I teach creative writing inside a prison. My employers have told me that I am not to represent myself as a spokesperson for the prison, nor may I comment in print on subjects on which I am not an "expert."
I can, however, talk about those things I have experienced directly, such as my classes. So, though I cannot tell you the entire judicial-and-penal system is racist, I can tell you that nearly all of my minimum-security students have been white, and nearly all of my maximum-security students have been black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, or "other."
And I cannot tell you about conditions inside the Security Housing Units, but I can tell you that these windowless concrete buildings sit in the middle of a graveled dead zone, and that I have taught prisoners who lived there in solitary confinement for up to sixteen years. (One student told me he did not see another living creature — save his guards — for years. Then one day, while he was being led in shackles to the infirmary, a dragonfly hovered next to him and followed him as he walked.)
I cannot tell you whether guards set prisoners against one another, but I can tell you of a conversation I had with a prison counselor who was trying to convince me to take a full-time job at the prison teaching remedial English. I told him it would cut too much into my writing time.
"Write when they’re locked down," he said.
"And when they’re not?"
"Easy," he said. "Tell Hartley that Johnson is talking shit about him, then say the same to Johnson. Next time they’re on the yard, one sticks the other, and you’ve got instant lockdown."
He laughed as he said this.
I also cannot tell you whether a disrespect for human life pervades the prison system, but I can tell you this story: Several months ago, I arrived to teach my class and was told there would be no class that day because of an incident on the yard. "Shots were fired," a guard said.
"My God," I said. "Is everything all right?"
He assured me no one had been hurt.
I later found out nine inmates had been shot, one killed. No staff had been injured.
Christian Parenti can tell you much more than I. He is an expert on the prison system, having researched and studied it as a journalist, scholar, and student for the past decade. His first book, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (Verso Books), is an articulate critique of what he calls the "incipient American police state." We’ve become a country where, in some states, prison budgets exceed spending on higher learning; where companies like Starbucks, Jansport, and Microsoft use prison labor in their packaging depart- ments; where Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, was dubbed a "theme stock for the nineties." In addition to documenting the absurd reality of modern incarceration, Parenti relates the history of the current prison buildup in accessible and engaging prose — perhaps too accessible: Lockdown America was banned from Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana because it "promotes gang violence and homosexuality." The British Independent had a more favorable view: "In the best tradition of investigative journalism, paced like a fine novel, it carries the authority of meticulous academic research."
Born and raised in rural New England, Parenti first became interested in criminal justice while an undergraduate at the New School for Social Research in New York City. But it was the police activity he witnessed living in both New York City and San Francisco that brought home to him the central role of law enforcement and incarceration in American politics. He currently teaches at the New College of California in San Francisco and has a second book in the works. I’ve long been a fan of his articles in the Nation, the Progressive, In These Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and Z magazine. He has also worked as a radio journalist in Central America, New York, and California.
Parenti and I met for this interview on a beautiful spring day at his home in the Mission District. His warm and articulate manner made me feel immediately welcome and allowed me to get right to the point, which was to discuss the American prison-industrial complex.
Jensen: How big is the U.S. prison system?
Parenti: It’s huge. Our country has only percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. There are about 2 million Americans in prisons and jails across the country and about 5 million more under the supervision of the criminal-justice system — that is, awaiting trial or on probation or parole. China, by comparison, has a population of 1 billion, but only around three hundred thousand people in prison.
If you’re black, the picture gets even grimmer. Although African Americans make up only 13 percent of the general population, they comprise 58 percent of the prison population and 74 percent of all prisoners convicted on drug charges. This country imprisons black men nine times more frequently than it does white men. According to one study, a third of all black men between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine were under some sort of criminal-justice supervision in 1995. It’s a form of apartheid.
