Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance
in the Age of Mass Imprisonment
an interview with Sasha Abramsky
about her new book "American Furies"
by Prema Polit
www.alternet.org, April 14, 2007
The prison system in the U.S. stands alone
in the modern Western world as a model of mass incarceration.
The "tough on crime" stance taken by elected officials
from across the political spectrum has not halted the resurgence
of crime in the last few years, nor has it helped prevent ex-inmates
from once again ending up behind bars.
How did the U.S. devolve into a nation
that incarcerates over 2.13 million people, when just a quarter
century ago the number was 475,000? What happens when the criminal
justice system deals out vengeance instead of justice?
Sasha Abramsky delves into these questions
in his new book, American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance
in the Age of Mass Imprisonment, a title that alludes to the ancient
Greek goddesses of vengeance. It follows in the tracks of his
first two books, Hard Time Blues and Conned, and tries to synthesize
what he has learned about criminal justice in the U.S. since an
article assignment first piqued his interest around eleven years
ago. American Furies traces criminal justice through American
history, including the psychological and religious issues, and
the power dynamics involved in the development and implementation
of recent policy.
Abramsky's quiet Sacramento home is a
far cry from some of the dark scenes he has witnessed in his research.
AlterNet interviewed Abramsky there about his book and his ideas
on how to extricate this country from an age of mass imprisonment.
Prema Polit: Why has the U.S. become incarceration
central when other countries have taken a different route?
Sasha Abramsky: I think one of the reasons
is that America took a distinctly conservative turn in the 1970s.
Other countries went through their conservative moments, England
being a case in point with Margaret Thatcher, but they didn't
quite have the sort of populist conservatism that we have here.
One of the effects is that there has been a pandering to really
very ill thought out prejudice on an array of issues. Then a result
of that in the criminal justice debates are very simplistic laws
like "three strikes and you're out." They sound good
in 15-second sound-bytes, and they're lousy public policy.
I think that the other reason, paradoxically,
is that we're extremely wealthy, and extremely powerful. Most
states, when they're at the zenith of their power, in addition
to projecting themselves out onto the world also seem to impose
order on their own populaces. America is the big cheese at the
moment, so we're seeing those social policies playing out in America
in a way that they're not playing out anywhere else right now.
An example is England in the late 19th
century. Brimming with self-confidence, it believes that its political,
social and economic systems are the best in the world. Its empire
is at its maximum expansion. You see very similar policies in
late 19th century England that you see here.
I think what's distinct about the American
system is that America has reached the zenith of its power at
a moment when technology provides so many opportunities for the
state to insert itself in ways that it couldn't previously. One
of the most fascinating things that comes to mind is that in addition
to being liberal with its use of incarceration, we have technology
that allows the state to eavesdrop, to control, to regiment the
lives of its prisoners in a way that no other prison mechanism
in history has been able to do. So we're not just creating more
prisons, we're creating more secure prisons and more regimented
prisons. We're not just creating more jobs for prison guards,
but we're creating an entire subset of the economy based on the
technology of incarceration.
PP: You wrote about the "Nothing
Works" movement, which dismissed rehabilitative efforts for
prisoners as ineffective. So what does work?
SA: I guess I should backtrack and explain
what the "Nothing works" philosophy is. It's an idea
which both the left and the right came to believe in in the 1970s.
The idea was that a ton of money and a ton of resources had been
invested in trying to create rehabilitation structures inside
prisons for criminals. They were tailored to meet individual needs,
and they were designed to recalibrate the way people behaved and
also their belief structures. The left came to hate it because
they concluded that these rehabilitation efforts were very totalitarian,
that they were an attempt to sort of remodel people to meet social
norms. And the right hated it because they thought it was wishy-washy.
The consensus is that it should just be about punishment, that
we should just get back to the basics. That's been fairly prevalent
for about 25 or 30 years at this point.
But there is evidence that there are things
that do work: some of the new drug-treatment programs, some of
the diversionary courts, the mental health courts, drug treatment
courts that don't put people into prisons in the first place but
put them in structured care in the community. They do have success
rates. But how do you measure success? That's one of the key problems
There's a group called the "Fortune
Society" in New York, and I've worked with them for many
years. Their clients are mainly drug-addicted ex-prisoners. The
director of Fortune is a woman named JoAnne Page. She'll always
stress to me that if you look for success in terms of absolute
change, you'll never find it, because that's not how human beings
work; they don't suddenly change overnight. She says that the
way you have to look for success among her clients and more generally
is to look for incremental change. Can you set in motion a chain
of events that will gradually take someone away from drugs, gradually
transform how they see themselves, how they see their role in
the world, transform them from criminally minded to being a law-abiding,
If you look at the really innovative drug-treatment
programs that try to reintegrate people into jobs and housing
and so on, they deal in incrementals. Wherever you look, the more
successful programs are the ones that aren't overly ambitious.
