[Ppnews] Have Conservatives Really Seen the Light on Mass Incarceration?

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Nov 30 11:42:02 EST 2012

Weekend Edition Nov 30-Dec 02, 2012

The Punishment Paradigm

  Have Conservatives Really Seen the Light on Mass Incarceration?


I lived in South Africa from 1991 until 2002, during the difficult 
transition from apartheid to democracy. An interesting part of this 
history was that by 1994, apartheid had become so discredited that it 
was difficult to find a single white person who admitted to ever 
supporting racial segregation.  Though white  electorates had voted the 
architects of apartheid into power for over four decades, by the time 
Nelson Mandela came to office no rats were to be found still aboard the 
sinking ship of overt white supremacy.  Today, some eighteen years after 
the election of Mandela, the fundamental economic inequality of South 
Africa has changed very little. While Blacks control the government and 
some Blacks have risen to the ranks of the middle classes (with even a 
couple billionaires) the distance between the rich and the poor remains 
as great as ever.  In other words, things had to change in order to 
remain the same.

I got a certain sense of déjà vu for those days in South Africa recently 
when I read an article by David Dagan and Steven Teles in the 
/Washington Monthly/ entitled "The Conservative War on Prisons."  The 
authors argued that conservatives had finally seen the folly and fiscal 
futility of mass incarceration.  They went on to cite numerous examples 
where, in their opinion, conservative initiatives have had positive 
results in terms of reducing the demand for prison space and softening 
the war on crime. These examples included:

    * the scaling back of Texas' prison expansion after 2005 in favor of
    putting more money into post-release programs targeted at reducing

    * the role of conservatives, especially the Prison Fellowship,  in
    passing the Second Chance Act in 2007,

    * the passage of HB 265 under Georgia Republican Governor Neal  in
    2011. The bill mandated a report on how to reduce reliance on prison
    and focus on keeping people on the streets

In addition, Dagan and Teles contended that major right-wing think tanks 
like the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) and the State 
Policy Network, both of which formerly advocated rapid prison expansion, 
have shifted gears and begun to distance themselves from private prison 
corporations and explore ways to reduce spending on corrections.

The authors also mentioned the 2011 Right On Crime initiative signed by 
conservative luminaries like Jeb Bush,  Bill Bennett, Edwin Meese, Pat 
Nolan,  and Grover Norquist  which advocated the elimination of 
mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses as well as a geriatric 
release program for many of the more than 200,000 people currently in 
prison who are over 50 years old.  Dagan and Teles claimed that even 
Newt Gingrich has seen the light, offering  his 2011 pronouncement as 
evidence:  "There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth 
in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human 
potential ... The criminal-justice system is broken, and conservatives 
must lead the way in fixing it."

Overall, the portrait painted by Dagan and Teles hardly resonates with 
our memories of the conservative law and order firebrands who kicked off 
the War on Drugs in the 1980s, used Willie Horton to scare voters away 
from Dukakis in 1988, and joined with Democratic colleagues to push 
through the mandatory minimums and three strikes laws which gave teeth 
to their moralizing and racialized crusades.

In the end, the authors posit that cross party unity appears likely on 
criminal justice issues, that the common ground far outweighs the 
differences between the right and the left.  In the words of 
conservative Texas legislator Jerry Madden,  a unity between the" 
social  responsibility of the Democrats" and the "fiscal responsibility 
of the Republicans"  has emerged.

Putting on my apartheid-tinted glasses, I'm thinking that in another 
year or two, the pendulum may swing so far that we won't be able to find 
anyone who thought locking them up and throwing away the key was a good 
idea in the first place.   Prison expansion may just vanish into that 
recycling bin of bad ideas along with alcohol prohibition, bans on 
homosexual intercourse and, of course, apartheid.

