Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Brief Review of "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander

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Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer who has dedicated her career to fighting racial injustice in the U.S. criminal justice system. In The New Jim Crow, she illuminates the racism that infects every stage of that system in an effort to influence public understanding about the War on Drugs and its devastating consequences for the entire nation. Ultimately, Alexander calls for an end to the War on Drugs because “there is no path to liberation for communities of color that includes this ongoing war” (220). She establishes the high stakes of this crises by defining contemporary mass incarceration as a form of racialized social control that creates an undercaste—“a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” (13).

That definition is strengthened by her argument that mass incarceration is an echo of previous, vile forms of racialized social control in the United States: slavery and Jim Crow (the network of laws and social restrictions that enforced segregation). The book opens with a brief account of Jarvious Cotton, an African American who cannot vote. “Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy” (1). Disenfranchisement has taken different forms for different generations: Jarvious’s great-great-grandfather was enslaved, his great-grandfather and grandfather were intimidated and abused by the Ku Klux Klan, and his father was subjected to poll taxes and literacy tests. Jarvious himself was convicted of a felony and is on parole. Despite the different means used to exclude these men from democracy and society, the oppressive ends are the same.

Alexander is sensitive to the risks of making this argument by analogy; she reveals that she was skeptical of the similarities between Jim Crow and mass incarceration even as she worked as the Director of the Racial Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California (3-4). However, she carefully illuminates the broad influence that the criminal justice has over the lives of impoverished people of color. These populations are subjected to surveillance, supervision, and restrictions on their freedoms in the shape of police procedures, prosecutorial discretion, mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, conditions of parole, and laws limiting access to employment, public housing, and welfare for convicted felons. Prison time is only one dimension in which the U.S. criminal justice system exerts control over African Americans.

Alexander presents statistics and narratives to reveal the racial inequality of arrest rates, prosecution, sentencing, and incarceration for drug offenses; she reports, “In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men” (96). She warns against a reform strategy that targets legal decisions by insightfully critiquing the precedents established by the United States Supreme Court that make it nearly impossible to stage a legal challenge against systemic racism in the War on Drugs. Past rulings have barred people from alleging claims of racial bias in policing under the Fourth Amendment (Whren v. United States), severely limited grounds for challenging racial bias in prosecution (Armstrong v. United States),or sentencing under the Fourteenth Amendment (McCleskey v. Kemp). Alexander advocates for a holistic reform movement that fights against institutionalized racism and racist public perceptions of criminality. In her words, “all of the needed reforms have less to do with failed policies than a deeply flawed public consensus, one that is indifferent, at best, to the experience of poor people of color” (221).

Alexander spotlights two particularly provocative issues: the tendency for colorblindness to act as a veil over racist practices, and the presumption that a person must be innocent to deserve advocacy.

Alexander showcases the dark side of colorblindness by pointing out that overt symbols of racism like derogatory slurs, nooses , or Ku Klux Klan imagery are “widely condemned by people across the political spectrum; they are understood to be remnants of the past, no longer reflective of the public consensus about race” (211). Slavery and Jim Crow were overtly racist forms of social control, but criminalization allows mass incarceration to masquerade as a set of colorblind practices aimed at securing public safety. Alexander forcefully argues that the criminal justice system, and the War on Drugs that keeps it humming, are not at all colorblind in practice. The many cases of police officers exercising individual discretion to identify drug dealers by making traffic stops and conducting searches without any evidence beyond a targeted person’s race exposes the falsity of racial blindness (64-68, 129). “Throughout the criminal justice system, as well as in our schools and public spaces, young + black + male is equated with reasonable suspicion, justifying the arrest, interrogation, search, and detention of thousands of African Americans every year” (194). Drawing attention to the racial inequality evident in incarceration statistics and mandatory minimum sentencing laws is an important rhetorical move for undermining the myth of a “post-racial” America.

Alexander also warns about the propensity of civil rights advocates to believe that a person’s purity and innocence are prerequisites for advocacy. She notes, “Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of criminals. Even at the height of Jim Crow segregation—when black men were more likely to be lynched than to receive a fair trial in the South—NAACP lawyers were reluctant to advocate on behalf of blacks accused of crimes unless the lawyers were convinced of the men’s innocence” (214). Alexander rightly argues that if this bias in advocacy is allowed to persist, the injustices and oppression that are perpetuated in the name of “fighting crime” cannot be resisted in a meaningful way. “Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. In ‘colorblind’ America, criminals are the new whipping boys. They are entitled to no respect and little moral concern” (138). Advocates who would fight against mass incarceration must be willing to openly show respect and concern for the folks who have been caged, literally and metaphorically, as criminals.

