10.11.2016 In Depth Look

In the context of a strike at the heart of the slave-labor regime that contemporary capital embodies, actions around the country that involve tens of thousands of prisoners and more than a few handfuls of guards and other outside supporters, assaults on a corrupt system, moreover, that practically no monopoly media outlets are covering in even the most rudimentary fashion, a report from Chris Hedges in TruthDig that provides pertinent summaries of the ‘facts on the ground’ as well as incisive political explanation and analysis of how this series of eventualities fits into the overarching scheme of empire and profit in the current moment, a gift to readers that fits neatly with a much simpler assessment from Priceonomics that refutes the notion that ‘mass incarceration’ is magically on the decline after forty years of steady growth; that dovetails almost seamlessly with the final part  of an Intercept series that the media watchdogs at Poynter described  as “pushing the envelope;” that matches up perfectly with one  of the many pieces that New Yorker presented about the prison industrial complex as a result of the narrative, investigative, and ethical legerdemain of one of the magazine’s MacArthur-Prize-Winning authors–material, in turn, that intersects with a more general examination of the prison industrial complex generally, such as a Guardian piece of reportage that delves into a Department of Justice probe into Alabama’s prison system; that also interconnects with a Dissent Magazine interview with an authority on prison organizing and its roots in the history of the Attica uprising; that in addition meld well with the kind of indictment of police-state brutalization that TruthOut provides its followers in relation to cop treatment of people of color; and that, finally for now though one might go on voluminously, comports with a recent finding of the Rutherford Institute, in which Virginia’s police forces will pay substantial sums for violently attacking an innocent citizen and nearly killing him with the full expectation of impunity, a set of materials that recount in some small measure the fascist apparatus of repression, intimidation, and random terror that has grown up around and entwined itself at the core of much institutional structure in today’s ‘land of the free and home of the brave,’ facts and analysis, in other words, that scrappy scribes and stalwart citizens need to note and contribute to starting now and continuing till we find a way to act to bring about a profound transformation: “These prison strike leaders put no hope in a ‘national conversation’ about race and mass incarceration.  They know that corporations, the courts and politicians will never halt the lethal police violence against unarmed men and women of color or dismantle the vast gulags for the poor that dot the country.  The mechanisms of repression are by design.  They are the logical consequence of deindustrialization.  The corporate state uses fear, police violence and huge networks of jails and prisons to keep hundreds of millions of underemployed and unemployed poor people from revolting.

CC BY-NC by Inventorchris
CC BY-NC by Inventorchris

‘We have to shut down the prisons,’ (Robert Earl) Council, known as Kinetik, one of the founders of the Free Alabama Movement, told me by phone from the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, Ala.  He has been in prison 21 years, serving a sentence of life without parole.  ‘We will not work for free anymore.  All the work in prisons, from cleaning to cutting grass to working in the kitchen, is done by inmate labor.  [Almost no prisoner] in Alabama is paid.  Without us the prisons, which are slave empires, cannot function.  Prisons, at the same time, charge us a variety of fees, such as for our identification cards or wrist bracelets, and [impose] numerous fines, especially for possession of contraband.  They charge us high phone and commissary prices.  Prisons each year are taking larger and larger sums of money from the inmates and their families.  The state gets from us millions of dollars in free labor and then imposes fees and fines.  You have brothers that work in kitchens 12 to 15 hours a day and have done this for years and have never been paid.’
These strike leaders say that, inside and outside the prison walls, rebellion is the only option.  ‘We are not going to call for protests outside of statehouses,’ (Melvyn) Ray said.  ‘Legislators are owned by corporations.  To go up there with the achy-breaky heart is not going to do any good.  These politicians are in it for the money.  If you are fighting mass incarceration, the people who are incarcerated are not in the statehouse.  They are not in the parks.  They are in the prisons.  If you are going to fight for the people in prison, join them at the prison.  The kryptonite to fight the prison system, which is a $500 billion enterprise, is the work strike.  And we need people to come to the prisons to let guys on the inside know they have outside support to shut the prison down.  Once we take our labor back, prisons will again become places for correction and rehabilitation rather than centers of corporate profit.’

The 2.3 million human beings, most of them poor people of color, who are locked in cages across the country provide billions in salaries and other revenues for depressed rural towns with large prisons.  They provide billions more in profits to phone card companies, money transfer companies, food service companies, merchandise vendors, construction companies, laundry services, uniform companies, prison equipment vendors and the manufacturers of pepper spray, body armor and the many other medieval instruments used for the physical restraint of prisoners.  They also make billions for corporations—Whole Foods, Verizon, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Sprint, Victoria’s Secret, American Airlines, J.C. Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Eddie Bauer, Wendy’s, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Fruit of the Loom, Motorola, Caterpillar and dozens of others—that collectively exploit 1 million prison laborers.

