Alan Sondheim on 20 Oct 2000 16:42:11 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] prisons (forwarded, with awkward formatting, apologies)

    American Gulag 
by Jerome G. Miller 

The figures are startling. In the last year of the Carter administration 
(1979), our nation^“s federal prisons held about 20,000 inmates. By contrast, 
as the Clinton administration draws to a close we will have 135,000 inmates 
in federal prisons; projecting an annual growth of 10 percent the number will 
reach a quarter million in five years. In 1979, there were 268,000 inmates in 
the prisons of all 50 states. Today, they hold almost 1.3 million. In 1979, 
there were 150,000 in local jails and lockups. Today, local jail facilities 
hold nearly 700,000. This year, we will exceed 2 million inmates in our 
prisons and jails. As we enter the millennium, the nation has about 6.5 
million of its citizens under some form of correctional supervision. 
And a new twist has been added: the ^”supermax^‘ prison composed exclusively of 
cells used for solitary confinement. A place of studied sensual deprivation 
and psychological torture, it was designed by correctional managers to 
control their populations as privileges in routine prisons were diminished 
and sentences were lengthened. A product less of management necessity than of 
a twisted psyche, these temples to sado-masochism now dot the American 
landscape, presently containing 20,000 mostly minority inmates. 
Spurred on by a ^”drug war^‘ that focuses inordinately upon the poor and 
minorities, we have seen astonishing patterns of incarceration among young 
black men vis ŗ vis similarly accused white men. Although the rates of drug 
consumption are roughly equal among white and black populations, blacks are 
imprisoned for drug offenses at 14 times the rate of whites. 
The patterns in some states are truly astonishing. Between 1986 and 1996 for 
example, the rate of incarceration for drug offenses among African Americans 
increased by 10,102 percent in Louisiana; in Georgia, by 5,499 percent; in 
Arkansas 5,033 percent; in Iowa 4,284 percent; and in Tennessee 1,473 percent.
There are currently more than 50 million criminal records on file in the US, 
with at least 4 to 5 million ^”new^‘ adults acquiring such a record annually. 
This record sticks with a person, whether or not charges are dropped or there 
is a subsequent conviction. A notorious example occurred in the recent police 
killing of Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed young Haitian immigrant. In an 
attempt to rationalize the police behavior, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani 
characterized the deceased as ^”no altar boy^‘ and released a ^”criminal record^‘ 
that included two past convictions for ^”disorderly conduct^‘ and a juvenile 
charge that had been dismissed over two decades earlier when Dorismond was 13 
years old.
For certain racial and ethnic groups, being arrested and locked up is a 
given. Beginning in adolescence, we have established a warped ^”rite of 
passage^‘ for young African Americans and Hispanics; only by a fluke will they 
avoid acquiring a ^”criminal record^‘ ^◊ the result of an arrest. 
In 1990, the nonprofit Washington, DC^÷based Sentencing Project found that on 
an average day, one in every four African-American men ages 20^÷29 was either 
in prison, in jail, or on probation/parole. Ten years later, the ratio had 
shrunk to one in three. 
Research conducted by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives 
revealed that more than half of young black males living in Washington, DC, 
and Baltimore are caught up in the criminal justice system on an average day 
^◊ either in prison, jail, on probation or parole, out on bond, or being 
sought on a warrant.
Three of every four (76 percent) African-American 18-year-olds living in 
urban areas can now anticipate being arrested and jailed before age 36. In 
the process, each young man will acquire a ^”criminal record.^‘ By the late 
1990s, federal statisticians were predicting that nearly one of every three 
adult black men in the nation could anticipate being sentenced to a federal 
or state prison at some time during his life. 
The most telling numbers of all are contained in a US Justice Department 
historical breakdown of admissions to state and federal prisons over the past 
century. Although African Americans were always over-represented (often for 
reasons unrelated to crime rates), the racial gap grew exponentially as we 
approached the millennium. In 1926, whites made up 79 percent of the inmates 
entering our state and federal prisons. Blacks made up 21 percent. By 1999 
however, African Americans were making up between 55 percent and 60 percent 
of all new admissions to state and federal prisons. If Latino inmates are 
included, slightly over three out of four Americans sentenced to federal or 
state prisons were minorities.
This fact has brought a sea change in public attitudes regarding crime and 
criminals and ushered in the era of the ^”rhetorical wink,^‘ characterized by 
Lani Guinier, whereby a white politician can talk about getting tough on 
^”criminals^‘ and, with a wink, convey to the audience ^”black criminals.^‘ Race 
need never be mentioned. 
The uncomfortable truth is that the national attitude on crime is more firmly 
grounded in race than in putative crime rates. The surge in crime rates 
occurred between 1965 and 1973. The general trend since that time, with 
^”blips^‘ in 1989 and 1991, has been for crime to either remain stable or to 
While most people assume jail overcrowding results from rising crime rates, 
increased violence, or general population growth, that is seldom the case. 