They deal with the art of the possible.
PP: Some people say that the criminal
justice system makes sure that the accused has all these rights,
but ignores the victims. What is your response to that?
SA: One section of my book is on the victims'
rights movement. I profile a woman in Alabama who is one of the
more vocal proponents of victims' rights. She's been very instrumental
in moving Alabama in a more conservative direction when it comes
to crime and punishment policies. And that's precisely her point,
that the way the criminal justice system works all too often the
victims feels neglected. They feel that the rights of the defendant
outweigh that of the victims, they feel that the court system
is stacked in favor of the defendant because you have to prove
guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. To a degree they were right.
I think there was a period in history when the court system became
coldly indifferent to the needs of the victim, and so in the 1970s
era, there probably was room for a victims' rights movement to
emerge to address that.
My argument with the victims' rights movement
is that it has outgrown its original role, and that it's channeling
the emotional response of the victim into making public policy.
And I think that's dangerous, because when you're victimized you're
almost certainly going to have an extremely emotional response.
As an individual, that response makes perfect sense. If I were
a crime victim or my family was, I would have an emotional response,
and I would want that emotional response to take center stage
in the criminal justice system. But that's not how the system
is supposed to work.
One of the basic underlying intellectual
foundations of modern criminal justice theory is that you need
a dispassionate state, that if you allow the emotions of the victims
to govern public policy, you're going to get a very brutal state
response. In a sense you're going to turn the state into a distributor
of vengeance rather than justice.
PP: What was the most surprising thing
that you encountered while researching and writing American Furies?
SA: I went out in 100-degree heat into
the desert early one morning with a group of women. They had mostly
been convicted of parole violations or probation violations, but
very minor offenses. For the next three or four hours I watched
them lower coffins into a pauper's grave, in the desert, next
to an air force base. There was this extraordinary image, surrounded
by these shotgun-toting sheriff's deputies. And they're these
two-bit characters, these women who were addicted to cocaine,
young women convicted of welfare fraud, that kind of thing. They're
chained at the ankles, and they're sweating and they're miserable,
and there's no point to their work.
I found that was the most extraordinary
thing that I have ever seen when I've been reporting on criminal
justice, that to me really spoke to everything that's gone wrong
in the way that we implement criminal justice here.
PP: These days all politicians want to
be "tough on crime," which people take to mean harsher
sentencing. What is an alternative definition that we might adopt?
SA: The definition that I've heard said
by quite a few criminal justice experts over the years is if you're
going to be truly tough on crime, then measures of success should
be a lowering of the crime rate and a lowering of the recidivism
rate - the rate at which people who have been in the prison system
then come out are bussed back into the prison system, partly because
they commit new crimes or they violate parole. Now if you can
craft a series of policies that over the long term reduce crime
and over the long term reduce the number of people who are cycling
through the system then you're really making society safer, and
you're doing it in a way that is financially viable because you're
not building more and more prisons at a staggering cost. That
seems to me the sensible definition of "tough on crime"
because it's structural. It means that you're tackling some real
root causes of why crime occurs and who is committing it and how
to stop it.
What's happening right now is based on
the 15-second sound byte. It's the idea that if you can pitch
the public a policy that's easy to explain in the 15 seconds that
you can be allotted in the local TV news show, then you can claim
your "tough on crime" credentials. Now, it's impossible
to explain the complicated, good public policy in 15 seconds,
but it's very easy to pitch something like "three strikes
and you're out" because it's slogan based.
The result is this sort of endless cycle
of increased incarceration. We've incarcerated so many people
at this point that if they really were tough on crime, with successful,
well-defined tough-on-crime laws, we'd have nobody committing
crimes at this point. But that's not happening.
The last couple years in all the big cities,
including here in Sacramento, the crime rate is up. And it shouldn't
be happening, because the incarceration rate is still going up;
every year it is going up by 50 or 60 thousand people. So if we
really had a successful tough on crime policy, we wouldn't be
having these debates right now about why is it so many teenagers
are shooting each other, why is it that so many people are still
PP: You took the title "American
Furies" from the ancient Greek drama about murder, vengeful
spirits, and the creation of a court of justice. How far have
we come since those days?
