Locked up in the land of the free

On 30 June 2002 the US prison population reached two million for the first time in history. By 30 June 2003, 2,078,570 prisoners were held in Federal or State prisons or in local jails – equivalent to the imprisonment of 480 out of every 100,000 US residents. No other country imprisons its population on anything like this scale, and prison is just the end point of a massive all-powerful, omnipresent ‘criminal justice’ and policing system, under which up to another five million people are on probation or parole at any one time.

Among the US socialists who have sought to explain the economic and political background to mass imprisonment in the US are Christian Parenti and Richard D Vogel. Their writings are invaluable for anyone seeking to understand not only the current US situation, but the direction in which British ‘criminal justice’ policy is being guided by social fascist Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett. Nicki Jameson reports.

Economics and imprisonment
Vogel’s essay, ‘Capitalism and Incarceration Revisited’ (Monthly Review September 2003) begins with his conclusion 20 years earlier that the ‘overall trends and year-by-year correspondence between economic conditions and imprisonment establish quite clearly the relationship between capitalism and incarceration – prisons under capitalism are, as Marx pointed out long ago, dumping grounds of the industrial reserve army. In very few respects are the social consequences of the un- and under-employment of people under capitalism as clear as they are in the fluctuations of the prison population.’

Vogel then tests this thesis by overlaying graphs of incarceration and employment for the period 1926-1996. This reveals ‘a high rate of incarceration accompanying the economic dislocation of the Great Depression when, in 1931, 52 persons per 100,000 civilian population were sent to prison. Correspondingly, the lowest rate of imprisonment occurred during the Second World War (28.4 per 100,000 in 1944) when unemployment dropped to 1.2 per cent.’

As soon as the war ended, both unemployment and incarceration began to increase, and continued with little interruption until the 1960s when the Vietnam War led to a drop in both rates. The ‘current and most dramatic trend of incarceration’ then began following the US defeat in Vietnam.

The rises in unemployment and incarceration immediately after the Vietnam War continued to reflect the same relationship that existed in the earlier decades of the 20th century. However, the sudden upward curve in imprisonment after the early 1980s, with no concomitant surge in overall unemployment, demonstrates what Vogel calls ‘a fundamentally changed relationship between capitalism and incarceration’.

This relationship is one in which simply comparing overall figures for incarceration and unemployment tells us nothing. The additional factor that must be included in any meaningful analysis is race. ‘The Bureau of Justice Statistics...predicted that a young black man aged 16 in 1991 had a 28.5 percent chance of spending time in prison during his life. This prediction counts only felony convictions and does not include time spent in local or county jails. When social class differences within the black population are factored in the prospect of poor black males being incarcerated is probably double this figure – closer to 60 percent. And, if we add the differential jail incarceration rates for blacks, a 75 percent likelihood of going to prison is not an unreasonable estimate.’

The large number of black and minority ethnic prisoners is not simply a result of prejudice among sentencers, although this too is present. It is a direct product of the role that the non-white working class plays in US capitalism.

‘Liberal critics are quick to lament racial discrimination in the criminal justice system but always steer clear of the basic structure of capitalism that accounts for the concentration of national minorities in prison…The unemployment rate for black males is consistently twice that of white males…[who] have faced serious unemployment only during times of economic recession, while…minority males have faced recession (and depression) level unemployment since the end of the Second World War…national minorities have traditionally served as the reserve army of wage laborers for American capitalism – a function that accounts for their overrepresentation in American prisons.’

The sheer number of prisoners is now so great that it actually serves
to distort the true unemployment figures. Imprisonment is no longer a result of unemployment; it has become an alternative to it. Just as there was less unemployment in wartime because the working class were drafted, ‘the prison system now holds enough of the reserve army of wage labourers for extended periods of time to actually keep the official unemployment rate down.’

Social apartheid – ‘quality of life’ for the rich; ‘zero tolerance’ of the poor
Parenti’s 1999 book Lockdown America – Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, guides the reader through the massive militarisation of the US police and immigration service, which began with President Richard Nixon’s quest to re-establish social control after the turbulent late 1960s, when ‘capitalism hit a dual social and economic crisis.’

In particular, the enforced retreat of three police forces from the 1965 Watts rebellion had caused a crisis of police confidence. Just as 15 years later in Britain, inner-city uprisings would lead the police to draw on the experiences of the occupying army in the north of Ireland, the US police looked to the military in Vietnam for ideas. This resulted, on the one hand, in rapid buying up of helicopters, computers, microfilm fingerprint files and electronic maps, on the other in ‘soft’ strategies of incorporating sections of the community, buying off key people and gathering intelligence.

