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Americans are paying dearly as they suffer through the coronavirus epidemic. The costs of inadequate testing, poor medical care and even death in isolation are only compounded by the nation’s staggering economy, mounting unemployment rate and uncertainty of recovery. Making matters worse, there has been an increase in domestic violence.
“My husband won’t let me leave the house,” a victim of domestic violence told a representative for the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH). “He’s had flu-like symptoms and blames keeping me here on not wanting to infect others or bringing something like COVID-19 home. But I feel like it’s just an attempt to isolate me.” The NDVH representative notes that “a growing number of callers say that their abusers are using COVID-19 as a means of further isolating them from their friends and family. “
“I spoke to the [NY] state police this morning and there is a reported uptick in domestic violence cases,” Melissa DeRosa, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top aide stated at a recent press briefing. “Some reports are as high as 15 to 20 percent. It’s unacceptable on any day. I want people to know that every single case that is reported, the state police is going to investigate fully.”
This assessment was confirmed by Cecile Noel, commissioner of New York City’s Office to End Domestic Violence and Gender-Based Violence (ENDGBV). “COVID-19 puts into sharp focus the vulnerabilities that many people in our city face every day, especially gender-based violence survivors,” she said. And added, “it highlights the barriers and challenges that we know keep people from seeking help and finding safety.”
The same story is playing out in San Francisco. Shortly after shelter-in-place was implemented, the SF district attorney’s office reported an initial 60 percent increase in referrals to its Victim Services Division, compared to the same week last year. Mayor London Nicole Breed and DA Chesa Boudin announced that the city has secured 20 furnished apartments for survivors of domestic violence.
Kathy Black, executive director, La Casa De Las Madres, pointed out that “one of the most common battering tactics is to isolate somebody from their support network – friends, family, coworkers, agencies where they may go to get assistance or support.” Going further, she noted, “So being locked in with your abuser is, as I have called it, kind of a perfect storm.”
Domestic abuse – or intimate partner violence – is an endemic feature of American social life, one example of the all-pervasive sexual or gender violence. A recent report on “domestic violence” from the National Center for Biotechnology Information paints a grim picture:
Family and domestic violence (including child abuse, intimate partner abuse, and elder abuse) is a common problem in the United States. Family and domestic health violence are estimated to affect 10 million people in the United States every year. It is a national public health problem …
Under conditions of the Corvid-19 plague, the number of incidents of domestic violence appears on the uptick.
HuffPost reports that between March 27 to April 2, as shelter-in-place laws spread to nearly every state, there were at least 19 murder-suicides, including four attempted ones. As it states, “almost all of the incidents involved a man killing his wife or child before taking his own life.”
A new book, The Feminist and the Sex Offender: Confronting Harm, Ending State Violence, by Judith Levine and Erica R. Meiners (Verso), provides a valuable overview analysis to better understand interpersonal violence and offers a progressive approach to addressing this deep-seated problem. The authors advance a radical critique that reframes the current debate about sex offenders, including domestic abusers. However, they raise a simple, cautionary note: “Experts agree that most sexual and gender violence is not reported. In fact, almost 80 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, according to a 2016 analysis by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.”
The authors take a clear, uncompromising stand as to what constitutes sexual abuse, especially rape. “As far as we are concerned, if it is not consensual, it is rape,” they write. “If all partners are able to consent, and do consent, it is not rape.”
However, the authors decry what they identify as the “sex offense legal regime.” They note that in 2007, sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein coined the term ‘‘’carceral feminism’ to denote ‘the commitment of … feminist activists to a law and order agenda.” The consequence of this was “… a drift from the welfare state to the carceral state as the enforcement apparatus for feminist goals.”
Levine and Meiners identify this as an “expression of neoliberalism.” It reflects “a logic that blames social problems on individuals rather than on larger economic forces and systemic racial, gender, or geographic inequities and privatizes formerly public, tax-funded institutions and services, leading to their underfunding and deterioration.”
