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New Jersey and Beyond

Decarceration Activism

by MICHELLE MATISONS

New Jersey is politically polarized around a hostile, pro-corporate Governor who recently granted over 1 billion in public funds to Republican backed firms that support his policies.  The state public infrastructure endures attacks on employee pensions and public education.  Public officials from Governor Christie, to charter school enthusiasts like Democratic Senator George Norcross, to local, controversial school superintendents such as Camden’s Paymon Rouhanifard and Newark’s Cami Anderson collude with the corporate agenda in contempt of the people.  Newark mayor, Ras Baraka, has given new optimism to those feeling defeated, but keeping Baraka’s victory in perspective, Cami Anderson’s school superintendent contract was just renewed amidst massive controversy that had Newark citizens in the streets protesting alongside religious leaders and high school students who managed to occupy the Newark Schools building.  Activists continue to insist that publically funded schools stay tied to communities and the state’s fair funding mandates while opposing school resegregation through chartering and diminished funding sources.

But, as of today, Anderson’s school restructuring plan, One Newark, is being implemented for the fall semester.  If this plan is carried out, student and youth opportunity will further diminish in a state that already sees high rates of racialized incarceration for its citizens.  What does public education high jackers have in mind for New Jersey’s poor youth?  More incarceration?

With a current polarized political climate spawned from the Christie administration’s arrogant indifference, and ongoing social policies that threaten to further segregate the state along racial/ class lines, it is important for citizens to forge new alliances and wage activist campaigns that can demonstrate people will continue to fight back, and possibly achieve concrete victories.   On the other end of the school to prison pipeline from public education activism is the anti-mass incarceration (or decarceration) activism launched (Spring 2014) Committee to Decarcerate the Garden State.  As the Newark school system gets bludgeoned by corporate charter schemes, decarceration activists plot to move in on this important historic moment widely referred to as “decarceration”.

Based in Newark, the Committee has introduced a bill entitled “NJ Decarceration Act” which calls for large scale reduction of the prison population—“particularly for nonviolent drug related and other small scale and other nonviolent small scale economic ‘crimes of survival’.” They urge NJ Senator Ron Rice (D-Essex) to support their bill, and the Committee has covered all relevant bases in this effort. It sent Senator Rice a letter signed by fourteen Essex County residents; it is organizing a street panel discussion to be held on July 30, 2014 at 5:30 pm outside Newark City Hall; and it established an online petition with 1,057 signatures to date, a Facebook page  and a blog (.  It appears that Committee members are, in the words of one member, ready to take on the “Black Agenda issue, an issue that affects the impoverished throughout Essex County, this unjust ‘justice’ system…”.

Decarceration Activism Dead-Ends

Activists beware.  There’s a class war within decarceration efforts.  One side represents corporations and colluding public officials positioned to profit from the needs of shifting prison populations.  The other side represents communities most affected by mass incarceration.  A variation on a theme of decarceration is endorsed by entities that string us along with their head-nodding support while preparing their whitewashing machines and watering down systems to undermine true activist led decarceration initiatives.

Decarceration—and the larger prison reform climate championed out of financial and sometimes legal necessity, never morality—is a very hot political commodity right now.  When the war on drugs started, politicians strutted their bipartisan tough on crime stances in an obligatory fashion at every press conference.  Now, since the prison snake is eating its own tail and needs to find new sources of nourishment, and the stats about the drug war’s effectiveness in ensuring public safety and addressing addiction issues are well established, reform, restructuring, alternate sentencing is the political class’ latest obligatory talk–all under the guise of more judicial fiscal practices for all.  Not necessarily justice for all, though.  Not by a long shot.

Large scale prison population reduction plagues the criminal justice community which makes its bread and butter off the prison industrial status quo.  (Governments contract with private companies that are guarantee a certain inmate capacity at all times, as one example.)  As federal, state and local budgets become increasingly encumbered by overcrowded facilities that endanger inhabitants, it’s now or never for prison reform.  But be aware.  Be very aware.  If we call for a large scale prisoner release, we should not accept “alternative” carceral mechanisms such as private prisons, excessive parole surveillance and restrictions, including privatization of parole services, or the growing use of electronic monitoring.   It appears more and more that prison companies don’t care as much where the prisoners are so long as they can capitalize off the fact of their status as criminals.