Here, in order of importance, are the major contributors to jail overcrowding:
1. The number of police officers
2. The number of judges
3. The number of courtrooms
4. The size of the district attorney^“s staff
5. Policies of the state^“s attorney^“s office con-
cerning which crimes deserve the most attention
6. The size of the staff of the entire court system
7. The number of beds available in the local jail
8. The willingness of victims to report crimes
9. Police department policies concerning arrest
10. The arrest rate within the police department
11. The actual amount of crime committed
It is common for a ^”trickle-up effect^‘ to set in. Although there may be 
little or no change in the ways serious crimes are handled, those who engage 
in minor infractions of the law end up receiving harsh penalties as well, 
thereby ^”casting the net^‘ of social control ever wider. Such matters should 
give the nation pause as we move aggressively to build more prisons and 
camps, but there is little to suggest any respite. 
The distinguished British criminologist Andrew Rutherford summarized the 
trend well: ^”All natural tendencies toward stability appear to have 
evaporated. Not only has there been a quantum leap of unprecedented 
proportions in prison populations, but there appear also to be no indications 
of any counter forces which might impose limits.^‘ 
Carnegie-Mellon criminologist Alfred Blumstein put it another way: ^”Once 
criminal policy in the United States fell into the political arena, little 
could be done to recapture concern for limiting prison populations. ... Our 
political system learned an overly simplistic trick: when it responds to such 
pressures by sternly demanding increased punishments, that approach has been 
found to be strikingly effective, not in solving the problem, but in 
alleviating the political pressure to ^—do something^“.^‘
To many, the ^”tough on crime^‘ attitude seems a good thing ^◊ a return to basic 
values, a focus on the rights of victims, an adieu to the ^”bleeding heart^‘ 
policies of the past. Overall, the prevailing public mood on crime is vicious.
I recently watched a video of a ^”focus group^‘ on crime conducted by a 
Republican pollster and consultant. In discussing a recent shooting of a 
teacher by a 13-year-old African-American middle-school honor student, the 
consultant asked the group what they would do in such a case. Their response 
seemed even to embarrass him as he tried to smile away the comments of this 
scientifically chosen ^”average^‘ group of local citizens. ^”Fry him!^‘ came the 
insistent shouts from the group as the 13-year-old^“s situation was being 
presented. Only one older African-American man remained silent. 
I wanted to avert my eyes from the TV. It brought to mind another mood 
observed by the Danish sociologist Svend Ranulf when he looked across the 
border into the Germany of the early 1930s to see how that country proposed 
dealing with criminals and crime. ^”Everywhere^‘ he saw a ^”disinterested 
disposition to punish.^‘ He called it ^”disinterested^‘ because ^”no direct 
personal advantage seemed to be achieved by calling for the harsh punishment 
of another person who had injured a third party.^‘ Noting that this punitive 
inclination was not equally strong in all human 
societies and was entirely lacking in some, Ranulf concluded that it did not 
arise out of concern for deterrence. Rather, it was a kind of ^”disguised 
envy,^‘ less a response to an increased crime rate than tied to the economic 
insecurities of the middle class.
Indeed, the anti-crime program undertaken in accordance with the principles 
of National Socialism and proposed by the Prussian minister of justice in 
1933 seems oddly resonant today. Aggravated penalties were added to criminal 
acts already subject to punishment; mitigation was to be allowed in only the 
rarest and most exceptional cases; attempts at crime were to be dealt with as 
severely as accomplished crimes; drunkenness was to be considered an 
aggravating, rather than extenuating, circumstance; there was to be more 
liberal recourse to capital punishment; and prisons were to be made harsher, 
with disciplinary measures to be applied at the discretion of prison wardens. 
Criticizing the alleged permissiveness of the Weimar Republic toward 
criminals, the minister ended his white paper with a familiar slogan. ^”It 
seemed,^‘ he wrote, ^”that the welfare of the criminal, and not the welfare of 
the people, was the main purpose of the law.^‘
Indeed, prisons and jails are an ^”early warning system^‘ of sorts for a 
society. They constitute the canary in the coal mine, providing an omen of 
mortal danger that often lies beyond our capacity to perceive.
The experience of the past two decades suggests that we are ignoring this 
warning. We are in a curious position in which a surfeit of prisons filled 
with a million minority young men is seen not as an embarrassment, but as 
indispensable to the smooth running of our democracy and integral to its 
economy. In effect, the attitude that suffused Southern jails and prisons 
during post^÷Civil War reconstruction has been replicated nationally.