SA: Clearly in some ways we're a world
away from the world of ancient Greece. Our technology is different;
the scale of our society is different; the things that we find
as criminal are different.
The reason that I chose "American
Furies" as a title is that I wanted to in a sense explore
the mythological qualities of crime and punishment. The Furies
in ancient Greece were these goddesses who basically would chase
the guilty around the Mediterranean world, and if not directly
deal out punishment, would terrorize the guilty into death. They
were these far larger-than-life characters that were designed
to show how powerfully the Greek society understood notions of
right and wrong and crime and punishment. I think that's a perennial
theme in the human saga, that society is always going to look
at crime and the transgression of the social code as being extremely
serious, and it's always going to create its own responses designed
to impose order; it's always going to make it's own equivalent
to the Greek furies to deal out justice.
What I think happens every few centuries
in different parts of the world is that the state goes completely
overboard in its response to crime, usually in response to a panic
about crime. You see it in Tudor England when there's this rash
of hangings. Over a couple decades you see 70,000 people hanged.
You see these very vengeful social movements that tend to take
the state with them. And I'm arguing in American Furies that America
is in the middle of one of these periodic crime hysterias. It's
created this larger-than-life response, this almost mythological
quality to our criminal justice system.
PP: You explore the history of the criminal
justice system in your book. What's next?
SA: We're at a turning point and can go
one of two directions. We've either reached the apogee, and we're
at the point where it's almost impossible to build more prisons
and fund more prisons and put more people in prison. And if that's
the case, and there's some evidence that a lot of states are moving
in that direction, then we'll see a renewed focus on rehabilitation,
we might well see an expansion in drug treatment course, more
money to mental health, and that's the somewhat optimistic scenario.
The other scenario is that we're stuck
in a cycle of fear. Whether it's fear of drugs, whether it's fear
of illegal immigrants, fear about terror, whatever it is. And
some of the fears are valid; there's a valid reason to be fearful
of terrorism. But I think we're stuck in a moment where these
fears may congeal into another epidemic of incarceration. You
do see in many border regions these ribbons of facilities set
up to house INS detainees, or ICE, Immigration Customs Enforcement
detainees. I do think there's a risk that the immigration debate
could slide in the direction that makes it more likely that we
mass incarcerate illegal immigrants.
PP: What changes do you think would most
benefit the criminal justice system?
SA: One of them is mental health. There's
a half a million seriously mentally ill people behind bars. That's
a huge number, and that's the wrong place for most of them. There
are lots of people committing low-end crimes, especially drug
crimes, that have serious mental illness that could be much better
treated, and much more cheaply treated outside prison. So I think
one way to at least start to tackle this problem is to really
invest in the community mental health services. Try and catch
people with illnesses and treat people with mental illnesses before
they end up in court.
I think another thing that overnight would
transform the criminal justice system is more sensible dialogue
about drugs. That dialogue should change to, "Well, we have
a serious crack and heroin epidemic. Is the best approach incarceration,
or should we make it possible to access treatment programs from
the outside, funded by the state." And then if they do still
get in trouble, really create a country-wide instead of a half-hazard
network of drug-treatment course. Because, now, depending on where
you live, for the same crime, you're either going to prison or
to a drug-treatment facility. I think this needs to be standardized.
If you deal with drugs and you deal with
mental illness, overnight you reduce the scale of the prison population,
and then you can introduce other changes. You can reduce the number
of people in prisons; you can invest money in better parole and
probation structure and all of that.
PP: What is the most important message
or idea to take away from American Furies?
SA: I want American Furies to show people
that the criminal justice system isn't behaving in the way that
we think and we hope it behaves. And I'm using behave deliberately
here, because I think that even though the criminal justice system
is basically a series of institutions rather than individuals,
it's also very much subject to political whim -- to the whim of
politicians, and the mood of the electorate.
I want people to take a deep breath and
say, "Alright, nobody wants to live in a world besieged by
crime. People who break a law need to pay a price, but are we
doing this in the most sensible way possible?" I want them
to read my book and come away from it saying, "No we're not."
Whether you're left wing or right wing, whether you're a tough
law and order person, whether you're a diehard fan of rehabilitation,
I think anybody who reads this book should say, alright, we have
a real problem here. We have way too many people in prison, and
it's coming at a tremendous financial and moral cost to the state
of our society.
Prema Polit is an editorial intern at