Nonexistent Reentry in CA: When People Are Duped Into Thinking It’s All Their Fault

The opening chapter of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish compares two penal scenes: the drawing and quartering of a regicide and a drab scene from a discipline-heavy juvenile facility, 80 years later. These scenes are emblematic of the change Foucault sees in punishment: from centralized to decentralized, from a “festival of punishment” to drab things behind closed doors, and most importantly–from body to soul. I read this stuff for the first time about twenty years ago, and its enchantment has worn off; I’m pretty clear on the fact that the move from corporal punishment to incarceration was overall a good one. But there are some days when the “soul” element of punishment is especially hard to stomach, especially when it consists of selling justice-involved people the lie that the only cause for their miseries lies in their own action.

I was outraged, albeit not surprised, to read this distressing exposé on Mother Jones. The gist of it is that our enthusiasm for early releases has not been matched by an enthusiasm to actually help people get on their feet after they are released. It opens with a typical–and horrendous–story:

After 15 long years behind bars, Terah Lawyer needed to show the parole board she had somewhere lined up to live. She landed a spot in a facility on Treasure Island and was so grateful to be out that at first she didn’t mind being forced to spend dozens of hours a week in treatment classes for a substance abuse problem she didn’t have, and in fact, as a drug and alcohol counselor, was certified to teach about. But quickly, the program’s strict schedule and tough restrictions, like lockdowns on holidays and limited free time, got in the way of adjusting to real life. Before she left prison, she’d worked hard to secure a job with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners, but her facility’s rules forced her to delay her start date three months, and she lost the opportunity. Most painfully, the program’s structure made it hard to visit with her parents, who lived a couple hours north in Sacramento.  

Once she was finally able to start working, she’d leave the house at 7 a.m., work a full day, and get back in time for the hour-and-a-half class at night. “I was required to still bring in 21 hours of treatment classes in order for me to get my weekend passes to go home, to go shopping, to go out with family or friends, to do things that are considered freedom,” she explains. “It was really difficult being able to hold down a full-time job, which is thankfully now giving me an income, and also meet the program’s requirements of classes that I didn’t even need in the first place.”

Lawyer’s experience reminded me of participant observations I did at the Peer Reentry Navigation Network (PRNN), a group of former lifers now making a life for themselves on the outside that meets monthly in San Francisco, run jointly by an activist who is formerly incarcerated and by a parole officer. The day I was there, everyone talked about housing. In Yesterday’s Monsters I described the conversation:

After a round of advice and information about housing and smartphone tutorials, Cara, a young woman, steps to the front of the room to facilitate an activity. She distributes blank pages and invites attendees to draw a picture frame on the page. She then asks us to write or draw a picture of what success means to us. We work in silence, occasionally sneaking a peek at our neighbors’ work and smiling at them. Cara then invites the audience to share. “Being able to provide for my family.” “Having a job, a stable place to live.” “Finding someone to love and someone who loves me.” One woman shares, “I want two dogs and a Mercedes.” Cara laughs. The woman jokingly adds, “What? You wanted us to define success. Well, that’s what success means to me.”

Then Cara gives us the “bad news”: If you are not actively working to direct your life toward those goals, then perhaps you don’t really want them. For example, she says, if you want to save enough money for a down payment on a house but you end up buying shoes and flashy outfits, then maybe you are not really that driven to be a homeowner. You must pursue your goals with real ferocity, she says.

For many of the people in the room, homeownership in aggressively gentrified San Francisco is a pipe dream. Since the rise of the tech industry, housing in the city has become prohibitively expensive, both for owners and for renters. Even so-called low-income housing requires a considerable income, as well as jumping through multiple bureaucratic hoops. Joe acknowledges these difficulties but encourages attendees to overcome them. “If you want to apply,” he says, “I will help you. We’ll work on your applications together.” It might take sixty applications, he says, but eventually one will succeed. 