The New Jim Crow also introduces a number of other topics relevant to concerns about racism and the U.S. criminal justice system, including the privatization and profitability of prisons, and public perceptions of affirmative action and black exceptionalism. The book would be appropriate for inclusion in an undergraduate or graduate course, and the chapters contain sufficient reiteration of major themes that excerpts are intellectually and argumentatively complete. The book is tightly argued and Alexander has a very powerful writing style that is well adapted to a general, public audience.

Please read and share The New Jim Crow: this book can fuel the conversations that we must have about prisons, race, and justice.

-Megan G. Bernard
Rhetoric and Public Culture
Northwestern University

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Going to Prison

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A few hours ago, I returned to campus after bringing my Rhetoric and the Criminal Justice System class to the Indiana Women's Prison. We toured the facility for about three hours. I believe I can say unequivocally that my students were changed. All of them. One way or another I saw some sort of transformation take place, whether it was discovering a new sense of vocation or garnering the courage to open up about their own life's connection to the prison-industrial complex. As much as they thanked me for the experience, I'm grateful to them for moving me so.

There's a lot to talk about and I won't get into all of it. One particularly memorable moment was visiting the facility's mental health wing. The social worker in charge, a woman named Deborah, spoke to us for a good twenty minutes about the ins-and-outs of the facility. It was her discussion that convinced me this tour would be different than the public relations spectacle that was my tour of two Texas facilities several years ago. She unapologetically reflected on the abandonment of state mental health facilities in the 1970s, making damn sure my students knew that our nation's prison system is its mental health system. While I've heard my fair share of stories about rotten prison guards and other staff members, I was reminded that so much of what makes ours such a disastrous prison system is decided by individuals who rarely, if ever, set foot in such facilities. Indeed, today's exploding prisons are the product of the "tough-on-crime" feeding frenzy that predominated electoral politics in the 1980s and 1990s.

Without a doubt, the most powerful portion of these three hours was our discussion with five amazing women who call the facility home. Aside from the pieces of information they volunteered, we don't know why they were there. That said, I don't know all the things my own students have done and I'm not proud of every detail of my past. What we did know was that these were five women involved in one or more of the prison's volunteer programs. Some of them worked with the choir, whereas others participated in the prison's dog training program. They were lively, intelligent women who, obviously, had screwed up. One of them, now 30, had been there since she was 16. I am currently 30. That means this woman, who sent shivers down my spine with her testimony, was entering the system while I was fretting over getting my driver's license. A lot happens between 16 and 30. She has been enclosed in concrete and wire for all that time.

Now, let's be honest; no matter how polite the prison staff was, and they were lovely, we know these women were there for a reason. We were not going to get juicy bits about the ins-and-outs of the IWP (though they did have some choice words about the food). These women were exemplary inmates and we even overheard one staff member telling another than the women they chose would be "perfect" in this capacity. That said, I was astonished by the forceful critiques they leveraged against our unforgiving carceral society. They articulated, in ways that put my finest teaching and writing moments to shame, the utter inadequacy of the social safety net once someone leaves prison. They reflected on the punishing impact of incarceration on children, spouses, and parents. They were also sure to note that none of them are wealthy, for it is not the well-to-do citizen that does a full stretch behind bars.

Of all the things they had to say, I believe two will stick with me the most. Because this is a rhetoric class, we made sure to ask them their thoughts on popular and political representations of the prison system. While we've all encountered the cynical fellow citizen who rolls their eyes whenever you mention the words "television" and "prison cell" in the same sentence, I am so grateful these women have an opportunity to see how their world gets represented to the rest of us. They reflected on how fascinated the spectacle-consuming public is with the myriad gross exaggerations of a life that is, on most days, agonizingly banal. One woman also suggested that the unforgiving attitude many citizens harbor toward the incarcerated is a displacement of their own individual and societal guilt. Eat your heart out, Kenneth Burke.

