From the Editor
by Paul Wright
Since PLN first began publishing in 1990 we have reported on parole systems and their inherent arbitrariness and cruelty. Today there is a lot of rhetoric about a “liberal-conservative alliance” on criminal justice issues and the need for reform. This is hardly the first time such talk has been heard, and parole reform is a cautionary tale of how reform is not necessarily always for the better.
By the middle of the 1970s the prisoners’ rights movement was widely critical of the entire parole system, which was rightly viewed as racist, classist and especially punitive to jailhouse lawyers and other prisoners who challenged the prison system. Right-wingers were unhappy with parole, which they viewed as letting too many prisoners (especially informants) out of prison early to commit more crimes. While there was talk of ending parole, few jurisdictions actually did so. Some states – including Washington, California and Minnesota, as well as the federal prison system – eliminated or restricted discretionary parole, which had the immediate net effect of lengthening sentences. Prisoners were then subjected to “community supervision” for years on end following their release. Where discretionary parole remains it largely exists in name only, with parole boards composed of political hacks, former law enforcement officers, victims’ rights advocates and other professional prisoner bashers often denying parole and forcing prisoners to max out their sentences.
The result has been that discretionary paroles have largely slowed to a halt and are subject to the vagaries of shifting political winds and media sensationalism. This month’s cover story by Beth Schwartzapfel does a good job explaining how this has played out nationally. Coupled with almost total discretion and secrecy, and largely nonexistent oversight by judges or anyone else, parole continues to be not only a massive human rights abuse but also one of the largest drivers of mass incarceration in the U.S. today.
While a lot of ink is spilled on crime rates and prosecutorial and policing practices, the reality remains that in most states parole revocations – not new criminal commitments – account for over 25% of new prison admissions, on average. The vast majority of which are for technical violations that do not involve the commission of a new crime: missing a meeting with a parole officer, getting married or leaving the county without permission, etc. One of the most significant and immediate ways to reduce the prison population in the U.S. would be to eliminate parole entirely and have prisoners serve determinate sentences. Thus, when they walk out of prison they would be finished with the criminal justice system unless they are accused of a new crime. Interestingly, despite all the data we have related to parole, there is a dearth of evidence showing that it enhances public safety, reduces crime or does anything beyond serving as a jobs program for tens of thousands of parole officers nationally at a cost of billions of dollars, who in turn further expand the prison population through parole revocations.
As this issue of PLN goes to press we are expecting the Federal Communications Commission to announce new rules capping prison and jail phone rates for intrastate (in-state) calls. For the past several months the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, has been busy continuing to collect data, submitting it to the FCC and rebutting arguments by the prison telecommunications industry, prison and jail officials, and their lobbying shills who want to continue exploiting prisoners and their families. We will report any developments involving the FCC when they occur.
We will soon be mailing the HRDC/PLN annual fundraiser and are at a critical juncture in terms of the need for funds to continue our Campaign for Prison Phone Justice (www.phonejustice.org) and our Stop Prison Profiteering campaign (www.stopprisonprofiteering.org). Donations can be sent via mail, by phone or online. If you or your family and friends are tired of being gouged by prison telephone services, money transfer companies and the rest of the parasites feeding off the carceral carcass served to them by prison and jail officials, then make a donation to HRDC so we can help end these practices and protect prisoner consumers and their families. All donations help. If you can’t make a contribution, ask someone who can to make one on your behalf.
With the holiday season approaching this is the time to order a PLN subscription for your loved ones behind bars, or one of the many books we offer in our book store (see p.69). Enjoy this issue of PLN and please encourage others to subscribe and donate.
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