The Rise of Big House Nation:
from reform to revenge

excerpted from the book

Lockdown America

Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis

by Christian Parenti

Verso Books, 1999


The Current Crisis

Today the nation's prisons and jails brim with 1.8 million people, and few observers seem much bothered. Another three million are "doing time" outside, as satellites of the court system, subject to unannounced visits from parole and probation officers, mandatory urine tests, home detention, or the invisible leash of electronic shackles. Millions more are connected to punishment from the other end, making their living directly or indirectly from the Keynesian stimulus of the nation's lockup costs. And since the early eighties incarceration has changed in both quantitative and qualitative terms: there are more prisons, more captives, and conditions inside are in many respects worse and more restrictive than ever.

So who goes to prison? "Super-predators" and psychos? In 1994, only 29 percent of all prison admissions were for "violent offenses" such as rape, murder, kidnapping, robbery, and assault; while 31 percent of all entrants were jailed for "property offenses" such as fraud, burglary, auto theft, and larceny; 30 percent were "admitted" for "drug offenses" including possession and trafficking; and almost 9 percent were imprisoned for "public order offenses" such as weapons possession and drunk driving.

What are the causes of this lockup binge? First and foremost the transformation of the class and occupational structure of American society. But remember that the first part of the criminal justice crackdown began in the late sixties as counterinsurgency by other means; the police were ill-prepared for the task of a multifaceted rebellion, and thus federal aid focused on policing and other "front end" forms of criminal justice

The second round of anti-crime repression, which began in the early and mid eighties, was a reaction to a different set of contradictions. With the onslaught of Reaganomic restructuring, rebellion was not a pressing political issue: there were no riots, no Black Panther Party, etc. Instead, increased poverty and the social dislocations of deindustrialization were threats to order. In a broad sense the social breakdown, disorder, and floating populations created by neoliberal economic restructuring had to be managed with something other than social democratic reform. The liberal, ameliorative social control strategies of the war on poverty era (discussed in chapter two) inadvertently empowered working people. This had a deleterious effect on capital's efforts to boost sagging profit margins by gouging workers. In short, redistributive reforms helped throw the Phillips curve out of wake.

Reproducing the business system, and the American social order generally, required containing the poor. Policing and the war on drugs are part of this political triage. But police repression requires a carceral component. Cops alone cannot manage the cast-off classes. And the police need more than firepower to animate their orders; the threat of prison is a crucial part of their arsenal. Prison also mops up huge numbers of poor African American, Latino, and Native American people, particularly men. Thus the criminal justice buildup is a bulwark against the new dangerous classes because it absorbs and controls them and extends its threat onto the street.

But the criminal justice buildup was not necessarily designed with class and racial containment as its sole aim. In many ways the incarceration binge is simply the policy by-product of right-wing electoral rhetoric. As economic restructuring created a social crisis for blue-collar America, politicians found it necessary and useful to speak to domestic anxieties; they had to articulate the trouble their constituents were facing, but in politically acceptable forms which would avoid blaming corporate greed and capitalist restructuring. This required scapegoats, a role usually filled by new immigrants, the poor, and people of color, particularly African Americans. And so it was in the 1 980s that people of color and the poor (usually conflated as one category) came under renewed ideological assault. Charles Murray's Losing Ground, George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty, and Lawrence Mead's The New Poverty relaunched the age-old poor-bashing that lurks within all Protestant cultures and gave it a neo-racist twist. The "underclass" became shorthand for the swarthy urban loafers. People of color were cast as parasites, and violent predators pilfering middle-class (read white) America by means of such Great Society programs as AFDC and Head Start. And the most potent anti-poor symbol-the one that always surpasses the welfare mother and the mendicant addict-is the young dark criminal, the untamed urban buck, running free threatening order, property, and (white) personal safety.

For writers like Mead, "the solution must lie in public authority. Low wage work apparently must be mandated, just as a draft has sometimes been necessary to staff the military. Authority achieves compliance more efficiently than benefits, at least from society's viewpoint. Government need not make the desired behavior worthwhile to people. It simply threatens punishment..."