My ambivalence grows. On one hand, I admire the spirit of enterprise, mutual aid, and community strength in the room. I recognize the importance of self-focused success and of belief in free agency. On the other, I’m sure that my fellow attendees have learned all too well in the course of their lives that, despite their best efforts, the reentry deck is heavily stacked against them. I recall Alessandro de Giorgi’s recently released subjects who attributed their immense difficulties and abject poverty to their own failings rather than to the systemic difficulties that stood in their way.

There is something maddening about people being led to be convinced that their own flaws are the only thing standing between them and their dreams, but that very message is what the so-called prison rehabilitation apparatus, and particularly the parole hearing process, tries to sell people on a regular basis. When my colleague Alessandro de Giorgi interviewed formerly incarcerated people who faced acute misery at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (no home; no job; no food), he was struck by how much they attributed their poverty, squalor, and dire need to their own flaws. He explains:

Today, whatever minimal services are available to former prisoners are provided mostly through the non-profit, faith-based, semi-private sector, what Jennifer Wolch (1990, 201) has aptly defined as an emergent shadow state: a “para-state apparatus with collective service responsibilities previously shouldered by the public sector, administered outside traditional democratic politics, but yet controlled in both formal and informal ways by the state.” In this framework, highly individualistic and market-friendly solutions are systematically proposed as the only answers to a broad range of structural obstacles faced by formerly incarcerated people: At every turn in their trajectories through the carceral state, from arrest to reentry, criminalized people are taught that success or failure is entirely dependent upon their own efforts.

But here’s the really depressing bit:

Despite the weight of the structural circumstances they face, the participants to this research appear to have internalized the neoliberal narrative of personal responsibility that is constantly inculcated in prisons, rehabilitation centers, and reentry programs (see also Gowan & Whetstone 2012; Miller 2014; Werth 2012, 2016). They wholeheartedly embrace the dominant rhetoric of free choice, as well as hegemonic definitions of social deservingness and undeservingness. 

In other words, de Giorgi’s subjects themselves believe that the ills that they face when they reenter are their own fault, because they don’t deserve better, and do not seem to see any institutional problem here (when he presented this piece at our Carceral Studies Workgroup, he astutely observed that people do have racial critiques a-la-Michelle Alexander, but not an understanding of class.)

In Yesterday’s Monsters I saw this propaganda apparatus at work: people who see their crimes in a broader social context are chastised for “minimizing.” Here’s an example from the book, in which Patricia Krenwinkel, in the 1980s, tries to frame her crime in the context of the sixties:

It came up about ’65. It was the beginning of the marches. It was the beginning of the civil rights movement. It was the beginning of all the movements of the late sixties, which eventually involved entering the war. . . . I found that I couldn’t seem to find my bearings in this world at that time. . . . I couldn’t seem to find where there was any, on my own—seem to find any reinforcement for doing anything other than kind of letting myself go with the time of what at that time was tune-in and drop-out, as Timothy Leary so put it. I mean, it’s hard to say. There were so many components. I was a child of the sixties. And there definitely is something to be said about the sixties. It was an incredible time in the period of our history. It’s something that I look back on and I see, because there’s thousands of people out there that were not much different than myself.

The prosecutor, Stephen Kay, responds with an astounding lack of empathy and contextual comprehension:

I feel that it’s kind of hard for me to accept Miss Krenwinkel’s statement that she was a child of the sixties, and there were thousands of others like her out there in the sixties. I myself went to law school at Berkeley during the time of Mario Savio and could observe some of these children of the sixties. And they characterized themselves as flower children. Their slogan was “make love, not war.” They weren’t into murdering people.

Pretty much any reasonable criminologist you’ll meet will tell you that crime is a combination of personal and environmental factors (including what gets defined as crime.) How much of each gets poured into the mix varies across crimes; this is why talking about both drug use and violent assaults as “crime” can be confusing. But you’d have to be extremely naive to assume that crime doesn’t have an ontological existence (some abolitionists in the 1970s advanced this view), just as you’d have to be pretty obtuse and cruel to assume that crime is entirely a function of personal pathology. If it were, why are poor people overrepresented in the criminal justice apparatus?

