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The Politics of Imprisonment

By Ed Mead

Peoples' fear of being victimized by crime has steadily risen over the past couple of decades. This has been particularly true for women, the elderly, and minority communities.

While there has always been a substantial amount of crime in the U.S., its general level (rate of crime per capita) and overall intensity (degree of violence) have increased sharply in recent history. Although a portion of this increase is due to population increases and more efficient methods of collecting and reporting crime data, there has nonetheless been a substantial rise in individual victimization levels.

The fear of being victimized by crime is heightened by the sensationalized coverage of criminality by the bourgeois news media and the ranting of law enforcement agencies seeking to further expand their already bloated budgets. Preying on this fear, the overwhelming bulk of bourgeois politicians call for locking up more people for longer periods of time. This is termed "getting tough on crime," and it is an approach that is enjoying widespread public support these days. As a direct result of this policy new prison population records have been set within both the state and federal prison systems.

Sending malefactors to prison creates the illusion that something is being done. The message to the public is that other potential criminals will be suitably deterred from committing similar crimes, and that, at the very least, the recurrence of crime by that particular individual has been temporarily made less likely. Is this necessarily true?

Studies which have compared murder rates between states actually executing their citizens and other states without the death penalty showed that killing those convicted of murder had no deterrent effect. In fact, murder rates slightly increased in some death penalty states. This is because people who commit murder generally do so either out of intense passion or for what crime reporters would call "cold blooded" reasons. Deterrence is not a factor with the former, who simply doesn't care if he or she is apprehended -- theirs is a crime of the moment. The latter are not deterred because they believe themselves to be too slick to be caught.

What about the argument that at least those who are locked up are not committing more crimes? This neglects the fact that sending the loser of the court battle to prison changes very little. The murder, rape, extortion, theft, drug use, etc., continues to take place, only now it is happening out of the public's direct line of vision.

If one took the few acres constituting the major penal facility of any state and computed the number of reported crimes committed there per year (the unreported figures would be many times higher), the resulting statistics would show those few acres to be the most densely crime-ridden are of the state. The crimes keep happening, only the victims have changed. Instead of outside citizens it is the younger, weaker, and more vulnerable prisoners who are the most frequently victimized. Because this is taking place behind prison walls, and because it is happening to prisoners (a segment of the population without any democratic rights, and whose status as slaves is legitimized by the constitution's thirteenth amendment), there is little public concern.

There are many other things going on behind those high walls. Of minor importance is the fact that the more experienced prisoners are busily teaching their less sophisticated peers the most advanced criminal techniques. Of greater concern is the continuously unfolding dynamic of what might be termed the enragement process.

Taxpayers are charged something in the neighborhood of $30,000 per year to incarcerate a single felon in the penitentiary. In exchange for this outrageous sum they received the same thing they would get by taking a large dog, or any other self-respecting animal, putting it in a tiny cage, where it is kept year after year while sticks are poked in thorough the bars at it day after endless day. The final result of all that expense is a very alienated and angry animal, who as often as not is bent on revenge.

Once the prisoner is released this rage gets taken out on those nearest him -- wife, children, neighbors, and the community in general. The public could have sent the offender to Yale and made a rocket scientist of him for considerably less money, but the logic of building people up rather than destroying them is lost on those who dictate public "corrections" policies.

To ad insult to injury, after conditioning people to survive in the unnaturalness of the prison environment, training them to return (the recidivism rate is between 63 and 93 percent, depending on whose figures one reads), the totally unaccountable prisoncrats have the absolute nerve to ask the public for more prisons so they can work their mischief on more people for longer periods of time. What policy makers do not understand is that prisons actually contribute to and worsen the social problem they are supposed to fix.

The ongoing disintegration of international imperialism has unleashed negative social forces which continue to manifest themselves in a number of undesirable ways, including child abuse, wife beating, victimization of neighbors, and countless other acts of "localized" violence by members of the working class against each other. Right now the violence of minorities against themselves has reached alarming proportions.

The same dynamic is unfolding within the nation's prisons as well. If represents an alienated response of the oppressed to racism, sexisms, and the economic exploitation of modern day capitalism. It is a response that is not directed or otherwise focused against its real source. It is instead internalized as self-hatred and manifests itself in self-destructive behavior, or expressed externally in the form of criminality against others in the same community.

Meanwhile, those who benefit from our oppression are relatively well protected -- they are insulated from the impact of these social conditions. Criminal victimization studies show that high-income white districts have much less crime, both violent and property types, than lower income groups of any other race. Violent crime was 35 times more common in the very low income Black district. Property crimes are also several times higher in poor neighborhoods, even though such offenses are often unreported by poor people.

