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Jun 01, 2015

OBAMA, MASS INCARCERATION AND THE “EXTREME CENTER”

James Kilgore

keywords: Obama, Mass Incarceration

From Prison Focus Issue 46
Summer 2015

In his most recent book, British writer Tariq Ali refers to a political phenomenon which he calls the “extreme center.” For Ali, this represents the convergence point where the established political left and political right unite behind a free market, pro-corporate agenda. Ali views this as the defining political feature of this era, both in Europe and the US. The convergence is more pronounced in most European countries where powerful trade union movements had historically amalgamated with Labor or Social Democratic parties. These combined forces were able to advance pro-working class, social welfare agendas that delivered national health plans, free mass education, enormous expanses of low-cost public housing and a general safety net that protected the poor and the unemployed from the miserable fate that awaits the marginalized in most US cities today. In Ali’s view, these working class-oriented parties stood on principles for which they were willing to fight. The dividing line between the conservatives and the welfarist parties was clear and, on most is-sues, irreconcilable. The answer to the question “which side are you on?” was unequivocal.

In the last three decades, especially since the rise to power of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and her crushing of the 1984-5 mineworkers strike, the official Left has melted into the extreme center. They may quibble with conservatives over small issues, fight over electoral seats and public opinion poll numbers but essentially both parties of the extreme center share the same overall “dream” – electoral democracy and a free market economy unfettered by high taxes and redistributive “madness.” The invisible hand of Adam Smith has replaced the clenched fist of solidarity. What Ali says about Britain seems almost universal: “We live in a country without an opposition.”

I read Ali’s book the same day President Obama made his path-breaking speech to the NAACP on mass incarceration. Like perhaps anyone who has spent years fighting the US compulsion to criminalize the poor and throw them into prisons and jails, my reaction combined joy, relief, and suspicion. Why now? Why on the heels of commuting the sentences of 46 people? Why when the parade of unlikely partners: Van Jones and Newt Gingrich, Rand Paul and Cory Booker, the Koch Brothers and the NAACP has already grown quite long? No real answer to those questions. Yes, the President arrived late to the party, but at least he came.

My graver concern, thinking about Ali’s theses, was not the why behind Obama’s speech but rather the possibility that the extreme center is hijacking the movement to reverse/ eliminate/smash mass incarceration. As Ali so eloquently argues, one of the key tasks of the extreme center is to take center stage, to ensure that no alternative seems either reasonable or possible. For years, left-wing critics have framed the debate. Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore, Marc Mauer and, more recently, Michelle Alexander gave us the terminology to speak about all this: the prison industrial complex, abolition, non-reform reform and The New Jim Crow. Those no-tions are falling to the wayside now. Enter the discourse of gradualism and technicism: risk assessment tools, evidence-based solutions, and re-packaged justice reinvestment. Enter the institutions of carceral humanism: gender responsive jails, family friendly detention centers, mental health therapy complexes inside electrified fences. The extreme center is a change management force, like those corporate consultants who so glibly calm the waters of race, gender and class conflict by assuring everyone that we all share the same goals and we need to calm our anger and understand how the other side is feeling. They provide us with a new language to describe our problems, help us create a Facebook like world where everyone is our friend.

In terms of addressing mass incarceration, the extreme center will doubtless make some changes that will be very important, that will make a difference in the lives of thou-sands of people who have been slammed in the nation’s hell-holes without a reasonable explanation or, in some cases, without even a legal justification. This will all be welcome. Every bill, every policy change that will get people out of prison, that will stop more prisons and jails from being built, that will soften the daily burdens of those held in Pelican Bay, Angola or Pontiac, that will re-direct resources away from corrections to communities is a positive. Absolutely. These changes are opportunities, windows not to be missed.