A lot of the highfalutin’ critical criminology from the last few years uses the term “neoliberalism” to mean a hypercapitalist, highly privatized environment in which people are expected to take responsibility for themselves, with no welfarist contribution from the state. Kicking people out of prison to fend for themselves without any veritable programming designed to put them on their feet–and with an astonishing paucity of solid vocational training behind bars in preparation for life outside–is a manifestation of this neoliberal ideology, and what’s more–this mentality is successful and pervasive because it dupes not only the professionals who administer it, but also the people who are subjected to it. 

Film Review: Once Upon a Time in. . . Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I just came out of a screening of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time in. . . Hollywood, which I somewhat dreaded watching as an expert on the cases. My own forthcoming book about the Manson family, Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole, has made me somewhat leery of Mansonsploitation, of which there is plenty as far as the eye can see. Because of the tendency to turn the tragedy of the murders (and the tragedy of five decades of incarceration that followed) into a spectacle, I decided early on I don’t want to make a cent off of the book – all royalties are going to an organization that provides parole representation for indigent lifers – and commercial enterprises centered on the story of the murders give me the creeps.

But Tarantino’s movie is not a spectacular recreation of the murders; in fact, it is a wise, almost lyrical, reflection on their cultural legacy. The main protagonists of his story, actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth, live a reality adjacent to that of Polanski and Tate, Dalton’s next-door neighbors We see both men confronted with turning points in their professional lives: aging out of acting, aging out of stunts, the importance of career, what does excelling in one’s trade/art mean, big questions for thoughtful and flawed people. DiCaprio and Pitt are at the top of their game, both painting human, sympathetic, charismatic characters, and the movie is full of poignant, moving, and important glimpses into their inner worlds without becoming heavyhanded. The gentleness and nuance with which the two act their roles, and with which Tarantino paints their inner feelings, stands in contrast to the Spaghetti Western world that Tarantino has picked as a foil for the story. Truly a masterpiece.

But I watched the movie not just as a movie, but as an American phenomenon – a commentary on events that changed the course of American history, politics, and criminal justice. The movie is set around two axes of real history: the weekend in February in which Manson stops by the Polanski/Tate residence looking for Terry Melcher (the previous occupant) and the infamous weekend in August. Because we all know what happened in real life, a sense of malaise and foreboding accompanies our glimpses of Sharon Tate, wonderfully portrayed by Margot Robbie, as she lives out a hopeful, sunny existence expecting her child.

Much has been made of Robbie’s few speaking lines; I don’t see her role as diminished because she is not fully fleshed out as a character. Rather, her portrayal looks at her as the symbol she would come to embody – the quintessential California victim: a beautiful, famous, white woman about to give birth to a beautiful, famous, white child. Her joie-de-vivre around town–buying a book for her husband, watching herself on film and enjoying the joy she inspires in her fellow moviegoers, her delight in her friends–is palpable. Even Steve McQueen’s commentary about her and Sebring–their enduring friendship after their breakup–does not taint her wholesomeness. We watch and dread, because we know the only thing that can kill pure, untainted good is pure, uncompromising evil. And we brace ourselves.

In Yesterday’s Monsters I go into the way the narrative of the murders has shaped the California correctional landscape: because the crimes came to be seen as sui generis evil, they were the catalyst for the return of the death penalty; for the creation of life without parole; and for the dramatic changes in parole proceedings, including the gubernatorial veto right. In doing so, California fashioned what I call in the book the “extreme punishment trifecta” – its three most extreme punishments have come to be virtually indistinguishable from each other, creating a regime of interminable incarceration.

