Prison is the ultimate power the democratic state exercises over a citizen

“We must keep in mind that with the exception of capital punishment, prison is the ultimate power the democratic state exercises over a citizen. That prisons fail miserably at their professed objectives-rehabilitation, deterrence and protection—is immaterial to their survival. These failings, along with cruel, dehumanizing prison practices, have constantly been exposed by rebelling prisoners, by shocked reformers, by governmental commissions and academicians. But exposes alone do not determine the fate of prisons.

What determines the survival and expansion of prisons is their success in controlling particular segments of the population. Prisons, the end repositories of the criminal (in)justice systems, maintain the concept of a “criminal class” selected with discretion. Such discretionary power can be wielded indiscriminately by functionaries such as police, district attorneys, judges and the parole apparatus.

Functionaries of the criminal (in)justice systems represent the powerful and influential. Their use of vast discretionary power distorts the principles of justice. Recognizing and identifying the locus and misuse of such power is central to an abolitionist approach to prison change.

If we are unclear about power and how it operates, we will be impeded in our ability to properly analyze specific prison situations. As a result we will find ourselves grappling with only the outer layers of the criminal (in)justice systems rather than the core. We will be relegated to acting upon surface reforms—those which legitimize or strengthen the prison system. We define abolitionist reforms as those which do not legitimize the prevailing system, but gradually diminish its power and functions.

This is the key to an abolitionist perspective on social change. Abolition is a long range struggle, an unending process: it is never “finished,” the phasing out is never completed. Strategies and actions recommended in this handbook seek to gradually limit, diminish, or restrain certain forms of power wielded by the criminal (in)justice systems.

The pressure is excessive for abolitionists to immediately produce a “finished” blueprint, to solve every problem, to deal with every “criminal” before we can begin to deal with and change the systems. The first step toward abolition occurs when we break with the established prison system and at the same time face “unbuilt ground.” Only by rejecting what is “old and finished” do we give the “new and unfinished” a chance to appear. Pursuing an abolition continuum strategy, we can undertake a program of concrete, direct and immediate abolitions of portions of the system beginning with abolishing further prison/jail construction.

Sometimes our recommended strategies and actions utilize conventional judicial and legislative processes. Abolitionists are not apprehensive about working within the system, so long as it permits us to change and limit the system. When systemic options prove inadequate, abolitionists strive for newer and more creative approaches—building alternatives to existing structures and processes.

As with all social change, prison abolition produces many paradoxes. We work in the here and now: a quarter of a million prisoners suffer in cages [now 2.7 million]; plans or construction are underway for the building of hundreds upon hundreds of jails and prisons while the economy declines for the poor and the powerless. To move from this shocking reality toward the vision of a just, prisonless society, requires a host of in between strategies and reforms.

These interim, or abolishing-type reforms, often may appear to contradict our long range goal of abolition, unless we see them as part of a process—a continuum process—moving toward the phasing out of the prison system. If interim strategies become ends in themselves, we will reinforce the present system, changed in detail only.

Modern reforms attempt to mask the cruelty of caging. Our goals are not diverted by handsome new facades, the language of “treatment” and prison managers who deftly gild the bars. Present reforms will not abolish the cage unless they continue to move toward the constant reduction of the function of prisons.

The abolitionist’s task is clear—to prevent the system from masking its true nature. The system dresses itself up: we undress the system.  We strip it down to the reality: the cage and the key. We demystify. We ask the simple but central political question: “Who decides?” We raise the moral issue: “By what right?” We challenge the old configurations of power. We begin to change the old, begin to create the new.”

– Instead of Prisons (1976)

Serving Life for Surviving Abuse

he said he slapped her made the jury laugh - domestic abuseOn August 3, 1995, 23-year-old Kelly Savage was making last-minute plans to leave her abusive husband, Mark Savage. A few weeks before, Kelly had contacted a battered-women’s organization for advice on how to leave her husband. “Act as normal as possible,” they told her, a common tactic given to women seeking to evade their abusive spouse’s suspicion. For the next few weeks, Kelly quietly amassed what she needed to leave—birth certificates for her two young children (Justin, who was three, and Krystal, who was almost two), medications, and clothes—all of which she hid so that Mark would not find them. She purchased bus tickets to Los Angeles dated the next day, August 4.

That afternoon, Kelly left to cash a check and pick up a few items for their departure. While she was out, she called Mark and asked him what size vacuum bags they needed. In a sworn statement, Kelly said, “I thought that by asking about vacuum bags, Mark would think that I was planning to stick around to use them.” Instead, Mark told her to come home because Justin, her three-year-old son, was not breathing. Medical experts determined that his death was caused by physical abuse.

