Locking Down Justice: #NJC Ch 2

“…the system of mass incarceration operates with stunning efficiency to sweep people of color off the streets, lock them in cages, and then release them into an inferior second-class status.” (The New Jim Crow, p. 103)

 

The War on Drugs has offered economic incentives to law enforcement agencies to further evolve toward punishment rather than protection. This has led to an increase of 1100% in incarceration rates – from 300,000 in the 1980s to over 2.3 million today – the militarization of local police forces, the rise of SWAT teams, and the increase in extrajudicial killings of citizens by police.

The United States incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than Russia, China, or Iran. In the mid-1970s, prison experts thought that prisons would would fade away, then came the War on Drugs and the Three Strikes laws, and now the prison industry is a booming, for-profit enterprise, supplying many corporations with manufactured goods and even farmed fish from prisoners who make from 50 cents to $1.25 per day.

 

The Gods of Justice

Turn your face toward the Gods and Goddesses of justice. They exist in their own rights and we summon them for a reason. We need justice. We need a sense of re-balancing, of equity, of right action and re-ordering.

Which God or Goddess do you have relationship with? Is it Tyr? Ma’at? Justicia? Amadioha? What do they teach you about justice? How is justice to be sought out and how is it best restored? What might justice look like?

What do your own observations teach you about justice? What has been missing from your picture? How can we better work as individuals and collectively to truly see injustice and help to bring things back toward greater balance?

Until we begin to grapple with these questions, the rates of incarceration and the tendency toward injustice will continue to rise.

The Big Graph at Eastern State Penitentiary shows the rise in incarceration from 1900 through today.

 

From The Big Graph text:

The expansion of the U.S. prison system in the past 40 years is truly historic in scale. For more than a century, the U.S. imprisoned between 100 and 200 people for every 100,000 citizens. That began to change around the time that Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1970. New laws and longer prison sentences began to dramatically increase the prison population. Today the U.S. imprisons more than 700 people for every 100,000 citizens. This is the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Crime rates have gone up and down throughout these years. They are largely independent of the rate of incarceration.

 

The Myths of Mass Incarceration

Our society holds many stories and assumptions regarding the criminal and prison systems to be true. It takes some work to re-educate not only our minds, but our emotions, and lead them toward correct information, information that sheds light on our current problem and condition.

Here are some of the stories we tell ourselves, from the New Jim Crow Study Guide:

  • Surging incarceration rates can be explained by crime rates;
  • Most people cycling in and out of the criminal justice system are violent offenders;
  • People of color are more likely to use and sell illegal drugs than whites;
  • The drug war has been focused on rooting out violent offenders and drug kingpins;
  • Most people charged with crimes are provided with meaningful legal representation; and,
  • The U.S.Constitution’s guarantee of “equal protection under the law” protects racial minorities from bias in the criminal justice system. 

None of the above myths are fact, yet their widespread acceptance has enabled our national community to deny or altogether ignore the truth about mass incarceration and its impacts across the United States. 

 

In examining systemic injustice, it is incumbent upon those of us who study myth and honor story to examine the ways those myths affect our lives and the lives of those around us. Stories shape our behavior. We can, in turn, choose the stories that we tell. We can seek out stories filled with greater truth. We can write new stories that help us build toward love, honor, and justice.

 

Questions to ponder: 

1. Main Myths

Many Americans are stunned to learn the facts about mass incarceration. Even in the hardest hit communities, people often blame themselves (or their children) for staggering arrest and incarceration rates. Did you believe any of the main myths that rationalize mass incarceration before you read The New Jim Crow? 

2. Mainstream Media

How does the mainstream media portray our criminal justice system? How are “criminals” depicted? What voices are most frequently heard in news coverage of crime? Whose voices are missing? What are the images, ideas, and messages that have most influenced your beliefs and attitude about our criminal justice system?

3 Police Power

The Supreme Court has eviscerated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, effectively giving the police license to stop and search anyone, anywhere, at any time. Did you know the law had changed in this way? Have you ever been the victim of a stop and search by the police on the street or in your vehicle? How many times? What did it feel like? If you have never experienced it, why do you think that is?