But let us not confuse the agenda of the extreme center with keeping our eye on the prize. All the sentencing reform that a thousand lawyers can draft will not get at the roots of the problem. For that we need more than across the aisle smiles and handshakes. That requires the voices of the people who have been directly affected by mass incarceration and mass criminalization, the youth of Black Lives Matter, the immigrants’ rights activists who have slowed deportations, the former prisoners and their loved ones who have battled to ban the box. But most of all that requires a fundamental shift away from the most cherished icon of the extreme center-the free market. Mass incarceration and mass criminalization don’t end until billions are ploughed back into the communities that have been devastated not only by imprisonment and over-policing but by a whole host of policies that have undermined social welfare and accelerated the inequality between the rich and the poor. To address this requires far more than sentencing reform and will take us far beyond the comfort zone of the handshakes and smiling faces of the extreme center.

Oct 01, 2015

Paradigm Shift

Wilbert Jefferson

keywords:

From Prison Focus Issue 47
Fall 2015

Let’s paint the picture of tragedy, my social decline impulsive thoughts go unchallenged, truly, it’s all in my mind

The perception that’s given, are airbrushed in the wind so with these lyrics it’s quoted, noted, and unspoken soon

My upbringing was Calais, malice, I lacked self-respect overly defensive and bitter, the ripple of this affect

Forever scared by decisions made, in the prime of my youth arrested for murder, at 16, my confinement is proof

I disenfranchised the future, do you railed desires and dreams my household was broken, dysfunctional as a teen

I’m steady fighting a battle, pride will soon pay the cost my beliefs that are routed, triggered, that now set me off

I occupied this space, place, to protest that latter do police fear black people, I wonder, all lives matter

With a swing goes the splatter, better, a river of tears the stereotype that’s projected, can now account for my peers

Now for the sake of reality, I must change or get drugged I say a prayer to the father, please God, awaken my thugs.

Oct 01, 2015

GOOD MEN, NOT WORST OF THE WORST

Johnny Aguilar

keywords:

From Prison Focus Issue 47
Fall 2015

We are coming up on three years since the End of All Hostilities with all races has been implement-ed. I am feeling mighty proud for this historic mark in history that has no doubt seized the moment and put an end to more than 20-30 years of hostilities between different groups.

Had the honor to be amongst the prestigious class of good men of all walks of life during the historic hunger strike in 2013. In August of 2013, after being released from the ASU (hole), I arrived at Pelican Bay B-yard and collectively we all submitted 602s (administrative appeals, or complaints) on behalf of people of each race wrongly being given 115s (notices of serious rules violation, write-ups) by Pelican Bay staff when they were handing them out like sweepstakes tickets.

I was placed on an add list to Calipatria State Prison. I arrived at Calipatria on Oct. 28, 2013, only for the prison to go on lockdown in December 2013 and again in February 2014. Then when he came off lockdown, a collective of good people came together and started to really push the Agreement to End Hostilities at Calipatria.

Setting aside the few hick-ups, all in all we started to see the positive results and the major positive effects that were evolving. We also started to see that despite CDC’s tactics, their ASUs (Administrative Segregation Units) were no longer being flooded. For 11 months we diligently kept the peace and honored the collective agreement that was set in stone for the betterment of all people, all classes, all groups and all parties.

Now I’ve been sent to a 180 design maximum prison here at High Desert State Prison’s D upper yard in general population. High Desert opened up the upper yard, which was previously Ad-Seg overflow. Currently Blocks 5, 6 and 7 are mainline and we’re awaiting Block 8 to be opened for a mainline program. So the general population yards can be filled with plenty of those still in the SHUs in Pelican Bay, Tehachapi and Corcoran.

For a few weeks now, I’ve been seeing people from all walks of life and groups observing the Agreement to End Hostilities. Walking together, going to school together, working together, going to visiting together, carrying on conversations, respecting one another. It is really good to see such peace and such positive actions.

These are human beings, human lives, yet CDC chooses to ignore the psychological trauma involved. They continue to house them in suffering, inhumane, deplorable conditions.