Like many abusers, Mark had escalated in the days leading up to Kelly’s planned escape. While he had always been violent—he had a habit of throwing Kelly onto the bed and choking her—he had recently tied Kelly to a couch and tried to carve his name into her ankle. Neighbors called the police twice based on the noise they heard. The night before, possibly because he knew Kelly was planning to leave, he had beaten Justin severely enough to possibly cause the brain injuries that killed him. When Kelly returned home and found Justin lifeless, Mark tackled her and threatened to kill her if she called 9-1-1. She did so anyway.

Both Kelly and Mark were tried for Justin’s murder, found guilty, and sentenced to life without parole. Kelly has been in prison now for 19 years, and her pro bono attorneys have recently filed a habeas petition for a new hearing, which is being opposed by California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris. Their argument: The jury never heard about Kelly’s long and painful history of abuse, evidence which shows that Kelly’s case was a textbook example of intimate-partner battering.

According to statistics provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there were 186 women serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences in July 2013. This represents about 3 percent of all inmates statewide. The Sentencing Project reported that same year that there are over 5,300 women nationally serving life and life without parole sentences, reflecting an increase of about 14 percent since 2008. About 300 of these women were sentenced to LWOP, which means that California’s prisons alone contain about half of America’s female inmates serving LWOP sentences.

As Kelly’s case shows, a common characteristic of women sentenced to LWOP is their history of abuse. While there’s no exact count of how many women in prison have been physically or sexually abused, most place the odds around 85 to 90 percent—disproportionately high compared to men. As the length of sentence increases, so do the odds that a woman has been abused. Among all women in prison, women who have been sentenced to LWOP sentences are the most likely to have been abused, more so than women serving non-life sentences and men serving life sentences, said Professor Margaret Leigey, a criminologist at The College of New Jersey who has studied LWOP sentencing.

On the surface, the numbers seem overwhelmingly higher. Professor Heidi Rummel, who directs the Post-Conviction Justice Project at the University of Southern California Law School, which assists those convicted of serious crimes, said that, among the women she represented—those sentenced to life or LWOP sentences—the rate of physical and sexual abuse is “basically 100 percent.”

[…]

—-

Read full article: Pishko, Jessica. “Serving Life for Surviving Abuse“. The Atlantic. 26 January 2015.

Peter Gelderloos: Police and prisons as illegitimate institutions

“In the current crisis, the unquestionable dogma is that the police have a right to exist, that the police as an institution are an apt instrument to protect us and serve us, and therefore they are a legitimate presence on our streets and in our neighborhoods.

In this debate, the Right claim that the police are working just fine, while the Left claim that changes are needed to get them working better. Both of them are united in preserving the role of police and keeping real people—neighborhoods, communities, and all the individuals affected by police—from becoming the protagonists in the conflicts that affect us. Similarly, we frequently hear leftists claim that ‘the prisons aren’t working,’ exhibiting a willful ignorance as to the actual purpose of prisons. Sadly, for all their distortions and manipulations, the Right is being more honest. The police and the prisons both are working just fine. As per their design, they are working against us.”

–Peter Gelderloos, “The Nature of Police, The Role of the Left”

US prisoner Albert Woodfox has conviction overturned after 42 years locked in solitary confinement

(By Ed Pilkington, via The Guardian)

Albert Woodfox, right, and Herman Wallace in Angola prison, in Louisiana.
Albert Woodfox, right, and Herman Wallace in Angola prison, in Louisiana. Woodfox’s 1972 murder conviction was overturned when a US appeals court ruled his conviction was secured through racially discriminatory means. (Photograph: Amnesty USA)

When Albert Woodfox, the longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner in the US who has been in isolation almost without pause for more than 42 years, was told on Thursday his conviction had been overturned, he had difficulty reading the court ruling. Prison guards refused to unshackle him, to free his hands.

“The guards wouldn’t release even one shackle from his hand so that he could turn the pages. I had to turn them for him,” said his lawyer, Carine Williams.

The 37-page ruling from the US court of appeals for the fifth circuit gives Woodfox, 67, the only member of the “Angola Three” still imprisoned, his greatest hope yet of release. He has been held in a 6x8ft cell, enduring the psychological impact of isolation exacerbated by chronic claustrophobia, for all but three years since he was put in “closed cell restriction” in 1972.

