New Formulation

February 2003, Vol. 2, No. 1


The Police/Prison Edifice

Review by Lex Bhagat

Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis

Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis
by Christian Parenti
Verso, 1999

 

The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime

The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime
by Joel Dyer
Westview Press, 2000


We Were Waiting for Books Like These
In 1994, Bill Clinton's election-promised “anti-crime bill” was passed. Young people in urban America could feel its effects almost immediately, as our cities were seized by a new occupying army of soldiers in blue. A new phase of revolutionary struggle was begun in earnest: continued revolution from the Right. If the election of Nixon in 1972 amounted to a sort of Bourbon Restoration of 1814, then Democrat Clinton was Napoleon III, ready to create a new landscape.

The appearance in the coming months of so many police was like the appearance of a scaffolding—a scaffold pinned securely to the ground on either coast by California’s Three Strikes Law, and in New York by the ascension of Giuliani. As the edifice then emerged within, none of it came as a surprise: checkpoints, curfews, rampant street frisking, “Truth in Sentencing,” “Contract on America,” etc.

But, as that edifice grew, and as friends and loved ones disappeared from the streets, a generation was galvanized into political struggle against police and prisons. For many years, it was an intuitive movement—motivated by rage, and informed by first-hand experience, by Public Enemy and KRS-1, or in some cases by letters to loved ones or mentor-comrades inside. We read what we could—Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, Sykes's Society of Captives, Soledad Brothers, Assata, Marighella's Minimanual for the Urban Guerilla—and tried to apply what we learned to the current situation. Foucault's Discipline and Punish was precious water, and well-worn copies passed through many hands and opened many minds. Yet, it held a stark gray area that pointed to the originality of the current crisis, since the evidence in our guts told us that the root of our American situation was not Panopticon but the slave ship.

Current analysis was what we needed. Prison Activist Resource Center pamphlets—Bill Dunne’s “The New Plantation,” Angela Davis’s “The Prison Industrial Complex,” Linda Evans’s “Prisons in the Global Economy,”—and the writings of Mumia Abu-Jamal all contributed as best they could. Still, a whole generation of committed activists were waiting for something integral, an account both deep and broad that resonated with our experiences.

It was to this waiting movement that Lockdown America arrived in 1999.

Lockdown America
Lockdown America by Christian Parenti is an in-depth history of the emergence of the contemporary police state. The Alphabet Soup of government police and corrections policies—from the LEAA (Law Enforcement Assistance Administration) through IIRIRA (Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act)—are defined, demystified and contextualized. It is this context which is truly impressive about Parenti's book, for he presents his exhaustive research in a format which is all too rare these days: to strongly support a clear and radical argument.

The argument is this: "Beginning in the late 1960s, U.S. Capitalism has a dual social and economic crisis, and it was in response to this crisis that the criminal justice build-up of today began. After a surge of expansion in the late 60s, the growth of criminal justice plateaued in the late 70s, only to resume in earnest during the early and mid-80s, with Reagan's war on drugs. Since then, we've been on a steady path toward ever more state repression and surveillance.

“Initially, this build-up was in response to racial upheaval and political rebellion. The second part was/is more a response to the vicious economic restructuring of the Reagan era. This restructuring was itself a right-wing strategy for addressing the economic crisis which first appeared in the mid and late 60s. To restore sagging business profits, the welfare of working people had to be sacrificed. Thus, the second phase of the criminal justice crackdown has become, intentionally or otherwise, a way to manage rising inequality and surplus populations.…”(1)

From prison rape and gender construction within prison, to urban renewal, gentrification and the Finance Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE) economy, to George Jackson, radical movements within prisons, to the gang culture of California prisons, the history of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, to the complex ways that America criminalizes immigrants: Parenti leaves few topics untouched in his account.

