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After Prisons: A Supervisory State?

After Prison? Freedom, Decarceration and Justice Disinvesment

By William G. Martin and Joshua Price (eds.)

Lexington 2016

Reviewed by James Kilgore, Daily Kos

After Prisons? is a remarkable book for several reasons.  First of all, it remains strong from start to finish.  Every chapter offers disciplined research and fresh ideas. Second, unlike the vast majority of books on criminal justice, this volume doesn’t focus on high profile states, cities or the federal government. This is about criminal justice in small, rural counties in upstate New York. But most importantly, this book departs seriously from what is becoming the orthodoxy in criminal justice “reform” - that a steady, policy wonk-driven set of “smart” changes will peel back the carceral state.  After Prisons? decisively contests that notion.

The product of a five year project led by co-editors William Martin and Joshua Price, the argument’s power rests largely on the fact that it emerges from New York, the model state for liberal and radical reform agenda makers. Largely through activist pushback against the War on Drugs, changes in arrest, charging  and sentencing policy New York has seen a 25% decline in state prison population since 1999. New York City’s jail population has declined by more than half in the same period.  These cutbacks have been accompanied by at least 16 prison closures. This is decarceration at its finest, an apparently undiluted success story.

No Simple Solution

Martin, Price and their contributors urge us to dig deeper, to problematize the New York successes and recognize the unevenness of this process.  As Martin puts it in the introduction, “New York State is as marked by different rates and paths of incarceration and decarceration as the country is as a whole. “  (8) Through a series of studies of upstate New York counties, (most of the research team has some connection to Binghamton University) the authors convincingly debunk any notion that we are on a straight and smooth path to a major change in the carceral landscape. A key starting point is that decarceration at the prison level masks a number of counterbalancing forces.  The 2009 moderation of the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws along with other earlier relaxing of drug laws has opened the door to a range of sentencing options which keep people out of prison- treatment, drug court, electronic monitors and so forth.   Drawing on the notion of the “devolution of incarceration” as formulated by Reuben Miller, the authors convincingly argue that such changes don’t necessarily equate with an elimination of incarceration. Rather they maintain this catalyzes a relocation of incarceration to the local level, to be administered by agencies of parole, probation as well as private and non-profit organizations. They label this process “justice disinvestment.” As Martin argues in the introduction this shift may create a “supervisory state” which reaches “further into the neighborhood, streets and families of the formerly incarcerated and yet-to-be incarcerated poor.”  He goes on to contend: “Decarceration and devolution may thus shape our future in ways unexpected by the states’ and criminologists’ narrow concern with returning incarcerated persons to their home communities.” (9) In short, decarceration on its own is not enough.

To support these contentions, the authors have marshalled considerable data to demonstrate major changes in the spatial and racial aspects of incarceration. While prison population may be falling and institutions may be closing, this is not uniform.  In Chapter 2, Martin, Eason and Gonzalez, help to deepen our understanding of the model which holds that prisons are built in mainly white rural areas to house people of color from big cities.  They link this to the pattern of prison closures, explaining that prisons that have closed are often located in or near the bigger cities in the state.  In contrast, prisons in small rural counties, which tend to be higher security level, have not been shuttered.  The authors connect the difference to changing economic forces, arguing that rural counties remain tied to the prison driven economic model. Deindustrialization has left them no option.  On the other hand, prisons closer to major cities have been the major targets for shutdowns.  The authors note that big cities have experienced a form of corporate-led recovery which has driven up business investment and property prices. Hence, the land occupied by prisons offers more lucrative alternatives than locking up people.  This unevenness of prison closures is but one element of the new geography of incarceration.

Small Town Jail Growth

Perhaps even more important is the continued rise in jail populations in these same small towns.  In Chapter  5 Andrew Pragacz  offers a startling statistic: during the 1999-2014 height of decarceration in state prisons, upstate jail population increased by 22%. In addition, the number of people sent from those upstate counties to the state prison system grew by 17%. Pragacz offers several explanations. First, he points out that the moderation of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, with their emphasis on treatment rather than incarceration, pushed people out of the state system into local treatment programs, some of which were inside or linked to jails. Second, while alternatives to incarceration and non-profits operating in the carceral sector proliferated in the cities during the period, a similar process didn’t occur in rural towns and counties. Moreover, the extensive popular mobilizations and debates that took place in the big cities didn’t happen in rural areas. The result was that judges and prosecutors stuck with their hardline practices. Third, a new wave of the war on drugs, largely focused on methamphetamine in areas outside the big cities drove more people into small jails. 

This trend was buttressed by changes in state administrations and policing.  In New York, a state body, the State Commission of Corrections (SCOC, oversees jails and can mandate jail construction projects if a local facility is overcrowded or substandard. Pragacz cites the case of Herkimer County where an SCOC review of jail conditions has precipitated an ongoing battle between local citizens and law enforcement over a proposal to address overcrowding with a $33 million new jail complex.  Residents of Tompkins County are currently experiencing a similar heavy-handed move by the SCOC to force them into a massive expansion. Pragacz also notes that local residents rarely opposed prison construction in an earlier era (largely because prisons were sold as a force for economic development).   But today opposition to jail building has emerged in many counties as local residents express discontent with the massive drain of tax dollars into carceral construction at a time when funds for services like mental health and substance abuse have dried up.