Nixon was prevented from fully realising his plans due to continued resistance and the Watergate scandal. The drive for militarised social control ultimately took off in the 1980s as ‘a response to the vicious economic restructuring of the Reagan era …To restore sagging business profits, the welfare of working people had to be sacrificed…the criminal justice crackdown has become…a way to manage rising inequality and surplus populations. ‘

So, from then until now, there has been an unrelenting build-up of weaponry by the state, both in terms of actual hardware and in the shape of laws and powers that pervade every area of life and seek to control every form of behaviour. These laws are universal on the statute books but selective in their application. They are ‘sold’ to the population in the guise of ‘the war on drugs’, ‘the fight against organised crime’ or even the desirable sounding ‘quality of life’, but in reality amount to all-encompassing social and racial control of the working class.

‘Quality of life’ (QOL) is the other side of the much-discussed coin of ‘zero tolerance’ (ZT). This form of policing should be studied by readers in Britain, where it is being brought in under the guise of dealing with ‘anti-social behaviour’. The ‘quality of life’ under discussion is that of the mainly white middle class, which is perceived as threatened by the mere existence of poor working class people on the same streets as them.

ZT/QOL policing was developed by then New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton under Mayor Rudi Giuliani, using the ideas of right-wing criminologists James Q Wilson and George Kelling. The doctrine is one of ‘vigorous enforcement of even the most trifling municipal codes in the theory that preventing “disorder” will prevent violence… Police were advised to…control “panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.” According to the theory, enforcing laws against public urination, graffiti, and inebriation will create an aura of regulation that helps prevent brutal crimes like rape and murder’ (p70).

ZT/QOL policing appeared to be a success – between 1994 and 1998 overall crime in New York dropped 43 per cent. But at what cost? ‘During the same period another set of statistics has also emerged. Complaints of police brutality…jumped by 62 per cent...while…the city has paid out more than $100 million in damages arising from police violence… Bratton’s response was “That’s too damn bad” ’ (p83).

At the same time, the government is waging war on immigrants. Writing in 1999, Parenti describes the vicious state racism: ‘the combined force stops Latino drivers and pedestrians at random, conducting warrantless searches…cops and [immigration] officers humiliate Latinos on public highways and interrogate children on their way to school’. In a single raid 432 undocumented migrants and two US citizens were deported, some wearing only their underwear. Post-2001, many of the three million Arab American citizens now have experience of the same treatment.

The aim of this terror is to ensure that immigrant workers live in fear, do not organise, do not rebel, and do not ask for higher wages or better conditions. They remain a cheap, expendable source of labour. At the same time, they can play the role of convenient scapegoat for the economic problems now beginning to affect the whole of US society.

Overwhelming force is also increasingly used in the everyday policing of black and Latino working class areas of cities. Parenti describes the operations of the ‘super-cops’ of the Fresno, California Violent Crime Suppression Unit (VCSU) as ‘a sneak preview of a future American police state’. The VCSU was formed in a massively hyped-up response to genuine problems of crime and gang warfare but continued heavily armed, paramilitary operations long after every gang member had been incarcerated. The Unit acts unashamedly as an army of occupation – ‘If police are soldiers instead of civil servants, and their task is destruction and conquest, then it follows that the civilian community will be the enemy’ (p112).

Resistance and repression
The US state learned from its policing experiences that it must employ multiple layers of repression in order to continue to rule. It has learned the same lesson in relation to the prisons themselves. In 1971 prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York, staged a highly politicised revolt, which was put down by maximum force by 200 state troopers who shot dead 33 prisoners and 10 guards who had been held hostage. Despite the unprecedented rise in numbers of prisoners since then, there have been very few incidents of major rebellion within the prison system.

To keep the imprisoned population subdued, the US state has employed a wide range of tactics, including sensory deprivation and isolation, forced labour, chain-gangs, shooting of prisoners in exercise yards, the use of informants or favoured bullies, and the encouragement of gang warfare. Perhaps foremost among the control strategies, however, has been the development of the total lockdown prison or ‘supermax’. By using a type of prison where every prisoner is effectively in permanent solitary confinement, and only leaves their cell when chained and escorted by paramilitary guards, the prospect of organisation or rebellion can be prevented.

Like capitalism itself, the prison system contains the seeds of its own destruction. Vogel ends his essay with a description of a system heading for crisis:

‘Current indicators suggest that the chronic economic recession that was avoided during the last twenty years is upon us. This…will provide a flood of new prisoners that will have to be accommodated in a system that is presently at, or near, capacity. The economic costs of mass incarceration and correctional control…are already staggering and cannot be maintained…As the economy contracts and tax revenues dwindle, federal and state governments are slipping deeper into deficit. Prisons are already being targeted for budget cuts…Ironically supermax prisons might be the first to go – the cost of keeping masses of men in concentrated solitary confinement has proven to be much greater than even regular maximum security incarceration. [This] alone could spark widespread prison insurrections because it would put the “troublemakers” back among the general prison population…protest and resistance would follow and the voice of American prisoners, silenced for so long would be heard again – it would echo the “sound before the fury of those who are oppressed” proclaimed at Attica in 1971’.

FRFI 180 August / September 2004


Our site uses cookies to improve your browsing experience. By using the site you consent to the use of cookies.
More information Ok