Sociologist Loic Waqaunt calls criminal justice the latest development in an age-old project of controlling black people with force. We’ve gone from slavery to Jim Crow to this new color-coded "anticrime" justice system. Other people of color are also targeted: Latinos (one in eight young Hispanic men is imprisoned), some Asian American groups, and Native Americans. Racism intervenes at every stage of the criminal-justice process: arrest, arraignment, indictment, trial, conviction, and sentencing. At each step, privilege acts to cull whites out.
When you look at probation, policing, parole, incarceration, and the courts as an integral web, you start to feel the breadth of the system, in terms of how many people work for and are controlled by it. Incarceration alone costs this country about $35 billion annually, employs more than 525,000 full-time workers (more than any Fortune 500 company except General Motors), and puts a couple of million people under intense regulation.
The system is expanding all the time. There’s a new phenomenon in South Dakota, and probably elsewhere, called chins — Children in Need of Supervision.These are just kids who’ve been truant or have otherwise misbehaved, and their parents call in the state to put the kids on pro-bation.The kids haven’t been convicted of any crime, yet when some of them then violate probation, they end up in juvenile prisons called "boot camps." There’s no trial, no conviction. I’ve heard horror stories from these camps of guards punishing teenage girls for minor infractions by tying them spread-eagle to a concrete slab and cutting off their clothes with scissors. And many of these girls have long histories of emotional, sexual, and physical abuse.
Jensen: How did we get to this state of affairs?
Parenti: Official criminological histories generally begin in the Northeast, with the birth of American penitentiaries, but there is an alternative history that, I think, makes more sense. Yale University instructor Robert Perkinson calls slavery the real birth of American incarceration. He says the measures taken to control the black pop-ulation in the South — particularly black males — are the true antecedents of modern criminal justice. For example, the antislave militias of the South, called "patrollers," did many of the same things cops do now: traveling assigned "beats," stopping black people, demanding to see their papers, and ransacking their homes looking for contraband, such as "excess" food that might indicate a slave was preparing to take off.
Then, after the Civil War, the "black codes" arose, and Southern criminal justice as we know it was born. By the 1880s and 1890s, Southern criminologists were talking about the "innate criminality" of black people. Those last twenty years of the nineteenth century also saw a huge explosion of incarceration in the South. Black people, rather than being kept as slaves, were being put into prison camps. Traditionally, Southern prisons had been very small. The period after the Civil War brought the first great wave of imprisonment in American criminal justice.
The current prison buildup really begins in the 1960s, because of two crises: an economic crisis and a political crisis.
Jensen: Noam Chomsky labeled the political crisis of the sixties a "crisis of democracy."
Parenti: Exactly: too much democracy. The sixties brought the civil-rights movement, the black-power movement, the poor people’s movement, the antiwar movement, and all sorts of informal rebellion. At first, the police were unable to contain this uprising, which was a big embarrassment for the U.S., because we were waging a bitter ideological struggle with the Soviets to prove that capitalism and liberal democracy were better than socialism. When the entire world saw images of Watts and Detroit going up in flames and angry black people describing in detail how they were being held down by the system, it put the lie to the idea of true democracy and racial progress in the U.S. So the federal government was very concerned about the failure of the police to contain the rebellion.
Jensen: How were the cops failing?
Parenti: They were applying either too little repression and allowing things to get out of hand, or too much repression — cracking heads indiscriminately — and creating an international scandal and further radicalizing the movements. So in 1967, the federal government stepped in. President Lyndon Johnson proposed legislation that became the Omnibus Crime and Safe Streets Act — the first big federal anticrime bill of the type that’s now so familiar.
That crime bill created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (leaa), which, over the next ten years, distributed about a billion dollars a year to local police departments and created the infrastructure of modern policing: swat teams, helicopters, body armor, all of that. In addition to the qualitative shift, there was an increase in police numbers.
All of this happened because society was changing, resulting in major demographic and social upheaval. But there was also a political element in the police retooling, a way in which it was aimed at crushing a political enemy in addition to maintaining order. If you go back and read the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin and the police-industry press of the time, you’ll find numerous quotes from fbi director J. Edgar Hoover and people like Daryl Gates (later chief of the Los Angeles Police Department) about "putting down rebellion" and how the police are the "front-line troops" in what amounted to a counterinsurgency campaign.
