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Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis, by Christian Parenti (Review)

Verso, 290 pages

Review by Paul Wright

The government is by no means a neutral agent dedicated to the welfare of all its citizens. Instead, it stands first and foremost to protect the interests of whatever class happens to hold state power at the time. In the United States at the close of the millenium this is the wealthy class. The essential government element that maintains the economic and political status quo is its coercive apparatus: police and prisons. The last three decades have seen a dramatic rise in paramilitary policing as well as the exponential explosion of the American prison population. In Lockdown America Christian Parenti shows the economic crises that have led to the current police and prison state policies that have so dramatically changed the American political landscape over the past 30 years. A more accurate name for the book might be "class war by criminal justice." Like the recent U.S. war against Yugoslavia, this war is also a pretty one- sided affair.

A shortcoming with many otherwise good books about police and prisons is that while they may convey a sense of what is happening, they are incapable of explaining why it is happening and who benefits from this state of affairs. Not so with Lockdown America. Anyone interested in learning not only how the criminal justice system in America works, but who benefits from it and who it works for, will find this book useful.

Parenti sets the backdrop of the current police and prison mania in the late 1960's and 70's when pressure from the working and consumer classes forced corporations and the ruling elites to make significant concessions: environmental and labor standards, higher wages and benefits for industrial workers and expansion of the welfare system, among others. The main impact of these changes was to make it more expensive to do business in the US by cutting into corporate profits. Faced with a devastating political and military defeat in Southeast Asia, the American ruling class was in no position to mount an immediate counterattack. But mount it they did.

Amply supported by facts, Parenti shows how Ronald Reagan's economic policies shifted wealth distribution from the poor to the wealthy. By 1987, the richest one percent of the population was saving 25% of its net income tax while the poorest ten percent of the population saw 20% of its income taken by taxes. This was accompanied by deindustrialization as American businesses went overseas in search of lower labor costs (i.e., higher profits) from more compliant work forces.

In its wake, this shifting of wealth and deindustrialization left shattered human cultural and social debris in its wake. This surplus population is characterized by some sociologists as "social junk": those with shattered minds and spirits who have little will to fight: the mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addicts and elderly; and the "social dynamite": the low wage, impoverished, working class, unemployed youth whose spirits are not broken and who remain combative.

As Parenti points out: "Social dynamite is a threat to the class and racial hierarchies upon which the private enterprise system depends. This group simply cannot be swept aside. Controlling them requires a defensive policy of containment and an aggressive policy of direct attack and active destabilization. They are contained and crushed, confined to the ghetto, demoralized and pilloried in warehouse public schools, demonized by a lurid media, sent to prison, and at times dispatched by lethal injection or police bullets. This is the class--or more accurately the caste, because they are increasingly people of color which must be constantly undermined, divided, intimidated, attacked, discredited and ultimately kept in check with what Fanon called the language of naked force.'"

Faced with large scale urban revolts in the 1960's, the United States government responded with federal funding to local and state police as well as a massive increase in federal police agencies. What began with Richard Nixon in 1968 is still going strong and shows no sign of abating.

Parenti delves into the political impact and significance of "zero tolerance" policing, which was popularized by criminologist James Wilson. The theory goes that small acts of lawlessness: window breaking, evading bus or subway fares, vending without a license, etc., translates into major crimes such as rape, robbery and murder. Suppress the petty "quality of life" offenses, goes the theory, and the major crime rates will go down as well.

As New York City police commissioner William Bratton is best known as the implementer of "zero tolerance policing" in that city, or as Parenti calls it "the science of kicking ass." In modern society the cities represent the concentrations of wealth and power, poverty and danger which simultaneously typify and destabilize capitalist society. Making the cities safe for profit making and capital accumulation is the driving force behind zero tolerance policing.

Parenti chronicles Bratton's career, his innovative techniques of focusing on petty crimes, outfitting police with modern, paramilitary weapons, etc., which he pioneered with the New York City subway police. When Rudolph "Benito" Guiliani became mayor of the city in 1994, he appointed Bratton police commissioner. Bratton swiftly brought zero tolerance policing to the entire city. In practice, zero tolerance policing meant rounding up the homeless, graffiti artists, sex workers, panhandlers and other social undesirables who polluted the urban landscape and pushing them out of sight. In many cases it meant jail or prison, in others it meant exiling the homeless to distant boroughs and sending sex workers to the city's industrial areas. Zero tolerance policing has little to do with crime control and everything to do with controlling the poor, dangerous classes and keeping the cities safe for capital and its servants.

