Screws, bulls, and complicated agendas

excerpted from the book

Lockdown America

Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis

by Christian Parenti

Verso Books, 1999


... Originally little more than a moribund social club, the CCPOA has become one of the most fearsome political machines in Californian history. Since 1983, the number of COs in California has ballooned from 1,600 to more than 28,000 and their real salaries have more than doubled to an average of $41,000. The CCPOA now commands a budget of $17 million, an assault force of twenty-two in-house lawyers, and a huge political war chest. In just the first half of 1998 the guards doled out over $ I million in political contributions.

The CCPOA's chieftain is the fedora-wearing, savvy and pugnacious Don Novey, who cut his teeth as a rank-and-file bull, walking the tiers in Folsom from 1971 through 1986. Fluent in Polish and German - thanks to stints at the Defense Language Institute and the Counter Intelligence Institute in Washington, D.C. and service with the Army's 503rd Counter Intelligence Division in Europe from 1969 to 1971-Novey took control of the union presidency through a contested election in 1980. It was the eve of the great incarceration boom, and through serendipity, hard work, and prudent public relations, the CCPOA was set to expand apace. Priority number one was remolding the turnkeys' public image: Novey started cultivating friends in the press corps, sent guards (whom he insists on calling corrections officers) to give toys to hospitalized children, and dubbed the COs' mission inside "the toughest beat in the state." He also increased guard training, improved their uniforms and weaponry, and established a formidable legal machine to defend the rank and file against suits and disciplinary hearings. Most important of all, Novey bought politicians.

While the CCPOA has lavished lawmakers with cash, giving former California governor Pete Wilson almost $ I million to win the election in 1990, its power is disproportionately larger than its war chest. The California Teachers Association gives almost as much as the CCPOA and its membership outnumbers the CCPOA's ten to one, but the teachers get very little for their cash. Along with money and organization the CCPOA has commanded the ideological high ground issue of the 1990s: crime. Being tough on crime has become a right-wing litmus test. The issue of crime, unlike education, has a visceral power rivaled only by the once mighty anticommunist hysteria. The CCPOA has assiduously courted this public fear and pandered to desires for strong and simple solutions.

No strategy illustrates this better than CCPOA involvement with the victims' rights movement, a right-wing form of political "astro-turf"-that is, a bought and paid for pseudo "grassroots" activism. More than fourteen crime victims' groups-at least five of them formed since the election/riot year of 1992-are active in legislative politics. Novey's CCPOA fertilizes much of this law-and-order populism by channeling funds-about $60,000 a year-to the movement through a CCPOA-controlled political action committee called Crime Victims United. Like the guards' other lobbyists, the CVU pushed hard for passage of California's "three strikes" legislation. Another group, the Three Strikes You're Out Committee, used more than $ 100,000 of CCPOA money to launch the infamous sentencing law in 1994. Such spending also pays off in the form of political appointments: Republicans funded by the CCPOA have given luminaries in the victims' rights lobby crucial policy appointments. These appointees in turn pressure to keep sentences long, cut down on parole, and recommend the creation of new criminal statutes. A so-called "victims' rights day" even serves as the CCPOA's annual political gala. There, surrounded by empty coffins symbolizing the multitude of murder victims, Novey bequeathes the CCPOA's official favor upon that season's political darling. For a long time that was Republican Attorney General Dan Lundgren, but in 1998 he was snubbed for the Democratic governor-to-be Gray Davis.



Most books on criminal justice end with a coda earnestly enumerating what new and better things those in charge might do. My recommendations, as regards criminal justice, are quite simple: we need less. Less policing, less incarceration, shorter sentences, less surveillance, fewer laws governing individual behaviors, and less obsessive discussion of every lurid crime, less prohibition, and less puritanical concern with "freaks" and "deviants." Two-thirds of all people entering prison are sentenced for non-violent offenses, which means there are literally hundreds of thousands of people in prison who pose no major threat to public safety. These minor credit card fraudsters, joyriders, pot farmers, speed freaks, prostitutes, and shoplifters should not rot in prison at taxpayers' expense.

There are other reasons we need to demand "less": There is already an overabundance of good ideas on how to handle troubled youth, drug addicts, impoverished streetwalkers, and wife beaters. Some of these alternatives to incarceration have proven expensive failures, but many are quite inexpensive and effective. Academic criminology is replete with studies of what works and what does not, the best and latest iteration being Elliot Currie's excellent Crime and Punishment America: Why the Solutions to America's Most Stubborn Social Crisis Have Not Worked-and What Will. Currie, with typical patience and precision, exposes the so-called "commonsense" theories about the deterrent effect of repression, and then methodically enumerates alternative programs that will help reduce violence. We need not retrace that same terrain here.

Rehearsal of the workable alternatives to jailing ever more people of color and poor whites can become a self-deluding project. The discourse of the liberal policy wonk operates on the assumption that rational plans will displace irrational ones. But in reality any soft form of control can easily be grafted on to the most repressive police state. One could conceive of a regime that routinely uses capital punishment, genetic fingerprinting, militarized police and, for the barely deviant, ladles out endless hours of anger management, therapeutic probation, public shaming, and elaborate forms of restitution. Therapy and the gas chamber are by no means mutually exclusive. Newer, softer, more rational forms of control do not automatically displace repression, surveillance, and terror. Until there is a real move towards decarceration, any accretion of humane forms of intervention will not displace the criminal justice crackdown and prison industrial complex. We need a commitment to limiting incarceration and then a policy of "harm reduction" *n which we could decriminalize drugs, give junkies their dope, decriminalize sex work, and subsidize prostitute organizing efforts; we could cut off the retail supply of cheap guns and tax other firearms at 500 percent, while at the same time eliminating draconian gun penalties like "sentencing enhancements," which mete out excessive punishment for firearms possession and use. And since the need for work is at the heart of any real war on crime, we could create jobs that pay a living wage and meet human needs.

To achieve anything like this we need more popular resistance and more economic justice. This book has been short on tales of protest and long on the story of repression, but there is opposition to the emerging anti-crime police state in many quarters. Even in the level four HIV unit of Corcoran State Prison, inmates are filing joint grievances against abusive staff, building alliances with outside activists, and, when they can't stand the torment any longer, attacking COs. Across the country there is an incipient police accountability movement, struggling to subordinate police departments to civilian oversight and keep violent officers in check. The murder of Amadou Diallo has sparked a broad-based and committed movement for police accountability in New York City. In D.C., and many state capitals as well, the tenacious lobbyists and grassroots activists of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and similar groups toil on because they must. Meanwhile, from Chicago to St. Louis to Watts and East L.A., veteran gangbangers like Dewayne Holmes labor without recognition and despite police sabotage to maintain the truce movement that started in the wake of the Rodney King riots. In Texas and California, Latino youth, shaken awake by the immigrant bashing of the mid nineties, are organizing walkouts and protests to demand more school funding and less policing. All over the country there are small pockets of dedicated activists fighting against tremendous odds and the deafening silence of the mainstream press. These are the people pointing the way out, the way forward, away from the waste, terror, and abuse of America's criminal justice lockdown.

Lockdown America

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