Monday, September 7, 2009

The Prison Pipeline by Timothy Black

[In the 1970s the world shifted on its political-economic axis. Declining corporate profits, saturated global markets, and the strength of organized labor and social movements signaled a crisis in capitalism. While the advantages of mobile capital had been evident to U.S. corporate leaders as far back as the 50s, advances in computer and transportation technology facilitated the movement of capital to an unprecedented degree, and along with policies that deregulated the economy, reduced social spending, lowered taxes on corporations and the weathy, and protected investments through inflation controlled interest rate adjustments, a neoliberal model was created that would reach across the globe, drawing the strings of world politics in a post-Cold War era more tightly around free markets. Corporate leaders in the United States searched and found the right candidate to carry the mantle and, in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president.]

In many ways, Reagan picked up where President Richard Nixon had left off. From 1968to Watergate, Nixon began laying the track for draconian crime measures that would expand in Reagan's presidency and crescendo in President Clinton's 1994 crime bill. Nixon increased law enforcement funds, curtailed civil liberties, and legalized secret special grand juries.(1) Three crime bills were passed under Reagan's War on Drugs that dramatically increased law enforcement funding, established harsh mandatory minimum sentances for drug felonies, expanded asset forfeiture laws, increased the military's role in training and equipping local law enforcement officers, and created a new "drug czar" position to coordinate efforts between the military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies. While spending on federal employment and training programs was being reduced by one-half between 1980 and 1993, corrections spending grew 521 percent. And this was before President Clinton's $30 billion 1994 crime bill.

Clinton further abetted the public's appetite for harsh criminal punishment by increasing prison construction, extending prison time through truth-in-sentancing laws,(2) eliminating prisoners' access to federal Pell Grants to fund prison college education programs, tacking on two two years of prison time without parole for anyone manufacturing or selling drugs within one thousand feet of any type of school, increasing sentances for gang members, and providing life sentances for anyone committing three felonies. When Reagan came into office, one in four federal prisoners was sentanced for drug offenses; when Clinton left office, the ratio was one in two.

The increasing reliance unpon incarceration to address the devestation visited on urban areas in the wake of deindustriaization was reinforced by the public's preoccupation with the "black underclass". President Nixon capitalized on the white public's economic fears in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but also their fears as his law-and-order rhetoric publically condemned urban race riots, while his efforts to dismantle the War on Poverty stirred the public's wrath towards the growing numbers of black single mothers on the welfare rolls. Further, Nixon publically excoriated the Democratic Party for edging too close to the civil rights movement and succeeded at luring white Southerners and white labor union members from its electoral base.

Nixon's racial politics was evident in his hostility towards the War on Poverty architects and his efforts to wrest control of social welfare away from Washington and devolve authority to the states. His antipathy towards welfare liberals was advanced by conservative scholars whose exuberance for free market economics depicted white liberals as misguided social engineers whose generous and permissive welfare policies had created a mess in U.S. cities by refusing to coerce the poor, and especially the black poor, to take whatever jobs were available, irrespective of the wages they paid. For these scholars, joblessness represented a moral rather than an economic crisis. These accounts of urban poverty, however, failed to acknowledge the brutal political-economic forces that were transforming postindustrial U.S. cities, but they gained political currency nonetheless, espcially in a society that had become preocuppied with the ravages of black urban poverty.

In Welfare Racism, Ken Neubeck and Noel Cazenave demonstrated how the black urban rebellions in the 1960s changed the face of poverty on the covers of popular magazines. Not only did the complexion of poverty darken, they explained, but as poverty became asssociated with urban, inner city blacks, the portrayals of the poor became increasingly negative and unsympathetic, signified by the term "the underclass". The concept made its public debut in a cover story in Time magazine in 1977, but it was Ken Aulette's series in The New Yorker, which later became the basis of his 1982 book The Underclass, that gave the term public currency. Aulette represented the shift that had taken place, even among liberals, from a more empathetic perspective of the poor that emphasized social responsibility to a reformulated culture of poverty perspective focused on individual behavioral pathologies. Despite his claims to balanced reporting, Aulette adopted a framework that demeaned the underclass as antisocial, deviant, welfare-dependent, and violent, with "bad habits" and a "welfare mentality"- and even at one point profiled a welfare recipient with twenty-seven to twenty-nine children (she had lost count), as if this was a consequence of state generosity instead of mental illness....

Social scientists notwithstanding, efforts to craft a political response to black urban poverty seemed to be embedded in the white conservative backlash to the civil rights movement, the Great Society, and affirmative action initiatives. Liberals had been pronounced dead in Washington and in statehouses throughout the country, and racist political language fed the fears and insecurities of whites eager to reclaim privileges they were led to believe liberals were taking away from them.

Democrats did not miss the political lesson either. Despite his popularity among African Americans, Bill Clinton reassured white voters in his 1992 presidential campaign by pushing Jessie Jackson to the campaign margins and staging a high-profile public relations fight with rapper Sister Soulja. Further, using color-coded language himself, he promised "to end welfare as we know it," and expounded on his support for "three strikes" legislation in his 1994 State of the Union address. Later in 1994, when his first term in Washington seemed to be coming undone, Clinton delayed the release of a governmental stuidy showing that more than one-third of imprisoned drug dealers were small-time, with limited criminal histories, arrested for non-villent crimes, to minimize its effect on the debate of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which he pushed through before the midterm elections.

At the heart of Clinton's crime bill were antidrug enforcement and prison construction. The new law apropriated $8.8 billion to hire 100,000 new police officers and $7.9 billion for states to build new prisons. In fact, Clinton made Reagan's law enforcement budget look like the minor leagues, increasing annual spending to twenty times the amount the War on Drugs guru himself had spent.