Woodfox was convicted of the murder that year of a guard in Angola prison, in Louisiana, where he was serving time for armed robbery. He has always protested his innocence, insisting that he and his Angola Three fellows were victims of a political vendetta because of their then membership in the Black Panther party.

The fifth circuit judges upheld a lower court’s opinion that Woodfox’s conviction was secured through racially discriminatory means. In 1993 he was reindicted for the murder of prison guard Brent Miller – after an earlier court ruling had overturned the sentence – by a grand jury led by a white foreperson.

The court found unanimously that the selection of the foreperson formed part of a discriminatory pattern in that part of Louisiana. Concluding that it amounted to a violation of the US constitution, the judges struck down Woodfox’s conviction.

Williams, an attorney with the New York firm Squire Patton Boggs, said Woodfox was numb when she told him his conviction had been overturned. “He was shocked. He’s been so close before, only to have it taken away from him.”

The prisoner said he wished he could have shared the news with Herman Wallace, another member of the Angola Three. Wallace was released in October 2013, when in the terminal stages of liver cancer and at the end of a bitter struggle with the Louisiana authorities. He died two days later.

In the course of almost 43 years in solitary confinement, Woodfox has only had one period, of about three years, among the general prison population. The rest of the time he has been alone, spending 23 hours a day in his cell and one hour, also in isolation, in a concrete exercise yard.

The ordeal of prolonged solitary confinement, which has been likened by international bodies to a form of torture, is amplified in his case by his claustrophobia. Legal documents give clues to the intensity of his torment.

In one such document, from 2008, he describes an attack of claustrophobia: “I feel like I am being smothered, it is very difficult to breathe, and I sweat profusely. It seems like the cell walls close in and are just inches from my face. I try to cope by pacing, or by closing my eyes and rocking myself.”

The appeal court ruling is not the end of Woodfox’s travails. He must now wait to hear what the state of Louisiana intends to do – whether it will follow the tough approach it has taken for the past 42 years and subject him to a third trial for the 1972 murder, or whether it will admit defeat and release him.

“Louisiana has fought hard, and they have lost at every turn,” said Williams. “I am hoping that they are sobered by this unanimous court decision and instead of being aggressive and going forward with a retrial they will stop and reflect on what they have done.”

Robert King, the third member of the Angola Three, was released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary. He told the Guardian “this is what we have been waiting for, for so long”, and added: “We’re now back at the point where it’s in the hands of the state.”

Tory Pegram, of the campaigning group the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, said: “We strongly believe this is an opportunity for the state of Louisiana to stop wasting taxpayer money and do the right thing by this man who has experienced the very worst, most horrific and broken parts of the criminal justice system in America.”

Against Carceral Feminism (Vikki Law)

(via Jacobin)

carceral feminisim[…] Casting policing and prisons as the solution to domestic violence both justifies increases to police and prison budgets and diverts attention from the cuts to programs that enable survivors to escape, such as shelters, public housing, and welfare. And finally, positioning police and prisons as the principal antidote discourages seeking other responses, including community interventions and long-term organizing. […]

In 2001, Critical Resistance, a prison-abolition organization, and INCITE! Women of Color against Violence, an anti-violence network, issued a statement assessing the effects of increased criminalization and the silence around the nexus of gender and police violence. Noting that relying on policing and prisons has discouraged organizing community responses and interventions, the statement challenged communities to make connections, create strategies to combat both forms of violence, and document their efforts as examples for others seeking alternatives.

[…] strategies to stop domestic violence frequently require more than a single action. They often require a long-term commitment from friends and community to keep a person safe, as in Piepnza-Samarasinha’s case. For those involved in devising alternatives […] it may require not only creating immediate safety tactics, but long-term organizing that addresses the underlying inequalities that exacerbate domestic violence.

By relying solely on a criminalized response, carceral feminism fails to address these social and economic inequities, let alone advocate for policies that ensure women are not economically dependent on abusive partners. Carceral feminism fails to address the myriad forms of violence faced by women, including police violence and mass incarceration. It fails to address factors that exacerbate abuse, such as male entitlement, economic inequality, the lack of safe and affordable housing, and the absence of other resources.

Carceral feminism abets the growth of the state’s worst functions, while obscuring the shrinking of its best. At the same time, it conveniently ignores the anti-violence efforts and organizing by those who have always known that criminalized responses pose further threats rather than promises of safety.