We will continue to stand up for human lives because these brave men in the class action lawsuit, locked away in all the SHUs and ASUs across the state, every man and woman in solitary confinement – all of us are created equal. We will continue resisting the bad policies and guard terrorism that are only meant to hurt us. This is real lives we are talking about, human retaliation issues, human rights, as well as racial profiling issues under false pretense with their STG (Security Threat Group) policy that is only widening the net for more abusive gang validations (being labeled a gang member or associate – a ticket to solitary confinement).

We will stand up and defend ideas of positive social re-form that will be beneficial to us all as a whole class. The irony here is good men are creating better environments for us. Stop labeling these good men “worst of the worst”!

What CDC could not do in 20-30 years, these brave men in the Short Corridor prison collectives accomplished in just a short period of three years. Yet CDC continues to label them “worst of the worst.” That’s complete bullshit!

The Agreement to End Hostilities means no more group conflict. That and many more ideas and policies CDC needs to try and learn from the Short Corridor Collectives at Pelican Bay, Tehachapi and Corcoran SHUs. This is a movement I will continue to be in ‘til death.

Oct 24, 2016

PHSS Monthy Actions: Together to End Solitary

Ron Kelch

keywords: Solitary

From Prison Focus Issue 50
Fall 2016

For a couple years now Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) has organized actions on the 23rd of each month, to draw the public’s attention to the fact that prisoners in solitary confinement are isolated 23 hours or more of every day. We have also asked people to organize their own actions wherever they are.

In recent months the actions had several different forms: The committee on sleep deprivation has created leaflets and letters alerting people to the on-going torture of sleep deprivation in all isolation cells in California prisons. We bring those petitions and letters to various tables and events.

Santa Cruz has regular readers’ theater and speak-out every month. Sarah Shourd’s play, The Box, performed during the month of August, was a very powerful portrayal of life in the SHU and showed the seeds of rebellion against it. PHSS had tables at the play to connect with the audience and distribute information about current struggles in California prisons. Charlie Hinton’s play, Solitary Man, is growing in content— most recent addition is original music—and performances.

On March 23rd, 2016, PHSS cosponsored spoken word event with Hip Hop 4 Change. If the SHU Fits play has been performed on the 23rd of each month in various venues since the beginning of the organized events.

California Families Against Solitary Confinement and Chicano/Mexicano Prison Project in San Diego holds demonstrations on the 23rd of every month, passing our flyers, promoting the Agreement to End Hostilities and talking to people. PHSS folks in the Bay Area set up tables in Oakland at Fruitvale BART station and at farmers’ market. PHSS also returned to the SF pier to connect with tourists visiting Alcatraz. Here is a report from the most recent action there:

From Alcatraz to Pelican Bay: On August 23rd, 2016, we handed out an informational leaflet, “From Alcatraz to Pelican Bay,” at the National Park Service staging area for trips to Alcatraz, an immensely popular international tourist attraction in the middle of San Francisco Bay. We wanted to draw attention to what replaced Alcatraz, a notorious prison from 1934 to 1963 that was made famous by Hollywood movies and its own ghoulish history of guard abuse.

Alcatraz prison erected extreme physical barriers to the prisoners’ rights movement. New supermax prisons were built with the aim of not only physical but total psychological control. Control units were designed by behavioral psychologists. Another early consultant was MIT professor Edgar Schein, who advised using totalitarian methods. Schein learned those methods from POW’s held in Chinese prisons during the Korean War.

In the late 1970s prisoners in the Marion control unit went on hunger strikes. Strikers explained at that time, that the authorities had learned how to control their outward behavior, but the men had minds of their own that the authorities could never get to.