The most significant cause of what is generally called "street crime" is the inability of capitalism to provide enough opportunities for all of those living under its rule. The unemployment rate for Black youth is today somewhere around 50%. The unemployment rate for adult Black men is two and often three times that for white workers. The unemployment rate for Black women is considerably worse than that of Black men. What is true for Blacks also applies to other oppressed minorities within the U.S., although generally to a slightly lesser degree.

In 1978 Congressman Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) held hearings in Washington, D.C. in an effort to determine if there was a direct relationship between the level of unemployment and the crime rate. The hearings verified what common sense would lead one to conclude: Crime increases with increases in the level of unemployment.

Indeed, Professor M. Harvey Brenner of Johns Hopkins University, testifying before Congress (the joint Economic Committee, Fall, 1979),stated that high youth unemployment is the most significant facto r affecting violent crime, because most such crimes are committed by young people. Brenner presented evidence that an increase of 1% in the ratio of youth unemployment of general unemployment during the years 1945 to 1976, corresponded to a 12.2% increase in homicides by those aged 15 to 19 and a 17.2% increase in homicides by those aged 20 to 24. Assault rates increased 6.7% and 7.2% for those same groups, respectively, with the same 1% increase in the ratio. This same finding holds true for rates of mortality, morbidity, suicide, prison admissions, admissions to mental institutions and property crimes.

What to do? We do not possess control of the means of information or education (or any of the other instruments of state power), so at this point there is little we can do on the institutional level to alter the big picture. What we can do, however, is to increase our individual consciousness -- to broaden our understanding of the many social problems confronting our communities. Crime, for example, is a force not unlike that of running water or electricity, and like water or electricity it will follow the path of least resistance. There is more crime in poorer communities because it is easier to rob and steal in one's own neighborhood than it is to go to a more prosperous area of town for that purpose.

The ruling class does not want crime to exist, but inasmuch as it is an objective reality that won't go away, they would prefer it be directed against others rather than themselves. By concentrating extra levels of protection around their property (sophisticated alarm systems, private guard patrols, etc.), the rich are able to effectively channel crime back into the poorer communities and other segments of the working class.

It is not being suggested that dangerous criminals, those confused victims of the cruel dog-eat-dog morality of capitalism who act out with violence against other members of the working class, be released to prey on the equally confused by more credulous members of the class residing in the community. What is being said is that people should not fall for the illusion that sending offenders to ever worse prisons for longer periods does any social good. Long lasting social benefits do not flow from maintaining a segment of society in a state of slavery, political disenfranchisement, irresponsibility, and total dependency. You do not get good results by doing bad things, even to supposedly bad people.

There is only one real solution, and that is the establishment of a democratic socialist republic to replace capitalism in America. Only with state power in the hands of a party representing the working class can full employment and social justice be realized. It would be at such a point that prisoners could genuinely re-educated (made class conscious) and successfully integrated back into an organized and concerned community. New offenders (it will require generations to erase the destructive influences of U.S. imperialism's ideology from society) would not be banished, but strengthened with the support of neighborhood and workplace volunteers who would help to guide his or her progress at home and on the job. Only the most terrible cases would require confinement, and that would be accomplished under humane conditions, with the objective of changing people, and with as much ongoing interaction with the community as possible.

The outbreak of socialist revolution in the U.S. will not happen any time soon. The inherent contradiction between the social nature of production and the private expropriation of the products of that production must continue to heighten and became sharper before workers become conscious of the need for a radical transformation of existing class relations. Given the present low level of consciousness, there is little that can be done in terms of seriously impacting environmental conditions to the point of reducing the size of the next generation of criminals. It is possible, however, to have some small impact on the direction of crime.

Crime already possesses some natural direction inasmuch as 90% of it is aimed against property. Since it can't be eliminated or controlled at this juncture of things, the trick is to try and turn it away from the working class and small business people so that as much of it as possible is aimed at those who created the conditions that allow it to so rapidly spread.

Given the generally low level of the left's development, about all that can be done for now is to try and raise the consciousness of those most likely to offend, the urban poor and those already confined. The message is a simple one -- It's not cool to prey on oppressed peoples. This of course being national minorities, women, the elderly, homosexuals, members of the working class, small business people, etc. If class-consciousness could be raised even to this modest level of awareness in just a portion of the selected group, a big step would be taken toward making poor and working people feel more secure in their homes and on the streets.

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