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Our Prison Complex | The Nation

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Our Prison Complex

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This past winter both Edwin Meese and Gen. Barry McCaffrey expressed surprising misgivings about the current direction of the War on Drugs. Mandatory-minimum sentences for low-level offenders (which deprive judges of discretionary power) need to be reviewed, said the former Attorney General; the current drug czar concedes they may be part of our "failed social policy." That such tepid criticisms came amid grassroots protest over the New York City Police Department's shooting of an unarmed immigrant, Amadou Diallo, and larger public outcry over racist practices in American criminal justice may have been purely coincidental. Yet whatever their motivations, the observations of Meese and McCaffrey revealed some unexpected divisions in a heretofore unified criminal justice crusade.

About the Author

Theodore Hamm
Theodore Hamm, editor of The Brooklyn Rail, is an associate professor of urban studies at Metropolitan College of New...

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For Christian Parenti, there are few unintended consequences of the prison build-up of the past fifteen years. Indeed, Parenti sees contemporary criminal justice policy as the preferred method to "manage rising inequality and surplus populations" in a postindustrial era. If the roots of this expansion of state repression lie in the Nixon-era "law and order" response to domestic rebellion, the branches can now be found in the exponentially growing number of prisons during the "booming" nineties. In Lockdown America, Parenti narrates a convincing account of this process, and he notably challenges several prevailing left explanations of the prison crisis, many of which the author himself had previously helped promote.

Parenti opens with a charged explanation of the law-and-order skirmishes of the sixties, pitting militant left revolutionaries against an equally militant, but far more powerful, Nixon regime. In response to the urban upheavals of the mid-sixties, the Johnson Administration pushed through legislation designed to increase the federal government's role in crime control. The Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (predecessor of the Drug Enforcement Administration) began to oversee federal drug-law enforcement in 1968, and that year's Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act chipped away at the safeguards for criminal due process established by the Warren Court. Passed in 1970, Nixon's notorious RICO act sanctioned the wholesale expansion of state surveillance powers integral to his presidency.

During the Vietnam era crime increasingly began to be approached and understood in military terms, according to Parenti. To combat "domestic insurgency," the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration doled out federal money to pay for helicopters, SWAT teams and various types of communications equipment at the local level. Alternatively, some FBI strategists and conservative criminologists began to advocate the use of so-called community-policing methods. Such efforts to win over the "hearts and minds" of urban residents, Parenti maintains, merely reflected another militarized dimension of the Nixon approach to crime. After the fall of Nixon and then of Saigon, the Ford-Carter years witnessed a corresponding decline in law-and-order legislation.

Parenti next charts the profit squeeze experienced by US capital from the mid-sixties to the rise of Reagan, seeing this crunch as one precondition for the current prison boom. While Parenti's command of economic history is quite evident, this may be too much ground to cover thoroughly in a short chapter. For example, his discussion of declining working-class wages should have been balanced with more consideration of the plight of the cities during the late seventies. Parenti skillfully analyzes the process of deindustrialization, but does not mention the full-scale cutbacks in urban spending during the Ford-Carter years. It is the combination of these two factors, though, that created the "surplus" urban populations of color who feed the prison boom.

Regardless of the causes, such a marginalized class was clearly in existence by the early eighties, and in response the "Reagan revolution kicked off a new round of criminal justice militarization." Unlike in the Nixon era, however, the motivation would not be overtly political but instead primarily a means of reckoning with those sectors of the population discarded by "neoliberal economic policies." After expanding the federal powers of prosecutors and lending support to various state-level assaults on drug trafficking in the early eighties, in mid-decade the Reagan Administration launched its incomparably sensationalized War on Drugs. With complicity from Congressional Democrats, mandatory-minimum sentences disproportionately punishing crack possession were established in 1986. A decade later, African-Americans would compose no less than 74 percent of drug-related prisoners.

In stressing the racially disproportionate impact of current criminal justice policy, Parenti enters a hotly contested debate waged by scholars from a variety of disciplines. Most controversial in the field is Jerome Miller's Search and Destroy (1996), which, based on the author's work managing several juvenile justice institutions, argued that the ongoing crackdown amounts to a "racially based social policy" explicitly targeting young black men. In Race, Crime and the Law (1997), legal scholar Randall Kennedy countered with a strenuous call for color-blind justice that simultaneously rejected arguments about the racial bias of current drug policy. Though he clearly sides with Miller, Parenti at least needed to address Kennedy's critique, which considers support within the black community for the drug war.

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