Of more obvious interest to a Foucault list. . .

Throwing Away the Key

US Prisons as Strategic Hamlets


As we settle into the twenty-first century, the United States has the
highest incarceration rate in the world. Although the fear of "terrorism"
has significantly weighted US laws in the police's favor, the primary
reasons for the high incarceration rate remain the war on drug users and a
change in penological philosophy from one of rehabilitation (or even
punishment) to one of banishment. It is this philosophy that lies behind
the so-called "three-strikes and you're out" laws and initiatives like
Oregon's Measure 11 that established mandatory minimums for certain crimes.
There is no attempt involved in these endeavors to seek justice, only a
desire for revenge and a pretense that these prisoners are less than human
and therefore deserve only a life behind bars or, in some cases, death by
the state.

Underlying the current philosophy of imprisonment is the control of
demographic groups considered surplus by the corporate world order. This
means, among other things, a move away from interest in the individual
offender and a shift of focus to what many penologists call "control of
aggregates". These aggregates, or groups, are primarily composed of young
men of color, although the number of women from these same groups continues
to grow. In the wake of industrial job flight from their neighborhoods,
these groups' presence outside of prison has become increasingly
threatening to the ruling structures. As members of these groups turn
toward other endeavors to make a living--endeavors often illegal such as
drug dealing--the punishment for their actions has become increasingly
harsher. In addition, new laws enacted to either enhance current
legislation or to make even more actions illegal encourage police to
concentrate their enforcement efforts on these groups. This trend is not
worldwide, however. In fact, with the exception of the US and the United
Kingdom, most other western countries have softened their penalties (or
decriminalized them completely) for drug possession and other victimless
crimes. In addition, these countries are attempting to find other means of
dealing with persons convicted of crime that do not involve incarceration.

In the United States however, the population and practices of prisons
reflect the new concerns of those who imprison. It is the belief of the
justice system and the legislators who write the laws regulating crime that
the only way to stop crime is to lock up as many perpetrators as possible.
If these concerns could be portrayed with one image, that image would be
the well-armed drug dealer. Furthermore, that drug dealer would be either
an African-American, a Latino immigrant, young and usually male, although
in recent years, the incarceration rate of women has increased
dramatically. The fact that this image has come to represent imprisonment
and criminality to the population proves the effectiveness of the prevalent
approach to penology as the 20th century ends.

Within the prisons themselves, alarming changes have been made as a result
of the aforementioned philosophical change in penology. Perhaps foremost
among these changes are longer prison sentences which are often the result
of mandatory sentencing and, in many locales, a "three strikes" policy
which mandates life imprisonment for a third conviction on a felony. This
has led to vast overcrowding in the United States despite an unprecedented
surge in prison construction, and the highest incarceration rate in the
world. The tangential effects of this practice are seen in the reduction in
public funding for education and social welfare programs as policing and
imprisonment take a higher and higher percentage of said funds. For
example, in California, where the prison population is six times larger
than it was in the late 1970s, recent state budgets have called for more
spending on prisons and punishment than on higher education. This trend is
replicated across the country. In fact, between 1968 and 2000 the
percentage increase in state spending on prisons was 6 times the percentage
increase of spending on higher education. The total change in spending on
higher education by states was 24%, compared with 166% for corrections.

Architecturally, this mission of control has meant the creation of what
American prison administrators and prisoners commonly refer to as
"super-max" prisoners. Super-max means super-maximum-security and such
institutions can now be found in several states and in the federal prison
system. Although not completely new to the U.S. system--Alcatraz was a
super-max prison in its time--the current version utilizes the most
advanced security technology, constant psychological intimidation, and some
of the most brutal guards. Prisoners' movements are severely restricted and
the time they spend outside of their individual cells is minimal if at all.
Once in, it is very difficult for a prisoner to leave such a unit until
his/her sentence is up.

Part of the reason for the upsurge in prison populations is simple:
somebody is making money from incarceration. In addition to the drug war
dynamic, which perpetuates not only the need for a higher number of drug
arrests but also the need for the continued violation of the drug laws in
order to justify its existence, prisons themselves are a growing business.
Whether it is a company that manufactures or provides equipment used in
corrections, a company whose business is building prisons, or the growing
industry of staffing privatized prisons, there is money to be made. In
addition, the growing contracting of inmates in manufacturing and services
by outside industry has created a need for this new element of the labor
force. Like death row prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal wrote in one of his many
commentaries, "Under a regime where more bodies equal more profits, prisons
take one big step closer to their historical ancestor, the slave pen."
Another aspect to the privatization of prisons (and the use of prisoners as
labor) is the question of whether the role of these institutions is
rehabilitation, punishment or merely the assurance that taxpayer subsidized
labor will continue to be provided. Corporations who do contract prison
labor range from Starbucks Coffee to the Boeing Corporation. The work is
presented to prisoners, legislators and the public as work experience and
job opportunities for the inmates when in reality they are nothing but
cheap labor opportunities for the participating corporations. With the
government assuming costs for all living expenses and a workforce unwilling
to challenge labor abuse and other questionable practices for fear of
retaliation by prison officials, it is a near perfect environment for the

As corporate globalism continues to precipitate a shift of more and more
capital to the financial capitals of the north, immigration from the poorer
countries follows. This has created a problem of controlling these
population flows for the receiving countries. The preferred solution seems
to be imprisonment in detention centers and/or the cordoning off of
neighborhoods where most of the residents are immigrants (usually of Latino
or Asian origin). This separation of the immigrant population, while
nominally temporary, has in reality created a whole new policing apparatus
within the U.S., which has fewer limitations on its enforcement
capabilities than the rest of the prison system. This lack of protections
is due to the uncertain legal status of some of its subjects. There are
enough tales of immigrants who have landed in an Immigration and
Naturalization Service (INS) detention center only to get lost in a
Kafkaesque legal maze for years to safely state that these incidents are
not accidents of the system but part of its process. Add to this scenario
the ongoing abridgement of rights for citizen and non-citizen alike in the
wake of 911, and the tribulations of Kafka's character "K" in his novel The
Trial, seem inconsequential.

In the United States, one of the primary reasons (before the PATRIOT ACT
and the creation of Homeland Security) for such tales of distress is the
1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. A major
aspect of this law is the denial of asylum to immigrants convicted of a
crime, no matter how small, and no matter how long ago in their past the
violation occurred. Previously, many of these immigrants were eligible for
parole. Now they are assigned to a prison, oftentimes after being
discovered during a workplace raid by INS officials. Like prisons for
citizens, monetary reasons motivate the rise in imprisonment of immigrants,
as well. Many county and city budgets receive large sums of money from the
INS, as do private prisons. This dynamic, just as in the rest of the prison
world, does not encourage administrators to seek out alternatives to
imprisonment. Add to this the desire to control behavior which threatens
the middle-class quality of life and the subsequent desire to exile those
who exhibit said behavior, and one has another part of the equation that
drives the current imprisonment philosophy.

Ron Jacobs is author of
<>The Way
the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground.

He can be reached at: <mailto:rjacobs@xxxxxxxxxxx>rjacobs@xxxxxxxxxxx

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