They also spent a great deal of time reflecting positively on the programs in which they participate (two of the canines they were training for disability assistance were on hand). They associated the presence of such programs with the prison's low incidence rate relative to other Indiana facilities. As one woman put it, you don't do anything stupid because there is "something to be lost." Viewed one way, this may be a testament to the disciplining function of such programs. Indeed, I can name a wide range of prison scholars who would dismiss the choir or dog training as Foucauldian traps designed to discipline the incarcerated subject. Others would make a forceful argument for why more prisons should have such programs and, therefore, reduce both incidence and recidivism rates across the whole system. I believe there are kernels of truth in both these positions. Indeed, it is the gray area in the prison-industrial complex that makes it so damn compelling and frustrating. But there is another dimension to this simple statement on "something to be lost" that strikes to the very core of a nation that incarcerates one out of every hundred of its adult citizens. Who inhabits our prisons? Rarely are they people who feel they have something to lose. They come from poverty, racism, sexual abuse, addiction, and other vestiges of desperation that make one tragic choice seem perfectly rational amid an array of shitty options. One book I cannot get off my mind as of late is Erica Meiners's powerful Right to be Hostile. In it, she documents the deep structural connection between what passes for public education in many sectors of the country and the disproportionate level of incarceration among those very communities least academically served. Indeed, what remains to be lost and how on earth, in these times of austerity and corporate crime, can we give the most desperate among us the sense that they have something to lose?

In his book Fugitive Thought, Michael Hames-Garcia argues that "political prisoners" are "valuable and concrete theorists of justice." Indeed, I owe a wide range of my thinking on prisons, race, empire, etc. on the writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal, George Jackson, Angela Davis, and others. These brave, politically lucid souls have rightfully inspired movements. However, my students and I did not meet with revolutionaries today. These were not women consciously invested in dismantling the prison-industrial complex. I wonder if they could even accept a concept like prison abolition. Nonetheless, we witnessed brilliance while in their presence. Through their concrete, if unexceptional experiences, they theorized both justice and injustice. We can all learn a lot from them.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Prisons and Austerity in Michigan

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Since deciding I will be moving there next fall, I've taken a deep interest in the politics of Detroit. As recent census data reflects, the Motor City is in a world of hurt following a wide range of economic calamities. In response to this and other statewide financial issues, newly elected Governor Rick Snyder recently signed legislation authorizing the appointment of "emergency managers" to seize control of municipal affairs. These managers would hold the ability to dissolve union contracts, remove elected officials, and even dismantle local governments and school districts.

A recent article from the Michigan Messenger suggests this controversial bill may also increase the number of private prisons in the Great Lakes State. This is not surprising, as prison privatization has long functioned as an avenue for reducing cash-strapped governments spending on law enforcement. However, as the Sentencing Project convincingly argues, the perils of prison privatization are numerous.

Friday, March 18, 2011

David Protess Fired from Northwestern Journalism School

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Following the lead of New Jersey and New Mexico, Illinois recently abolished the death penalty. Governor Pat Quinn's decision to sign the abolition legislation was in large part due to decades of work by faculty and students at Northwestern University. Specifically, under the leadership of Professor David Protess, several Northwestern journalism students began investigating dubious death penalty cases in the Land of Lincoln. By the time then-Governor George Ryan commuted every death sentence in the state in 2003, thirteen innocent individuals had been freed from death row. Were it not for the grim truths of torture, discrimination, and generally shoddy police work, Ryan would not likely have made this controversial and historic decision.

Today, the Chicago Tribune ran a story detailing the circumstances of Protess's dismissal (note: he will no longer be teaching journalism classes, but retains his position with the Northwestern Innocence Project). He stands accused of withholding key evidence in the case of Anthony McKinney, currently serving a life sentence for murder, from prosecutors. Protess claims that all evidence that should have been shared was handled appropriately; everything else, he argues, was protected by journalistic privilege.

In a brief blog entry, journalist Liliana Segura places these events in a wider context. The Cook County District Attorney's Office has long targeted Protess and his students for aggressive investigations. Regardless of the weight of the current accusations, they do seem to come from folks who have long had it out for Protess.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Executioner Has No Clothes

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Yesterday's Austin-American Statesman reports that Texas, the nation's busiest executionist state, has acquired a new drug for administering lethal injections. This change in policy comes in the wake of a global shortage of the traditional anesthetic, sodium thiopental. The new drug, pentobarbital, has also been used to euthanize animals.


Scholars of crime and punishment, ranging from Michel Foucault to Michael Meranze, have argued that there is an inherent gamble associated with state violence. Meranze writes of eighteenth century corporal punishments, "Public punishments required the approval, or at least the acquiescence, of the audience." The inherent instability of the publicly punished body led to what Foucault called a disciplinary regime of punishment. The punishing act as such became increasingly invisible, whereas the pedagogy of punishment saturated all sectors of society.

