FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Have Conservatives Really Seen the Light on Mass Incarceration?

by JAMES KILGORE

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.   

 

James Kilgore is a writer and activist based in Urbana, Illinois. He spent six and a half years in prison. During those years, he drafted three novels which have been published since his release in 2009. His latest book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Era will be published by The New Press in September. He can be contacted at waazn1@gmail.com

More articles by:
June 30, 2016
Richard Moser
Clinton and Trump, Fear and Fascism
Pepe Escobar
The Three Harpies are Back!
Ramzy Baroud
Searching for a ‘Responsible Adult’: ‘Is Brexit Good for Israel?’
Dave Lindorff
What is Bernie Up To?
Thomas Barker
Saving Labour From Blairism: the Dangers of Confining the Debate to Existing Members
Jan Oberg
Why is NATO So Irrational Today?
John Stauber
The Debate We Need: Gary Johnson vs Jill Stein
Steve Horn
Obama Administration Approved Over 1,500 Offshore Fracking Permits
Rob Hager
Supreme Court Legalizes Influence Peddling: McDonnell v. United States
Norman Pollack
Economic Nationalism vs. Globalization: Janus-Faced Monopoly Capital
Binoy Kampmark
Railroaded by the Supreme Court: the US Problem with Immigration
Howard Lisnoff
Of Kiddie Crusades and Disregarding the First Amendment in a Public Space
Vijay Prashad
Economic Liberalization Ignores India’s Rural Misery
Caroline Hurley
We Are All Syrians
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
Jeffrey St. Clair
Noam Chomsky, John Halle and a Confederacy of Lampreys: a Note on Lesser Evil Voting
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Feardom: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail