Prison State

April 17, 2013


I read The New Jim Crow some months ago, but put aside my posting on it because it is simply too depressing, but prisons were on my mind again this weekend when I heard a talk by David Rothenberg at our local public library.  He is the founder of The Fortune Society, which provides support for ex-offenders who want to reclaim their lives after doing their time – more on that later.

I have commented before (here and here) on the American prison-industrial complex, but this book was extraordinarily powerful:  not because it said anything surprising, but for the detailed manner in which it documented the rise of the War on Drugs, the crudely political appeals it employed, the systematic racial bias found in the effects of its policies, and the punitive and devastating impact it has on African-American and Latino populations in the country.

For crimes which rarely result in the incarceration of young white men, young black men are being sent to jail in incredible numbers, and for long periods, and while there, in crowded and often inhumane conditions, they are simply warehoused.  Then, eventually, they are sent home.  The rising rate of imprisonment, shown below, has not been linked with any reduction in crime, and most of the victims are non-violent offenders.  When released, they are subject to a wide array of fines and restrictions that shocked me – new details – in their resemblance to practice in 17th and 18th century Europe:  For example, it was news to me that convicted criminals must pay the costs of their trials!  (Only in these drug cases.)  Not to mention that all their property can be confiscated.  A new class of debt-fine-peons has been created that is peopled by men already at a severe handicap for reclaiming their lives through gainful employment.


The two charts following clearly indicate the remarkable position of the USA regarding imprisonment of its own citizens.  What is it about the USA that requires that we incarcerate people at nearly seven times the rate of China, France, or Australia?  The second chart below indicates the clear racial bias of the War on Drugs:  there is ample evidence that drug use and related criminal activity is no higher, it may be lower, among citizens of color than among whites, yet their rate of conviction and imprisonment is many times higher.  The problem is obvious, and it is only sustained by a system in which there is money to be made off of the prison system and political hay to be made.

Michelle Alexanders’ book is perhaps most interesting in her history of the political side of the War on Drugs, which got going under Reagan.  It was a great Republican theme, Law and Order, that allowed all sorts of coded appeals to racism no longer legitimate with the formal end of segregation and Jim Crow.  It worked wonders, and it’s not dead yet.  It doesn’t matter that we have an African-American president:  he’s not bucking this system much, and he talks about ‘shared sacrifice‘  as he advocates cutting social welfare programs.

I searched for negative commentary on the book out of curiosity regarding the response of conservatives.  I found little!  Most of the negative reviews were from leftists who felt that the author had not gone far enough in her critique.  (She may agree with them, but she clearly stated that she had very specific goals for this book, i.e., to expose the unfairness and destructiveness of the War on Drugs and our incarceration policies.)  I did find one review in Forbes, or a business journal like that, and it was generally favorable!  The author had clear libertarian leanings, and some of those people are not happy with these policies.  Indeed, Alexander points out that many conservatives initially resisted Reagan’s declaration of war on drugs because it would expand Federal power into the arena of state law enforcement.

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Incarceration Rates

David Rothenberg’s talk was moderated by former governor of NJ, Jim McGreevey.  He spoke of his career in show biz, and he’s a great storyteller.

You can hear him  Saturday mornings on WBAI, a local super-left-wing station that I rarely listen to since it’s filled with ranting and absurd propaganda, where he plays Broadway tunes and discusses social issues.  His organization is named for a play he produced in the 60s that was one of the first to honestly portray the brutal conditions in prisons:  the ensuing discussions of the show, including participation by ex-convicts, inspired him to create the agency that has expanded and is a model today.

Two Criminal Tales

March 1, 2011

Le Trou, is a film from 1948 about a prison break in Paris. Goodfellas, need I say it?, is a film from 1990 about the mob in NYC.  I watched these two films over the last two days, and it was like visiting two alternate universes.

First, let me say that Le Trou (Jacques Becker) is a fantastic movie.  Spare and incredibly suspenseful, it pulls off the amazing feat of turning the hardened criminals into …not quite the good guys, but exemplars of humanity.  Homo faber, man, the maker, with incredible ingenuity, patience, and perseverance they plan their escape from a fortress in the center of the city.  Loyalty to one another is what makes them go, and betrayal stops them. The film has virtually no music score.