Harsh penalties for drug offenders, increased police surveillance in urban minority areas, and prosecutorial instruments used to speed up judicial processing greased the wheels for the burgeoning prison industry(3).

Federal and state prisons as well as local jails were all growing, but the increase in the state prison population was stunning. Between 1980 and 2001, this population grew from 130 to 422 inmates for every 100,000 residents and became home for nine out of ten prison inmates nationwide, for a total of 1.25 million state prisoners. Forty-five percent of this was attributable to drug arrests.

In 2003, 81 white women for every 100,000 were behind bar, compared to 359 black wmen. Similiarly, 717 white men per 100,000 were locked up compared to 4,919 black men; 143 Latinas and 1,717 Latino men per 100,000 were incarcerated in 2003, yet is no evidence to suggest that drug use per 100,000 is any higher among blacks and Latinos than among whites.The War on Drugs focused primarily on black and Latino urban neighborhoods.

Born in the 1970s, the Rivera brothers and others from "the block" would know only one side of this history- the side in which urban communities like the one they grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts would be whipsawed by the loss of entry-level industrial jobs and the unprecended growth in state prisons, where surpluses of the unemployed swept up by aggressive drug enforcement would be warehoused.

(1)The 1968 Omnibus Crime Bill, passed a year before Nixon took office, weakened Miranda rights and expanded the use of phone tapping and office bugging... allowing police to intercept communications without warrant for a period up to 24 hours if they considered the situation to be an emergency. The 1970 crime bill added no-knock warrants allowing police to enter dwellings without warning. In 1970 the Nixon administration also passed the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in which secret grand juries were legalized. This gave police unprecedented powrrs to intorrogate anyone, without immunity, under threat of imprisonment.

(2) Truth-in-sentancing required convicted felons to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences behind bars, as a State's condition of eligibility for the $8.8 billion made available for new prison construction.

(3) Only District Attorney's have the power to reduce sentences beneath mandatory limits. Without this "plea-bargaining" perogative the explosion of drug arrests between 1980 and 200 would have been impossible to prosecute within the limited capacities of the Courts.


  1. The recent collapse of the financial markets, the onset of recession and unprecedented growth in unemployment has caused many States to reconsider their incarceration rates. With reduced revenues and pressures of the federal budget the cost of warehousing so many non-violent, minor drug offenders is becoming unsupportable so some States are instituting programs for early release though, of course, not without political opposition. Never-the-less, the prospects for these newly released prisoners is grim. Most can only hope to obtain, at best, service sector jobs well below a livable wage, with few effective social, economic, educational, vocational or rehabilitative supports. Many will remain within the user-addict-prison pipeline.

  2. Very few of the men and women in this ethnographic account can be fairly described as 'total fuck-ups". Each was struggling as best they could to carve out a productive, honorable place in the world they inhabited. Whether they suceeded or not was often just a matter of a roll of the dice.
    During one of his lucid periods, when he seemed well on the road to getting his life straight, Fausto Rivera had this to say to the students in one of Timothy Black's classes at the university:

    "Some of you will go out and have good jobs, have powerful jobs, maybe working in the government or something. And I hope you will remember that there are people who are different from you, people who don't have the same skin color, maybe not as lucky as you, people who didn't have everythibng you had. They may have made mistakes, but I would like you to remember, even though they arn't like you, they are still human. We are not monsters, we are human beings, and you should treat everyone like humans. So if you get a job with the government or a job where you can make decisions about people, treat them like humans, that's all. Remember that despite what you've been told, or what you see in the media, we are human too".

    But, you know, man, Fausto was really fucked over. Read his story, think you'd a done any better?

  3. "When Heart Turns Rock Solid; The Lives of Three Puerto Rican Brothers On and Off The Streets" by Tomothy Black; Pantheon Books, N.Y., 2009.

    An Ethnography conducted over a period of 18 years in Springfield, Massachusetts and Hartford Conn.The author is an associate professor at The University of Hartford where he directs the Center for Social Research.

  4. It was George Wallace's stunning sucesses in the democratic presiential primaries in 1964 and 68 which suggested the "Southern Strategy" to Nixon and others; his denunciation of growing federalism, increasing crime and civil disorder combined with an attractive evangelical style of campaigning which appealed to blue-collar and many middle-class whites (the "little men", the "silent majority')

    George Wallace's political career reflects profound ambiguities. He always understood that the days of segregation were over, cooperated 'under-the-covers' with federal officials and as governor of Alabama brought hitherto unheard of benefits to black communities.Eventually he openly renounced his segregationist past.

    However, the temptation among Democrats to pursue the "Wallace model" is not dead. Hillary and Bill tried to use it in the last democratic primary but it proved relatively ineffective against a candidate like Barack Obama who himself tended to attribute social and economic problems in urban America to individual pathologies and eagerly renounced the liberalism of Rev. Wright, his old preacher in Chicago.

    This is a great book: "George Wallace; An American Populist" by Stephan Lesher. However, nothing in it about the governors side-trips to Masters & Johnson for sex therapy, although I don't think the whole episode would add much to our understanding of the man.

    Understand as well,overall crime rates have been declining steadily in the U.S. since 1970, though regional differences- Deep South, The West. Mid-Atlantic and Northeast- remain consistent. Statistical evidence does not suggest that this the decline is the result of the various "crackdowns"- death penalties, longer prison sentances- but levels of educational attainment,civil equalities and degrees of participation at the local level and tax rates- high rates being more indicative of "law and order" than low ones as indicated by recent corruptions uncovered among mortgage brokers and wall street investors.

    Crime rates in the U.S. are four times higher than in Europe.