Have Conservatives Really Seen the Light on Mass Incarceration?


I lived in South Africa from 1991 until 2002, during the difficult transition from apartheid to democracy. An interesting part of this history was that by 1994, apartheid had become so discredited that it was difficult to find a single white person who admitted to ever supporting racial segregation.  Though white  electorates had voted the architects of apartheid into power for over four decades, by the time Nelson Mandela came to office no rats were to be found still aboard the sinking ship of overt white supremacy.  Today, some eighteen years after the election of Mandela, the fundamental economic inequality of South Africa has changed very little. While Blacks control the government and some Blacks have risen to the ranks of the middle classes (with even a couple billionaires) the distance between the rich and the poor remains as great as ever.  In other words, things had to change in order to remain the same.

I got a certain sense of déjà vu for those days in South Africa recently when I read an article by David Dagan and Steven Teles in the Washington Monthly entitled “The Conservative War on Prisons.”  The authors argued that conservatives had finally seen the folly and fiscal futility of mass incarceration.  They went on to cite numerous examples where, in their opinion, conservative initiatives have had positive results in terms of reducing the demand for prison space and softening the war on crime. These examples included:

* the scaling back of Texas’ prison expansion after 2005 in favor of putting more money into post-release programs targeted at reducing recidivism

* the role of conservatives, especially the Prison Fellowship,  in passing the Second Chance Act in 2007,

* the passage of HB 265 under Georgia Republican Governor Neal  in 2011. The bill mandated a report on how to reduce reliance on prison and focus on keeping people on the streets

In addition, Dagan and Teles contended that major right-wing think tanks like the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network, both of which formerly advocated rapid prison expansion, have shifted gears and begun to distance themselves from private prison corporations and explore ways to reduce spending on corrections.

The authors also mentioned the 2011 Right On Crime initiative signed by conservative luminaries like Jeb Bush,  Bill Bennett, Edwin Meese, Pat Nolan,  and Grover Norquist  which advocated the elimination of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses as well as a geriatric release program for many of the more than 200,000 people currently in prison who are over 50 years old.  Dagan and Teles claimed that even Newt Gingrich has seen the light, offering  his 2011 pronouncement as evidence:  “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential … The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.”

Overall, the portrait painted by Dagan and Teles hardly resonates with our memories of the conservative law and order firebrands who kicked off the War on Drugs in the 1980s, used Willie Horton to scare voters away from Dukakis in 1988, and joined with Democratic colleagues to push through the mandatory minimums and three strikes laws which gave teeth to their moralizing and racialized crusades.

In the end, the authors posit that cross party unity appears likely on criminal justice issues, that the common ground far outweighs the differences between the right and the left.  In the words of conservative Texas legislator Jerry Madden,  a unity between the” social  responsibility of the Democrats” and the “fiscal responsibility of the Republicans”  has emerged.

Putting on my apartheid-tinted glasses, I’m thinking that in another year or two, the pendulum may swing so far that we won’t be able to find anyone who thought locking them up and throwing away the key was a good idea in the first place.   Prison expansion may just vanish into that recycling bin of bad ideas along with alcohol prohibition, bans on homosexual intercourse and, of course, apartheid.

If we do reach that point, many who have been campaigning for criminal justice reform may feel that  victory is imminent, that we will all be talking the same language, heading down the same road to an agreed upon final destination.  While we should welcome any change  that provides space to roll back prison expansion and  the paradigm of punishment, celebrations of any cosmic shift in criminal justice might be a little  premature.

There are at least three concerns that arise from this sudden conversion by the conservatives (and they may apply to some  liberals as well). The first is where do the private corrections companies fit into all of this transformation?  A dominant trend in conservative thought on criminal justice, one that is quite consistent with their preference for business over government, has been the encouragement of more privatization of prisons and criminal justice-related services.  Can we simply conclude that the likes of Newt Gingrich have abandoned their bedfellows at the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group for the greater good?  These companies have been feathering the campaign funding beds of numerous  state and local politicians.  Can we trust the likes of Florida Governor Rick Scott and Ohio’s  John Kasich  to cut their  ties  with private prison capital and become champions of restorative justice?  Will these conservatives actually back  genuine transformation or  merely deliver “alternatives to incarceration”  that  shore up  corporate bottom lines and  maintain the  punitive spirit that has driven mass incarceration? These are big questions. Perhaps we should wait and see the answers before we herald the advent of a new era in criminal justice.

Second, most of the conservative talk cited by Dagan and Teles reflects a spirit of cold-blooded, cost benefit analysis. In this view, mass incarceration has failed primarily it is fiscally irresponsible- adding to our deficits when alternatives could get “more bang for our buck.”  While mass incarceration has been a fiscal fiasco, it goes much deeper than the balance sheet. Like wrong-headed wars in Viet Nam and Iraq, the toll of mass incarceration must ultimately be measured in lost human lives, not dollars and cents.

Where is the politicians’ remorse for the hundreds of thousands of African-American youth who instead of attending school and growing up in their communities, have spent decades away from their loved ones because they made a mistake of possessing a bit of marijuana or crack cocaine?  When do we hear the apologies for the overzealous street warriors who killed Amadou Diallo, who turned a blind eye to the tortures of young men  by Jon Burge in Chicago, who shot dead 15 year old Kiwane Carrington less than a mile from where I live? When do we witness the expressions of regret for the relentless hunt for “illegal immigrants” over the last decade, a policy that has ripped families apart and  forced people to move out of certain states because they may happen to “look like” an immigrant.  One of the main mantras of this era of mass incarceration, chanted most loudly by conservatives, has been the insistence that people who are guilty of criminal acts must accept responsibility, must come to grips with the implications of their actions. Now is the time for the policy makers who promoted this notion of accepting responsibility to hold themselves to their own standard.

Lastly, a main point of celebration over the freshly- minted conservative change of heart is the potential for unity across the political party aisle. This unity offers possibilities but does not guarantee a just result. Let us not forget that mass incarceration could not have happened without overwhelming support from both Republicans and Democrats all along the way. Reagan may have kicked off the War on Drugs and pushed the Federal Sentencing Guidelines but Clinton gave us the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Bill providing nearly $10 billion for funding new prisons.  Now both Democrats and Republicans want to distance themselves from any past complicity in designing or implementing the disaster of mass incarceration.  They are running away from mass incarceration in much the same way that white South Africans abandoned apartheid in 1994. Without a doubt this will mean things will change in the future, but the question is whether things  will be changing only to remain the same.

James Kilgore spent six and a half years in Federal and state prisons in California. During his incarceration he wrote three novels which have been published since his release in 2009: We Are All Zimbabweans Now Freedom Never Rests and Prudence Couldn’t Swim.  He currently resides in Champaign, Illinois where he is a research scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois and active on criminal justice issues with the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice. He can be contacted at waazn1@gmail.com.   


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