Goodfellas, well…it is based on fact. (In fact, both films are based on accounts of actual events.) The reason I watched the entire flick after seeing bits of it on TV, where it is played endlessly, was because of the part about the biggest heist in American history at JFK, but that is hardly treated in the film. Many say it is realistic, and Scorsesee said he wanted to show what the mob lifestyle was really like, what the violence was really like, cold, brutal, disgusting. Oh well…the millions of young men who love the film probably have a rather different take on Martin’s masterpiece.  They love it. It’s an entertainment, giving away the store by using an endless soundtrack of contemporary music.  How seriously can you take a mob movie that has Hendrix and The Stones rocking out as guys get whacked?

Nothing in Goodfellas compares to the one scene in Le trou in which the two cons peer at a Paris street from a manhole, watch a taxi drive by – freedom! – before going back inside to retrieve their comrades for the big escape.

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Brute Force

February 12, 2011

Brute Force (1947) is a prison melodrama about a joint filled with guys put there for crimes that were, well, really not so bad.  Just a bunch of guys who made some mistakes, got shafted – all good men really.  A grifter taken by a beautiful babe, a veteran of the Italian campaign in WWII, a clerk who couldn’t help stealing to get that wife the fur coat she knew she deserved…that sort of thing.  Not too realistic, but this film is a dark fable, an allegory of social class oppression, and the guys in stir are everyman-types standing in for the rest of the working stiffs outside who never have a chance.  Add a blood curdling sadistic-fascist power structure, and you have a film that leaves the good guy-bad guy fairy tale way behind as it descends into the darkest depths of film noir.

The reinforced concrete architecture of the penitentiary looks like something from a German expressionist film set, or maybe Loudon, from The Devils.  Like a medieval fortress, the way out is barred by massive gates and a drawbridge.  The impassive guards manning machine guns in towers bring to mind the Nazi death camps.

The associations with the Nazis are focused on the character of Captain Munsey, a sneering, ambitious sadist who fancies himself the bastion of civil society against the criminal animals he guards.  In one of the most blatant and disturbing sequences, he tries to beat some information about an escape plan out of a prisoner.   We first see him cleaning his gun, his shirt off, music – sounded like Wagner to me – playing in the background.  A phonograph, engravings of classic art, the whole deal, and his own portrait in uniform surveys the scene.

Then Munsey gets down to business with his rubber hose, pummeling Louis, who is handcuffed to a chair.  We never actually see the rubber hose hit flesh – the censors insisted that be cut out.

The escape plan is set for the workers on “the drain pipe.”  It’s a giant tunnel, a make-work project, that has no discernible purpose.  The plan is doomed, of course.  Doc warns Collins, but it’s no use.

Munsey is waiting with a machine gun at the escape point, and he tells the guards who seem uncomfortable at the prospect of shooting down unarmed men that there is “no reward for bringing them in alive.”  Collins smokes out the informer by asking his men what position they want to take during the break.  All but one say, “Wherever you put me.” The rat says, “Last, that’s where I can help most.”  The last shall be first – he’s put at the front of the car and is shot by the guards.

The system of oppression victimizes everyone, although not in the same way.  An earlier scene stages a debate on prison policy in which a pompous and impatient official berates the warden for the lax discipline in the joint.  The humane doctor points out that there is not enough opportunity to keep the men employed and that the prison is 100% over capacity.  He accuses the official of blowing hot air just to seem like he’s dealing with the problems, but all he wants is to shove it, and the men, under the rug.  Eventually, the warden, a well-meaning but feeble man, is forced to hand over the place to Munsey, the sadist.

Women figure in this movie only in flashbacks about life outside, and for the most part, they’re just trouble.  One is a sharp cookie who entices and then fleeces and flees.  Another wants nothing but a fur coat out of life, and she’s troubled only momentarily by how her husband finds the dough to buy it…then the knock comes at the door.  Yvonne de Carlo plays an Italian girl in love with a soldier who brings her food.  She kills her fascist father to protect him, but the MP’s pin the killing on him.  Only Collins has an untroubled love that’s pure – he dreams of a pretty young woman dying of cancer, confined to a wheelchair – he just wants to break out and get her the money for the operation that will cure her.

