Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Prison State

Lock 'Em Up
Sometimes events conspire to make you think that things are worse than you
imagined. On August 3, Marilyn Buck died. Marilyn was a fighter in the
struggle for racial justice and against the most virulent pestilence in
the world—United States imperialism. Unlike most of us, she put her money
where her mouth was and her life on the line. It is easy now to forget
that the agents of repression—the police, the FBI, the courts, the
government itself—consciously and actively targeted those who were active
in and led the civil rights and Vietnam war resistance movements. They
infiltrated and acted as provocateurs in movement organizations; they
arrested innocent people; they enacted and enforced draconian laws; they
illegally tapped phones and spied on any and all persons suspected of
"subversive" activity; and they tortured and murdered those who they
deemed to be the most dangerous radicals.

Whites like Marilyn who militantly supported black liberation were high on
the list of suspects. She was arrested in 1973 for buying (legal) arms
under a false name. She was sentenced to ten years in prison, and during a
furlough to consult with her lawyers in 1977, she went underground. She
was arrested again in 1983, accused of multiple crimes—aiding the prison
break of Asata Shakur, planning and participating in several bombings of
public facilities, and taking part in the infamous Brinks robbery of 1981
in which a guard and two policemen were killed. She was convicted and
sentenced to eighty years in prison.

While incarcerated, Marilyn earned college degrees, became a poet and
writer of distinction, mentored many prisoners, fought for the rights of
those behind bars, and continued as an activist in the battles that
defined her before her imprisonment. Finally scheduled for parole, she
discovered that she had cancer. Treatment failed and she died at home,
having been released a few weeks early because of her failing health. She
was sixty-two years old.

This bare bones sketch hardly does justice to her life or what she endured
in prison. In an interview published in Monthly Review in 2001, here is
how answer to a question about how prison time had affected her personally:
Imagine yourself in a relationship with an abuser who controls your every
move, keeps you locked in the house. There's the ever-present threat of
violence or further repression if you don't toe the line. I think that's a
fairly good analogy of what happens. And imagine being there for fifteen

To be punished, to be absolutely controlled, whether it's about buttoning
your shirt; how you have a scarf on your head; how long or how baggy your
pants are—all of those things are under scrutiny. It's hard to give a
clinical picture of what they do, because how do you know, when you're the
target, or the victim, what that does to you? But theres a difference
between being a target and being a victim.

Like most prisoners, she was not allowed to attend her mother's funeral.

From the same interview:
My mother died about six weeks ago. She became ill in September, so I went
through a phase of real guilt that I wasn't there. And real sorrow and
real anger. I think I've looked at the guilt a little more. I just
couldn't be there. But the sorrow of not being able to hold my mother's
little bird hand by the time she was starving to death from the cancer …
just breaks my heart. And there's nothing I can do about it.
I could intellectualize it. I could have been on a ship halfway around the
world, and we got stuck in the trade winds and couldn't get there in time.
But I'm an extreme realist and understand who I am as a political
prisoner. I knew that I would not be allowed to go to her bedside, nor to
her funeral. That was just the reality. She died on a Sunday. And she was
buried on my birthday. So it's just all very hard.
I talked to my mother every week I could. And she came to visit me once a
year. It was hard for her to get here. My mom was seventy-four She had to
drive a long way and go through all the emotional turmoil that you can't
avoid when you see somebody you can't do anything for. So I had to look at
her anger, too.
In a certain way, I want to be able to lie on the floor and bang my heels
and cry and scream, but that just hurts my heels…So what can I say? I'm
having a hard time. I'm having a very, very hard time. I…you know, it's
grief. But it's grief under dire conditions. I'll always miss my mother.
A few days after Marilyn Buck's death, I received the current print
edition of the CounterPunch newsletter. In it there is an astonishing
article by journalist JoAnn Wypijewski. The title is "Defending the
700,000 Most Despised People in America," and it describes efforts by the
mothers of accused and prosecuted sex offenders to get our draconian sex
offender laws changed.