If we do reach that point, many who have been campaigning for criminal 
justice reform may feel that  victory is imminent, that we will all be 
talking the same language, heading down the same road to an agreed upon 
final destination.  While we should welcome any change  that provides 
space to roll back prison expansion and  the paradigm of punishment, 
celebrations of any cosmic shift in criminal justice might be a little  

There are at least three concerns that arise from this sudden conversion 
by the conservatives (and they may apply to some  liberals as well). The 
first is where do the private corrections companies fit into all of this 
transformation?  A dominant trend in conservative thought on criminal 
justice, one that is quite consistent with their preference for business 
over government, has been the encouragement of more privatization of 
prisons and criminal justice-related services.  Can we simply conclude 
that the likes of Newt Gingrich have abandoned their bedfellows at the 
Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group for the greater 
good?  These companies have been feathering the campaign funding beds of 
numerous  state and local politicians.  Can we trust the likes of 
Florida Governor Rick Scott and Ohio's  John Kasich  to cut their  ties  
with private prison capital and become champions of restorative 
justice?  Will these conservatives actually back  genuine transformation 
or  merely deliver "alternatives to incarceration"  that  shore up  
corporate bottom lines and  maintain the  punitive spirit that has 
driven mass incarceration? These are big questions. Perhaps we should 
wait and see the answers before we herald the advent of a new era in 
criminal justice.

Second, most of the conservative talk cited by Dagan and Teles reflects 
a spirit of cold-blooded, cost benefit analysis. In this view, mass 
incarceration has failed primarily it is fiscally irresponsible- adding 
to our deficits when alternatives could get "more bang for our buck."  
While mass incarceration has been a fiscal fiasco, it goes much deeper 
than the balance sheet. Like wrong-headed wars in Viet Nam and Iraq, the 
toll of mass incarceration must ultimately be measured in lost human 
lives, not dollars and cents.

Where is the politicians' remorse for the hundreds of thousands of 
African-American youth who instead of attending school and growing up in 
their communities, have spent decades away from their loved ones because 
they made a mistake of possessing a bit of marijuana or crack cocaine?  
When do we hear the apologies for the overzealous street warriors who 
killed Amadou Diallo, who turned a blind eye to the tortures of young 
men  by Jon Burge in Chicago, who shot dead 15 year old Kiwane 
Carrington less than a mile from where I live? When do we witness the 
expressions of regret for the relentless hunt for "illegal immigrants" 
over the last decade, a policy that has ripped families apart and  
forced people to move out of certain states because they may happen to 
"look like" an immigrant.  One of the main mantras of this era of mass 
incarceration, chanted most loudly by conservatives, has been the 
insistence that people who are guilty of criminal acts must accept 
responsibility, must come to grips with the implications of their 
actions. Now is the time for the policy makers who promoted this notion 
of accepting responsibility to hold themselves to their own standard.

Lastly, a main point of celebration over the freshly- minted 
conservative change of heart is the potential for unity across the 
political party aisle. This unity offers possibilities but does not 
guarantee a just result. Let us not forget that mass incarceration could 
not have happened without overwhelming support from both Republicans and 
Democrats all along the way. Reagan may have kicked off the War on Drugs 
and pushed the Federal Sentencing Guidelines but Clinton gave us the 
Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Bill providing nearly $10 
billion for funding new prisons.  Now both Democrats and Republicans 
want to distance themselves from any past complicity in designing or 
implementing the disaster of mass incarceration.  They are running away 
from mass incarceration in much the same way that white South Africans 
abandoned apartheid in 1994. Without a doubt this will mean things will 
change in the future, but the question is whether things  will be 
changing only to remain the same.

/*James Kilgore* spent six and a half years in Federal and state prisons 
in California. During his incarceration he wrote three novels which have 
been published since his release in 2009: We Are All Zimbabweans Now 
Freedom Never Rests 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1431401196/counterpunchmaga> and 
Prudence Couldn't Swim 
He currently resides in Champaign, Illinois where he is a research 
scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois 
and active on criminal justice issues with the Champaign-Urbana Citizens 
for Peace and Justice. He can be contacted at waazn1 at gmail.com 
<mailto:waazn1 at gmail.com>.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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