Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Archive for the ‘Reflections’ Category

Will Future Generations Condemn Us for Our Prison System?

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Kwame Anthony Appiah. Photo: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2005)

Slavery, book-burning, waterboarding. In this Washington Post op-ed, which has been been making the rounds of the blogosphere, Princeton philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah asks what from today’s society will go the way of these once widely accepted, now universally discredited institutions and practices. OK, so one might quibble with Appiah’s examples since waterboarding has turned out not to be so universally discredited after all. And while the antebellum American plantation variant of slavery may be a thing of the past, other forms of slavery persist around the world.

Nevertheless: it’s worth noting that in contemplating what institutions might earn our grandchildren’s opprobrium, Appiah lists the prison system first among them:

Roughly 1 percent of adults in this country are incarcerated. We have 4 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. No other nation has as large a proportion of its population in prison; even China’s rate is less than half of ours. What’s more, the majority of our prisoners are non-violent offenders, many of them detained on drug charges. (Whether a country that was truly free would criminalize recreational drug use is a related question worth pondering.)

And the full extent of the punishment prisoners face isn’t detailed in any judge’s sentence. More than 100,000 inmates suffer sexual abuse, including rape, each year; some contract HIV as a result. Our country holds at least 25,000 prisoners in isolation in so-called supermax facilities, under conditions that many psychologists say amount to torture.

Of course, the irony is that the modern penitentiary was invented as a humane alternative to corporal and capital punishment. Read the rest of this entry »

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September 30, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Interview with a Prisoners’ Rights Attorney

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StoryCorps Atlanta has an interview between two staff members at the Southern Center for Human Rights: staff attorney Melanie Velez, who has worked on prison overcrowding and abuse cases in Georgia and Alabama, and social worker Vivianne Guevara. It’s only about 3 minutes — worth a quick listen!

Written by sara

September 29, 2010 at 8:12 am

Is It Time to Retire the Phrase “Mass Incarceration”?

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Loic Wacquant:

Mass incarceration is a mischaracterization of what is better termed hyperincarceration. … Mass incarceration suggests that confinement concerns large swaths of the citizenry (as with the mass media, mass culture, and mass unemployment), implying that the penal net has been flung far and wide across social space. This is triply inaccurate. First, the prevalence of penal confinement in the United States, while extreme by international standards, can hardly be said to concern the masses. Indeed, a rate of 0.75 percent compares quite favorably with the incidence of such woes as latent tuberculosis infection (estimated at 4.2 percent) and severe alcohol dependency (3.81 percent), ailments which no one would seriously contend have reached mass proportions in the United States. Next, the expansion and intensification of the activities of the police, courts, and prison over the past quarter-century have been anything but broad and indiscriminate. They have been finely targeted, first by class, second by that disguised brand of ethnicity called race, and third by place. This cumulative targeting has led to the hyperincarceration of one particular category, lower-class African American men trapped in the crumbling ghetto, while leaving the rest of society — including, most remarkably, middle- and upper-class African Americans — practically untouched. Third, and more important still, this triple selectivity is a constitutive property of the phenomenon: had the penal state been rolled out indiscriminately by policies resulting in the capture of vast numbers of whites and well-to-do citizens, capsizing their families and decimating their neighborhoods as it has for inner-city African Americans, its growth would have been speedily derailed and eventually stopped by political counteraction.

Bob Weisberg & Joan Petersilia: Read the rest of this entry »

NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” on Disproportionate Incarceration of Black Men

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Today NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” had a panel on the disproportionate incarceration of black men, featuring Charles Blow of the New York Times, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, poet Dwayne Betts, and Ohio State professor Michelle Alexander. It’s probably nothing readers of this blog don’t know, but nonetheless worth listening to — Alexander is always good at dismantling the canard that the caste system we’ve created can be chalked up to higher crime rates among blacks — and I wanted to highlight the remarks of Dwayne Betts, on both the hazards of incarcerating youth alongside adults and the difficulties of prisoner reentry: Read the rest of this entry »

Glenn Loury on “Spatially Concentrated Imprisonment”

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Over at the Crime Report, Glenn Loury has a new essay on the heavy burden of mass incarceration on American families, neighborhoods, and society. He emphasizes the uneven spatial (and racial) allocation of that burden:

…incarceration in American cities is highly concentrated spatially. The ill effects for individuals of having spent time behind bars can reduce social opportunities for others who reside in the most heavily impacted communities and who themselves have done nothing wrong.