Jensen: In some ways, this wasn’t new. Think of the Palmer raids after World War I, in which many radicals and socialists were thrown in jail. And all along, the police have been used to put down strikes.
Parenti: That’s right. We need to remember that, while the police may get kittens out of trees and enhance public safety, their social-control function has been at the heart of the job from the beginning, even though it’s not most of what they do. In the sixties, however, law enforcement’s political task came to the fore.
Funding for the leaa plateaued in the 1970s, in large part because of pressure from the Left, but then the whole process started over in the 1980s with President Reagan’s phony war on drugs. This time, it wasn’t about putting down rebellion, because the movements had largely been demobilized. This time, the police were to maintain social order while Reaganomics threatened the economic fortunes of millions of working people.
The nation’s economic troubles really began in the late 1960s, by which time the postwar boom had pretty much petered out. The conditions that had sustained the "golden era" of American capitalism were gone, and so were the abnormally high profit rates of that era. Big business in the U.S. faced ever-higher tax rates and wage demands. Out of this came the economic crisis of the seventies: rising unemployment simultaneous with rising wages — something that had never happened before. In part, this was due to the fact that working people still had a safety net. If you were treated poorly at your job, you could quit, get food stamps, and go to community college. Strikers in the early seventies received welfare.
In the eighties, Reagan dealt with all of this by cutting taxes on corporations, attacking labor, eviscerating social services, and so on. As a result, by the mideighties, profit rates had been restored, labor had been cowed, and the cost of maintaining the state had been shifted from business to everyone else. But this transformation created a massive new wave of poverty, and the war on drugs was a response to these newly reemerging class distinctions. It served to segregate and contain the dangerous classes.
Though the poor were not rebelling, they were still a threat. Poor people threaten the system’s legitimacy in that they make the social structure appear unjust. They also pose an aesthetic threat, scaring and disturbing the moneyed classes by showing up in inconvenient places. And whether or not poor people are, at the moment, organized and rebelling, there’s always the threat that they will. So, with Reaganomics, we again find massive resources being poured into policing.
Jensen: Why not just help the poor?
Parenti: That’s sometimes necessary, but, fundamentally, helping the poor means empowering labor, which means higher costs and lower profits for business. When Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan talks about a "natural rate of unemployment," he means that there has to be a class of people who are impoverished and desperate. Otherwise the working class would be able to demand more and more of the economic pie, and profits would drop.
Jensen: But the unemployment rate is supposedly lower than it’s been in decades.
Parenti: It is, but all that means is that there are a lot more shitty jobs out there. And the economic elites are worried that this booming economy will lead to inflation, which leads to "wage pressure," which is a code word for working-class power and political action.
The misleading thing about the unemployment rate is that it describes only the percentage of the population that is actively looking for work. It doesn’t take into consideration discouraged workers. There are 2 to 4 million men who have dropped below the statistical radar because they are not involved in the official economy or don’t have an official residence or both. Unemployment may be lower than it’s been in thirty years, but the idea that less than 4 percent of the population is unemployed is a fiction.
A far more important statistic than unemployment is the poverty rate. The official poverty level for a family of four is $16,500, but there’s been some discussion about raising it to $19,500. By that new figure, there are 47 million Americans living at or below the poverty level. That’s an enormous population to keep locked into the bottom tier of society. Steven Spritzer, a radical criminologist, divides this population into two categories: "social dynamite" and "social junk." (I call the latter "social wreckage" because I find the term "junk" a little dehumanizing.)
Social dynamite are those members of the poor population who threaten to explode. They feel they are owed something and have the wherewithal to make political and social demands — that is, to resist in an organized or unorganized fashion. They’re the angry young people who form political movements or gangs.