For more than 20 years, our politicians have played the dangerous game of 
one-upping each other over who can demand the harshest punishments. In this 
pursuit, the definition of what is criminal, the relaxing of limits on the 
police to enforce laws, and the mandatory use of prison over 
non-institutional means of control or correction have been distilled to 
carefully crafted marketing slogans like ^”three strikes and you^“re out.^‘ 
Offenders emerge from prison afraid to trust, fearful of the unknown, and 
with a vision of the world shaped by the meaning that behaviors had in the 
prison context. For a recently released prisoner, experiences like being 
jostled on the subway, having someone reach across him in the bathroom to 
take a paper towel, or making eye contact can be taken as a precursor to a 
physical attack. In relationships with loved ones, this warped kind of 
socialization means that problems will not easily be talked through. In a 
sense, the system we have designed to deal with offenders is among the most 
iatrogenic in history, nurturing those very qualities it claims to deter.
During the question period following a lecture to a college audience, the 
social critic and linguist Noam Chomsky was recently asked why he was so 
rarely seen on TV or on the ^”op-ed^‘ pages of our major news-papers and why he 
wasn^“t among those asked to testify on policy matters before Congress. There 
seemed to be no dearth of commentary from the mavens of the Right, yet he was 
mostly absent from these forums.
Chomsky responded by describing a conversation he had with ABC/CNN 
commentator Jeff Greenfield. Greenfield told him that he was unlikely to be 
booked on a national program like ^”Nightline,^‘ for example, because he was 
^”from Neptune.^‘ Chomsky^“s views were too far ^”outside the box^‘ to merit 
discussion on a popular TV program. It had nothing to do with whether or not 
his ideas might be valid. It was because he couldn^“t be afforded the time 
needed to lay out the context within which his views might be understood. For 
him to express his views absent their context put him in the company of those 
who are from Neptune ^◊ out of touch, if not a bit loony.
Chomsky^“s predicament has a personal resonance. The ^”context^‘ of my 
professional life over the past 35†years has been shaped by attempts to 
create alternative programs for the inmates of detention centers, jails, and 
prisons. At the beginning, there was some general acceptance of the ideas I 
tried haltingly to express through my work. However, hope for ^”consensual 
validation^‘ of such efforts from peers and policy makers in the criminal 
justice community has pretty much faded with the years, as a sense of 
alienation pulls me ever closer to Neptune.
I vividly remember the case of Doug, a stocky 16-year-old addicted to heroin. 
Late one evening, returning home from a meeting near the state reform school 
over which I^“d recently assumed control, I decided to take a quick side trip 
to the so-called disciplinary cottage. I asked the ^”master^‘ on duty whether 
anyone was upstairs in the ^”tombs,^‘ (the strip cells that I^“d ordered closed 
a few weeks earlier). No. I guess he thought I wouldn^“t bother to go upstairs 
and look. There, in a far corner of one of the dim cells, was Doug, lying 
stripped on the bare cement floor. I stood in the doorway trying to talk 
though the mesh security screen that separated us. ^”How long have you been 
here?^‘ The muffled reply: ^”A few days.^‘ ^”Why are you here?^‘ His voice grew 
more agitated: ^”I tried to make it over the fence out back.^‘ I told him I 
wanted him to come out and go back downstairs. ^”We aren^“t using the tombs 
anymore.^‘ Doug let go a torrent of obscenities ^◊ ^”You naÔve asshole! You dumb 
motherfucker! Don^“t you know kids like me need to be in here?^‘ 
Doug had learned his lessons well. He had become the well-socialized product 
of our reform school ^◊ a ^”disciplinary cottage success^‘ who believed what it 
taught. The way to handle unacceptable impulses is to be grabbed, beaten, 
handcuffed, dragged screaming up cement steps, stripped, and thrown into a 
It^“s not that we don^“t know that our present medieval tapestry of crime and 
punishment will at some point unravel. It isn^“t that there aren^“t alternative 
ways presently available for dealing with those who threaten us or break our 
laws. However, at times they seem largely futile, if not actually 
counter-productive. In the present poisoned atmosphere, even the most well- 
intentioned alternatives run the danger of being pummeled to serve the very 
same warped conception of humanity they would challenge. 
Somewhere in my youth I learned that the only unforgivable sin is the sin of 
despair. For that reason if no other, I choose to continue what has become a 
somewhat melancholy battle. It is a great comfort to know that so many others 
continue to exercise their hope for a better way with equanimity and crazy 

Jerome G. Miller is the president and co-founder of the National Center on 
Institutions and Alternatives, which develops innovative criminal justice 
programs and services (see page 46). Miller has a doctorate in psychiatric 
social work and is recognized as one of the nation^“s leading authorities on 
corrections and clinical work with violent juvenile and adult sex offenders. 
Miller is best known for closing the state reform schools in Massachusetts 
and replacing them with community-based programs while serving as 
commissioner of the state Department of Youth Services. He has since headed 
criminal justice programs in four other states. His books include: Over the 
Wall (re-released by Ohio State University Press in 1998) and Search & 
Destroy: African Americans in the Criminal Justice System (Cambridge 
University Press, 1997). 

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