By James Kilgore
Mass incarceration is trending. Criminal justice never even got on the radar during the 2012 presidential election; now it’s big-time news. The president and the pope have ventured behind bars. Politicians from Rand Paul to Cory Booker have sounded off on the need to end the War on Drugs and de-racialize criminal justice. The Koch brothers are on board, too. For those of us who have spent years in prison and many more campaigning for an end to mass incarceration, people in high places paying attention raises all kinds of possibilities. Yet even with all this change of heart, it’s hard to keep faith in a change of system.
To begin with, promises around criminal justice at the presidential level don’t have a great track record. Remember the closing of Guantanamo? Even the recent release of 6,000 people from federal prisons constitutes a baby step. Plus, about a third of them are being transferred not to freedom but to the ICE deportation queue. Many more released under this quick-fix initiative will end up in dead-end, impoverished situations.
Starry-eyed fiscal conservatives see corrections budgets as soft targets for cutting government spending. They just don’t get it. Ending mass incarceration will not save money. The prison-industrial complex reflects a national strategy for dealing with poverty, inequality, and racial conflict. We are caging the unemployed, the homeless, and those with mental health and substance abuse issues. Meeting the needs of this population requires not slashing corrections but reallocating resources into public housing, employment, and treatment. Decarceration on the cheap means replicating the massive Skid Row of Los Angeles in every city and town in the country. We have already segregated our cities via gentrification. If we empty the prisons without supporting those released, we will create what activist Jazz Hayden calls “open air prisons”—over-policed communities of color devoid of opportunities for residents.
Ultimately, ending mass incarceration requires more than innovative policy packages and changes in legislation. It demands a new mindset. Mass incarceration mushroomed from a vast media campaign to promote “law and order.” Manufactured racialized images of drug dealers, thugs, and gangbangers spawned white moral panic. Nancy Reagan went on tour with her “Just Say No” message. The largely discredited Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program sent police into middle schools and high schools to win the hearts and minds of children. Fear made “soft on crime” the most damning label any post-Reagan political candidate could imagine. Can we re-brand “soft on decarceration” with the same moral authority? I doubt it.
If we are to return the United States to 1980 incarceration levels, the approximate point where all this madness began, we would have to cut the prison and jail population by about 80% or 1.7 million people. That would bring the United States to the incarceration rate of the United Kingdom, the next most punitive state among the established capitalist powers. We can’t arrive back to the future by picking the “low-hanging fruit” of those with nonviolent drug offenses. They are only 16% of those in prison. Thousands of people the system has labeled “violent” need a re-think as well. Are Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio ready for this? Again, I doubt it. Even Bernie Sanders’s latest bill on prisons contains nothing that will significantly reduce prison populations.
When a politician puts forward a plan to “Free the Mass Incarcerated 1.7 Million,” then the serious talk has begun. In the meantime, let’s use the trendiness of mass incarceration to make whatever changes are possible and keep building a social movement that can pressure for needed tweaks in the legislation as part of a much bigger and more difficult process of fighting for systemic change.
James Kilgore is a writer, activist, and educator based in Urbana, Illinois. His latest book is Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, @waazn1 or www.understandingmassincarceration.com
This article originally appeared in the winter 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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