The social wreckage are those who accept their marginalized lot in society: the injured workers, the mentally ill, the people who’ve been beaten down for too long and have given up. They don’t threaten rebellion, but they do pose an aesthetic threat. They include the people who mutter to themselves and push shopping carts around, the ones the hotel and tourist industries are so concerned about keeping out of downtowns because they freak out tourists. So long as they stay out of sight, nobody cares about them.
Social wreckage tend to get treated with a soft touch, managed by both the police and social services — after they’ve been driven away from the beaches, malls, and shopping areas of our theme-park cities. Social dynamite receive a more aggressive and coordinated approach. It doesn’t work simply to sweep them aside. They require both a defensive policy of containment and an offensive policy of direct attack. And if any members of this class should come together, their organizations must be destabilized and smashed. They must be confined to ghettos, warehoused in public schools, demonized by the media, condemned to prison, or dispatched by lethal injection or police bullets. Ultimately, they must be kept in check by force.
Jensen: So far, we’ve been talking about policing and prisons in functionalist terms: describing why such institutions are necessary in a capitalist society to control the poor. But doesn’t having so many people in prison create at least as many problems as it "solves"?
Parenti: Increasingly, we’re seeing more layers added to the criminal-justice system that are unnecessary in terms of regulating society; they’re nonsensical, even from a capitalist perspective, and constitute what philosopher Herbert Marcuse called "surplus repression."
The recently passed Proposition 21 here in California is an example. Designed to target gang members and toughen California’s juvenile-justice system, it will cost $5 billion over the next ten years and send at least thirty-eight thousand youths to adult prisons, where many of them will be psychologically destroyed before being dumped back on the street.
Proposition 21 was redundant in terms of class and racial control. We were already sending youths to adult prisons. We already had the nation’s highest youth-incarceration rate. But the proposition wasn’t put on the ballot to create a "useful" law. Rather, it was devised as a short-term campaign tool by our former governor Pete Wilson. Wilson thought he had a chance at the Republican presidential nomination and wanted to create something that would give him a national profile and help turn out conservative voters for California’s March primary. So he and his allies secured funding from large corporations like Chevron, Hilton, and Arco and got Proposition 21 on the ballot.
Unfortunately, after Wilson’s campaign went down in flames, Proposition 21 lived on, even though its initial backers distanced themselves from it. They’d supported it only as long as it was a horse for their man Wilson to ride.
Jensen: Why did it still pass?
Parenti: In part because voters have been primed with thirty years of anticrime propaganda. Crime has become the universal scapegoat and the best way to distract people from real problems.
But there’s another factor that isn’t discussed much on the Left, and that’s the appeal of such laws at all levels of the class system. It’s not just white suburban people voting for these tough-on-crime initiatives; it’s working-class people and people of color in the inner city. So there’s this incredible contradiction. These folks know the prisons don’t work, the courts are racist, and the cops are violent, but if you ask what they want for their neighborhood, they say, "More cops." In part, this is because people in the inner city do face a real crisis of crime. Many of them are under siege by the criminal element in their own community. They want a solution.
But the solution they inevitably choose ties back into a folk authoritarianism that predates industrialism, coming down to us from the agrarian origins of our culture. It’s characterized by a "common-sense" desire for and appreciation of discipline — including physical discipline — and has its roots in patriarchal notions of family and order. Those who step out of line are "bad children" who need to be taken behind the woodshed and "taught a lesson."
Jensen: Getting back to the fiscal insanity of these programs: You mentioned that Proposition 21 will cost $5 billion and send thirty-eight thousand kids to adult prison. That’s well over a hundred thousand dollars per kid.
Parenti: That’s why the proposition was condemned by many of the players who normally come out for law and order — because it’s insane overkill. Whenever poll takers told people how much Proposition 21 would cost, they opposed it.
With prisons, too, cost might become a real issue. Peo-ple could start opposing incarceration because it’s so expensive. Prison bonds are getting harder and harder to pass. But at the same time that voters are becoming less and less willing to fund incarceration, they claim to want more law and order. And the politicians can simply keep taxing the people and cutting social services to pay for prisons. For the time being, there seems to be plenty of money for incarceration, the same way there’s always plenty of money for the military.