In the end, the guys in cell R17 get out:  they get out the only way one can.  As the doc says, nobody ever really escapes.  And so it is in life too.  We none of us get out of here alive.

One can get used to anything.

September 20, 2010

Several years ago, I began reading Casanova’s memoirs.  I managed to scrounge the entire six-volume set in paperback, and now I dip into it, in no particular order, whenever I find myself without something to read.   He writes about his affairs, of course, as well as his duels, gambling, legal affairs, illnesses, travelling, and a million other things, and what keeps me reading is that he is a fabulous storyteller.

I happen to be reading about his imprisonment in the prisons of Venice, known as The Leads, because of the material used to roof them.  He was denounced, more or less anonymously, for having prohibited books in his rooms, books about magic, astrology, and other blasphemous subjects.  Somebody was settling a score. 

The conditions of his incarceration are awful – the stifling heat, the fleas, the lack of books, paper and pens, poor food, poor light, and the occassional roomate thrown in, some of whose company is worse than solitary confinement.  He contrives to dig a hole in the floor through which to escape, but just before the breakout day, he is moved to another cell, a palace compared to the rat hole he is in. 

He did get out eventually, and wrote a pamphlet about it that became fantastically popular, burnishing his reputation as an adventurer.  Others had escaped, but none had written about it!  Casanova was a multi-talented fellow, and rather philosophical.  His memoirs are sprinkled with observations on the nature of man and fate – at one particularly dark moment in his story he remarks, “one can get used to anything.” 

The image above is the Bridge of Sighs, which leads from the interrogation quarters of the Doge’s Palace to the state prisons.  It’s quite famous, and despite its criminal associations, architects have imitated it, or claimed to, quite a bit.  This bridge in Oxford is called the Bridge of Signs, but it looks more like the Venetian Rialto. 


At least this old bridge in NYC with the same name connects to a prison, known as The Tombs.  The other two are simply skybridges, that you see here and there around the city.  Shall we imagine that the desparate sighs of imprisoned white-collar workers can be faintly heard?


The face of America today

August 13, 2009


Senator Arlen Spector faces off against a dissenting constituent, a member of one of the posses of crazies who say Obama is “making our country like Russia.”  We don’t need no stinkin’ health care!!

Meanwhile, in southern California, thousands line up to get free dental care, general exams, and other medical attention.  Thousands, with families, some employed, some insured! But they can’t afford this care that is being offered free by a philanthropic organization.  I guess they don’t have time to harass and shout down their congressmen what with having to stand in line all day to get a tooth pulled.

And finally, a hard-hitting story on NPR about the California prison system.  You know, where the inmates were rioting.  And judges are ordering men released because of the inhuman crowding they are enduring on the inside.  And why are the prisons so crowded..?  Filled to the brim with rapists and murderers?  No…the population on the inside has exploded by a factor of eight over the last 20 years because of unbelievably harsh “three strikes and you’re out” laws.  If you are convicted of a third felony, like shoplifting more than $500 worth of stuff, you are in for life.  INSANE!

What sort of magical thinking led people to believe this would solve the social problem of crack addiction?  Lock them up, and throw away the key.  Fortunately, we are still more civilized than that, and now the people are having to pay the piper.  Who is that piper?  According to this report, it is the Corrections Officers Union, which benefits mightily from the growth of the prison population.

Land of the Free

February 28, 2005

This little graph was just brought to my attention, and I think it speaks volumes, about something. So, we see that the USA puts people in prison at a rate that is more than four times greater than that of Mexico, followed by various welfare states and one authoritarian regime, China. Something is seriously wrong here, and here in the USA, we don’t even seem to think it’s a problem.What will history say about a rich society that is so zealous to put it’s members in jail, and that has turned prisons into a thriving industrial sector of the economy? Is it just big business? Has the penance gone out of the penitentiary? Perhaps a legacy of slavery, or a fondness for the Puritan method of the “the rod?” Notice I’m not even mentioning the race of the jailed – quite apart from that, the numbers are appalling, but when you factor that in, it presents a horrific picture of a society with a very deep social problem that is completely ignored.

…But, we all know that society is just a myth. There are only individuals, right? Statistics don’t tell us anything meaningful – these people shouldn’t break the law, that’s all. Of course, who gets sentenced, who makes the laws, and just what crimes are these people all doing time for?!