All these forces combine with a restructuring of policing in rural areas, outlined by Brendan McQuade, in his powerful chapter “From the Carceral Leviathan to the Police State”  McQuade highlights how data-driven policing, inspired by the use of the Comstat system implemented in New York City, has shifted enormous power onto police and their allies from probation and parole. As a result, making use of risk assessment tools that target potential “criminals” as well as identifying “hotspots” where crime is likely to occur, police in small towns have stepped up sweeps and targeted raids which net hundreds of people who simply appear on various hotlists. Complementing this in some areas have been stepped up raids on the undocumented by  Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  More intensive surveillance on crossings from the Canadian side has precipitated the use of local jails as rental space for housing the undocumented targeted for deportation.

Revier, Jung and Martin’s  “Media and the New War on Drugs: Governing Through Meth” reinforce McQuade’s thesis. Here the authors’ study of upstate media reports on criminal justice connects the spin on these issues to information gathering and surveillance. In their view, the media becomes both participant and advocate for local agency and individual-led efforts to monitor residents’ activities. In particular, while crime rates have fallen, crime reporting in upstate media has gone up. This, the authors maintain, is a component of the war on meth, which becomes a vehicle for tracking people. As they put it “framing meth as a threat or plague caused by violent, users, producers and dealers has laid the bases for the diffusion and coordination of surveillance and policing across upstate New York.” (45)  The media complements state-led collaboration by promoting participation in the meth war from individuals reporting “suspicious activity” – a sort of neighborhood watch on steroids.  They further argue that media efforts not only promote what they call “justice disinvestment”-shifting surveillance and supervision functions to private agencies and non-profits but also divert attention from other structural problems related to political economy-poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation as well as how to support individuals returning home from prison.

The Reentry Industry

Joshua Price’s chapter on reentry further buttresses  McQuade’s perspectives on the role of the state.  In this essay Price focuses on the restructuring of reentry programs, pointing out how the state Reentry Task Force has essentially taken over all efforts in the field. In so doing, they channel people coming home into programs run by traditional agencies whose efforts center around improving the individual through courses such as job readiness and anger management.  This top-down approach has frequently sidelined efforts to incorporate the initiative of formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones in ways that stress advocacy and structural change rather than personal transformation.  Essentially Price contends that reentry has become an “industry” in which the service providers have very little stake in success-that is, keeping their clients out of prison or jail. Instead of a traditional social welfare approach, such agencies often depend for survival on numbers.  Ultimately the metric by which they are judged is how many people participate in their programs rather than how their programs contribute to individual success and systemic changes that open doors to people with felony convictions. As Price explains, “people returning from prison meet an array of organizations that have conflicting priorities, goals, and even different concepts of responsibility.”  He stresses that this model ends up “placing responsibility for rehabilitative self-governance on the individual,” not the inequities of the system of mass incarceration.  In Price’s terms there has been a shift from mass incarceration to “mass supervision” through the network of social agencies involved in reentry.  He concludes that in the end this amounts to an “abandonment of a vulnerable population.” (94)

In the final chapter, Price and Martin place the question of After Prisons in a much broader and historical context. They draw parallels between the Reconstruction period and what might occur post-mass incarceration.  Their concern is that the current reform process will not lead to freedom but in fact create a new “infrastructure of injustice”-an expansion of the carceral state via supervision and surveillance into the very communities that have been struck by mass incarceration. Plus, they note that “as with Reconstruction,” decarceration implies” not merely the prospect of a racialized subject sprung free of their fetters,“ but a “broader political opening that can potentially remake groups across racial hierarchies.”  (126) The question becomes whether this remaking will happen or be crushed by a white supremacist and anti-poor folks backlash.

All told, this volume represents a monumental contribution to current debates, combining rigorous research focusing on spaces we rarely hear about and a political breadth of vision sorely lacking among the majority of people theorizing on what they call “criminal justice reform.”

A Race and Gender Take?

For all its strengths, a few additional angles would have added considerably to the impact of this work.  Perhaps most critical would be a more detailed analysis of the racial implications of the patterns of change in upstate New York.  While The New Jim Crow model has considerable relevance for big cities with large populations of Black people and other people of color, the essays give us very little sense of how this might be playing out in upstate New York where people of color are a decided minority. More information on the demographics of these towns and their jail populations would have been helpful along with an assessment of how justice disinvestment might impact that racial profile.   Certainly popular understanding tells us that meth is a “white” drug, so knowing how that particular version of the War on Drugs affected people of color in the region would have been useful.  Similarly, a gender take on these processes would have added important dimensions to the analysis.  Since the rate of incarceration of women has been shooting up astronomically, including some perspective on this in the upstate New York situation would seem essential. I hope the authors will take up these issues in the near future.

Despite these important gaps, for those seeking systemic change and transformation in the realm of criminal justice, this is an absolute must read. Hopefully other researchers will take up similar questions in their home areas.  As the introduction notes: “if we are to move forward to less incarceration and greater social justice, we urgently need to make sense of the conflicting expectations, policies, projections, and data surrounding the sudden flurry of talk surrounding criminal justice reform.” Clearly this book takes a giant step in helping us to make sense of the current state of play.

James Kilgore is a writer, activist and educator based at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). His most recent book is Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (The New Press, 2015). He is also the author of four novels, all of which were drafted during his six-and-a-half years in state and federal prisons in California.

This article was originally published by Daily Kos on October 5, 2016. Reprinted with author’s permission.

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