Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis
By Christian Parenti
Verso Press, 284 pages, price $25 cloth
Release Date September 1999
How, precisely, do you define a police state? Is it the number of police per capita? How about the number of prisons? Police use of machine guns or armored personnel carriers? The use of the police or the military to put down strikes, or to otherwise "keep the trains running on time," as was Mussolini’s specialty? Perhaps it’s the use of the police or the military to halt civil unrest. Or maybe the widespread use of curfews. Arbitrary confiscation of private property. How about this? Could a police state be defined, as in nazi Germany, by the use of force to segregate members of a specific race into concentration camps or prisons?
In his powerful book, Lockdown America, Christian Parenti, a teacher at the New College of California and a writer whose work has appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, In these Times, and The Christian Science Monitor, explores the epidemic of imprisonment in the United States. By now I’m sure you know the basics: the U.S. leads the world in per capita police, prisons, prisoners, you name it. Nearly one-third of all black men are in prison, on parole, or awaiting trial. Here in California, the state government spends more on prisons than it does on higher education. How has all this craziness come to be? Who benefits from it?
This book, vividly (and sometimes breathlessly) written, begins with a modern history of US imprisonment, as conservatives pushed a "strong on crime" agenda as a backlash against the activism of the 1960s, and against, as Parenti puts it, "the growing threat of organized political rebellion and the culture of disobedience and disrespect that fed it." It details how Nixon and others fabricated a "war on drugs" to allow increased federal influence on what to that time had been a haphazard pattern of local law enforcement. It also tells the chilling story of the rapid rise of the modern information state, as we move in 1968 from only ten states having automated criminal justice systems to the present spooky situation in which a Fresno police officer can say, "If you’re twenty-one, male, living in one of these neighborhoods . . . and you’re not in our computer–then there’s definitely something wrong."
Parenti then takes us on a tour of the strongly anti-democratic horrors that characterize our modern American police state, from SWAT teams terrorizing suspected criminals, their relatives, their neighbors, witnesses, journalists, and people who happen to live in the wrong (read poor and nonwhite) neighborhoods to the increased militarization of our southern border. He shows us the beatings and killings that happen with inexcusable frequency.
From there he takes us to America’s prisons, crammed with 1.8 million people (with another three million "doing time" outside, on parole, etc). He reveals the lie behind the notion that these prisons make America safer: only 29 percent of all prison admissions in 1994 were for violent offenses, with 31 percent for property offenses, 30 percent for drug violations, and 9 percent for such crimes as drunk driving or weapons possession.
Parenti brings to light the grim reality of life in prison, telling stories of places like Corcoran, here in California, which he calls "a land-locked slaveship stuck on the middle passage to nowhere." He describes how prisoners are buried alive by the thousands in SHUs, or Security Housing Units, where they "spend twenty-three hours a day in tiny cells, with no work, no educational programs, and often in total isolation." He makes clear the insanity this necessarily engenders among the inmates, and the insanity that also often infects the guards.
Between 1989 and 1994, California prison guards shot 175 inmates with live rounds, killing twenty-seven. Between 1994 and the first half of 1998 another twelve were killed, and thirty-two were seriously injured. This does not include prisoners who were beaten, maced, nor those shot with non-lethal wooden blocks (called "baton rounds"). As Parenti puts it, "The unofficial prison-yard executions once again put California in the vanguard of bad policy. In all other states combined, only six inmates were shot by guards between 1994 and 1998."
Finally Parenti explores–and this was my favorite part of the book–the necessary role that prisons play in capitalism: "capitalism needs the poor and creates poverty, intentionally through policy and organically through crisis. Yet capitalism is also directly and indirectly threatened by the poor. Capitalism always creates surplus populations, needs surplus populations, yet faces the threat of political, aesthetic, or cultural disruption from those populations. Prison and criminal justice are about managing these irreconcilable contradictions."
What do we do about all this? One recommendation of course would be to jettison capitalism. Failing that, Parenti recommends a strong dose of "less." We need, he says, "less policing, less incarceration, shorter sentences, less surveillance, fewer laws governing individual behaviors, and less obsessive concern with every lurid crime, less prohibition, and less puritanical concern with ‘freaks’ and ‘deviants.’" How do we get there? He suggests popular protest, education, and perhaps most radically of all, that we listen to the poor and the young, to those who have the most to lose–the possibility of living free–from the American police state.
Originally published in the September/October 1999 issue of “The Bloomsbury Review”.
Published in “The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review” on September 3, 2000