JoAnn interviews several mothers, and their stories of what has been done
to their sons are heartrending. A typical scenario unfolds like this.
Local cops troll internet chat rooms posing as young girls and boys. An
adult, usually a young man, says he is looking for female friendship. The
cop then does everything possible to seduce the man into coming to his or
her house, presumably for sex. If the young man resists, the decoy uses
explicitly sexual language to entice him. If he succumbs and goes to the
house, vice cops are waiting. What follows then is a nightmare of arrest,
sensationalist stories in local—and sometimes national— media (fed to them
by ambitious district attorneys), expensive and often corrupt lawyers,
extreme family and financial stress, a plea bargain, probation and
counseling (paid for by the young man or his family), community service, a
lifetime as a registered sex offender, and the most invasive and
incredible set of rules and regulations, which must be obeyed to the
letter under threat of more or less permanent probation or prison. These
include regular breathalizer, urine, and lie detector tests, for which the
"offender" must pay. All for an absolutely victimless "crime." After a
mother tells Wypijewski that her son must have a "safety plan," approved
by the probation officer before going anywhere, there is this exchange:

JW: So, say, I will be brought to the appointment by an adult in a car and
if a child comes in I'll run down to the parking lot and sit in the car
until the kid is gone?
D: That kind of thing.
S: You have no idea how inhumane. Tell her about that test, D.; what's it
called – plasmo-something?
JW: Plesmograph?
D: You go into a room with an examiner. They hook your penis up to a
monitor. They show you pictures of women in different states of dress, and
they monitor the flow of blood in your penis. My son's test came back as
"inconclusive." It didn't show that he had any sexual deviance, but it
didn't show that he didn't either. So the recommendation was that he go to
therapy to learn to manage his sexual deviance, and to learn the patterns
of his sexual deviance.
There are even court-imposed fines for the "victims" of the sex offender,
despite the fact that there were no victims.

I was interested to note that one of the states singled out in the article
as having especially harsh laws is Colorado, where we have lived. Here
decades of right-wing religious fervor and vicious radio talk show
jockeying have borne fruit for those hoping for a police state before they

Not long after I read JoAnn's essay, we went to the huge Goodwill store on
West Burnside Street in Portland, Oregon to buy a few things for cooking
in our apartment. Portlanders love their many thrift shops, and, like this
one, they're always crowded. Karen was looking for pans and saw a young
man holding a small plate and looking on the shelves next to her. She said
to him, "There's a lot of stuff here." He said that he was looking for a
plate but could only afford one. Karen suggested that he get something
larger, since a large plate could do what a small one could and more. She
asked about a glass, and he said that he had a plastic cup. Karen said
that it would be nicer to drink from a real glass. When it was evident
that he had little money, Karen gave him enough to cover the plate and a
glass. He thanked her and went to the checkout counter. A few minutes
later, we took our items to the same counter and found ourselves behind
him. He had a few items on the counter and a voucher for thirty dollars to
pay for them, plus the two dollars he got from Karen. He had calculated
closely and had just enough money. When the clerk couldn't figure out
whether to take the cash first or the voucher, we spent a few minutes
talking to the young man. He had just gotten out of prison and was staying
at a halfway house for ninety days. The $30 was the state's "start a new
life fund." It didn't go very far. He said that he was going to school to
become a chef, and the state was going to pay. We gave him $20, as much
encouragement as we could, and wished him luck. The clerk finally rang him
up. He opened his backpack and tried to get his new possessions into it.
As he rearranged his pack, we saw a package of cheese and some other food
items he had bought for his supper.

While were talking, a man joined the line behind me. He looked a little
more street-worn than our new friend. He had been listening in on our
conversation, and he asked me, "Did that guy say he just got out of
prison?" "Yes," I said. "What did he do? I've spent a lot of time in
prison. He doesn't look like someone whose been there." I said that I
hadn't asked him and that maybe you couldn't always tell if someone had
been in jail. He then began to complain about his shoulder. He showed me a
lump on his collarbone. It looked broken, and I told him he should
consider going to an emergency room, he said that he owed hospitals too
much money already. "At least, put your arm in a sling," I said. He
wrapped a shirt around his neck and arm and said, "Yeah, that helps." He
began to fumble with the items he was buying , mostly clothes. Then he got
out his $30 voucher. I offered him some money, but he said he didn't need
any. I stuffed some bills in his gym bag and said, "Take this anyway."

