Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Prison System, the "Other" and Violence as a Poor Deterent

Here are some articles I was rambling about in class (a looong time ago) if anyone would like to read them in their entirety.

The Shame of America's Gulag focuses on the Regan administration/militarizing the police

...and here is Angela Davis' Are Prisons Obsolete

I am reminded to repost them today in light of a ridiculous Facebook argument I got into at work. My friend who produces Al-Jazeera: The Stream (an internet community based news show) linked this article:

It's about the ten worst prisons in the United States. This guy comments almost immediately,  " I heart doesn't bleed for prisoners" which he followed up with this stream of cogent analysis:

"I mean really aren't there better causes to fight for out there than this?
Do you guys know how many puppies are put to sleep in America each day? I mean.... Hello?
Prison is hard, whats the first think people say to you to warn you not to go to prison
You will be raped. Thats why people dont want to go. Lets all just move to Norway, Right? "

After a few minuets of vainly searching for sarcasm in his puppies comment (I found none), I could not help but feel like this guy could never conceive of the idea that he could go to prison. If he really thinks prison is a place where rape should be institutionally allowed (either by authority ignoring it or engaging in it), he must really view people in the prison system as sub-human. I asked him if fear of rape is the only thing that keeps him from wanting to go to prison; not the loss of freedom, or any of the negative social or fiscal externatlies time in jail/criminal records bring. His reply:

"Exactly the fear of rape (among other things) IS the primary reason you Don't want to go to prison. Is that a real question?"

Here I was stymied: obviously this guy is an idiot. But that doesn't excuse him of his bizarre defense of rape. I know plenty of idiots who are have enough contact with humanity to realize rape is not something that should be allowed in society under any circumstance, and a whole other tier of idiots who at least recognize the hypocrisy and lunacy of suggesting rape as a legitimate factore in deterring criminal activity: violent criminals probably don't fear prison rape, THEY ARE ITS PERPETRATORS!

(deep breath)

I came to realize this guy viewed prisoners as such "other" members of society, he dehumanized them completely.  It was impossible for me not to think of the massive incarcerated African American population, the trope of the hyper-sexualized black man, and lynching in connection to his beliefs. I don't want to go around accusing people of racism for disagreeing with me in facebook arguments (or rape support for that matter) but I feel like there is a strong case for both here. If I even need to say it, the guy is white, and also importantly, a guy. As a white male, he seems to be giving the okay for the legitimate rape of incarcerated peoples (ratio of Black/Hispanic incarceration to white incarceration 2/1in 2009) and also has a twisted faith in the hyper-sexualization of these "others"--pretty shocking evidence that the lynching mindset is still alive and well in 2013 the age of "post racial" America. All I could think to do was mock him; arguing or trying to convince a person so mired in lynch mentality seemed like a waste of time. Thankfully other posters (mostly women, or not white) were also letting him have it/rebuffing his opinions more eloquently than I could.

 I was also reminded of author Richard Wright's lecture series turned book White Man, Listen! as he explained Western European philosophy's cold focus on rationalism turned to rationalizing the "other" (aka people suffering under colonization in Africa and Asia) into a site of latent sexual and violent impulse; by rationalizing that people from other cultures are different or somehow lesser, dehumanizing them served the sick violent and sexual impulses Western Europeans had to inhibit in their society, for fear of violent punishment. In African and Asia these Europeans saw a "Land's End" or "Shangrila"; a world as Wright put it "inhabited by [what W.Europeans saw as] shadow people" where there was no police force or stratified pecuniary system to punish their sicker impulses and no claim of immorality because they had "convinced" themselves that they were harming bodies not people. That pecuniary system didn't teach them rape was wrong, it just told them "if you get caught you go to jail and might have the same done to you"; I hear echos of that thinking and that system in trivial facebook arguments even today.

I guess the moral is: violence can't teach people not to be violet--and that the lynching mentality of otherness and sensational punishment still exists in white American today. We have to be careful to spot cold rationality being used to justify dehumanization; even if it is dehumanization of someone who has done something wrong or violent. The reason we are "better" than the perpetrators of violence is because we abhor it, not because we fear it more.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"The House I Live In"

Dayna mentioned the documentary "The House I Live In" during her class presentation last week. I encourage the class to watch this film. It provides important statistics as well as shocking personal anecdotes regarding the War on Drugs. I think it is a good visual aid to the issues Michelle Alexander brings attention to in her book The New Jim Crow. Here is the film's official website.

Heroin and Angela Davis: Two Reflections on The Black Power Mixtape

     I've just finished watching The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975, a compilation documentary available on both Netflix and Youtube, that we mentioned in class just yesterday. The film uses archival footage from Swedish TV to retell the story of the black freedom movements. Director  Olsson takes us through each year of the non-year timeline, focusing on leading figures like Carmichael and Davis, and significant events, including the Attica Prison riot. I was especially struck by two parts of the movie: the interview with a detained Angela Davis, and the segment on drug addiction among returning soldiers.