Read full article “Against Carceral Feminism” (by Vikki Law) at Jacobin

Newly declassified State Department documents outline torture methods employed by US-backed military dictatorship in Brazil

“Allegations of Torture in Brazil.” department of state memo
Released State Department document showing that US officials were clearly aware that their buddies in Brazil were torturing dissidents (click to enlarge)

excerpt from “Remembering Brazil’s Military Coup 50 Years Later” (NACLA, April 2014):

In 1964, the Brazilian military dictatorship rolled in like a bad dream. President João Goulart fled to Uruguay, and with him went the hopes of progressive reforms. The first of seventeen military decrees, or Institutional Acts (AI), were issued. Institutional Act 5, decreed by military president Artur da Costa e Silva on December 13, 1968, suspended habeas corpus and disbanded congress. Inspired by the 1959 Cuban revolution, and insurgent guerrilla movements in Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, Communist Party militants went underground and formed armed movements against the dictatorship, including the National Liberation Alliance and the Popular Revolutionary Vanguard, which would later become the Revolutionary Armed Vanguard Palmares (VAR-Palmares). […]

Dissidents were tracked down, arrested, imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, or worse. According to the 2007 report from the Brazilian government’s Special Commission on Murders and Political Disappeared entitled “The Right to Memory and the Truth,” 475 people were disappeared during the twenty-year-long military dictatorship. Thousands were imprisoned and roughly thirty thousand were tortured. More than 280 different types of torture were inflicted on “subversives” at 242 clandestine torture centers, by hundreds of individual torturers. Current Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was at the time a student activist who became active in the VAR-Palmares (among other guerrilla groups). She was captured by the Brazilian military on January 16, 1970, tortured, and imprisoned for two and a half years, for participating with the guerrilla. Within a few years the armed resistance to the Brazilian dictatorship had been largely eliminated.

state dept memo describing forms of torture used by their brazilian dictator friends
Excerpt from the recently declassified State Department memo “Widespread arrests and psychophysical interrogation of suspect subversives” (click to enlarge)

Meanwhile U.S.-Brazilian relations became tighter than ever, as the United States worked to turn Brazil into a “success story” in the fight against communism. According to a five-and-a-half-year 5,000-page investigation into the human rights violations of the dictatorship, entitled Brasil Nunca Mais (Brazil Never Again), CIA agents, such as U.S. officer Dan Mitrione, actively trained hundreds of Brazilian military and police officers in torture techniques, or what they called the “Scientific Methods to Extract Confessions and Obtain the Truth.” Several documented accounts reveal that Mitrione tested his techniques on street kids and homeless beggars from the streets of Belo Horizonte. Many of these techniques would be replicated across the region through the U.S.-sponsored Plan Condor, as Brazil’s neighbors also fell to military dictatorships.

… and this via the National Security Archive article “Declassified Documents Given By Biden to Rousseff Detail Secret Dictatorship-Era Executions, ‘Psychophysical’ Torture in Brazil“:

The Brazilian military regime employed a “sophisticated and elaborate psychophysical duress system” to “intimidate and terrify” suspected leftist militants in the early 1970s, according to a State Department report dated in April 1973 and made public yesterday. Among the torture techniques used during the military era, the report detailed “special effects” rooms at Brazilian military detention centers in which suspects would be “placed nude” on a metal floor “through which electric current is pulsated.” Some suspects were “eliminated” but the press was told they died in “shoot outs” while trying to escape police custody. “The shoot-out technique is being used increasingly,” the cable sent by the U.S. Consul General in Rio de Janeiro noted, “in order to deal with the public relations aspect of eliminating subversives,” and to “obviate ‘death-by-torture’ charges in the international press.” […]

Brazil’s Comissão Nacional da Verdade (“National Truth Commission”), which is investigating torture and other human rights abuses committed by the Brazilian dictatorship, has released all 43 of the recently declassified US documents on their website. To view the memos in their entirety, see: “CNV torna públicos documentos entregues pelo governo norte-americano

“Prison is a totality–something that one cannot escape from, but only shift positions within.”

“Prison is not a discrete place; its force and logic are distributed across the metropolis. Put another way, there is a place that is prison, and then there is a tendency, a way of managing life, that is prison. The place and the tendency are not two, but one. Macrocosm, microcosm. To speak of prisons as if they were separate from the rest of society is to equivocate. What we call prisons are a node in the prison-metropolis that are indicative of how the metropolis functions as a whole, and without which the rest could not function. Prison is a totality–something that one cannot escape from, but only shift positions within.”

— from “3 Positions Against Prisons” (August O’Clairre)

Razor wire fences and concrete walls in a prison

“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”Michel Foucault