American Gulag

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The U.S. tops any other country in the world for its number of prisoners – over 2,300,000. China, by contrast, has roughly 200,000 prisoners. But the U.S. general population is only 330 million, while China’s is 1.4 billion. American prisoners constitute a much larger percentage of the population than those in any other nation. The U.S. has clung to this dubious distinction for decades.

Equaling the Soviet gulag at its height in the 1950s in numbers of prisoners, the U.S. also locks away 61,000 of them in the torture called solitary confinement and 2700 in the terror called death row. These are not the policies and actions of a civilized society. This is barbarism. As long as this continues, any American politician who climbs up on a high horse about government abuse of citizens in another country is a pathetic hypocrite who deserves to be laughed out of public life.

Privatization of prisons has made things worse. Of federal prisoners, 19.1 percent are in private prisons, as are 6.8 percent of those in state prisons. These privately run hellholes turn a profit by jacking up fees for inmates from everything from phone calls to mail to video-conferencing with a lawyer. They also make money by skimping on decent food and proper medicines and have lots of other ingenious ways to squeeze dollars out of their captives. Politically, private prisons are a reactionary force, promoting, naturally, tougher crime laws and longer sentences. Because that’s how they make money – for them, the more prisoners, the better. Private prisons contributed to the 408 percent increase in the U.S. prison population from 1978 to 2014.

Originally, Quakers advanced prisons, as a reform, an alternative to the horrors of corporal and capital punishment. But, as abolitionist Mariame Kaba argues in her new book, We Do This Till We Free Us, prisons became their own kind of nightmare. The introduction quotes Ruth Wilson Gilmore: “We live in the age of human sacrifice.” Prisoners are our human sacrifice: people locked away in tiny cages for decades. In response, Kaba would abolish prisons and the police. She advocates transformative and restorative justice, which would impose consequences on those who harm – such as reparations, public apologies, loss of any position of power or privilege, counseling, etc. – but not destroy them. Kaba writes: “Prison is simply a bad and ineffective way to address violence and crime.”

Unsurprisingly, her prescriptions would necessitate a social and economic revolution, for which Kaba, who is anti-capitalist, has worked for years. “Harm originates from situations dominated by stress, scarcity and oppression,” she writes. “Our punishment system, which is grounded in genocide and slavery and which has continued the functions and themes of those atrocities, can never be made just.”

Like many abolitionists, Kaba drew hope from the George Floyd rebellion last summer and joined those calling for defunding the police.  Here’s her list of police “reforms” to be avoided: “1) reforms that allocate more money for the police; 2) reforms advocating for more police; 3) technology-focused reforms; 4) individual dialogues with individual cops funded by tax dollars.” Instead she supports: “1) reparations to victims and families of police violence; 2) decreasing policing and prison funding and redirecting it to other social goods; 3) elected independent civilian police accountability boards with power to investigate, discipline and fire cops and administrators; 4) disarming the police; 5) simplifying dissolving police departments; 6) data transparency (stops, arrests, budgeting, etc.)”

Kaba is against police or prison reform. She does not describe policing as broken, because that reaffirms reform and undercuts abolition. Police kill about 1000 people a year, she notes, but since 2005, there have been only 110 prosecutions of officers who shot people, with convictions in less than 42 cases. But Kaba also notes abolitionists’ successes: removing former Illinois state’s attorney Anita Alvarez; helping to win reparations for torture victims during the reign of “infamous police commander Jon Burge in Chicago – a city that has, over the past two decades, become a hub of abolitionist organizing;” and several campaigns to free women imprisoned for self-defense against sexual abusers.

Women’s right to self-defense against abuse, whether it’s a wife and her husband or a sex worker and a client, is central to Kaba’s thinking. In fact, she titled one chapter, “Organizing to End Sexual Violence Without Prisons.” She describes the abuse survivor’s position thus: “I was hurt. Somebody did it. I want them to know that they did it. I want to see that they have some remorse for having done it.” That’s a far cry from tossing the abuser in a cage for decades, so that by the time he’s free, he’s elderly and unemployable.

But the even deadlier consequence of the current criminal justice approach is that women who defend themselves land in prison. “Prosecuting and incarcerating survivors of violence,” Kaba writes “puts courts and prisons in the same punitive role as their abusers.” Here she reviews several prominent cases, for instance, Cyntoia Brown who, aged 16, “shot and killed Johnny Allen, a 43-year-old Nashville resident who picked her up for sex.” Brown explained she shot him in self-defense. She was “tried as an adult and was convicted of first degree premeditated murder and ‘especially aggravated robbery.’” With concurrent life-sentences, she would have been eligible for parole after 51 years in prison. However, Brown’s case drew much media attention, and she was pardoned. Kaba cites other such cases.

“In 2017, there were 219,000 women in U.S. prisons and jails, most of them poor and of color,” Kaba writes, observing that the incarceration rate for black women is double that for white women. She argues that abuse survivors are systematically punished “for trying to protect themselves and their children,” that it is “hurt people who hurt other people,” and that prison simply should not figure in the equation.

This book recounts terrible stories of women punished for defending themselves, but one, from Florida, presents a very bitter irony: Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot into the air to force her violent husband to back off. For this, she faced 60 years in prison. She would have seemed a likely candidate for Florida’s infamous “stand your ground law” – right? But the judge said no, because she had not demonstrated fear. She was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (After three years in prison and two under house arrest, she was released, thanks to a national campaign to free her and to some very effective lawyers.)

One cannot help wondering, had Marissa Alexander been male and white, like George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin – how would the judge have ruled then? Would he have let her go, like the judge who let Zimmerman off? Because apparently, at least in Florida, what’s self-defense for a man is outright attempted murder for a woman.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.