In unmasking the emergent police state, Parenti demonstrates what many on the Left intuitively guessed: that at its root, this whole “prison thing” is about disrupting revolutionary struggle. But, while it is counter-insurgency that gets this ball rolling, in the history Parenti charts out, it is the inevitable weight of Statist bureaucracy which turns this ball into a massive, unstoppable train. Because counter-insurgency against the Left and continued war on Native and Afrikan communities could not be acknowledged, some public mask had to be presented. A sinister quote by Nixon's Chief of Staff H.R. Haldemann sums up the hypocritical germ of the police state: “[President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.”(2) Just as the FBI (as demonstrated in Ward Churchill's Agents of Repression) constructed its public presence as a "gangbuster" organization to mask its true work of disrupting Communist and Afrikan organizations, so Nixon's call to “law and order” was "thinly veiled code for ‘the race problem.’”(3)

In honor of the “gangbuster” tradition, the first set of wheels built by Nixon for the prison juggernaut was the Racketeering Influence and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act: a set of liberty demolishing “tools” including “special grand juries” with the powers to subpoena anyone about anything, and the admittance of heretofore illegally obtained evidence. Of course the public face of this law was the “fight against organized crime," while the actual use of this law was the crackdown on the Left. More importantly, Nixon built this set of wheels for the newly designed engine of American politics: the evil of narcotics. Soon the specter of the junkie and the pusher will be evoked by politicians across the land, as the source of all social ills. This specter then arouses a frighteningly useful and effective machine, which produces anxiety and converts it into political capital.

Perpetual Prisoner Machine
In The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, journalist Joel Dyer analyzes the workings of this “impressive and complicated mechanism.” “It was during the late 70s and early 80s that the original three components of the machine appeared on the scene as a result of three separate and initially unrelated occurrences: the accelerating consolidation of the media industry, the rise in influence of political consultants, and the emergence of an organized Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) that is perhaps best described as a collection of interests whose financial well-being rises and falls with the size of the prison population. As a result, the media, our elected officials and [the PIC] each developed a unique method for turning crime into some form of capital—individual techniques that were, in the beginning, not particularly dependent upon one another....

“Subsequent changes within our political system—primarily the increasing use of public opinion polling and rapid increase in the cost of political campaigns—have effected the various components of the machine the way the lightening bolt affected Frankenstein's monster.... They begin … to function as a single mechanism.”(4)

Dyer's account is an extremely comprehensible dissection of the vicious cycles of alienation in modern culture and the instrumental role played by broadcast media. People know less and less of their neighbors and of actual reality, becoming more dependent upon mediated information, and in turn more alienated and more dependent. Dyer lists numerous studies of television's effects on consciousness, and agrees with his sources that in America the cycle has spun to the point where a fabricated “viewed” reality has displaced the fabric of lived realities. He repeatedly asserts that it is only because of “a mediated sense of reality” that the current criminal justice build-up is possible. From this perspective, Dyer could make a powerful indictment of the integral function of the bureaucratic state in this culture of alienation. Instead, he frames the criminal justice build-up as a threat to electoral democracy, never faltering in his belief that liberal democracy is reparable. The naiveté of such a position is almost laughable, if not for the author’s eminently respectable motivations.

Dyer is a frontlines writer: his former Yugoslavia is Texas.

The book's topics include: an argument unmasking the PIC; an informative history on the growing centralization of media ownership and distribution; the project of "manufacturing fear"; the rise of public opinion pollsters; a history and effects of mandatory minimums; the corporate interests in prison expansion; and an examination of private prisons, including exposés on private prison cover-ups. Much of the writing is repetitive, intended for an audience of Joe and Jane Suburbanite, who Dyer believes are completely duped and must be browbeaten into enlightenment. But his writing is compelling when it moves to his first-hand experience as a journalist investigating the private prisons of Texas, where Colorado was sending inmates. We hear, between the lines, the shock he felt as his exposés were denied daily by officials of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Professional integrity also comes through between the lines, along with a sincere desire for change. “Eventually, an enlightened Federal judge in Denver ordered all payments to the private prison suspended until an independent expert could determine conditions.… Fortunately, for the Texas-Colorado inmates, a surprise inspection of the facility revealed that the conditions were at least as bad as I had reported. In the end, Colorado terminated its contract and moved the inmates from the Texas hellhole.”(5) From this success story of journalistic activism, it is no small jump to the proposal that "choosing more informative news" will damage the market forces that keep the perpetual prisoner machine rolling.

That is, if one lacks, as Dyer lacks, a clear critique of capitalism. Throughout the book, capitalism is constantly fragmented into “shareholder interest,” “profit motives,” and “corporate power.” This fragmentation cripples the radical potential of the book, which becomes, in the end, a source of highly informative dirt on the Corrections Corporation of America and the Bobby Jones Group, and verification of the well-known facts that you cannot trust the evening news, your vote does not count, and Wall Street dividends are ultimately blood money.