As we pointed out in our leaflet, prisoners have been using that power of an independent mind. A multi-ethnic non-violent movement staged a series of hunger strikes, forcing the California Department of Corrections to end their use of indeterminate solitary confinement. Strike representatives now are challenging the entire “justice” system. The most gratifying aspect the many discussions engendered by our leaflet was the reaction of ordinary people, locals and tourists from around the world. Many concluded that the only solution to the absolute inhumanity governing today’s world is the kind of human solidarity on the ground personified by these prisoners.

Oct 24, 2016

The Shortcomings of a Capitalist Society

Linnea Schurig

keywords: Capitalism

From Prison Focus Issue 50
Fall 2016

There are many economic and financial freedoms guaranteed to one living in a capitalist society, however an industry-regulated economy puts a premium on self-regulation and free enterprise to the detriment of lower-class citizens often unable to benefit from these advantages. These lower classes often comprise minority races and genders and are subject to discrimination and disadvantage; while these circumstances can theoretically be overcome, there are necessarily limits on each groups’ resources and ability to do so.

The platonic ideal of capitalism is that individuals will reap rewards proportionate to the effort they invest in their work; however, this theory is falsely predicated on the notion of “fair play,” that no external or inherent factors influence one’s opportunities and resources, so equality must result. While the benefits of this ideal capitalist system are numerous – namely free competition, self-regulation within the market, profit maximization, and an incentivized work ethic – the disadvantages of the reality are just as profuse; those confined to lower socioeconomic positions face discrimination and an inequitable distribution of resources, and thus a crippling and often insurmountable inequality.

This de facto discrimination, while arguably improving over time, is still rampant within all societal avenues and institutions, and accounts for much of the inequality apparent between socioeconomic classes. Women in particular are discriminated against both in the workplace and society at large, often subjected to lower wages than male counterparts based on antiquated gender conventions that place women at an inherent disadvantage. According to American Society, “the relative pay of women increased from 63 percent of male median hourly earnings in 1973 to 82 percent of male earnings in 2005” (306). While this statistic conceded the gender imbalance to be gradually improving, it is certainly not yet demolished. While many women overcome these obstacles, notably women of power such as Hillary Clinton or Oprah Winfrey, the fact that they must overcome them in the first place speaks to a gender disparity prevalent in society today.

Likewise, there is a distinct disparity between the opportunities and resources accorded to individuals of different races, making it extremely challenging for those of minority standing to achieve equitable socioeconomic status. This discrimination often exists from an early age, and can be preclusive to any sort of academic or economic advancement. The existence of such unequal circumstances from the very outset essentially overturns the functional idea of “fair play;” while the notion of an even playing field is good in theory, it is not reflective of the realities facing the underprivileged or disadvantaged youth of today. While the theory of “fair share,” which posits the idea of everyone receiving an equal cut of society’s cumulative rewards, is no more practical than “fair play” (given that it would undermine the work-reward correlation), a middle ground between the two must be found in order to revitalize the reliable relationship between work and reward that has been lost to the corruption of external factors.

...while the notion of an even playing field is good in theory, it is not reflective of the realities facing the underprivileged or disadvantaged youth of today.

This harsh reality and the obstacles it presents are also felt by those born into poverty, even regardless of their race or gender. Those born into disadvantaged circumstances often cannot surmount these obstacles in order to climb the socioeconomic ladder. There are both material and emotional hurdles that impede the advancement of lower-income individuals. Their lack of resources and consequent lack of appropriate education and opportunities are often preclusive to economic success; likewise, the absence of social incentive and emotional support are not conducive to academic or professional perseverance. In essence, those who cannot succeed due to either physical or psychological deficits are excluded from the rewards system that is capitalism. This has led to a widening income gap and an epidemic of poverty, as well as de facto discrimination and an increasing inability identify success solely with hard work.

Thus, the capitalist system is ruled and governed by those accorded advantages and opportunities at the outset of their development; in essence, the system is skewed toward the dominion of the white male. These white men engage in “opportunity hoarding,” by which they acquire power and then construct an economic and social system that protects and defends it, denying those of lower classes the resources to gain access to their power monopoly.

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