4. Who Benefits from the War on Drugs?

Alexander notes that many law enforcement officials— including conservatives—were not eager to jump on board with the War on Drugs, because local communities were more concerned about serious crimes such as murder, rape, and robbery. The Reagan administration overcame this initial resistance by offering millions of dollars to state and local law enforcement agencies that would boost the sheer numbers of drug arrests. What are some of the other benefits, besides cash, that this system provides to those who support it? Who benefits from the system as is, and who is harmed? Would changing the financial incentives be enough to end the system? Why or why not?

(all questions adapted from the NJC Study Guide)

 

Further reading: 

On incarceration rates.

On The Big Graph. 

On prison labor.

 __________________________________________________________

Welcome to the 6 month study group on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Discussion will take place in the comments. All comments will be monitored – only those clearly reading the book will have comments unscreened. Disagreement is fine. Incivility will not be tolerated. Subscribing via RSS and subscribing to comments is highly recommended. You may join the group at any time.

For more information on the study group, the reasons behind it, and resources for study, please read this linked post. Discussion on the Introduction and Chapter One are here.

 

 

 

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  • An Elder Apprentice

    “The purpose of a system is what is does” – Stafford Beer.

    Although I knew of most of the individual items described in this chapter already, having them all brought together as a coherent story was not only shocking but very painful. I could only read three or four pages at a time before my anger merged with a sense of fear-fulled powerlessness that I started to pace and had to put the book down.

    I quoted Stafford Beer above because in a certain sense it doesn’t matter to me why this level of injustice is happening, as the entire justice system that is described by Michelle Alexander is finely tuned to produce the injustice described. In systems engineering terms, a system can be described by its inputs and outputs, it doesn’t matter what is in the ‘black box’ that is the ‘system’, why it was designed, or what its stated purpose is. Our criminal justice system’s inputs are fear and it output is injustice. It does not matter if the war on drugs ‘black box’ consciously stated purposes are crime control, reduction in the the social morbidity of drug use, improved communities and it doesn’t matter if those who built the box have fine intent or if they are hypocrites; this black box spews out undeserved punishment, a paralyzing fear of undeserved punishment, and destroys humans and communities with undeserved punishment.

    My only comfort with this chapter: to name the true ‘goes-inta’s’ (inputs) and ‘goes-outas” (outputs) of any system is to name the demon in that box and knowing a true name is perhaps the first step to change?

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    This was a tough chapter to read, certainly…I knew that things were bad, but I didn’t realize they were this bad.

    Somewhat linking your questions #1 and #4 together: I did not know that seizure of assets was a “benefit” to police forces for the “War on Drugs.” I had honestly thought that such things were of the past…and I’m thinking in particular of the way the medieval Christian Church could seize the assets of heretics and those accused of witchcraft, as they did (for example) with Dame Alice Kyteler in Ireland. I had never connected the fact that there are all of these “police auctions” of cars and such with the incentivizing of the “War on Drugs,” I just assumed “Oh, those were criminal’s cars, and it’s expensive to run a police force, so they have to make their money somehow.” I feel foolishly naïve about that…

    Also, the “consent” matter when it comes to searches and such is really an eye-opener. (As someone with a medical device that is not compatible with either the x-ray machine or the body scanners at airports now, I have the lovely choice of “requesting” a pat-down, or not traveling at all.) Does refusal of consent, when it does happen, then prompt them to assume wrongdoing and to press harder, I wonder? I was with a former friend of mine while visiting home from college once, and we were walking home late at night–about 1 AM–in our small town, and were only a few blocks away from being home, when a cop pulled up and assumed he could enforce a curfew violation on us as minors (which we weren’t). My former friend was known for his chutzpah, and when prompted to give his ID, he refused, told the officer we are both over 18, and that we weren’t doing anything wrong, and demanded the officer’s name and badge number, which he reluctantly gave. On the one hand, my former friend was 100% right to act in that fashion; but on the other, part of me reeled at not obeying a police officer. Nearly twenty years on, I don’t know if I would be able to do the same thing in a similar situation, especially given the tendency of police to suddenly feel threatened and start shooting people (accidentally and/or on purpose) who might dress like I do, etc.

    So much to find infuriating here, needless to say…I shall redouble my prayers to Iustitia, Dike, Themis, and Ma’at in light of all this.

  • zabuar

    The Gods of Justice:
    - I work with jaguar, who teaches about survival and integrity. I think justice is always a work in progress of finding and acting with balance. Justice might look like being present with the moment and acting from the heart. My own observations about justice teach me that it has been out of balance for so long. I think what has been missing is compassion and truth. As individuals, I think we can continue to look at ourselves and move into action. As a community, I think we can engage in ritual and take action in mass.

