average person out there in society isn't very concerned about the criminal," he asserts. "They just want to be able to conduct their life without becoming a victim." Somewhat pensively for a prison official, McGrath goes on to say that "the things, like family, that have held us together as a society are breaking down, and we now expect prisons to socialize people. There're a lot of things we need to be working on as a society and a culture to treat the illness rather than just the symptoms.
"But, 21st century US is showing no signs of a new War on Poverty. And so, the prison numbers continue to rise. How many prisoners is too many in a supposedly free society? "I guess I'd have to ask the question: what is the alternative?" mcgrath answers slowly. "i'm somewhat of a utilitarian on this. I'd weigh the cost and i'd weigh the benefit. I'm a civil servant and i'm here to serve the state. If that's what the people want, i'm here to implement that."

Sasha Abramsky, a TF contributing writer, is currently a media fellow of the Open Society Institute's center on crime, communities and culture. this article is an edited excerpt from his upcoming book, hard time blues: how politics built a prison nation, published by st. martin's Press in January, 2002.

Back To History Is A Weapon's Front Page