     The film's cover features a shot of Angela Davis, her face bent forward, eyes obscured by her hair. The photo is taken from arguably the best interview in the movie. conducted during Davis' incarceration. When questioned about the Panthers and the justification of violent means to enact revolution, her reaction is incredulous.
     Davis describes the violent reality of her childhood experience in Birmingham, Alabama. She goes on to stress that violence from an oppressive apparatus has shaped the African-American experience for centuries. Davis had clearly been shaken at the time of the interview, but rather than weakening her response, it only feeds her passion and fervor. You can check out the  interview here, where it starts at around 11:13. The conclusion of the interview is here.

II. The film also devoted a portion of screen time to a discussion of the impact of drugs on the black community. We have read several sources describing the experience of black soldiers returning to a country they had fought for, only to be refused basic rights, chances for employment, and often crippled by drug addiction. 
     The film mentions the large portion of Vietnam soldiers who came home with a serious heroin addiction. I decided to do some more research into the issue and found this fascinating article on the history of American drug use in the Vietnam War:
     Marijuana use became extremely prevalent among US soldiers during the early years of the war. As Brush describes:

"A comparison has been made between Vietnamese use of marijuana and the manner in which the French treat wine and sex: there are cultural regulations for use, sale, and protocol but no inherent sense of "illicitness" as in the United States." 

     That "sense of illicitness" led the US military to crack down on marijuana use among Marines. As Brush argues, it was a cultural stigma that caused the military to enforce such strict regulations on the drug:

"Use of marijuana did not constitute an operational problem. Smoking in rear areas did not impact operations. Use among combat personnel came when units stood down rather when in the field. The Commanding General of the 3d Marine Division noted "there is no drug problem out in the hinterlands, because there was a self-policing by the troops themselves." Life for combat soldiers depended on their being clear-headed."

The consequence of this misdirected regulation soon became apparent, once heroin use became a major factor among soldiers. The opium trade was a significant force in Orientalist trade efforts between the East and West, tracing back centuries. Now, the drug was only becoming more potent: 

"In late 1969 and early 1970, Golden Triangle laboratories instituted a more sophisticated opium refinement process, allowing them to produce high-grade (80 to 99 percent pure) no. 4 heroin."

The purity of heroin in Vietnam meant that it could be smoked casually, not necessarily injected. It soon became a common ritual for all new troops to at least try the drug: an estimate 90% had smoked heroin within their first four months in Vietnam. The statistics only continued to worsen: " in 1973, 34 percent of American soldiers in Vietnam had commonly used heroin."

The Army attempted to enact a detoxification process for all returning soldiers, but the program couldn't handle the massive volume of addicts. At one point, "the market for heroin among U.S. military personnel was worth $88 million dollars to South Vietnamese drug traffickers," in addition to the market for Vietnamese addicts. And to bring us back to its influence on the black community, "the United States was unable to end its heroin problem in Vietnam even by ending its participation in the war: heroin came home with us."

I'm still trying to digest the implications of this - the fact that a large section of our domestic narcotics problem originated in a foreign war. What do you guys think?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Reflections on "Snow on tha Bluff"

 So, in class a few days ago, Dayna referred us to a movie called “Snow on the Bluff”, and I had some time on my hands so I thought I'd watch it on Netflix. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the movie, it follows the life of Curtis Snow, an Atlanta gangster who lives in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Atlanta, the Bluff, after he steals a camera from a few college kids looking to buy drugs off of him. From there we become privy to “everyday” life on the bluff. We see Curtis's drug raids, his drive-bys, and his angry moments but we also see the care he has for his community and his family.

The opening scene of the movie is brilliant. It starts from the point of view of the college kids that originally bought the video camera. The first line is, “No, I wouldn't want to raise my kids in Georgia” and sets up the movie as directly against this entitled, college-kid culture. The insertion of these college kids does not take up a lot of time, but it contextualizes the movie. By showing these other college kids, the movie makes it harder for viewers to trivialize the events of the movie by thinking, “well, that's just how life is in this world” because there are people who don't live like that.

I also think it is important that it originally sets up Curtis as “the bad guy”. In the first scene he robs these kids, and the emotional impact of that scene is multifaceted. On the one hand, I think it is natural to feel bad for the kids, and that emotional reaction is later brought into question. The viewer must ask if there is a difference in emotional response between watching the kids get robbed and watching Curtis and his family suffer, and if there is a difference, then why? On the other hand, it identifies Curtis as he would be seen by society, as some nameless bad guy. The movie brings him a humanity that is marginalized by the mainstream parts of society and specifically white society.

