A few recent events have made me think about the advantages and drawbacks of reforming the correctional system incrementally, that is–by “fixing” one aspect of it at a time. Two things in particular came to mind.

The first is the tension between death penalty activism and life imprisonment, or long-term imprisonment, activism. Last year, at the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty meeting, I talked about the perils limiting activism only to the grounds that would “work”, such as innocence and cost. In the same meeting, Senator Mark Leno, for whose good intentions and immense contributions to correctional reform I have much respect, said that  abolishing the death penalty would not hamper public safety, as we could still throw dangerous convicted felons into prisons for the rest of their lives. This idea, of limiting the struggle to the death penalty under  the assumption that life imprisonment was somehow okay or even advisable, worked well in a room in which people were gathered as a narrow coalition – there were representatives of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation in the room, as well as law enforcement agents who oppose the death penalty but are otherwise on board with law and order policies. So, politically, narrowing the struggle to “just” the death penalty is necessary to bring together all these groups of activists. However, narrowing the focus of the struggle to the death penalty under the argument that life imprisonment in a supermax facility, say, under SHU conditions, is not as bad, is a severe blow to the struggle against isolation, debriefing, and other humiliating conditions suffered by inmates who were not sentenced to death–precisely the conditions leading to the hunger strike, now entering its third week. Is this why the strike is getting so little press coverage? Because, in California, it is now politically easier to stomach a potential death penalty abolition than humane conditions for presumed gang members? Both of these goals are worth fighting for, and I wonder whether patience and incremental gains here will be to the inmates’ advantage or detriment.

The second is SB9, the Fair Sentencing of Youth Act, which for all its noble purpose and fancy name affects the sentencing of very few juveniles in CA, and less than 3,000 nationwide should it become national policy. Happily, SB9 recently passed 5 to 2 in the Assembly Public Safety Committee meeting; that is a very good thing, and it may make a meaningful difference in the lives of the few young men and women behind bars with no glimmer of hope for freedom in their future. However, as some blog commentators mentioned here in the last few days, the proposal is limited in effect to those juveniles, rather than giving more hope to juveniles sentenced to life with parole (say, 25 to life) or to otherwise lengthy sentences. Both groups of inmates – and the second group is, of course, more numerous – are worth fighting for, and again, I hope the incremental system will work to the benefit of the second group over time.

Changes and reform in criminal justice policies have historically been incremental. SB9 would not have existed without Roper v. Simmons, after which many activists may have asked themselves why it made sense to separate the fight . Similarly, the current proposal to end the death penalty in CA would not have come to life without years of moratoria and incremental struggles about amounts of this or that drug. And none of this would have been achieved, in my opinion, without the mundane, gray backdrop of the financial crisis, serving as a constant reminder to activists and disinterested citizens alike that we cannot afford mass incarceration and punitive extravaganzas. The current hunger strike in Pelican Bay, which I hope will finally start attracting more media now (mainstream news coverage of this event of seminal importance has been pitiful, with the exception of the L.A. Times), might not have come into existence had the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Plata not given inmates hope for change.

So, the revolution will not come in a shiny parade. It will happen stone by stone, proposal by proposal, shutting down the mechanism not because all policymakers will suddenly come to the realization that what we have done is excessive, brutal and inhumane, but because we will gradually be unable to afford more and more pieces of the puzzle. It will be less dramatic, but the end result will be no less gratifying, and it is still worth fighting for, step by step, brick by brick.

1 Comment

  1. One thing I wonder about is if SHU goes or is radically transformed, what happens to the rest of the system? SHU was set up to deal with a gang problem that victimized and threatened inmates throughout the system as well as posing a security challenge and a public safety threat on the street. By definition, SHU prisoners would be expected to be better organized and connected, both between each other and to people on the outside, to organize this strike and get publicity for it. That's why they're in the SHU! Has SHU been overused, and does the process need fixing, especially with regards to how people get validated? Probably. I'm just hoping we don't wind up turning the clock back to 1983 in the process.

    Part of what I think, as compared maybe to the death penalty, or anything driven by fiscal concerns, delineates the public response to these different pushes is who benefits or who suffers the burden. Wrongful convictions could threaten innocent people. Anything that we can't pay for threatens the public finances. Those are things bad for the public. SHU? Life imprisonment of people who are guilty of murder (and whom we retain the ability to release if new evidence comes to light)? Not really as much "our" problem. There's something of an intuitive leap to make in explaining why it is "our" problem.

    The SHU protests in general have a particularly strong presumption to overcome. The system may be flawed, maybe badly flawed, but it's what we've got that says that these are the most troublesome and least correctable people in the system. By definition, it would follow that they'd take to any form of control less well, and would prone to giving the most "static" back about it. The case has to be made that less restrictive procedures wouldn't just give them an opportunity to go raising hell again. These aren't unreasonable suspicions with a population like this, and the burden sits on those arguing for a change to overcome them.

    I hear that they want to not have to debrief because they want to avoid "snitching," I'm reminded of that old Far Side strip about the demons complaining about someone in hell whistling happily while they work: "We're just not reaching that guy." (http://www.bardos.net/images/WhistlinginHell.jpg) "Snitching" is not supposed to be a bad thing… unless you're a criminal (or were a Communist subpoenaed before Congress back in the 1950s). It's hard not to take a position like that as evidence of an inclination to undermine or resist the security and public safety goals of the system. One can take such a position, but I can't see why either the correctional system or the public on whose behalf it's supposed to operate would reasonably endorse it. Again, all of this may be supposition, and I can acknowledge that the debriefing system may be irredeemably flawed as practiced, but that's the case that has to be distinguished and argued.

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