Our Prison Complex

Our Prison Complex

This past winter both Edwin Meese and Gen. Barry McCaffrey expressed surprising misgivings about the current direction of the War on Drugs.


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.

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.

Having laid out an explanation of the national crisis, Parenti then focuses on a variety of local and regional policing manifestations of the criminal justice crackdown. New York City’s “quality of life” campaign might be a somewhat familiar story, but it clearly bears repeating. Applying James Q. Wilson’s notorious “broken windows” thesis–which holds that even the most minor offenses create a breeding ground for more serious crime–Transit Police commissioner William Bratton in 1990 first targeted fare evaders and then ordered random police searches aboard subway trains. As NYPD commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Bratton implemented weekly “Comstat” meetings pressuring local precinct captains to report statistical declines in crime, which in practice meant arresting squeegee men, high school truants, minority youth and sex workers alike. Such a repressive campaign outlasted Bratton’s leadership, Parenti argues, because of Giuliani’s eagerness to establish New York as a national model of a crime-free “theme park city” regardless of the human costs.

Moving from New York to Fresno, Parenti spotlights an even more high-profile method of crime fighting, namely “para-military policing.” Primarily taking the form of SWAT teams, these highly militarized units have been defended as necessary in combating street gangs. But as Parenti demonstrates, in order to prove they are economically useful, SWAT teams have increasingly been called on to “execute petty warrants, conduct traffic stops, and round up non-violent suspects,” a dubious practice often producing calamitous results. Further south, the author notes a growing collaboration between San Diego and other local police departments with the federal forces of the Border Patrol. He suggests that by working against the interests of an employer class that benefits from undocumented labor, highly coordinated events like border raids illustrate how the various state policing agencies often perform a function far more ideological than directly economic.

Such dramatic displays of state policing power–whether seen in drug sweeps, SWAT assaults or INS raids–necessitate a revision of Foucault’s ideas about punishment, Parenti argues. Rather than an invisible, omnipresent system operating on the modern soul, criminal justice authority is currently enacted in open view, its power plainly evident to those who are its primary object. Parenti’s point is indeed true, but there are other fundamental elements of Foucault’s critique that remain clearly relevant. Modern criminal justice, Foucault observed, stigmatizes and divides the working classes while at the same time expanding the state’s capacity for surveillance over them. Considering the growing numbers of people under the sway of correctional authority, whether in prison or on parole, the state’s disciplinary powers have only increased. In concrete but unseen ways–not finding a job because of a criminal record, losing the right to vote–the class most ensnared by the criminal justice system is being economically marginalized and, in fact, politically disfranchised.

What happens to this demonized and disproportionately racialized class once it enters prison is the subject of the eye-opening final section of Lockdown America. In response to the interracial inmate strikes most dramatically witnessed at Attica in 1971, over the past three decades prison officials have either sanctioned or willfully ignored some of American prisons’ most vile and racially divisive practices. In a chapter ominously titled “Balkans in a Box,” Parenti documents how prison rape is not simply a random form of assault; guards at California’s notorious Corcoran prison, for example, repeatedly assigned new prisoners to a cell with a serial rapist, whom they rewarded with sneakers and extra food. Prison gangs, meanwhile, perform an even more valuable function for prison management. These organizations not only keep prisoners racially separated, but since they are technically prohibited they also give officials an added disciplinary weapon. As Parenti makes painfully clear, prisons today are about everything but individual reform.

How, then, should the left critique the prison buildup? Not, Parenti stresses, by making slippery usage of concepts like the “prison-industrial complex.” Simply put, the scale of spending on prisons, though growing rapidly, will never match the military budget; nor will prisons produce anywhere near the same “technological and industrial spin-off,” ranging from US highways to the Internet. Privatization, Parenti further predicts, will never outpace public incarceration mainly because of the increasingly powerful political role of prison-guard unions, which were most recently instrumental in the election of California Democrat Gray Davis as governor. Arguing against an interpretation his own journalistic pieces helped popularize, Parenti now sees prison labor as only minimally profitable and ultimately unappealing to both employers and consumers.

In fact, even if we subtracted pork-barrel spending, private subsidies and cheap labor from the equation, Parenti maintains, prisons would still be necessary because “American capitalism would still, without major economic reforms, have to manage and contain its surplus populations and poorest classes with paramilitary forms of segregation, containment, and repression.” As the welfare state diminishes, criminal justice increasingly fills this void. It does so practically, but also ideologically: By demonizing the urban poor, the war on crime is justified by both parties as the only worthy state investment in inner cities.

Parenti’s important criticisms necessitate revising rather than discarding the notion of a prison-industrial complex, however. To be sure, prison building has in no way brought a corresponding diminution in military spending. Yet even without the larger economic ramifications, the term “prison-industrial complex” suggests a large-scale diversion of public resources away from socially beneficial institutions like schools and hospitals. Moreover, like its military counterpart, the concept indicates how rooted the prison has currently become in the US political economy–indeed, a “soft on crime” candidate these days seems as anomalous as a military dove.

Even the architects of the boom are having difficulty justifying why nearly 2 million people are currently serving time in America’s prisons. Meanwhile, issues like police brutality and racial profiling have been vividly debated in public. Everybody enjoys safer streets, but the question remains: At what present and future costs has this been accomplished? After reading Parenti’s riveting work, more than a few observers will surely respond “too much.

Ad Policy