Re: The Prison Industrial Complex
Parenti anticipates this weak link of Dyer's, and offers advice: “Much of the current critique of the prison industrial complex relies on showing the direct involvement of specific economic interests. This “interest group model,” the preferred style of muckraking journalists, borrows heavily from the accurate left critique of how the arms lobby created the military industrial complex. Making direct causal links and finding proverbial ‘smoking guns’ is a powerful path of argument. But interest groups go only so far. Ultimately, the whole of capitalist society is greater than the sum of its corporate and non-corporate parts. To really understand America's incarceration binge and criminal justice crackdown, we need to move from a narrow, interest-group-based model to a more holistic class analysis that looks at the needs of the class system and class society in general.”(6)

To uncover how such a holistic class analysis may inform one's critique, let us conclude by examining one of the shared topics: the nature of the PIC.

Parenti asks: “Is prison building the current delivery system for Keynesian stimulus in a post-Cold War, demilitarized America? Is the emerging PIC replacing, or augmenting, that behemoth constellation of civilian government, military power and private capital that Eisenhower dubbed the “Military Industrial Complex” and which for two generations was America's de facto industrial policy?”(7)

Dyer would answer indubitably yes. The driving force of America's economy is crime and punishment. The most lucrative construction bonds are those set for prison construction, and no corporation in America does not have its fingers bound up in prison expansion or the war on drugs. And, to this, Parenti agrees.

But, it is not economic functions which attracts Dyer to the PIC model: it is the place of the prison in Washington. To paraphrase his argument: Since the “war on crime” began in the early 80s, “crime” has been the top, or near the top, issue in every public opinion poll. By 1992, 41% of Americans felt unsafe in their own neighborhoods after dark—all of this while the vast majority of people were quite safe. By 1995, 79% of Americans thought that crime was the biggest issue facing the nation. What we have here, to borrow a term from the Military Industrial Complex (MIC), is the Crime Gap.

Dyer explains: “On January 17th, 1961, [Eisenhower warned] Americans that the military-industrial complex had gained a dangerous level of influence over our political system and its defense policies.... In particular, Eisenhower was concerned over the fact that the defense industry was using its influence on Capitol Hill to put forward the perception that there was a severe “missile gap” between the United States and the Soviet Union, the idea being that Soviet military capabilities were far superior to our own and that we needed to spend much more money on defense in order to restore the balance of power and thereby keep America safe. In response to the fear created by the “missile gap” propaganda, the public enthusiastically supported the government’s massive increases in defense spending at the beginning of the cold war....

“Eisenhower … understood that there was in fact no ‘missile gap.’”(8) Thus, for Dyer, the emergence of the PIC makes perfect sense: the propaganda about the wars on drugs and crime had replaced the propaganda about the war on Communism and Russian imperialism.

For Parenti, this is not enough. Indeed, there is a government backed juggernaut of mutually reinforcing corporate interests. Indeed, mandatory minimums and prison expansion are discussed as pork belly giveaways within the legislative halls of Washington, Sacramento, Albany and Tallahassee, yet framed as public safety issues before the cameras on the congressional steps. But the economic function of the PIC can never approach that of the MIC. Prison construction will always be a small-scale form of economic stimulus, which may revive “occasional economically moribund areas,” but they are “tiny islands in a vast sea of stagnant agriculture, deindustrialization, and a post-organized, downgraded manufacturing.”(9) More importantly is the issue of spin-off. “Cold War pork and government incubation of defense industries helped develop the U.S. interstate highway system, state universities, commercial jets, most of telecommunications including the Internet, microprocessors, fiber optics and laser surgery.… No such economic linkages can be attributed to the prison boom.”(10)

Because of a book like Dyer’s, because the PIC model may be deployed to make an argument which muddles the role of capitalism in the prison crisis, Parenti takes the controversial stand of imposing limits on the PIC model. As Parenti says, “Even if prison building created no Keynesian stimulus, and there were no private prisons to profit from locking up the poor, and if prison labor was abolished—in other words, if all directly interested parties were removed from the equation—American capitalism would still, without major economic reforms, have to manage and contain its surplus populations and poorest classes with paramilitary forms of segregation, containment and repression. At the heart of the matter lies the contradiction: 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 needs surplus populations, creates surplus populations, yet faces the threat of political, aesthetic or cultural disruption from those populations.”(11)

While both authors agree that the PIC must be exposed for what it is, Parenti warns us repeatedly against locating it in specific interests, as if those could be dealt with one by one. The PIC must be viewed as class war, waged from above. This spirited argument, which runs the PIC model through such a strictly economic still, is surprisingly liberating when mixed with Parenti's tonic point that the PIC is the mechanism, not the root, of the current situation. There is something latent in American culture which finds this murderous project acceptable—so long as it is sanitized and hidden from view.