Some urban neighborhoods have as many as one in five of their adult men locked-up on any given day. Such spatially concentrated imprisonment fosters criminality because it undermines the informal social processes of order maintenance, which are the primary means of sustaining law-abiding behavior in all communities. Families living in areas of hyper-incarceration have been rendered less effective at inculcating in their children the delinquency-resistant self controls and pro-social attitudes that typically insulate youths against law-breaking.

Loury also has some interesting thoughts on the interplay between personal and social responsibility. See also his 2009 essay for Cato@Liberty:

This punitive turn in the nation’s social policy is intimately connected, I would maintain, with public rhetoric about responsibility, dependency, social hygiene, and the reclamation of public order. And such rhetoric, in turn, can be fully grasped only when viewed against the backdrop of America’s often ugly and violent racial history: There is a reason why our inclination toward forgiveness and the extension of a second chance to those who have violated our behavioral strictures is so stunted, and why our mainstream political discourses are so bereft of self-examination and searching social criticism.

Written by sara

August 19, 2010 at 10:53 am

Poet Natasha Tretheway on Having a Brother in Prison

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As the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, Terry Gross at NPR’s Fresh Air has this affecting interview with poet Natasha Tretheway, whose new book is Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (UGA Press, 2010). Among other subjects, Tretheway reflects upon her brother’s year in a Mississippi prison after he was caught transporting 4 oz. cocaine for a friend in exchange for $4,000 (having lost all his sources of income and fallen into debt when the family rental property business went under after most of the houses were destroyed in the hurricane). The interview is worth listening to in full and hard to excerpt but here is one passage:

Prof. TRETHEWAY: … I worried very much about whether or not people would judge my brother for that. And even when I started writing this book, or writing at least the finishing, the second half when everything changed, when I found out that he was going to prison, I had a hard time writing it because I felt that I needed to explain to someone, to this imaginary reader, the entire story – from the moment he was born – so that people would empathize with him. And so that really kept me from being able to write for a long time.

I don’t worry about that as much now. I think that there are so many people who have difficult stories like this in families, and that people are not simply waiting to sit in judgment, but instead are open to trying – understand how people feel despair and pushed to make difficult decisions that may not be the best ones.

GROSS: So what convinced you to tell his story in your book?

Prof. TRETHEWEY: Well, it took so long for me to be able to see that telling his story would be useful, not only to give voice to his own experience, but actually, as a way of allowing his story to speak for the countless people whose stories aren’t being told. My fear was that he would be judged and that people would simply think well, you know, this is a drug dealer, this is just who this guy is. And I even said, I said this to my agent and I said this to my editor, and finally, one of them said to me, you’re trying to convince people who can’t be convinced. And then the people who are going to think he’s just a drug dealer aren’t going to be changed by anything you have to say, nor are they going to read the book.

Written by sara

August 19, 2010 at 7:17 am

Confronting the Mass Incarceration Mindset

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A few weeks ago, I posted the always-shocking data on the rise of mass incarceration in the United States over the past 30 years. That data, however, is just the most visible way of measuring the rise of the American carceral state. And in turn, dismantling mass incarceration will require more than simply reducing the jail and prison population—which is merely a symptom of a deeper phenomenon.