While community groups move to advance rational and humane decarceration agendas, decarceration groups must be on the lookout for what James Kilgore refers to as “carceral humanism” that “repackages” mass incarceration as rehabilitative, with specialized courts or home electronic monitoring programs.  This is the first of several dead ends decarceration activism should avoid.  We want freedom, not more comfy cuffs.

Like decarceration activists, the US commercial bail bonds industry (BBI) also has a big stake in seeing people released—only in their own carefully crafted “pay or stay” way.  This is why the BBI is active in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and increasingly organizes in its own interests.  It does not want to miss out on everything the prison reform/ decarceration climate affords their own financial interests; they make campaign contributions across party lines to keep politicians squarely in the mass arrest ethos of American policing’s warlike climate.  Think about it: there’d be no bail posted if there was no arrest to begin with!  Consider a possibility of increased police budgets as an outcome of successful grassroots decarceration efforts.

As Heather Ann Thompson mentions in a recent Huffington Post editorial on “The Decarceration Dodge”, as decarceration efforts increase in the prison reform era, racial profiling (such as New York’s notorious “Stop and Frisk” practice), and mass arrest remains pervasive and appears to be increasing, not declining.  Thompson writes: “Indeed, as we celebrate the dip in federal and state prison populations that have resulted from litigation or legislation, disproportionate policing and racial profiling is still resulting in historically unprecedented levels of containment and confinement…”.  Another dead end for decarceration activism could emphasize getting people out, without connecting to the warlike culture of mass harassment, profiling, and arrest that keeps tax dollars flowing to police departments on one end and supporting bail (and other private) industry profits on the other.

One final dead end is the great potential to divide and conquer decarceration activist constituencies with the painful question of who gets released under pro-active decarceration measures such as that initiated by the Committee to Decarcerate the Garden State.   In their petition text, the Committee calls for “incarceration reductions of 20% in the first two years and 50% over 4 years.  The legislation should provide for guidelines of offenses for which prisoners should be released (e.g. nonviolent simple possession charges and small scale economic offenses), guidelines for release of those given particular lengths of sentences who served a percentage of their sentence (e.g. release all those sentenced under 6 months. Who have served 50% of a term up to 1 year, have served 70% of 1-3 years, 80% of 3-5 years, etc.) as well as those who are beyond a certain age who served a certain percentage of their sentences.”

Here we see the toughest job decarceration activists face. The decision to pragmatically approaching decarceration by crime category, time served or individuals’ age or medical status can erase the more utopian demand that no one should be detained inside illegitimate facilities designed for dehumanization.  There’s no avoiding these complications between the pragmatic reform agenda and the more utopian prison abolitionist agenda.  Regarding who qualifies for release, the Committee’s idea that: “The particulars can be determined with input from communities targeted by mass incarceration” begs elaboration, but is a great beginning to avoid divisiveness inherent in the system.

Proposed legislation on pragmatic categorization of those fortunate to qualify for release should avoid the extremely divisive and painful dead end implication that anyone should be held under current jail and prison conditions.  In the case of everyone’s favorite example of the classic “violent vs. nonviolent offender” category: how does it make sense that someone who has already committed a violent act should then be subjected to more violence upon detention? Because they deserve it?  The crimes committed by incarcerated individuals should never eclipse the great state and corporate crime that is the mass incarceration business. Pragmatically, it may make sense to propose more acceptable crime classifications for release qualifications, but let’s avoid vilification of incarcerated individuals (sex offenders included) in decarceration materials, rhetoric, and organizing.  This is an excellent educational opportunity for decarceration campaigns, and it will continue to draw lines in the sand among activists.

In today’s generalized prison reform era, grassroots efforts like the Committee to Decarcerate the Garden State, are critical.  They ensure community voices are central at the decarceration planning table, they further test the legislative waters and popular consciousness around activist led anti-incarceration initiatives, and they provide concrete lessons about ongoing possibilities.

Michelle Renee Matisons, Ph.D. can be reached at michrenee@gmail.com.