The reason these crimes were so instrumental as a rhetorical device in these developments is that the narrative around them was largely shaped by Vincent Bugliosi in his classic book Helter Skelter. As many of Bugliosi’s readers will attest, the book very intently and aggressively promotes a narrative of the crimes as bizarre and apocalyptic, focusing on Manson’s indoctrination of his followers into believing in a race war and helping jump-start it. While this story is not wrong, it is a truth that obscures other truths. The Manson family was a cult, though it was not understood as such until the mid-1970s, when our awareness of brainwashing and cults arose in the context of similar groups. And as a cult, it exploited–physically, psychologically, and sexually–its members, most of them adolescent girls. The crime also had the markings of an “ordinary criminals” crime, with a drug-deal-gone-wrong background (the narrative that Jeff Guinn exposes in his excellent Manson biography). For legal reasons, Bugliosi had to highlight the bizarre and obscure the ordinary. It’s quite possible that a similar crime tried today, through the prism of #metoo sensibilities, would see the girls as victims, not as perpetrators.

What is unique about Tarantino’s portrayal of the Manson family is that he manages to pack into the movie complexity and ambiguity. Manson appears in a brief scene in the middle of the movie, and is unremarkable, almost pathetic. We meet the rest of the family through the eyes of Cliff, the stuntman, who gives one of the girls a ride to Spahn Ranch. There, he encounters a scene that is at once pathetic and menacing. That not all is well at the ranch is obvious to Cliff, and he proceeds to check whether his old friend from his moviemaking days, George Spahn, is well. He is not entirely convinced that is the case, and has some disturbing run-ins with the scrawny, suspicious teenagers around him. The only violent incident happens with “Clem” (Steve Grogan), who is portrayed as small change. Tex Watson is portrayed as menacing and dangerous, but strikes out with Cliff. And throughout the whole scene, Tarantino creates a wonderful sense of duality between the young hippies’ quasi-military readiness and guardedness against the stranger and the obvious squalor in which they live. You are left with the feeling that Tarantino, as opposed to Bugliosi, knows that you are an adult, and let’s you form your own mind about these people and the danger they portend.

Even the eventual depiction of the disturbing night packs some surprises. It’s hard to fully describe them without ruining some classic Tarantino moments, which I might get to at a later time, after many more of you will have seen the film. But I will mention that, even in the most threatening and scary moments leading up to the home invasion, there are moments of “ordinary criminals”, moments of “cult”, and moments of “Helter Skelter”, though the latter are subdued and barely hinted at. Again, the viewers are treated with respect, left with autonomy to form their own impressions of the group, and free to comprehend the murders through the eyes of complex, adult fictional characters. Laudable choices all around.

Finally, Tarantino and the entire crew is to be congratulated for making a movie that creates a perfect sense of time and place. The songs, the design, the cars, the atomsphere, are so alive around the characters that they provide a solid presence for understanding the crimes. The chaos of the sixties, the class clashes, the unrealness of the movie industry and its dark underbelly, do not, of course, justify violence, but they place it in the context of the late sixties–a time and place so fundamental to the real and fictional events and so lacking from the parole hearings I analyze in Yesterday’s Monsters. As I explain in the book, any effort by the inmates (by now people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties, very different from the squalid teenagers in the movie) to place their actions in the context of time and place is disparaged by the parole board as an effort to “minimize” accountability and as “lack of insight” about their culpability; Tarantino’s movie is a reminder that these particular crimes could only have happened in this particular time and place. It is not an excuse; it is a deep understanding that matters for a culture still obsessed with the crimes and their aftermath.

In his book about the cultural impact of the Manson murders, Jeffrey Melnick critically analyzes the assertion that Manson “killed the Sixties”. Tarantino has brought the Sixties back to life as never before, and you will not know exactly how until you watch this gem of a movie. And after you see it, let’s talk about it.

Yesterday’s Monsters Coming Early 2020

I’m very excited to let you know that Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole is already in production and coming out early 2020 from the University of California Press. You are welcome to like the book’s Facebook page for news, updates, links to related media, and book release events. I very much hope that the book will open a window into the little-known world of the California parole process and look forward to the conversations that will ensue.