What I mean is this: Mass incarceration is not just about the number of people actually behind bars. It’s also about a cultural mindset that turns to the criminal justice system—either literally or as a model—as the first response to almost any problem or disruption, even something so minor as a schoolchild’s misbehavior. In his book Governing through Crime (Oxford, 2007), Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon argues that over the past 40 years, our society has reconceptualized virtually every social problem—extreme poverty, educational inequality, mental illness, undocumented migration, etc.—through the lens of crime, creating a culture of fear in which every citizen is defined first and foremost as a victim.

At the same time, this culture also defines certain members of our society as criminals—everywhere they go. As sociologist Victor Rios puts it, in a 2006 article,*

one of the most brutal yet unexamined collateral consequences of punitive criminal justice policies and mass imprisonment is that of the non-criminal justice institution being penetrated and influenced by the detrimental effects of the criminal justice system. Youth of color are hypercriminalized because they encounter criminalization in all the settings they navigate.

Rios found, in his interviews with black and Latino teenage boys in the San Francisco Bay Area, that many experienced their daily lives almost as if they were in jail — so pervasive has become the criminal justice system’s reach into schools, community centers, and even families. He gives the example of “Jr.”: Read the rest of this entry »

Prisoner Reentry and Entrepreneurship

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Above: “Stringer’s ‘Product’ Meeting” — scene from “The Wire”

David Frum, guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, linked yesterday to an article at Hip-Hop Republican entitled “A Conservative Perspective on Former Inmate Re-entry,” by Vanessa Jean Louis:

Most of the aid that offenders receive are through public funds from the federal government and philanthropic organizations which donate monies to non-profits and state agencies to help defray re-entry costs. Ex-convicts are typically placed into low-wage jobs and often quit due to the patience required for delayed gratification through legal work and/or lack of familial support.

While public-private dollars are spent on employability skills and other social skills needed to rehabilitate them into productive civilian life, not enough emphasis is placed on entrepreneurship skills (self-employment). Unbeknownst to many of them, convicts who enter the penal system for dealing drugs procure many transferable business skills. By proxy they learn concepts such as: monopoly, market competition, oligopoly, marketing, re-investment, and dividend payments. In order to reduce recidivism, emphases should be placed on ex-convicts channeling those same skills towards legal activities. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

July 15, 2010 at 10:48 am

Is the U.S. Law School Curriculum (Partly) to Blame for Mass Incarceration?

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Let’s say you want to learn more about the recent history of mass incarceration in the United States, but you only have time for one book. Although there are many excellent candidates, one that I’d recommend is The Prison and the Gallows, by Marie Gottschalk (Cambridge UP, 2006). Gottschalk synthesizes a lot of scholarly literature to provide a one-volume chronicle of the explosive growth of the U.S. prison population in the past 30 years. She seeks to explain the uniquely American social and political forces that enabled this development, juxtaposing the U.S. against all the other Western nations which did not experience similar growth in the penal system. I found particularly useful Gottschalk’s chapter on why the rhetoric of “victims’ rights” gained such political force in the United States as a justification for passing harsher sentencing laws. Short answer: Our tradition of prosecutorial discretion, combined with federalism. (Longer but still oversimplified answer below.)

On top of those factors, Gottschalk argues, “Differences in the legal training, professional norms, and career paths of prosecutors, judges, and other judicial administrators are another reason why the U.S. criminal justice system has been more vulnerable to political winds whipped up by politicians and social movements” (98). I thought I’d highlight one passage in which Gottschalk compares German and American legal training: Read the rest of this entry »

Oscar Grant, Johannes Mehserle, and the Prison Blogger’s Dilemma

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Working through my reactions to the widespread anger over the Mehserle verdict has been a quandary for me since, as will probably be apparent to regular readers of this blog, I don’t believe that prison—and certainly not prison the way it’s practiced in California—is a very good solution for almost anything our society uses it for. Angry as I am about Johannes Mehserle’s killing of Oscar Grant, and about the whole set of social and cultural and economic circumstances that made such a killing not only possible but all too likely—it’s hard for me to direct much of that anger, if any, towards the fact that Mehserle may not serve as much time in prison as many would like to see him serve. Read the rest of this entry »


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