Jensen: One of my students in the prison where I teach, a man in his early twenties, has been institutionalized since the age of eight.He just got out and doesn’t know what he’s going to do.He explicitly told me, "I don’t care about anybody."
Parenti: An age-old critique of prisons is that they produce deviance.You send people into prisons — which some have called "universities of crime" — and they become damaged to the point where they need to be institutionalized forever.About half a million people are released from prison every year.Many of them hit the street economically and psychologically broken.
This is allowed to go on because it helps enforce class distinctions and racism. Fear of the crimes these men might commit sends people rushing into the arms of an increasingly authoritarian state. Citizens willingly surrender their rights and social power in exchange for protection.
Have you noticed, for instance, the degree to which surveillance is becoming an accepted feature of everyday life?As we move slowly toward a cashless economy, our movements and buying habits are being tracked by everyone from the government to Safeway — and we don’t seem to mind.It’s becoming increasingly natural.There’s even direct surveillance.You drive across the Bay Bridge, and there’s a camera taping you.You shop at a convenience store, and there’s a camera.Many neighborhoods now have cameras recording activity on the streets.
I think we feel comfortable with this invasion of privacy because the threat is, for the moment, abstract: So what if Safeway wants to know what my demographic group does with its disposable income? So what if someone at the police station sees what time I walk my dog? But we seem to be forgetting that, if we allow the police and other elements of the prison-industrial-judicial complex too much power, we run the risk that these "bands of armed men" will slip the reins of democratic control. Most people, though, just don’t see that as a possibility.
Jensen: Who is supposed to police the police?
Parenti: Theory and practice are quite different on that question. We have all, of course, been taught about the checks and balances within our system. The judicial, legislative, and executive branches, for example, are set against one another. These checks and balances are supposed to let the state police itself.And the system works, to an extent. In the end, though, the people must police the state, and the way we do that is through social movements and various degrees of rebellion.
It’s important to remember that the government isn’t all bad. The state is both an instrument of class control and an arena of class and social struggle.While social-welfare institutions, for example, act as agents of control, they also redistribute wealth and help bring some modicum of fairness to capitalism. So the state is not a monolithic institution.It has different, sometimes competing, agendas.
In part, the current hardening of the American state — this shift toward authoritarianism — is due to the shift in the balance of power between its branches.The legislature, for example, is generally the most democratic part of the government, the place where the people can have the greatest influence, but recently we have seen the executive branch getting stronger and stronger.And we see the courts, which are so undemocratic in many ways, having more and more power over our daily life. And within the court system itself, power is shifting from judges and juries to prosecutors.
Jensen: Yet in the struggle to save the environment, for example, the courts are just about the only branch of government that’s helpful.
Parenti: That’s why the Right constantly goes after the Endangered Species Act, which is enforced by the courts.It’s not that the Right doesn’t like birds and animals. Con-servatives target the esa because it threatens to become a loophole that could bring corporations to heel, or at least drive up their cost ofoperation.
In terms of criminal justice, however, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (plra), passed in 1996, has completely eviscerated the civil courts as an avenue of resistance for the people, particularly prisoners. Since then, it’s become very hard to combat inhumane conditions in prison.
Jensen: Why the evisceration?
Parenti: The right wing was beginning to run out of issues. I mean, what do you do once welfare is gone?Whom do you beat up on?Prisoners! Take their books, their weights, and, most of all, their access to the press and the courts.
The plra’s real function is tokeep the female prisoners who’ve been raped by guards away from Sixty Minutes, to keep the tortured inmates out of court, and, best of all, to keep them all illiterate and without access to law books. Specifically, the plra forces prisoners to exhaust all administrative remedies before they can file suit and requires them to pay $120 every time they file a case.Most of them will never have that kind of money.In many states, the plra means no more law libraries, period. The list of restrictions goes on and on.
Jensen: Let’s talk about the SHUs — the Security Housing Units in California prisons. I don’t think most people know about them.