What makes this movie so affecting is how real and surreal it feels simultaneously. While watching, I was constantly questioning the veracity of the film; was Curtis Snow a real guy, or an actor? Were those real guns and deaths, or were they dramatized? These, I think, are not the right questions, but they are the questions that an audience who has never experienced gang life will ask. What I personally need to recognize is that “Snow on Tha Bluff” seems surreal to me because it is very far removed from the things I experience on a day to day basis. I am luck to not have to experience the level of violence that is so common place in “Snow on The Bluff”.

I would highly recommend this movie, and I thank Dayna for pointing me towards it. Watching it was a crazy experience. A few questions I would like to ask the class: Do you think movies like “Snow on Tha Bluff” should have a social justice imperative? What role do you think the question of reality and our understanding of reality plays in interpreting the film? And, if you've watched it, how do you feel about the film's portrayal of violence?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

New Jim Crow (and the death of Len Bias)

 Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow was one of themost important books we have read in this class because it deals with an issue that blacks are facing today, and more alarmingly an issue that is continuing to worsen while laregely going unnoticed. In a supposed “post-racial society” where people point to black exceptionalism like Oprah and Barack Obama as examples of black’s escaping the expectations of inner city blacks, Alexander’s work is important for the fact that it brings us back to reality.
In regards to the use of the term Caste I think it is appropriate because she is not literally comparing the class system in America to the historical caste system in India, but rather making reference to the myth of social moblility in America. For millions of black youth that face the threat of imprisonment they are trapped into a low socio-economic status that it is in many ways as inescapable as the caste system in India.

Another important figure that we did not discuss in class is Len Bias. Bias was a basketball prodigy who overdosed on cocaine two nights after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. This was an event that would forever change the NBA but also drug use and drug laws across the country.

This link covers much of the aftermath of Bias’s death. While Bias’ mother tries to put a positive spin on everything and claims that many people have come up to her and told her that the night Bias died is the night they stopped using cocaine, however the Anti-Drug Use Act of 1986 would worsen the situation.
The Article specifically references a work called “Drug Policy: A Challenge of Values” by Eric Sterling, in which Sterling highlights the post-tragedies of Bias’ death.
“Within a few years, it appeared that blacks were being disproportionately sentenced for the crack cocaine offense. Congress called upon the U.S. Sentencing Commission to study the impact of mandatory minimum sentences (P.L.101-647, Nov. 29, 1990, Sec. 1703). The Commission found that the disparity in sentencing harshness between white and black offenders had increased (U.S. Sentencing Commission, 1991, p. 82). Congress and the Administration did nothing to address this problem.
By 1995, no white person had been prosecuted in federal court under the 1986 crack mandatory minimums in Los Angeles and other major cities, although hundreds of blacks had been (Weikel, 1995). Another study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (1995) found the 100-to-1 powder cocaine-crack cocaine variation seemed to have an invidious impact on black offenders. For example, 88.3 percent of the mandatory crack sentences were imposed on blacks in FY 1993. The Commission recommended changes in the guidelines (60 Fed. Reg. 25,074, May 10, 1995), but for the first time Congress voted to disapprove the Commission’s proposed amendments to the sentencing guidelines (P.L. 104-38, Oct. 30, 1995).”

Also worth watching is the 30 for 30 entitled Without Bias (Available on NetFlix), which goes into depth about the life and death of Bias, as well as the implications of his death.

Even though it wad determined that Bias died after using 98% pure fish scale, the government and DEA used this an excuse to heighten the War on Drugs by going after crack dealers rather than 5 grams of crack.

In class I offered a personal example of A FRIENDS experiences with the D.C. penal system, but was unable to finish my point. I went through a year of pre-trial and two more years of probation. If this friend was black AND poor, and unable to afford a lawyer he would have gone to prison for 270 days as that was the punishment prosecution sought. I say this to highlight that the penal system does not only go after low-income minorities, but also to show that low-income minorities have the odds stacked against them and will not be able to squeeze their way out of imprisonment. Rather as Alexander points out the penal system is actively looking to warehouse these young low-income minorities. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Incarceration and Education — Problems with "De-Segregated" America

Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crowe, examines the systemic problems surrounding the mass incarceration of Black males in the United States.  With a particular focus on the War On Drugs and the discriminatory tactics of this "war," Alexander troubles the belief that America is presently free of institutionalized racism.  Beyond this, she asserts that we ought not even talk about this massive influx of men into prisons as a phenomenon separate from race.  She states, "[A]ny movement to end mass incarceration must deal with mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control" (224).  If I was not sold on this point prior to Dayna's presentation this week, I can certainly say I am sold now.  Beyond the ways in which the police might target lower income, predominantly Black communities in their searches, there is clearly a legal, abhorrent class discrimination regarding drug sentencing, as evidenced by the legal penalty for carrying a smaller amount of crack cocaine (or cocaine base) being roughly equivalent to carrying grams more of pure — more expensive — cocaine.  Precedents like this are horrifying, because they are indicative of huge flaws in our legal system.