"American corporate flag" by Jonathan McIntosh
“American corporate flag” by Jonathan McIntosh

Why pay workers outside the walls the minimum wage when you can pay workers behind walls only a couple of dollars a day?  Why exploit sweatshop workers in countries like Bangladesh when you can exploit sweatshop workers in U.S. prisons?  Why permit prison reform that would impede profits?  Why not expand a system that reduces labor costs to slave wages? …Prisoners are the ideal workers in corporate America.  They earn from 8 cents to about 44 cents an hour.  In some states, such as Alabama, they earn nothing.  They receive no Social Security, pensions or other benefits.  They do not get paid overtime.  They are prohibited from organizing or carrying out strikes.  They always show up on time.  They are not paid for sick days or granted vacations.  They cannot complain about poor working conditions or safety hazards.  If they protest their meager wages or working conditions they instantly lose their jobs and are placed in isolation cells.  They live in an environment where they daily face the possibility of torture, beatings, prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, racial profiling, rancid food, inadequate medical care, little or no heating and ventilation, and rape. In short, they are slaves.

‘To say that we have a black president does not say anything,’ Melvin Ray said.  ‘The politicians are the ones who orchestrated this system.  They are either directly involved as businessmen—many are already millionaires or billionaires, or they are controlled by millionaires and billionaires.  We are not blindsided by titles.  We are looking at what is going on behind the scenes.  We see a coordinated effort by the Koch brothers, ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council] and political action committees that see in prisons a business opportunity.  Their goal is to increase [corporate] earnings.  And once you look at it like this, it does not matter if we have a black or white president.  That is why the policies have not changed.  The laws, such as mandatory minimum [sentences], were put in place by big business so they would have access to cheap labor.  The anti-terrorism laws were enacted to close the doors on the access to justice so people would be in prison longer.  Big business finances campaigns.  Big business writes the laws and legislation.  And Obama takes money from these people.  He is as vested in this system as they are.’ …The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 75 percent of released prisoners are rearrested within five years.  This keeps the perpetual cycle of neoslavery lubricated.  ‘For years we were called niggers to indicate we had no value or worth and that anything could be done to us,’ Ray told me.  ‘Then the word ‘nigger’ became politically incorrect.  So they began calling us criminals.  When you say a person is a criminal it means that what happens to them does not matter.  It means he or she is a nigger.  It means they deserve what they get.'”—TruthDig

        “In 2001, the federal class action suit Brown V. Plata was brought against the state of California for not offering sufficient medical care to the prison population.  Among other claims, the suit alleged that inadequate care had led to the death of 34 inmates.  The case made it to the Supreme Court, which, in a 5-4 decision in 2011, upheld a lower court ruling forcing the state to lower its prison population in order to provide better healthcare.  When the decision was made, California prisons held about 170,000 inmates—more than 200% above capacity and about the same number as Italy, Germany, and Spain combined.  The court mandated that the state bring down the population to 137.5% of capacity within two years.  ‘The basic idea behind this decision was that if you bring down your prison population relative to capacity, that provides the state with an opportunity to provide adequate health and mental health care,’ the economist Magnus Lofstrom told us.  ‘Not surprisingly, [California] was not happy with this.’

The largest program to decrease the prison population was the Public Safety Realignment initiative (aka ‘Realignment’).  The primary effect of the policy was to move the supervision of ‘triple nons’—non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual—offenders from the state to counties.  In addition, recidivism was reduced by making it so that parole violators could not be sent back to state prison unless they committed a new felony (previously just missing a parole meeting could mean returning to prison).  These reforms increased county jail populations, but not by nearly as much as they reduced the prison populations.  Compelled by the Brown V. Plata decision, California reduced its prison population from 171,000 in 2009 to 136,000 in 2014—a decrease of about 35,000.  In that same period, the decline in the prison population across the entire country was 54,000.

Sixty-five percent of the reduction in the prison population from 2009 to 2014 came from California alone.  If you removed the four states with the most substantial declines in their prison population—California, New York, Texas and Georgia—there would have been no decline at all.  In fact, during this period, just as many states increased their prison population as decreased it.

While federal reforms—such as the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which decreased the punitiveness of some drug sentences and the elimination of private federal prisons—receive a great deal of media attention, (John) Pfaff argues that they have a limited impact on incarceration.  Of the nearly 1.6 million Americans incarcerated in prisons, only about 200,000 are in federal prisons.  ‘If we freed every single federal prisoner today,’ says Pfaff, ‘we would still have the highest incarceration rate in the world.’  Pfaff’s research on the causes of mass incarceration shows that decisions made by local prosecutors and police are the most important drivers of the increase in country prison population.  Specifically, prosecutors are much more aggressive in charging individuals with felonies today than they were thirty years ago—even for the same crime.