Parenti: They have different names in different states. Basically, they’re "supermax" lockdowns, prisons within prisons where inmates are kept in isolation — or sometimes with one cellmate — twenty-three hours a day. They live behind solid metal doors. Their only contact with the world is by way of a slot used to pass them their meals and through which their hands are cuffed before they go out on the exercise "yard" — a concrete floor and four concrete walls, with only a slice of sky above — or for their biweekly showers. Prisoners in these units are allowed only an hour or two of access to the law library each week and similarly limited access to telephones. They have no jobs, no educational programs, and can visit their families only through bulletproof glass, over bugged intercoms. They’re watched twenty-four hours a day on closed-circuit tv, for years on end.
Like much of our current criminal-justice system,
supermax units are a product of the crisis of the sixties. They have earlier antecedents in Quaker prison reforms that advocated silence and isolation, and also in "the hole" — the dark room that prisoners are sent to in old prison movies. What’s changed is that now people sometimes spend their entire sentences in the SHU, and the dark rooms have, in some cases, become sterile white boxes with canned air, electronic voices, and endless fluorescent light.
These modern isolation cells emerged in response to the prison-yard rebellions and prisoners’-rights movements of the sixties and seventies. At San Quentin, the first such units were called "adjustment centers" and were where the warden threw "incorrigible" nationalists, communists, and self-styled pows. Nowadays, there are two ways you can get sent to the SHU. The first is if you’re found guilty of violating the prison’s rules, such as by possessing drugs or weapons. Then you can be given what’s called a "determinate sentence," which means you’re put in isolation for a term of months or years. The other way you can be sent to the SHU is if you’re "validated" by the administration as a gang member. You then receive an "indeterminate sentence," which means you’re in the SHU until either you die, your prison sentence ends, or you snitch on other gang members.
Jensen: I’ve worked with prisoners who were in the SHU as long as eighteen years.
Parenti: That happens all the time.
Jensen: And to be validated as a gang member is an administrative decision, totally nonjudicial.
Parenti: That’s right. And it can be incredibly arbitrary. In the SHU, you’ll find both serious gangsters and the political leaders of the prisoners. You’ll also find jailhouse lawyers — self-taught legal advisors who write writs and sue on behalf of themselves and other prisoners. The SHU is full of brilliant legal minds who’ve been beating the California Department of Corrections — against all odds — with their lawsuits.
And now a new class is ending up in the supermax units: jailhouse doctors. A lot of prisoners who are hiv-positive have gotten indigent subscriptions to the New England Journal of Medicine, and some of them have become experts on hiv. These jailhouse doctors are helping other prisoners — some of whom can’t read — to take care of themselves, telling them which combinations of drugs work and demanding new treatments from the prison medical staff, many of whom know less about hiv than these inmates. That causes trouble. In prison, the staff must be right, and the prisoners must be wrong. So you often find jailhouse doctors being labeled gang members and ending up in the SHU.
The public is sold the SHU and other lockdowns as tools to protect prisoners and guards from "supercriminals," but the truth is that they actually destabilize the prison environment. If you take the knowledgeable, respected convicts away, you’re left with a bunch of young hotheads struggling for control and influence. So the removal of convicts to the SHU actually leads to more violence.
Now, you might think it seems counterproductive for prison administrators to foster violence. But on a certain level, it makes perfect sense.
Jensen: How so?
Parenti: Because infighting makes things easier for the guards. A former prisoner who’s now a jail warden told me explicitly that if you’ve got two hundred people on a tier, it’s a lot easier to control them if the tier is split into five mutually antagonistic factions. Prison administrators generally have a real interest in keeping prisoners at each other’s throats, because then they’re directing their violence toward one another, as opposed to directing it toward the staff or organizing to demand better treatment.
Jensen: This reminds me of something I recently read in the paper: that, because of violence on the yard, wardens want more state money for devices that can detect weapons inside people’s bodies. So, in a sense, prison unrest leads to greater funding.