We've talked a lot about colorblindness in this class, and I think Alexander does a solid job highlighting the flaws with this paradigm.  In saying "our blindness [...] prevents us from seeing the racial and structural divisions that persist in society: the segregated, unequal schools, the segregated, jobless ghettos, and the segregated public discourse," Alexander agitates the notion that the United States has attained equality, for equality in spite of race is not equality at all (228).  On a more personal note, Alexander's mention of segregated schools reached me on a deep level.  Having volunteered or worked in the DCPS system for about two years, I have become increasingly sensitive to how important reading in particular is for future-building.  I'm going to link two short articles from Forbes and the Indiana state government website that talk about reading levels as early as third grade and their effect on how states perceive and project crime statistics.

P.S.  I have small problems with the ways in which both of these articles contextualize the given information, but the basic information is in keeping with what I have read elsewhere.

The Paradox of Legal Representation in America

A couple weeks ago I flew out to the University of Oregon to interview for a fellowship as well as to visit the Law School as an admitted student. While I was there I attended a talk that I found very interesting which I believe relates somewhat to Alexander’s argument in The New Jim Crow. In her section describing how the system of mass incarceration works in chapter 5, Alexander brings up the issue of the difficulty defendants have in finding meaningful legal representation. Alexander states:

“Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not. Prosecutors are free to ‘load up’ defendants with extra charges, and their decisions cannot be challenged for racial bias.”

The issue Alexander discusses here ties directly into the issue discussed at the talk I attended in Oregon, the issue of legal access. Legal access refers to the ability of an average citizen to obtain information about their legal rights, essentially to gain proper legal representation. This is an area where the US consistently ranks poorly on Freedom House rankings. It is largely due to the overwhelming cost of quality legal representation. Most students out of law school, though they may have had the most admirable of intentions before entering, seeks high paying jobs at major firms. It is somewhat understandable that law graduates do this as they often rack up massive amounts of debt to obtain their legal education and look for jobs that will help pay off those debts quickly. Nonetheless this results in a small portion of law school graduates, particularly top tier graduates, going to work as public defenders. 

Those few who do wind up going to work as public defenders find themselves overwhelmed with cases, particularly in poor urban areas that are the target of the discrimination Alexander describes. Though these defenders may have every desire to provide the best possible representation to their clients, the sheer workload they face makes it next to impossible logistically. The result is a legal system which is structurally designed in a way that prevents the defendants targeted by the system of mass incarceration from obtaining meaningful legal representation.

The system I have described at least made economic, if not moral or social, sense when the legal field was booming in the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s. Today, however, the legal industry is in a state of disarray. Articles abound with predictions of the end of the traditional legal system in the US and the end of jobs for lawyers (as someone entering law school next year I have been unable to avoid hearing from just about every person I know that I won’t be able to find a job). There is evidence to back up these gloomy predictions, last year only about 50% of law grads found jobs within 9 months of graduation. The cause of this ‘crisis’ is primarily an over-saturated legal market with more lawyers than there are law jobs.

But wait! 

Didn't I start this post describing the shortage of legal professional available to represent the defendants Alexander describes? Wasn't there a story about overworked public defenders somewhere in that mess of text above here? 

Yes, that’s the paradox. At a time when only 50% of law grads are able to find a job because they are entering a over-saturated job market there remain millions of defendants in desperate need of proper legal representation. Why is this? The answer is unclear. Part of it is an unwillingness among law grads to take jobs as public defendants in urban area. Part of it is an unwillingness of states to provide equal funding to public defendants as that to to district attorneys. Part of it is the lack of an effective way to pair these graduates with the defendants who need their expertise. 

Some programs are popping up to connect members of the unemployed legal market with the underrepresented defendants. These are often not public programs though. They are funded largely by private contributors and universities who want to find jobs for their graduates in order to improve their employment statistics. Where funding does not come from is from state and local governments. There has been little to no effort in the public sector to tap into the saturated legal market to provide representation to defendants who need it. Alexander did not explicitly mention this in the sections we read, but I think it is part of the problem she addresses when she points out the need for public support for reforming the justice system. If the legal market remains over-saturated for an extended period, more programs may pop up. We can hope so anyways, but it is unlikely to happen if people are unaware of the issue. 

Side Note: Another issue I wanted to bring up, but found more difficult to tie into our current discussions is a recent supreme court decisions. Essentially what happened was that in a unanimous opinion littered with conflicting concurring opinions with varying rationale, the Supreme Court nullified the ability of a 1789 law to be used as a means of bringing international human rights violations to the US court system. Its a major setback for international human rights. If you want to know more about it there is a solid New York Times opinion piece on it.