The authors reconceive the debate among feminists and other elements of the women’s movement between “those who want to put abusers and rapists in prison and those who want to abolish prisons and find nonpunitive, nonviolent responses to harm.” The former made adoption of punitive legislation, exemplified by the Violence Against Women Act, their priority; the latter, the “abolitionist feminists,” are “engaged in practices of restorative and transformative justice.”
For Meiners and Levine, “these two movements also stand, for the most part, on two sides of a racial divide.” They remind readers that “women of color, poor women, people with disabilities, and queer, gender-nonconforming, and transgender people experience higher rates of sexual and gender violence than their cisgender, white counterparts.” Digging deeper, they note that “entire categories of sexual assault were invisible. No statute recognized marital rape; sex on demand was a husband’s prerogative and a wife’s duty. … There were few indictments, much less convictions, for sexual violence.”
The authors, like many commentators on the prison system, reminder readers that “among the biggest predictors of interpersonal violence is male underemployment — a social, not a personal, deficit, and one that is exacerbated by neoliberal austerity.” This is a condition made even worse today under conditions of shelter-in-place.
Nevertheless, they point out that in the U.S., the “carceral state … imprisons more of its population than any other nation in the world, including those with far higher murder rates.” More troubling, they argue that the US carceral state, which imprisons more of its population than any other nation in the world, including those with far higher murder rates.”
They note that “the number of names and photos on federal, state, and territorial sex offender registries approaches 900,000.” Those with a sex-related offense may be “prohibited from working as a retail clerk, fishing in a public park, volunteering at a polling place, putting up Halloween decorations, or (as recently happened in Tennessee) living with his own children.”
In addition, punishment of the 20th-century sex offender recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 tale of the Puritan colonies, The Scarlet Letter. Under the International Megan’s Law (2017), the State Department marks the passport of registered offender with a “unique identifier.” The U.S. has come a long way to end up where it began.
In 1961, Pres. Dwight Eisenhower made his legendary farewell address warning of the military industrial complex:
[the] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. … [W]e must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. …
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
A decade later, Pres. Richard Nixon launched the “war on drugs” in response to an alleged increase in “drug” use in the U.S. This led to an enormous increase in arrests, longer sentences and the swelling of the U.S. prison population. The led to increase the number of jails and prisons throughout the country and the privatization of a once public institution, incarceration.
In ’79, Congress passed Prison-Industries Act establishing the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP or PIE), incorporating the private sector into the prison system. PIE was originally promoted to help prison inmates to earn wages in private sector jobs. More telling, it enabled private companies to sell and transportation commercial goods across state lines.
In 1999, Angela Davis published her landmark study, The Prison Industrial Complex. Drawing from her own prison experience and that of friends and comrades, she revealed that deep links between capitalism, racism and the prison system. Now, two decades later, the prison system plays a parallel role to the military system in U.S. society. The scope and scale of the nation’s “systems of confinement” is staggering. The Prison Policy Institute (PPI) summarizes the system in 2020 accordingly:
The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.
The PPI estimate this system of mass incarceration cost Americas $182 billion in 2020. The PPI makes clear one often overlooked factor: “The criminal justice system is overwhelmingly a public system, with private prison companies acting only as extensions of the public system. The government payroll for corrections employees is over 100 times higher than the private prison industry’s profits.”
The value of Levine and Meiners’s timely book, The Feminist and the Sex Offender, is to point a way out the tyranny of the prison-industrial complex. They rightfully argue, “we need paradigm shifts: from justice as retribution to justice as healing, from conviction to accountability, punishment to repair, and rehabilitation to transformation.” They advocate for what they call “abolition feminism, a melding of anti-racist prison abolitionism—which is part of the Black radical tradition—and feminism.”
The mounting levels of infections and deaths in prisons due to the coronavirus makes clear that the old way of American (in)justice doesn’t work. The authors’ examination of sex offenders needs to be extended to a larger critique of the entire mass incarceration state, one in which restorative justice replaces punitive punishment.