I believe this perspective on spectacle and punishment can help us understand the meaning and implications of the current scramble to replace thiopental. Lethal injection is widely heralded as the most "humane" form of execution. At the very least, it is a far more subdued ritual than the gallows, firing squad, electric chair, or gas chamber. Every executionist state now uses the method as its preferred or only form of execution. Indeed, the last several years of anti-death penalty activism have seen attempts to discredit lethal injection as cruel and unusual. Thiopental, importantly, is the first drug administered in a lethal injection. It renders the condemned inmate unconscious while the other two, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride, cause paralysis and cardiac arrest. Without the initial introduction of a barbituate drug, both these pharmaceuticals would cause immense pain. However, because of the paralysis associated with pancuronium bromide, there is no way of knowing if the thiopental has been effective. In such an event, the inmate would experience an agonizing death but be completely unable to communicate this to the prison staff.

Reservations about its effectiveness notwithstanding, the availability of a drug like thiopental is absolutely necessary in rationalizing the state's prerogative of violence vis-a-vis capital punishment. So desperate are executionist states to retain their silent, "painless" ritual, some have resorted to the black market to maintain their supply of thiopental. Texas, on the other hand, has sought a new drug altogether. Either way, I believe we are seeing, once again, a crisis of legitimacy in the realm of state-sanctioned killing. As states scramble to find a method that will render the bodies they seek to kill unconscious, we are reminded, if only for a moment, of the macabre processes they hope such drugs will conceal.

Oprah on Prison Weddings

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A few days ago I watched an Oprah re-run that highlighted "shocking" weddings. In it, she talked about prison weddings and catholic nuns marrying Jesus.

In prison weddings clip, Oprah's crew followed Tracy and Joseph on their wedding day. Tracy was portrayed as a divorced mother of one and Joseph as a convicted felon.

There were two predominate thoughts that struck me while watching the segment, "Inside a Marriage Behind Bars."

  1. Popular culture always seems drawn to prisons and prison culture. Unfortunately, this draw always takes a negative and/or grandiose slant.
  2. Family members' everyday experiences of prison (from the outside) are rarely acknowledged by the popular press.
First, pop culture shows often highlight various issues in prisons. However, the shows typically avoid the day-to-day grind of the prison system in favor of focusing on rare and unique circumstances (e.g., prison weddings). In trying to remember some of the shows I've watched over the years I was able to recall programs and movies that focused on: prison weddings, prison escapes, violence in prison, and a slew of shows that sent kids to a type of "boot camp" so they wouldn't end up in prison. I'm hard pressed to remember shows that emphasize the day-to-day lives of most incarcerated individuals in America. Arguably, this is a problem as the public is grossly unaware of some of the real issues facing incarcerated individuals. Pop culture programs rarely highlight the "brokenness" of the system...rather, they focus on the "brokenness" of the people.

Second, the experience of the family members is rarely considered in conversations about incarceration in the US. In this particular segment on Oprah, the producers did elevate Tracy's voice. However, it wasn't the portrayal of her voice that struck me. It was discussion about her family members' voices that left a lasting impression. Tracy mentioned that her mother and sister were not supportive of her marriage. Her comments made me reflect on the effects of incarceration on the nuclear and extended family.

Some family members, like Tracy, might enter into relationships with individuals post-incarceration. Others, like Joseph's own family members were part of his life long before his life-sentence was secured. I wonder why the popular media pays so little attention to the voices of those individuals who dutifully visit their incarcerated loved ones week by week, month by month, and year by year. Instead the pop press highlights sad stories of daughters who want to confront their estranged, incarcerated fathers who took the lives of their mothers.

I am not trying to say that covering what is typically known as victim:"offender" mediation is a bad idea. But rather, I want to emphasize the other silent voices that are so often ignored: the mother of an incarcerated individual who did everything she could to keep her son out of prison, the wife of a prisoner who is now a single mother, the sister of an inmate who's brother has never been to any of her life changing events (e.g., graduation, wedding). Personally, I would like to hear more of these people's stories...the mother, the wife, the sister...I think it might give us a fuller perspective of the ills of incarceration that plague our country.


You can find the link to the full article here.
You can find a link to some video footage of the show/wedding here.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Georgia Prison Strike Update

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Some readers may be following the historic prisoner labor strike currently taking place in Georgia. Recently, guards at the facility were disciplined for physically retaliating against the inmates. Read more here.