Change
Their differing notions of the PIC, of electoral politics and of capitalism lead to a stark contrast in their proposals for change.

Dyer, in his chapter on “Pulling the Plug” recommends “a couple of things that we can realistically do.”(12) First, “simply educate ourselves and our neighbors about media content.”(13) This way, “viewers may still choose to watch the same sensationalized newscasts, but [knowingly for] it's entertainment value rather than informational worth.”(14) Secondly, people may begin to “vote with their viewing minutes,”(15) by choosing more informative news and less violent entertainment. Lastly, (perhaps most ambitiously) Congress may enforce antitrust laws against Disney and Time Warner in an effort to legislatively reduce violent media content.(16)

These “proposals” speak volumes of the assumed powerlessness of citizenry in a representative democracy, unconsciously reduced by Dyer to “viewers,” a step below the monikers of “constituents” and “taxpayers” employed by the professional politicians. Are people truly so powerless and manipulated? Dyer concludes his appeal with well-intentioned liberal hope: “nothing can change until we, meaning all of us, or at least a majority of us, find the wherewithal to make our actions—whether they are watching TV, voting or investing—a manifestation of our ideals.”(17) Yet, haven't a majority of Americans been manifesting their ideals for centuries? The Westward Expansion with it's Indian Wars and free-for-all land stakes; or the creation of suburbia, the physical space of the alienation which Dyer finds so frustrating: these have been social efforts, cooperative labors, cultural works. The prison expansion of today is also a manifestation of prominent values in the American culture, of social ideals.

Parenti makes no proposals in his conclusion, except to point out that the solution to the prison and police build-up lies in "popular resistance and economic justice." This is no evasion. Rather he makes a political proscription when he identifies "the roots of change" in grassroots opposition to the PIC and police state. These include inmates filing grievances against staff, forming alliances with outside activists, in some cases attacking abusive correctional officers in an organized fashion; the movement to establish police accountability and civilian review boards; the lobbying movements like Families Against Mandatory Minimums; the gang-truce movements; and youth organizing “Schools Not Jails” demos. Like a writer who believes in true democracy and not in the myth of an “enlightened electorate,” he urges us to listen to these movements, of people articulating a grounded struggle against oppression in their daily lives, to find the way forward.

Conclusion
I would add that any movement that would claim to be democratic in principles must listen to the voices of these grassroots efforts against police and prisons; that any utopian proscriptions for a new society that do not take account of the facts of the prison are, at best, narcissism, or something more sinister: something akin to Soviet propaganda under Stalin, where images and symbols of the revolutionary moment are parroted about, while the fact of the Gulag is masked.

This police/prison edifice has grown to magnificent proportions. People everywhere are waking up to the fact that it must be put in check, if not eliminated. There is always the possibility that it may be struck down, like a Tower of Babel, by some higher power.... The people coerced into creating the tower then must live under the rule of a different master. Liberatory potential snatched away again by the changing of leaders.

For the story to end that way would be a shame. Listen to the furies and frustrations of this movement. Fury against an intolerable world: this is the seed of utopia. Frustration against the legislative machine, and its carrots of promised justice: this is a living primer in anarchist critique. This movement is our generation's laboratory of democracy.


FOOTNOTES:

1. Parenti, Lockdown America, p. xii.

2. Ibid., p. 12.

3. Ibid., p. 9.

4. Dyer, The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, p. 3.

5. Ibid., pp. 201-202.

6. Parenti, Lockdown America, p. 238.

7. Ibid., p. 213.

8. Dyer, The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, pp. 29-30.

9. Parenti, Lockdown America, p. 217.

10. Ibid., p. 216.

11. Ibid., pp. 238-239.

12. Dyer, The Perpetual Prisoner Machine, p. 276.

13. Ibid., p. 276.

14. Ibid., p. 276.

15. Ibid., p. 277.

16. Ibid., p. 278

17. Ibid., p. 279.

 

 
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