Parenti: Exactly. There are so many ways that intra-inmate violence serves the interests of prison administrators.
The notion of devices to look inside people’s bodies also makes me think of the way criminal-justice surveillance insinuates itself into our lives; how fear is seeded throughout the culture until we all become institutionalized.French philosopherMichel Foucault came up with the notion of a "carcereal society," wherein we are subject to constant supervision by anonymous managers. His thesis is that, with the rise of capitalism, industrialization, and the modern nation-state, societal control has shifted away from spectacular assaults on the body, such as public executions, and toward interior methods — getting subjects to regulate themselves by internalizing authority. For Foucault, this shift is not evidence of improving human rights or moral progress, but rather of increasingly effective and pernicious mechanisms of social regulation.
And his thesis is true, to some extent, but what we’ve seen in the U.S., with the rise of our incipient police state, is in some ways a return to the spectacular uses of terror.
Jensen: I’d say it’s both.
Parenti: Yes, there’s been a bifurcation according to socioeconomic class. The middle classes are controlled through the discourse of pathology, illness, and deviance. They more or less regulate themselves, reading the self-help magazines, policing their own psychology. They’re under tremendous pressures to "function" better in society, to "realize their potential," to "maximize" health, to achieve "proper time management," and so on — anything to keep people on the straight and narrow and thus prevent the juggernaut from grinding to a halt.
The impoverished and dangerous classes, too, are subject to the discourse of psychology and social work, encouraged to "manage" themselves and "learn life skills." But that sort of talk can go only so far when it’s not accompanied by social rewards. So in the postwelfare era, the poor are increasingly regulated through a modern version of old-fashioned terror. It’s no longer public executions. Executions occur behind closed doors and are increasingly sanitized. The new source of terror is the policing of society, and of prisoners.
In Lockdown America, I describe swat teams in Fresno as a kind of postmodern public execution — a highly ritualized, highly theatrical display of the sovereign’s power. The swat teams operate in groups of thirty with helicopters for support. Like an invading army, they occupy whole neighborhoods, harass the residents, and surround the houses. They have machine guns, barking dogs, and armored personnel carriers. This is state propaganda, political theater, directed not at the "perp" holed up in the house, but at the hundreds of community members watching. There’s a message being broadcast, a spectacular display of the power of the state. They’ll wake you up in the middle of the night with a helicopter overhead, dogs barking, and someone yelling through a loudspeaker. You’ll come out and see storm troopers carrying machine guns and wearing black fatigues and armor and helmets. It’s about regulating people through the theatrics of terror.
Jensen: Is the U.S. a police state?
Parenti: No, I would call the U.S. an incipient police state. A police state is one in which the military and the police control all the other state institutions, and repression has subordinated all other functions of the state. I don’t think that’s the case in the U.S. — yet. We do have an element of police-state politics developing here, but I don’t think we’ve arrived.
When you get caught up in the justice system and don’t have any money, however, it might as well be a police state, because that’s the way they treat you.
Jensen: For me, as a white, middle-class male, it’s not a police state at all, but for my students . . .
Parenti: They live in a totalitarian society.
Jensen: My students call some prisoners pows, because they’re victims of the war on poor people and people of color.
Parenti: I wouldn’t paint with such a broad brush, but I’m not living in the prison where you teach. There are politi-cal prisoners, and there are social prisoners, and then there are prisoners who become political on the inside, like jailhouse lawyers and jailhouse doctors, or the gang-truce organizers who end up in the SHU. They’re definitely political prisoners of a sort.
Jensen: Where does the Immigration and Naturalization Service fit into the incipient police state?
Parenti: The policing of immigrants is an important piece of the puzzle, and one that isn’t talked about enough. Immigration is where the most pernicious forms of surveillance and interagency cooperation are occurring. The ins, local police, and the military are teaming up and using the latest technology to watch and control Mexicans and other Latinos. At first, this was done just at the border, but in the last four or five years, many of the projects developed in that political netherworld of border patrol have been imported wholesale into the U.S. For example, the ins is launching huge raids in the Midwest against an immigrant population with few legal rights and little access to the official language.