Amidst this climate of racialized class hatred, crime baiting emerged as a form of super-potent political fuel. The modern origins of this electoral strategy were ... the ravings of Barry Goldwater. The recent nadir, which made anti-crime fearmongering requisite for all aspiring politicians, was of course the Willie Horton coup by George Bush. And winning elections by invoking the phantom menace of the psychotic Black rapist eventually escalates into actual policymaking, such as the federal crime bills discussed earlier, or the more than 1,000 new criminal justice statutes created by the California state legislature in the late eighties and early nineties. Such new laws, mandating stiff prison sentences, led to rapidly increasing rates of incarceration. In fact the federal government has gone as far as to punish states that do not choose the gulag path. The 1994 federal crime bill - the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing Law of 1994 - authorized $7.9 billion for prison construction grants, but only states with "truth-in-sentencing" requirements, which mandate that violent offenders serve 8 5 percent of their sentences, will be eligible for the money.

Thus ... incarceration is at one level a rational strategy for managing the contradictions of a restructured American capitalism. But at another level, the big lockup is merely the useful policy by-product of electoral strategies in which right-wing politicians use the theme of crime and punishment to get elected, while masking their all-important pro-business agenda... regardless of what politicians say or believe, prison's main function is to terrorize the poor, warehouse social dynamite and social wreckage, and, as Foucault argued, reproduce apolitical forms of criminal "deviance." Such social pathology is useful because it justifies state repression and the militarization of public space, sews fear, and leaves poor communities-which might have organized for social justice-in disarray, occupied by police and thus docile.

Prison as abattor: Official terror

It must be acknowledged that the penitentiary system in America is severe. While society in the United States gives the example of most extended liberty, the prisons of the same country offer the spectacle of the most complete despotism.

Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqeville, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France


There is a paradox at the core of penology, and from it derives the thousand ills and afflictions of the prison system. It is that not only the worst of the young are sent to prison but the best-that is the proudest, the bravest, the most daring, the most enterprising, and the most undefeated of the poor. There starts the horror.

Norman Mailer, introduction to In the Belly of the Beast


Corcoran state prison is a landlocked slaveship stuck on the middle passage to nowhere. Surrounded by cotton fields and a huge dusty sky, the prison's concrete buildings look like an isolated set of warehouses, ringed by miles of coiled razor wire, security lights, and a lethal electric fence. Here California's Black and Latino "super-bad" are buried in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) -a prison within the prison-denied fresh food, adequate air, and sunlight. They spend twenty-three hours a day in tiny cells, with no work, no educational programs, and often in total isolation. Psychologists say such environments lead to rapid psychological decomposition among inmates, but the insanity infects corrections staff as well.'

On April 2, 1994, Corcoran SHU inmate Preston Tate was taken from his five-by-nine-foot cell by corrections officers (COs) to a small triangular concrete exercise yard. What followed next was captured on silent, grainy black-and-white video by prison surveillance cameras. The young African American, Tate, looks around him nervously and talks to his "cellie." Then two Latino prisoners enter the scene. The Black and Latino prisoners lunge towards each other with explosive energy. After several seconds of pounding, swinging, and grappling, guards in the gun booth above the yard and behind the camera fire wooden baton rounds into the tangle of convicts. The battle in the yard continues a few seconds more until a guard fires a single 9mm, fragmenting "Glazer safety round" from an H&K mini-14 assault rifle, blowing open Tate's skull. On the video Tate goes limp and the other inmates roll away from his corpse.

The killing, though tragic and sordid, was not unique. Tate was just one of the 175 inmates shot with live rounds by California prison guards between 1989 and 1994, twenty-seven of whom died. Hundreds more were hit with less-than-lethal wooden block baton rounds. Nor would Tate be the last to die for fighting. From 1994 through the first half of 1998, twelve more inmates were shot dead by corrections officers and another thirty-two were seriously wounded. Only one of these inmates was armed with a weapon. Out of all these shootings only a handful were investigated and only two guards were punished, with 180-day suspensions.

