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The Case For Penal Abolition

by W. Gordon West & Ruth Morris, Editors
362 pages,
ISBN: 1551301474


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Wasting Lives Behind Bars in America
by Stephen C. Richards

As an ex-convict, now a university professor, who served years in a number of the most infamous U.S. federal prisons, I am well familiar with the horrors of penal punishment. Unfortunately, the United States now has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of incarceration in the Western World, and the most severe conditions of custody. To tell the truth, the prison systems of my country are an insult to civilization, a warning to the rest of the world, that there is something horribly amiss in the land of plenty.

West and Morris have edited an anthology of 17 chapters by some of the best-known penal abolitionists from Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, and the United States. This collection of authors includes faith-based activists (Jim Consedine, Ruth Morris), social justice organizers (John Clarke, Gordon West), and critical academic scholars and research scientists (Lisa Finateri, Thomas Mathiesen, John McMurtry, Marc Mauer, David Moore, Frank Pearce, Hal Pepinsky, Viviane Saleh-Hanna, Laureen Snider, and Steve Tombs). This grouping of individual writers is not meant to be mutually exclusive, as a number of the above could be listed in more than one category.

Some of the chapters are previously published journal articles, while others are conference papers. The book is organized by themes into four parts. West, Morris, and Saleh-Hanna introduce the case for penal abolition, which goes beyond prison abolition, arguing for dismantling of the present judicial system that is based fundamentally upon communal revenge and retribution. Morris discusses the history of the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA, which since 1982, has held meetings in Canada, Netherlands, Poland, USA, Costa Rica, Spain, and New Zealand). Subsequent sections cover street crime, corporate crime, and new directions. The book should appeal to the general public and to academics interested in both evolutionary reform and structural transformation of the criminal justice systems in western industrial countries, as well as to anyone interested in humanistic solutions to social control.

I found several chapters that deserve special attention. Clarks' "Serve the Rich and Punish the Poor" argues that the social regulation of poor people means less income and housing and more arrests and imprisonment. In the United States, the war on drugs has become a war against those least capable of defending themselves from State oppression, with millions of people in correctional custody (in jail, prison, or on probation or parole). Mauer's "The Race to Incarcerate," a research report widely cited by academics and journalists, traces the series of steps by which U.S. policy makers have, over the last 20 years, built an American Gulag (Richards) to imprison the underclass, as the welfare state gains more police and prisons.

This theme is continued in McMurtry's gripping discussion in "Caging the Poor." He writes about a New Dark Age:

The recent movement beneath public debate to private-profit prisons should be seen in the light of the prison's history. Like the rest of the life-blind corporate agenda of which it is part, it is an atavistic throwback to the rule of sadistic absolutism in which the first prisons incubated. It is a turning of the clock back to convict galleys and workhouses for the poor, and the use of their living bodies for slave-labor inputs instead of scaffold detritus, a regression back to the methods of vampire capital centuries ago.

He then relates how "The Military-Industrial Complex long secured endless demand for expensive weapons by talking up the dangers of "communism" and, now, "rogue states." The prison-industrial complex can deploy the same tried-and-true formula of bleeding the the public purse and victimizing the poor by selling the same line about "criminals."

From the point of view of an educated ex-convict, Mauer and McMurtry hit the nail on the head, but somehow miss the point. As a federal prisoner I was struck by the militaristic ideas employed by prison administrators. The Federal Bureau of Prisons treats prisoners like prisoners of war¨the war on crime or on drugs. Convicts wear military fatigues, eat military rations, are transferred around the country from prison to prison, work in factories producing goods for the military, and are subject to orders, although they never march in step. From a convict's perspective, prisons are not just about controlling the under class and securing slave labor, but, most notably, they are about the destruction of individuals. The point here is that behind penitentiary walls, even while resistance builds and alienation grows, people waste away year by year. The war never ends, the numbers of prisoners grow, and the slow motion genocide continues.

In a later chapter, Finateri and Salah-Hanna, commented that at the ICOPA 1997 conference in New Zealand, "An under-representation of activists, (ex)prisoners and their families was as clear as was the over-representation of governmental and prison officials. Of all the keynote speakers present, very few could personally represent the voices of those imprisoned." This is not surprising, as there are very few former prisoners who, upon leaving prison, have the time and resources to attend conferences.

As the lead organizer for the Convict Criminologists, a group of two dozen ex-convict professors and graduate students in Criminology and Criminal Justice, I too have noticed how politicians and prison administrators seek to dominate totally public debates about crime and correction. Speaking at academic and public forums, my colleagues (e.g., John Irwin, Rick Jones, Charles Lanier, Alan Mobley, Dan Murphy, Greg Newbold, Chuck Terry) and I have been met with both enthusiasm and surprise. How did you get out of prison and complete a Ph.D? You are tenured professors¨how did that happen? To answer, we are the few who made it back from the abyss, and have made it our business to haunt and torment every politician and prison administrator we can with the truth we write and reveal. Finateri and Salah-Hanna got it right when they wrote, "(Ex) prisoners have a direct insight as to the atrocities suffered at the hands of the penal system towards the human mind, body, and spiritÓContributions of different prisoners' experiences are essential because of the significance of this experiential knowledge and the contexualizing aspect their presence ensures."

The final section of the book poses new questions, offers direction and provides cutting-edge ideas. Hal Pepinsky's "Empathy Works Obedience Doesn't" explains how "criminal justice is essentially a negative enterprise." We spend billions of dollars to assign blame, deal out punishment, and crush the life out of individuals, all in obedience to authority (see Stanley Milgram). He suggests we need to make peace with ourselves, learn the karmic promise of justice, and understand that "Empathy is an openness to new experience, a relaxing of preconceptions as to what is expected, in English metaphor, an opening of the heart." Pepinsky and Quinney's text Criminology as Peacemaking is required reading for any student of penal abolition.

Saving the best for last, Thomas Mathiesen's "Toward the 21th Century: Abolition¨An Impossible Dream?" is worth reading more than once. He quotes Scheerer: "Óthere has never been a major social transformation in the history of mankind that had not been looked upon as unrealistic, idiotic, or utopian by the large number of experts even a few years before the unthinkable became reality." Examples include the fall of the Roman Empire, the abolition of modern slavery, and the recent collapse of the Iron Curtain. The same could be said for the Bastille, the Soviet Gulag, and the prison systems of the West.

Stephen C. Richards is an Associate Professor of Criminology at Northern Kentucky University. He lives in Cincinnati.

Recent related books include:

˛ Maclean, Brian D. and Harold E. Pepinsky (eds). 1993. We Who Would Take No Prisoners. Vancouver, B.C.: Collective Press. This volume contains selections from the Fifth International Conference on Penal Abolition.

˛ Ross, Jeffrey Ian and Stephen C. Richards (eds). 2002. Convict Criminology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. This volume includes a Foreword by Todd Clear, Preface by John Irwin, and chapters by nine ex-convict academics. The book introduces "The New School of Convict Criminology."

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