Friday, October 25, 2013

Can Torture Be Reformed Into Acceptable Punishment?

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow
Last weekend I spent a sizable chunk of my waking hours listening to some powerful reformists discuss the state-sponsored torture that exists in California prisons. It was a coincidence, as far as I know, that both Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Juan Mendez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, were in Los Angeles over the same weekend, speaking on the human rights abuses that are happening currently in the parallel universe that is our carceral state. 

Nota bene: The following writing will not educate you on a few foundational premises. One of them is that indefinite solitary confinement is torture. Another is that the prison system as practiced in the U.S., and particularly in California, is not only egregiously punitive, it is run by profiteers who benefit from overpopulation, and it is organized in a way that capitalizes on racist narratives of criminality that are as ugly and diseased as any racist beliefs that circulated this country prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. If you have any remaining doubt about these premises, I implore you to educate yourself. 

Alexander, who was bold enough to claim that “we have allowed a human rights nightmare to occur on our watch,” locates herself squarely in the business of educating people about the prison system, but she did not publicly recommend any particular course of action other than the building of a “large-scale social movement” to address the concerns of prisoners and their families. (At least, she didn’t in Los Angeles. I heard from comrades up North that in the Bay Area, she was using the word “revolution.” Hopeful? Maybe. Pandering to audience? Maybe. Who knows.)

Juan Mendez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture
 Likewise Juan Mendez, who submitted a request to investigate California prisons in May 2013 and has yet to receive any acknowledgement from the State Department, offered that solitary confinement has “crept up” on us as a problem of international proportion, however, he made it clear that his power to intervene would be circumscribed by a United States and California governmental structure “well equipped to dismiss me,” and that any big changes would have to originate in civil society. 

Some very well-respected people with heavy media connections are speaking out in public about solitary confinement and mass incarceration! That’s good! Isn’t it?

One of the most boring public debates is the one about how much is enough activism. How much work it will take to get any social justice actually visible on the ground. I’m not going to participate in it here. I’m glad that people like Alexander and Mendez are out there doing educational and solidarity projects with people who are making the painful move toward awareness of such injustice as California’s prisons. They both probably work as many hours as they are capable, and are pained by the information they are privy to, and so on. And even if they aren’t, they certainly are doing more to raise consciousness with their access to media than, oh, say, Gov. Jerry Brown. 

The question I’m posing here is not one of degree. My question is actually about the foundational beliefs that undergird projects of prison reform, and particularly the movement to end solitary confinement. One of those beliefs, which I do not share, is that prison itself could ever be a just and appropriate answer to “crime” as we have conceived of it in this country. I do not believe that putting human beings in cages is a conscionable act. At all. Ever. This makes supporting anti-solitary confinement movement work feel, to me, like offering a self-loathing alcoholic a beer in the morning, out of deference to her hangover. (Which is not to pass moral judgement on self-loving functional addicts of any kind. I’m talking about giving drinks to a trapped, wants-to-stop-but-can’t alcoholic.) In other words, if we can begin to conceive of our country as dependent upon the carceral system, adjusting its severity here and there simply doesn’t satisfy the call for real change.

The nationally accepted concept of crime itself, the very category of action against law, is racialized and therefore unjust. Alexander acknowledges this, and reports on American’s racial biases and how they are institutionally supported in The New Jim Crow. Ninety-five percent of survey respondents describe a black person when asked who they imagine as a “drug user,” when consistently the statistics indicate that equal numbers if not more white people both use and sell illegal drugs? Let’s not even begin to head down the racist rabbit hole of why some drugs are legal and some aren’t.

 Not only do I think cages are wrong, I think that asking a privileged class of people (Congress, lobbyists, policy makers, NGOs, and the like) what to do about crime is like asking the alcoholic what she’d like to do about her headache in the moment it hurts her the most. Oh, she’d prefer to drink more if her choices are drinking or not drinking? Well, yes. That makes sense. Prison reformists would prefer to put people in slightly less disgusting cages, if the choices are more or less disgusting cages? Hm. That seems right...if the choices really are that circumscribed.

The fact that our country was built on genocide and slave labor should tip us off that we might require an underclass to perpetuate our function as a superpower, and that our notions of what is possible for reform are defined by that need. California certainly creates, perpetuates, and profits from an underclass. Nationally, that class is made of 2.3 million people who are under the surveillance and bodily control of the state. Inmates are getting paid cents per hour to perform factory work for companies who profit simultaneously from lower wage expenditures AND from their stocks in private prison corporations, which are expanding faster in California than any other private sector is expanding. In Southern California, upon release, men are bused directly to Skid Row and then denied jobs and state aid based on their status as felons, for the rest of their lives. 

We, as a country, need a huge prison population to support our power structure, and so anyone who wants to incite social justice movements around prison reform is in a terrible position: they must either ignore these facts in favor of continued American exceptionalism, or they must ask Americans to self-critically evaluate their own possessive investment in the continued functioning of the carceral state. Do you know how mass incarceration makes your daily life possible? Have you ever tried to figure it out?

Anyone can be against solitary confinement, and everybody should. It takes a much deeper level of self-imposed discomfort to realize that every day, you and I are living on the spoils of slave labor, contributing to the isolation and abuse of prisoners by allowing carceral facilities to operate totally para-legally and without oversight, and, that it is not just the prisoners’ or their families’ who bear the responsibility for upending the system as we know it. 

Perhaps entering the prison abolition mindset via reformists like Michelle Alexander and Juan Mendez is possible. However, even the powerful reformists of the world are most likely not going to discuss the total dismantling of the neoliberal carceral state on camera, lest they be called socialists, hippies, idiots, or worse. But we will. And we must, or whatever gains the movement makes in ending solitary confinement will silence protest against the foundational and constituitive elements of the carceral state that allow it to function at all. 

In addition to the terrifying statistics and horrifying anecdotes that illuminate the errors of the California Department of Corrections, there are moments of hopeful action in California that are deeply affecting and radically defiant. Communities are capable of creating real alternatives to incarceration. Self-determination in codes of conduct and self-defense against state-sanctioned fascist policing policies are foundational ethics in multiple communities within this nightmare. More than being anti-solitary reformists, we do have the option to be abolitionists, without all the answers, without all the plans, and with each other, not just the experts I heard over the weekend, as guides.

Members of Break the Lock and allies at USC's 2013 Conference on Cruelty
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