"Carrying the Big Stick: SWAT Teams and Paramilitary Policing" documents the origins and proliferation of SWAT teams. SWAT teams represent the militarization of policing combined with counter-insurgency concepts. Originally conceived in Los Angeles to deal with urban rioters and political radicals, it has become a common fixture across the nation.

In Fresno, California, the local SWAT team carries out "the criminal justice equivalent of search and destroy missions."   Permeated with the rhetoric of war, counter-insurgency and high tech repression, SWAT teams tend to see poor civilian communities as enemies to be conquered. Fresno is unique in that its 30 member SWAT team of armored vehicles, automatic weapons, attack dogs and helicopters are used routinely seven days a week, for regular patrol work. They kill an average of one citizen every three months, and shoot several more. The SWAT team's deployment had led to a 48% increase in the rate of misdemeanor arrests. "In other words, much of what they do is stop, search, harass, arrest and brutalize petty offenders, parole violators and bystanders."

Parenti documents the impact that billions of dollars of federal funding and high tech repressive equipment has had on policing. The author combines first hand reporting with analysis of national trends to paint a comprehensive, detailed picture of not so controlled government repression. Or, as he calls it, "the spectacle of terror."

"The point is that ritualized displays of terror are built into American policing. Spectacle is a fundamental part of how the state controls poor people." SWAT raids in the ghetto, rituals in the courts and prisons all serve to intimidate the poor.

One chapter is devoted to the role of Border Patrol and Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in militarizing the United State's Southern border and controlling immigrants. The Border Patrol, increasingly deployed in the heartland, far from borders, acts in collusion with the businesses who employ illegal immigrants in order to summarily deport workers who attempt to organize or otherwise rock the economic boat. The immigration police's main role is to ensure a cheap, malleable supply of submissive labor to the industries that depend on immigrant labor to ensure high profits. This includes the meat packing houses, food processing plants, agriculture, garment making and other industries.

Parenti analyzes how INS raids support the class interests of employers in general by ensuring agricultural labor remains inexpensive, unorganized and inefficient. Thus, criminalizing workers due to their immigration status allows police terrorization to keep them working in the fields at low wages.

Lockdown America describes a Border Patrol raid in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where agents and local police "swept through town, snatching Latino workers from the kitchens of 25 restaurants, rousting them from their homes and literally grabbing them as they rode by on bicycles." 153 people were arrested, cuffed, searched and put into a yard where police wrote identification numbers on their forearms in black ink. Fifty of the prisoners were United States citizens or legal residents who were eventually released. The rest were placed into manure strewn cattle trucks and shipped off to detention centers. In a classic piece of understatement, Parenti observes "The jumble of tropes at work in this real life allegory are as obvious as they are grotesque: mass arrest,   numbered forearms, cattle cars ...."

The only shortcoming to this chapter is that Parenti does not discuss the wider political implications of US immigration policy. By allowing impoverished peasants and workers to flee from crisis ridden countries like El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, etc., illegal emigration to the US serves as a safety valve for the corrupt regimes of those countries by giving people a choice between fleeing, and then propping up the local economy with financial remittances to those relatives who stayed behind, or staying home and fighting for structural change that allows them to get decent work in their own nation. While the focus of Lockdown America is the United States, immigration policy is very much an issue of the global economy.

Having discussed the "front end" of the criminal justice system, Parenti then moves to "The Rise of the Big House Nation: From Reform to Revenge." Parenti notes that in the 1970's little attention was given to imprisonment by government and elite police planners. The rise of the prisoner rights movement is placed into the historical context that the American criminal justice system was undergoing a momentary, but very real, crisis of legitimacy in the early 1970's. As prisoners struggled their quality of life modestly improved with the introduction of law libraries, and rules on grooming, visiting, censorship and clothes being loosened. "In short, much of what is chalked up to rehabilitation era enlightenment was really just the political booty of class war. The man' gave a little to keep a lot."