The unofficial prison-yard executions once again put California in the vanguard of bad policy. In all other states combined, only six inmates were shot by guards between 1994 and 1998. In every one of these cases the victims were trying to escape. Even Texas-where corrections administrators pride themselves on running a very tight ship-only one inmate, an escapee, was shot and killed during those four years. In fact, only California allows the use of deadly force to break up prisoner fist fights.

The carnage in the Golden State's prison yards has two driving causes. the California Department of Corrections' (CDC's) "integrated yard policy" (in which rival inmates are deliberately placed within each other's reach) and the unofficial practice among thuggish COs of staging and betting on "gladiator fights" between convicts from rival gangs or ethnicities. While horrifying in their own right, the Corcoran set-up fights and murders also illustrate how independent social actors can work concomitantly at different levels to achieve a shared, if unspoken, goal.

At the micro-level, COs (also known as "screws" or "bulls"), were staging fights as a form of sadistic diversion, even videotaping the fights for later viewing, and gathering to watch the contests from gun towers. But this local practice, which occurred in other prisons as well, was given a veil of legitimacy by the CDC's integrated yard policy, which mandates the mixing of rival gangs and races in the name of teaching tolerance and testing prisoners' "ability to get along in a controlled setting." Not surprisingly, fist fights and stabbings were, and still are, epidemic throughout the system. Nortenos associated with La Nuestra Familia fight surenos, the soldiers of the "Eme" or Mexican Mafia. Surenos in turn go after African American convicts who run with the prison gang called the Black Guerrilla Family, or any of the various prison-stranded sets of Crips and Bloods. They, in turn, make war on the "white trash" and bikers who populate the ranks of the Aryan Brotherhood and the baggy-pants-clad Nazi Lowriders. The white convicts in turn make war on Blacks and nortenos.

The integrated yard was a sure recipe for racial pyrotechnics, but its supporters extended all the way to the apex of the CDC. In 1992, a handful of disgusted, courageous Corcoran COs augmented the "shoot to maim" policy by sending in armor-clad, shield-wielding "special response teams" to break up fights. "No one got hurt and we resolved the conflict without discharging a firearm," explained whistle-blower and former Corcoran lieutenant Steve Rigg. But the paper-pushers in Sacramento would have none of it. Word came down from the director that no line officers were to put themselves in jeopardy. The policy was simple: "let the guns rule the yard." According to Rigg: "That became a turning point. The Corcoran way of quelling violence-shooting first and then asking questions-became the state's way. "

There was yet a third layer to this nefarious and informal conspiracy. The product of the CO sadism and bureaucratic over-reaction - that is, the ultraviolence in the yards-became statistical fodder for CDC budget building. CDC Director James H. Gomez routinely dispatched ominous missives to the legislature in which he cited the crisis of rising violence as yet another reason for spending more money. The statistical expression of manufactured mayhem also showed up in CDC five-year master plans, in which the revenue-hungry Gomez menaced lawmakers with evidence of mounting inmate violence, as the supposed harbinger of a system on the verge of detonation." On August 30, 1995, for example, the director wrote:

Violence rates in the prison system, which originally declined with the opening of the first new prisons in 1984, have recently been increasing, as evidenced by a 30 percent increase in the rate of assaults on staff. The lack of prison capacity will exacerbate these conditions and further endanger the safety of the men and women who staff these prisons.

This organically evolving strategy of packing prisons, fomenting violence, then using the bloody statistics to leverage more tax money for the CDC worked flawlessly. By 1995 the CDC's budget, at almost $4 billion, finally eclipsed California's spending on higher education, and the state's thirty-three massive prisons housed more than 150,000 convicts. But starting in 1994 the semiautonomous, mutually reinforcing layers of this bureaucratic empire building began to unravel.

Lockdown America

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