In 1990, the ins and the Border Patrol were authorized to enforce contraband and narcotics laws, which enabled them to conduct warrantless searches in border communities and even inland areas that were allegedly "vulnerable to air smuggling." Many conservative Americans would never have tolerated this had it not first been applied to illegal immigrants at the border.
The same laws and methods are increasingly being used against nonimmigrant populations. Take, for example, the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, or hidtas, where there is military involvement, as well as a strange conglomeration of state, federal, and local law-enforcement agencies empowered with special prosecutors. The first hidta was the border between Mexico and the U.S. Then an area encompassing allcounties within 150 miles of that frontier was declared an hidta. Now there are seventeen hidtas, including New York and New Jersey, the San Francisco Bay Area, parts of the rural Northwest, and so on. These hidtas, with their questionable constitutionality and their indirect use of the military against the civilian population, no longer have anything to do with immigration; they’re part of the paramilitary war on drugs.
Jensen: But so what if the feds are watching drug runners?
Parenti: Let’s be honest. This is not about interdiction. The U.S. cooperates time and again with major international drug runners like the Peruvian president Fujimori and the former president of Colombia. The top U.S. antidrug officer in Colombia has just been indicted because he and his wife were importing heroin and laundering drug money. The cia’s been involved with drug running from the beginning. So there’s no serious effort to keep drugs out of this country.
In any case, the war on drugs focuses on low- and mid-level players. And there are numerous ways in which even the mid-level players get off — for example, the assets-forfeiture laws created in 1984. These laws allow the police to keep drug-tainted money and property they confiscate during drug operations. Far from encouraging police to go after upper-level drug dealers (who presumably would have more assets), these laws make it legal and easy for police to cut deals with the mid-level drug dealers they bust. They say, "We’ll drop charges if you forfeit your seized property without going to court." The richer the drug dealers, the better the chance they’ll just forfeit the cash they had lying around, and the police will drop the charges. The people who go to prison are, as always, the small-time dealers.
Jensen: What other ins tactics are being brought to mainstream America?
Parenti: The use of biometrics — that is, computers that digitize fingerprints and search databases. Now it doesn’t matter what name or Social Security number you give — if the authorities can get your fingerprint, they can instantly run it against all the fingerprints they’ve got on file. The vanguard of biometrics technology is in the ins, but it is increasingly being used by state and local law enforcement.
What we need to realize is that "the border" — in terms of state-sponsored repression — is no longer the geographic border. These technologies are not simply being used on "the other," but are becoming widespread. The whole idea of "the border" is blatantly racist. The interior enforce- ment by the ins is essentially an anti-Latino guest-worker-policing program. Imagine if it had been conceived and proposed in honest terms: "We’d like billions of dollars to set up a separate, parallel super-policing-and-detention system for people who are dark skinned and do the jobs that nobody else wants."
Jensen: Do you see any reason for hope?
Parenti: Quite a lot, actually. I’m heartened by the police-accountability movement and the protests in New York City in response to the torture and sodomizing of Abner Louima and the murder of Amadou Diallo. Here in California, the movement against Proposition 21 was impressive. It created interesting coalitions and got a lot of young people involved. I hope that the scandal in the lapd’s antigang Rampart unit will galvanize people who might otherwise not care about the crimes of the police.
Perhaps these developments will help people begin to see the connections between different parts of the prison-industrial complex. This is about more than just bad cops and greedy interest groups, like guards’ unions, wanting more money. The criminal-justice system is an integral part of a larger political and economic system that depends on criminalizing the poor. Placing criminal justice and police power and prisons in the context of capitalist society as a whole allows us to see more openings through which to attack the problem, more places to engage the enemy, and more ways to resist.
Originally published in the October 2000 issue of The Sun Magazine.
An excerpt of the interview republished in the Fall 2000 issue of Jubilee House.