    Main Myths
    - I know i did probably belief in a lot of propaganda when i was young, but continued to critically analyze it. today, i don’t believe as much.

    Mainstream Media
    - the mainstream media is terrible!! I know that it perpetuates stereotypes or creates new ones. the “good guys” seem to be white men or those with guns. the “bad” are people of color, or homeless or poor.

    Police Power
    - I only knew that the “law” had changed because i was seeing police act accordingly or hear stories from people who experienced it. i’ve never been a victim of stop and search, but i have been stopped by several police at one time for a minor incident. i think i was stopped because i thought i could cross the street however i wanted to in the middle of the night, but the police didn’t think so. i do believe that things like “random” airport searches, being stopped for minor incidents, and being targeted for shoplifting are all related to “stop and search”.

    Who Benefits from the War on Drugs?
    - I think White Supremacy/Racism & Slavery is supported! Changing the financial incentives would not be enough to change the system. The War on Drugs is just a contemporary example of White Supremacy and the root of that has to be taken. Money is just a part of that.

    Also…..
    - I watched some videos about Edward Bernays and learned a lot more about propaganda than I had known!! To connect his work with mass media and the slavery/white supremacy agenda is so astonishing. i’ve known about propaganda and war, so this is new and it makes sense.

    - connecting magic and NJC, i often wonder why and where did white supremacy/racism come from? is it a spell? is there some magic or energetic war going on beneath all of this? in this racist culture, i know that i need protection and strength to stay connected to my sense of heart-self.

    • TThornCoyle

      Great points. Thanks for these contributions.

      Racism as we know it was built alongside the nation state. Before then, the concept of “race” as we use it didn’t exist. That’s not to say there wasn’t bigotry, there was, but the systems of power had to do more with money/power and religion than with things like skin color.

      Thinking of white supremacy as a spell we are under isn’t a bad frame for our current terrible condition.

      Regarding Bernays, Century of the Self is a series I wish everyone would watch.

      I agree with you regarding justice being a work in progress. Everything is. The whole cosmos is in process. That gives me hope.

  • http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/ P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    This was a tough chapter to read, certainly…I knew that things were bad, but I didn’t realize they were this bad.

    Somewhat linking your questions #1 and #4 together: I did not know that seizure of assets was a “benefit” to police forces for the “War on Drugs.” I had honestly thought that such things were of the past…and I’m thinking in particular of the way the medieval Christian Church could seize the assets of heretics and those accused of witchcraft, as they did (for example) with Dame Alice Kyteler in Ireland. I had never connected the fact that there are all of these “police auctions” of cars and such with the incentivizing of the “War on Drugs,” I just assumed “Oh, those were criminal’s cars, and it’s expensive to run a police force, so they have to make their money somehow.” I feel foolishly naïve about that…

    Also, the “consent” matter when it comes to searches and such is really an eye-opener. (As someone with a medical device that is not compatible with either the x-ray machine or the body scanners at airports now, I have the lovely choice of “requesting” a pat-down, or not traveling at all.) Does refusal of consent, when it does happen, then prompt them to assume wrongdoing and to press harder, I wonder? I was with a former friend of mine while visiting home from college once, and we were walking home late at night–about 1 AM–in our small town, and were only a few blocks away from being home, when a cop pulled up and assumed he could enforce a curfew violation on us as minors (which we weren’t). My former friend was known for his chutzpah, and when prompted to give his ID, he refused, told the officer we are both over 18, and that we weren’t doing anything wrong, and demanded the officer’s name and badge number, which he reluctantly gave. On the one hand, my former friend was 100% right to act in that fashion; but on the other, part of me reeled at not obeying a police officer. Nearly twenty years on, I don’t know if I would be able to do the same thing in a similar situation, especially given the tendency of police to suddenly feel threatened and start shooting people (accidentally and/or on purpose) who might dress like I do, etc.

    So much to find infuriating here, needless to say…I shall redouble my prayers to Iustitia, Dike, Themis, and Ma’at in light of all this.

    • T. Thorn Coyle

      Lupus,

      I appreciate you making the links to earlier seizures of property, particularly since more than one economist has started saying we are entering a new feudal age. A police state is part of that process, and these seizures uphold the feudal order. Prison is big business for everyone. People in my local organizing group have been calling our sheriff’s system a “fiefdom” for good reason. They get paid for arrestees – mass arrests from Occupy were a big boon for the sheriff’s department, and the day to day of regular folks is a constant trickle in.