The perception that mass incarceration is on the decline across America is inaccurate.  The country’s prison population has declined since 2009 for the first time since incarceration rates began to rise in the last 1970s, but that is not a result of bipartisan reform.  Rather, it is the consequence of a mandated policy forced on the state of California.  (Thankfully), ‘(t)he research over the last ten years quite consistently shows the incarceration rates we are experiencing in the US have a very limited crime prevention effect,’ explains Lofstrom.  He believes that this has caught the attention conservatives who are concerned with fiscal issues, and has led public sentiment towards reform.  He points to the fact that Californians passed Proposition 47—a bill that reduced certain drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors—as a sign of this change in attitude.”—Priceonomics
Bob Jagendorf
Bob Jagendorf
        “(In narrating the reality of police corruption in Chicago, a reporter might follow actual police officers who had tried to retain their integrity and their commitment to fighting crime.  One such pair was Shannon Spalding and Danny Echevarria, who found themselves at odds with the leaders of different Chicago Police Department units, who were either corrupt or complicit in crimes against humanity, sometimes both.  They ended up in a ‘safe harbor’ in the Fugitives Apprehension Unit, where they would work with, and as, Federal Marshalls).  From the start at the fugitives unit, they were in a Catch-22.  They were taken off major cases and given low-level assignments like finding unknown turnstile jumpers or people who had been drunk in public.  They were told to do only their assigned cases — a limited number of relatively trivial cases — and then were told they were not producing.  When they reported to (Internal Affairs Division Chief Juan) Rivera what was happening, said Spalding, he observed that ‘that’s what they do:’ They give you dead-end work you can’t do, then blame you for not doing it.
Spalding said Rivera advised them to ‘record, record, record,’ but again refused to issue a complaint register for retaliation or intervene on their behalf.  Amid the hostility in the fugitives unit, there was one seemingly sympathetic presence — Sgt. Thomas Mills, who had been in the confidential section of IAD when Rivera was a lieutenant there.  Rivera told Spalding and Echeverria to have Mills call him.  Mills later reported to them that Rivera had told him they were great officers.  Mills reflected back at Spalding the seriousness of her situation.  ‘The only thing,’ he said, ‘between those bosses and federal prison is you.  If I were you, I’d wear my vest at all times, even coming and going to work.’privacy-policy-security data
By way of illustrating the political realities at internal affairs, Spalding recounted a story Mills had told them.  Soon after he came to the confidential section, he was given the assignment of investigating a deputy superintendent.  The allegation was that the official lived outside the city.  Mills worked on the case for months and concluded the allegation was true.  He produced a thick file in support of that conclusion and presented it to his supervisor.  The next day, the file came back to him.  There was a yellow Post-it on it with the handwritten message: ‘Make it unfounded.’

On June 20, 2012, Spalding and Echeverria were ordered to meet with their direct supervisors — Sgt. Maurice Barnes, Cesario, and Salemme.  Cesario informed them they were being taken off the task force because they had too few arrests and priority cases.  When Spalding and Echeverria challenged Cesario about their lack of activity, Spalding recounted to me, Salemme demanded to know whether they were working for internal affairs.  ‘You brought this baggage on yourselves,’ he said.  ‘You want to investigate bosses, you want to put bosses in jail, you should have known this would happen to you.’  ‘It’s a safety issue,’ said Barnes, addressing himself to Spalding.  ‘I don’t want to tell your daughter you’re coming home in a box because the team won’t help you on the street.’

When it seemed things could not get worse, they did.  On April 11, 2013, Sgt. Barz and Sgt. Robert Muscolino of internal affairs came to the fugitives unit and arrested Spalding.  They took her into a room, closed the door, and held her for over half an hour.  Barz read her constitutional rights and informed her that she was the subject of a criminal investigation on federal eavesdropping charges.  He said they had an eyewitness who stated that she recorded conversations with Mills and then played them for others.police cops mirror car
She would later learn from Janet Hanna that the complaint against her stated that Hanna was the person for whom she played the recording of Mills.  In her affidavit, Hanna recounted being pressed by Muscolino to confirm the complaint.  ‘I repeated that the complaint was untrue,’ she stated, ‘that the alleged conversation never happened, and that at no time ever did Shannon play for me any recording from her phone.’  Spalding was distraught.  Having failed to protect her, IAD was now, she realized, turning its investigative machinery against her and actively participating in the retaliation.  Barz suggested that the charges would go away if she dropped her lawsuit.”—The Intercept
        “Within the private corrections industry, ‘alternatives to incarceration’—including probation services and halfway houses—used to be regarded as an afterthought.  The size of America’s incarcerated population more than quadrupled in the three decades since 1980, and, in time, the private sector seized an immensely lucrative opportunity; between 1990 and 2009, the number of inmates in private prisons increased seventeen-fold, and revenues for the largest private-prison firm, Corrections Corporation of America (C.C.A.), reached $1.7 billion.  In the past few years, however, politicians from both major parties have begun to turn against mass incarceration.  Attorney General Eric Holder has routinely condemned the ‘inadvisable and unsustainable’ policies that have made America’s prison population by far the largest in the world.  In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has denounced a ‘failed war on drugs that believes incarceration is the cure of every ill.’  In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has helped redirect some two billion dollars from the prison economy toward alternatives like drug treatment.  Incarceration rates have slowly declined since 2010; conventional private prisons may no longer be a growth industry.