Lockdown America notes that when the modern imprisonment binge really took off, in 1981, politicized rebellion and unrest was not a pressing issue for the governing elites. "Instead, increased poverty and the social dislocations of deindustrialization were threats to order. In a broad sense the social breakdown, disorder and floating populations created by neo-liberal economic restructuring   had to be managed with something other than social democratic reform." The welfare state inadvertently empowers working people which limits the ability of capital to boost profits by gouging workers. Parenti makes a convincing argument that, at one level, mass imprisonment is a rational strategy for managing the contradictions of a restructured American capitalism, but at another, it is simply a useful policy by product of electoral strategies by right wing politicians using crime and punishment issues to get elected.

Prisons are accurately described as extensions of the public spectacle of terror embodied in SWAT team policing. Parenti describes the official terror of guards gunning down dozens of California prisoners for sport and how it serves the empire building dreams of prisoncrats to foment violence in prisons, then use the statistics to get more money from the legislature.

"Rollback in the Big House" documents the diminishing rights and privileges of prisoners as "the symbolic economy of revenge." Parenti notes this has been accompanied by legislative attacks such as the enactment of the Prison Litigation Reform Act and Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and gradual elimination of prison law libraries which make it impossible for prisoners to air their grievances in court or, if they get into court, to achieve meaningful relief.

"Balkans in a Box: Rape, Race War and Other Forms of Management" describes the central role prisoner rape plays in bolstering the power of guards and prison administrators. "One point worth emphasizing is that the rape factory is politically docile: if inmates fear, hate, kill and rape one another, the chance of a Spartacus arising from their ranks is almost nil." Which is why politicized prisoners in the 1970's actively fought against prisoner rape.

Lockdown America contains the best analysis of prison gangs that has been printed to date, which cuts through the myths and mythology. In the past I have commented that if prison gangs did not exist prisoncrats would have to invent them. Parenti refers to them as "the indispensable enemy," he focuses mainly on California prison gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican Mafia, Nuestra Familia, Black Guerrilla Family and newer gangs such as the Nazi Low Riders and Norteño structure. The history, origins and evolution of the gangs are detailed. Parenti observes that while prison gangs create violence and social pathologies in their wake, they also "render penitentiaries governable and justify increased repression, surveillance and control." The contradictions are that gangs keep prisoners divided yet pose a threat to staff since any type of autonomous prisoner organizing has the potential to become politicized. "The official war on prison gangs is best seen as a management strategy designed to contain, shape and direct violence, rather than eliminate it."

Prison gangs have never been as well organized, structured or disciplined as law enforcement officials have claimed over the years. It is refreshing to see a candid description of how prison officials overtly nurture and perpetuate racism by racially segregating programs and activities as well as encouraging race wars among prisoners. Gangs are thus summed up: "They are a form of organic, decentralized, self fueling social control, a cultural system of indirect rule that simultaneously oppresses from the inside while justifying repression from the outside."

The final chapter deals with the financial aspects of the prison industrial complex. Parenti dismisses the notion that prisons will ever replace military spending as an engine of Keynesian spending and technological spin offs. At best, some local, rural communities benefit from prison payrolls but prison jobs are simply no substitute for industrial enterprises and the attendant high wage jobs.

While Parenti's analysis is correct in that aspect, he misses the fact that prisons have an enormous impact in managing the social dislocation he so eloquently describes elsewhere in the book. If it were not for the two million people locked up in prisons and jails, and the more than 600,000 people employed to look over them, the American job market would not be as tight as it is now and the American unemployment rate would rival that of European countries. The main economic role of prisons, at this point in American history, is to suck would be workers out of the job markets and keep them out of it by imprisoning them or hiring them to watch over the kept.

Parenti's discussion of prison slave labor is closer to the mark. He notes that only 72,090 of almost 2 million prisoners have industrial jobs and that virtually all state run prison industries are heavily subsidized by the state as monuments to waste and inefficiency. The author concludes "Prison labor is actually a small, not very profitable, part of the American gulag." Parenti believes this is unlikely to change due to the public relations problems associated with prison slave labor, the hassles of doing business in and with prisons, the poor quality of the slave labor itself and organized opposition to the practice by business and labor lobbies. The main role of prison slave labor is political: the working prisoner is the ultimate conservative revenge fantasy.

Extensively footnoted, well researched and written in an easy to understand, flowing style Lockdown America gives a detailed, comprehensive look at how police and prisons keep the poor in line while maintaining the economic and political status quo. The radical, class based analysis sets it apart from, and above, similar works. The book is available from PLN for $25.00 plus $3.20 shipping. See page 31 for details.

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