Carceral Con

DC Politics Human Rights Mass Incarceration

New Orleans      In the post-Floyd era, we want to believe that real reform is coming to our criminal justice system.  There was so much talk that we deeply want to believe that there has been some action.  We know that these issues have become polarized politically, but we still hope that some of the pulse for reform beats strongly.

The upcoming vote in Minneapolis, which had been ground zero for much of this debate after George Floyd’s killing, is too close to call. The question before the voters is whether to restructure the police department into a department of public safety.  That wouldn’t seem so fundamental except that the laws there mandate a certain minimum number of police, so reassigning some of their duties to health and social workers requires such a change.  A September poll found 49% in favor of the measure and 41% opposed.  The current mayor running for reelection has now come out in opposition as well.

All of this made talking to Kay Whitlock and Nancy Heitzeg about their new book, Carceral Con:  The Deceptive Terrain of Criminal Justice Reform, on Wade’s World especially timely.  Their argument, in a nutshell, is that much of the hue and cry about bipartisan political agreement on reform, especially in prisons, by reducing the population, is a con, because behind the scenes this so-called reform is allowing an expansion of the prison-industrial complex.

Heitzeg noted that currently there are still 2.2 million in jail in the USA, but even more, 7 million, are still under control of the system so that a huge percentage have some sort of criminal record.  The entire parole and probation system, coupled with Catch-22 fines, interest, and penalties, keeps people in the system – and returning to the system – long after they have supposedly “paid their debt to society.”  Specialized courts for drug offenses and people who are houseless aren’t really reform Whitlock and Heitzeg point out, but a scam attempt to achieve some kind of diversity – not necessarily reducing the level of minority imprisonment, but doing a better job at also ensnaring more lower income whites in the system as well.

In the neoliberalist carceral regime, the other part of the con is the level of privatization and profit-taking is now embedded and expanding in the system.  Keeping people out of jail and instead jailing them at home with electronic monitoring devices also means a significant and regular payment by individuals and families for the device, and, when not paid, a trip back without passing GO.  Companies like J-Pay take a pretty penny from families every time they try to put some money on the account of someone in prison.  The exorbitant cost of any phone calls from prisoners has been a long running scandal.

The book went from outrage to outrage and, while reading, it felt like Heitzeg and Whitlock could barely contain their anger as they piled up the evidence behind their argument.  In person, I asked if there were any bright spots.  There was almost a telling moment of silence before they volunteered that the effort to eliminate cash bail in Chicago was encouraging given the excessively high number of people incarcerated waiting for trial without a determination of guilt, solely because they are unable to put together the money to make bail.

Out of sight, out of mind, seems to be the policy at every level, but this is a con that has to be stopped, one way or another.