Some investors have begun to turn their attention to extra-carceral institutions, such as private halfway houses, electronic monitoring, ‘civil commitment’ centers for sex offenders, and for-profit residential treatment facilities.  Private-prison corporations themselves have begun to expand into the ‘alternatives’ industry.  The GEO Group now has an array of ‘community reëntry services’ and treatment programs.  In 2011, it acquired the country’s largest electronic-monitoring firm, BI Incorporated, for four hundred and fifteen million dollars.  Last August, C.C.A. bought a California-based enterprise called Correctional Alternatives.  Private-probation companies, too, have quietly taken off in recent years, often selling themselves as a cheap way to keep small-time offenders out of jail.  In 2010, Judicial Correction Services made the magazine Inc.’s list of ‘the fastest growing private companies in America,’ for the third year in a row; a year later, it was acquired by Correctional Healthcare Companies, which now boasts of attending to the ‘full spectrum’ of offenders’ lives: ‘pre-custody, in custody, and post-custody.’

With municipal budgets under enormous strain across the country, the industry has also pitched itself as a source of revenue for small courts.  ‘If your municipality is looking to reduce incarceration rates and to increase the collection of fines and court costs in the municipal court, please give our office a call today,’ the Georgia-based Freedom Probation Services advertises.  In return for an exclusive contract with a municipality, companies like Freedom Probation offer their services to courts for free.  The private-probation business has established a presence in such states as Utah, Missouri, Montana, and Colorado, although its home remains in the Cotton Belt.

CC BY-NC by Inventorchris

The industry aims to shift the financial burden of probation directly onto probationers.  Often, this means charging petty offenders—such as those with traffic debts—for a government service that was once provided for free.  These probationers aren’t just paying a court-ordered fine; they’re typically paying an ever-growing share of the court’s administrative expenses, as well as a separate fee to the for-profit company that supervises their probation and enforces a payment schedule—a consolidated weekly or monthly set of charges divided between the court and the company.  The system is known as ‘offender-funded’ justice.  But legal challenges to it are mounting, amid concerns about abuse, corruption, and the use of state penalties to collect private profits.  In a wide range of cases, offender-funded justice may not result in justice at all.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Bearden v. Georgia (1983), that probation cannot be revoked, or jail time dispensed, simply because a defendant is too poor to pay a fine, few judges check to see if defendants have the means to pay before jailing them.  Many cases are resolved in less than two minutes, without a lawyer representing the defendant or a court reporter present.  As I traveled around Alabama, I watched more than a hundred defendants face possible jail time for unpaid fines tied to minor offenses.  Some defendants were simply careless, and there is no constitutional impediment to jailing a driver who willfully refuses to pay a ticket.  But many people I met were indigent; some were homeless.  Like Eugene Acoff, they often belonged to the growing number of Alabama residents who are at once employed and unable to make ends meet.alabama south
Nearly fifty miles east, in the small town of Childersburg, an icy atmosphere prevailed in the court of Judge Larry Ward.  (Another municipal court that he presided over, in nearby Harpersville, had been shut down in 2012, after a scathing legal ruling declared the debt-collecting practices there ‘disgraceful.’)  On the afternoon I visited, last fall, shortly before Ward’s retirement, dozens of defendants pleading guilty formed a line curling out the door.  There was hardly a lawyer in sight. Tense whispers swept the courtroom each time Judge Ward sent a debtor to jail.  ‘Alicia,’ people murmured, like a round of telephone, as a stout, sad-looking woman with spiky blond hair was handcuffed and escorted out by police.  Meagan Poole, a young mother who had just been released from medical care, was threatened with jail after she failed to pay several hundred dollars in court costs and J.C.S. supervision fees tied to an expired license plate.  She was thirteen dollars short.  ‘Either you go get the money or you’re going to jail,’ Judge Ward said.  She ran to the parking lot to see what she could shake from friends and family by the 5 P.M. deadline.”—New Yorker