      Police know we have a right to refuse and count on us not knowing it. They always phrase things as questions, not demands, but can often ask the questions in an authoritative, demanding tone. If I were a young black man alone and refused search? The odds are raised toward brutality, depending on the officer. Right now, I’m trying to assist a young local woman brutalized by police for simply trying to talk with a man who had accused her of a minor offense she did not commit.

      The shift from protection to punishment has been huge and has severe deleterious effects.

      Here’s a great article to pass along to folks, by the way: Talking to My Son About the Police, by Nick Chiles
      http://wiki.utep.edu/display/UNIV/Talking

      It has a script for action and words.

  • An Elder Apprentice

    [It appears that Discus ate the comment that I posted last night - it was put in the review queue after I clicked 'post' and then it disappeared by morning and now it appears that Discus has disappeared too! - I try to recreate my post using this new interface ]

    “The Purpose of a system is what is does” – Stafford Beer

    Although I knew of much what is mentioned in this chapter, this is the first time I have been exposed to the entire story as a coherent whole and this story was very painful to read. I could only read two or three pages at a time before getting so angry and filled with a sense of powerlessness that I had to pace and stop reading until I calmed down. In many cases I could not start again until the next day.

    In systems theory a system is defined by its inputs and outputs. Regardless of what is in the black box that is the system, the changes the system makes on its inputs to produce its outputs fully define that system. It doesn’t matter why the black box was built, what is in it, how it does its thing, the intent of the builders, or its intended effects, what comes out of the systems ‘goes-outas’ is that system’s purpose. It is clear that under Stafford Beer’s definition of purpose, the purpose of the American criminal justice system is to generate injustice, to terrorize and impoverish its ‘intended audience’, and to destroy communities using ‘due process of law’. It really does not matter if this is an unintended consequence of good intentions or a case of total hypocrisy ( I suspect largely the latter) this systems purpose is to destroy.

    After reading the first two chapters of The New Jim Crow I am left wondering if oppression is a magickal and energetic necessity for the existence of capitalism. That the exploitation is not only an economic necessity in Capitalism but these injustices, the creation of under-classes are a sacrifice that is required for this economic system to exist. As I said, I was very upset by this chapter. I did appreciate the suggestion in our guide for this discussion to engage with the very consciousness of the Gods of justice as an counter to a very difficult read.

    • T. Thorn Coyle

      I’m having trouble with disqus and am not sure why. We are working on it.

    • T. Thorn Coyle

      YES. Systems thinking is key to this whole discussion and is the thing many people have the most trouble with. Thank you for so clearly outlining how systems work.

      “After reading the first two chapters of The New Jim Crow I am left wondering if oppression is a magickal and energetic necessity for the existence of capitalism. That the exploitation is not only an economic necessity in Capitalism but these injustices, the creation of under-classes are a sacrifice that is required for this economic system to exist.”

      It certainly has become so, and is giving rise to the shift to neo-Feudalism that I mentioned in my reply to Lupus. It is very clearly something that magic or energy workers need to ponder.

      May our Gods and Goddesses help us.

      • An Elder Apprentice

        On the magickal effects of oppression in feeding ‘the system’. It seems that this goes back to capitalism’s origins in the growth of colonialism in the 16 and 17th centuries. The capitalist elite certainly feeds in a very literal sense off of the economic benefits from the labor and dispossessed resources of the oppressed, do they also feed energetically and magically on their pain and fear. In reading the first two chapters it certainly seems that way.

        There seems a very coherent set of political behaviors and structures extended over a very long period of time by the economic elite. A group of them were documented in the first chapter of TNJC. Is this coherence due to what Marx called ‘Class Interest’, that is a group of individuals behaving in concert because they have the same world-view and interests; this is something rather mechanical and determined solely by economics or is there a relationship developed here with a magickal entities, archetypical, divine or demonic forces perhaps attracted to our human economic activities. This need not be a conscious magickal act as it does seem that the very rich are often possessed by the spirit of their money. Rudolf Steiner did speak of this sort of spiritual relationship with money and its effect on culture, but Steiner is extraordinarily difficult to understand. However, a number of years ago I did hear a three part talk by an Anthroposophist about US Labor History titled: “The Divine Feminine and its relationship to the labor movement in America”, it was quite wonderful.

