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Book Reviews: Now is it time to close the prisons?

THE PERPETUAL PRISONER MACHINE: How America Profits from Crime
By Joel Dyer
Westview Press, 2001, 318 pages, $18.00
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ARE PRISONS OBSOLETE?
By Angela Y. Davis
Seven Stories Press, 2003, 128 pages, $9.95
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PRISON NATION: The Warehousing of America's Poor
Edited by Tara Herivel and Paul Wright
Routledge, 2003, 332 pages, $19.95
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THE DEATH GAME: Capital Punishment and the Luck of the Draw
By Mike Gray
Common Courage Press, 2003, 232 pages, $19.95
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Two years ago, when I was one of the editors at YES!, we devoted an issue to the question, “Is It Time to Close the Prisons?” We researched drug wars, mandatory sentencing, racial disparities, and the privatization of prisons. And the closer we looked, the more horrifying the picture became. Yet we stopped short of recommending that we close the prisons. I have often wondered why.

Americans are scared, says investigative reporter Joel Dyer in his meticulously researched book The Perpetual Prisoner Machine—even though we have less to be afraid of than we did 20 years ago. Eighty percent of us believe that crime is the biggest problem facing our nation, even though crime rates have been dropping for years. More than half of us are afraid to walk around our neighborhood at night, even though we are safer now than we were 20 years ago when that fear did not exist. Americans think more cops than ever before are being killed in the line of duty, yet that number has dropped by almost half since 1973. And so on.

We are, in other words, a lot more scared than we ought to be. And that, Dyer argues, is because 95 percent of us get virtually all of our information about crime from television. The more television we watch, the meaner and gloomier our world becomes. According to the National Television Violence Profile, “Heavy viewers are more likely than comparable groups of light viewers to overestimate one's chances of involvement [in crime], to believe that one's neighborhood is unsafe, to state that crime is a very serious personal problem, and to assume that crime is rising, regardless of the facts of the case.”

The real danger of violence on television, it turns out, is not the copycat crimes that occasionally result, but the pervasive, unrealistic fear and anxiety it causes us, and the draconian anti-crime laws we pass in response. That, Dyer says, is how our fear feeds the perpetual prisoner machine. He shows exactly how money cycles through the prison- industrial complex and how the public ends up paying for private prisons at a cost that far exceeds public institutions—a bit of fiscal sleight-of-hand he calls “the prison-industrial credit-card plan.”

The Perpetual Prisoner Machine is not a book about solutions. What it offers instead is a brilliantly rendered schematic diagram of the machinery of mass incarceration—the instruction manual we'll need if we ever hope to shut it down.

But are we sure we want to shut down our prisons? Let's get real. What would we do with all the violent criminals?

Law professor and longtime prison abolitionist Angela Davis answers this question with another question: “Why is it so difficult to envision a social order that doesn't rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places away from family and community?” In her new book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, she points out that prison is not the first complex social institution that seemed so “natural” we couldn't imagine life without it.

Slavery and prisons, Davis argues, are close relatives. When the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, it made just one exception: “punishment for a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Thus, Davis notes, “The post-Civil War evolution of the punishment system was in very literal ways the continuation of a slave system that was no longer legal in the ‘free' world.” The former slave states passed laws making crimes out of vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, and insulting gestures or acts—but only if the person charged was black. Prisons quickly filled up with black bodies, and the states then leased the convicts back to the plantation owners at bargain rates.

That historical thread continues unbroken in what Davis calls “uncanny parallels” between the convict lease system and prison privatization in the 21st century. And today, with African Americans representing the majority of state and federal prisoners, prisons are looking more and more like plantations.

So do we abolish prisons like we abolished slavery, without waiting to find out what will take their place?

Davis advises that we give up on the notion of finding one easy answer and look instead at a spectrum of solutions. She quotes Arthur Waskow of the Institute for Policy Studies:
“First, having no alternative at all would create less crime than the present criminal training centers do. Second, the only full alternative is building the kind of society that doesn't need prisons. A decent redistribution of power and income so as to put out the fire of burning envy that now flames up in crimes of property … And a decent sense of community that can support, reintegrate, and truly rehabilitate those who suddenly become filled with fury or despair, and that can face them not as objects—criminals—but as people who have committed illegal acts, as have almost all of us.”

The work that lies ahead, Davis suggests, is finishing what we started—the social transformation that should have followed the abolition of slavery. But it took a civil war to abolish slavery. What will it take to make the next step?

“The courts first began paying attention to prisoners' complaints after Attica's large body count,” observes Matthew T. Clarke in Prison Nation, an outstanding new collection of essays by prison activists and social critics writing from both inside and outside prisons. The Attica riot in September of 1971 left 29 prisoners and 10 hostages dead, but ushered in a brief era of public and court attention to prison conditions. Courts declared whole prison systems “cruel and unusual punishment” in the early 1970s.

But the backlash set in quickly. Over the next three decades, Supreme Court decisions and legislation eroded prisoners' civil rights and closed the pressure valve—the hope valve—that Attica had opened: access to the courts.

The two harshest pieces of legislation were passed in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. The express purpose of the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 was to impede prisoner litigation, and, according to Clarke, it has succeeded.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), passed the same year, gutted the federal writ of habeas corpus, the primary instrument to forestall the execution of innocent citizens. A prisoner may now be barred from having his claim heard by the courts because of a technicality, even if that prisoner is actually innocent. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, for example, was released on federal writ of habeas corpus 20 years after he was imprisoned, when a court found his conviction tainted by police and prosecutorial misconduct and extreme local racial prejudice.

“If his motion for habeas corpus were brought now,” Clarke writes, “it would likely have been thrown out of court without a ruling on the merits under AEDPA's time limitations and state remedies exhaustion provisions.”

The compelling, unsentimental stories in Mike Gray's The Death Game show these new laws in action. Gray demonstrates with haunting clarity that even in capital cases, where the strictest legal safeguards are in place, the criminal justice system doesn't work a large part of the time. A particularly well-documented example is the string of 130 executions that took place in Texas under then-Governor George W. Bush. Investigative reporters from the Chicago Tribune examined each case and found that in 40 of them, defense lawyers presented only an occasional witness and generally no evidence at all. Twenty-nine relied on the testimony of Dr. James Grigson, who was kicked out of the American Psychiatric Association in 1995 for “unfounded speculation about the future actions of defendants he had not bothered to examine.” In 43 cases, Gray writes, “defense attorneys were later punished, suspended, or kicked out of the profession altogether. Twenty-three cases relied on hair samples, a method experts now say is slightly less reliable than flipping a coin. And in another 23 cases, conviction depended on the testimony of jailhouse snitches—criminals who receive substantial and often secret rewards for climbing in bed with the prosecutors.”

Is it time to close the prisons?

The prison population is enormous and growing, the pressure valve has been closed, and the clock is ticking. So it is imperative that we turn off the television and investigate for ourselves. Right now. Study the matter. Read these books and others. Volunteer at a prison, talk to the prisoners, and decide whether these people need to spend their lives behind bars to make our lives safe. When we've done that, we'll know if prisons are the answer to our fears.


Reviewer Carol Estes, former managing editor of YES!, is a freelance writer living in Suquamish, Washington. She teaches a creative writing class at a close security men's prison.

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