  • Tony

    These bigger questions about justice and the gods are hard to answer. My experience of Maat is that justice is balance that includes conflict. One thing I think is missing is a respect for the protections and rights of the accused. There is so much shame and stigma attached to being accused of, let alone convicted of a crime, and it can be disorienting for the person accused. Increasingly I’m coming to think that the main difference between a “criminal” and a “non-criminal” is that the criminal has been caught and prosecuted for violating the law, whereas the non-criminal has not. I have been in discussions with White people who freely used pot in their youth and were never sucked into this oppressive system thanks to their privilege, so they were able to reach a point in life where they decided to turn themselves around and were able to get past it. Now they continue to advocate for the War on Drugs because they did not like the person they were when they were using. I think that’s unjust as well, they get to move on with their lives having escaped the worst consequences and do not appreciate how devastating those consequences are for the people who are targeted by law enforcement.

    What’s also very concerning is the militarization of the police, as detailed by Alexander, and the expansion of influence by for-profit prisons that lobby to create more criminal charges to feed their profit margins. When I reach out to Maat, what comes back is that this is not the true purpose of Law. Law should support the freedom of its people, it should not be motivated for creating new criminals.

    I did believe some of the myths. Reading this book and working with the population I work with has changed my views. My clients are largely not angels and I am not yet wholly against incarceration, especially with violent offenses—and I hear their stories of taking plea bargains for charges because the possibility of long-term imprisonment is worse, even when they didn’t do the crime. They share stories about how their friends and loved ones do not understand why anyone would do this, and so assume they’re lying.

    What does the media do? It scares the shit out of us. It treats violence within communities of color as sidebar issues and blows up images of violence against White people. It focuses on all the outrage of people against criminals and spends no time seriously talking with people who might advocate for the accused. It feeds into this cultural thing in which somehow defending an accused person makes you yourself a bad person, which eats away at whatever moral heart was at the center of our justice system. We see crime shows in which the criminals are hardened thugs and masterminds who are righteously taken to justice, instead of crime shows in which the “criminals” are everyday people who maybe use, or the woman who is terrorized by her abusive partner into selling drugs.

    I have never been stopped and searched. I am fairly certain that is because I am a White man. The racial profiling of these stops and searches has been well documented in the place where I grew up and live.

    I think reducing financial incentives would be very helpful—or better yet, shifting the financial incentives from incarceration and arrest toward a model of treatment and housing. I think the police are harmed because these policies require them to put themselves in increased danger, which then naturally leads them to want to respond with increased protection and militarization. I think communities of the poor and communities of color are harmed by the cycles of incarceration and the loss of wealth through the means discussed in the book. I think politicians and business people in the for-profit prison industry and weapons industries benefit. I think there have been many financially depressed communities that have benefitted from the job opportunities that prison construction and maintenance creates.

    I’m going to stop here for now.

    • T. Thorn Coyle

      “Law should support the freedom of its people, it should not be motivated for creating new criminals.”

      Indeed. The Law right now is severely out of balance. There is no sense of Ma’at.

      Also, the way plea bargaining is used is terrible. Innocent people who don’t want to fight the system plea out to avoid or reduce jail time, but then they have a record that impacts the rest of their lives. We’re dealing with that locally right now with a falsely accused young woman. Luckily, she and her family are not taking the plea and people are stepping forward to help support her.

      • T. Thorn Coyle

        As for the militarization of police, one other thing we can do is stand against training sessions like Urban Shield in our home areas. It is billed as “first responder training” but disaster response is one small part of the training. Much of the training is in riot or protest control and the goods on display are clearly war tools, not community policing tools.

        https://www.urbanshield.org/

  • An Elder Apprentice

    Truthout has a discussion of a radio documentary on the New Jim Crow and activism emerging to address the issue

    On Truthout, Bitter Harvest, a transcript of an episode in a radio documentary ” Bringing Down the New Jim Crow”
    http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/24318-a-bitter-harvest-california-marijuana-and-the-new-jim-crow
    The entire five part series is available for listening at:
    http://www.prx.org/series/32471-bringing-down-the-new-jim-crow

  • T. Thorn Coyle

    Disqus has been fixed. All hail Hillary!

    I’ll go through and delete duplicate comments when I get a chance today.

  • TThornCoyle

    Now that Disqus is fixed, I need to figure out how to import the comments made in WP. Stay tuned.


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