7.3 million adults in the United States are incarcerated, on parole, or on
probation. A 2009 Pew Charitable trusts report fleshes out the details of
this horrifying number tells us that:

–One in 31 adults in America is in prison or jail, or on probation or
parole. Twenty-five years ago, the rate was 1 in 77.
–Overall, two-thirds of offenders are in the community, not behind bars. 1
in 45 adults is on probation or parole and 1 in 100 is in prison or jail.
The proportion of offenders behind bars versus in the community has
changed very little over the past 25 years, despite the addition of 1.1
million prison beds.
–Correctional control rates are highly concentrated by race and geography:
1 in 11 black adults (9.2 percent) versus 1 in 27 Hispanic adults (3.7
percent) and 1 in 45 white adults (2.2 percent); 1 in 18 men (5.5 percent)
versus 1 in 89 women (1.1 percent). The rates can be extremely high in
certain neighborhoods. In one block-group of Detroit's East Side, for
example, 1 in 7 adult men (14.3 percent) is under correctional control.
–Georgia, where 1 in 13 adults is behind bars or under community
supervision, leads the top five states that also include Idaho, Texas,
Massachusetts, Ohio and the District of Columbia.
Without a doubt, most of those enmeshed in the (in)justice system are not
dangers to society and would not have been in it at all in a society that
wasn't so racist and so shot through with every kind of social and
economic inequality. Unfortunately, whatever the reasons why so many men
and women have been denied their freedom, once the numbers began to rise
dramatically, constituencies came into being—lawyers, police, probation
officers, prison guards and staff, drug and alcohol rehabilitation
counselors, sex offender counselors, vendors of all sorts, clerks and
other clerical support staff, court officers, judges, community service
employers—that have a strong stake in milking the new cash cow. Given that
inequality will continue to increase, that good jobs will be ever harder
to find, that towns and cities will be strapped for funds into the
indefinite future, that social unrest is likely to rise, that racism is
not abating, don't look for the criminal (in)justice system to shrink
anytime soon.

Michael D. Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly Review. His most recent
book is In and Out of the Working Class. He encourages correspondence and
can be reached at mikedjyates@msn.com.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

So when's that stimulus gonna stimulate, huh?

CounterPunch Diary
America Enters a New Time 


I went to get my hair cut the other day in the town of Fortuna and waited ten minutes when the elderly barber finished buzz-cutting a young Mexican American. After the young man had exited under his thin skullcap of black stubble, Don the barber sighed and said, “That’s the third boy I’ve cut today who’s headed into the Marines. They all say the same thing. “There’s no work around here and I’ve got a family to support.” When I tell them to hold off, they say the same thing: “Too late. I’ve signed up.”

This is Humboldt county, northern California, where the marijuana boom is in its final paroxysms, with people flocking from around the world to get a piece of the action, just like they did in the Gold Rush. One of the many places selling bags of good soil to marijuana growers ($10 a bag, 8 bags to each marijuana plant, grown in a 100 foot x 30 foot plastic greenhouse, $25,000 or so) had a $300,000 day lately. So there’s more money here than most places across America, where the situation is truly desperate.

Profits are up 41 percent since Obama’s election; yet half of American workers have suffered a job loss or a cut in hours or wages over the past 30 months. They’re saying around 28 million people either have no job or one that doesn’t yield them enough money to get through the week. On Friday, August 13, the Bureau of Labor Statistic noted on its home page that “Employers initiated 1,851 mass layoff events in the second quarter of 2010 that resulted in the separation of 338,064 workers from their jobs for at least 31 days.”

Millions are plummeting into total destitution, having reached the end of their 99-weeks of unemployment benefits. Their only option then is the soup line at a church and getting on he waiting list for a shelter. The nearest big city north of me is Portland, Oregon, adjacent to the CounterPunch co-editor bunker in Oregon City of Jeffrey St Clair. The downtown area in Portland is filled with homeless people, napping on steps, bedding down on cardboard in doorways. Jeffrey kayaks frequently down the Willamette and can see colonies of the destitute all along the river bank, from the shipyards to Willamette Falls, sleeping under thin plastic and grey skies.

California agriculture and much of the construction industry depends on undocumented workers coming across the border from Mexico – minimum cost $1000 – for an 8-day walk through the Arizona desert. Since building is in a terminal slump, many Mexicans would like to head back home till times improve, but nowadays it’s so tough to come back across, that they daren’t risk it. Hence the paradox: trying to lock “illegals” out means locking them in. Frank Bardacke who lives in the farm town of Watsonville, a couple of hours south of San Francisco, recently described amid an important piece in our newsletter a bank robbery by one young, desperate immigrant.

“Several months ago," Frank writes, “Jario took his father’s pickup truck, drove 20 miles to the upscale tourist playpen Carmel By the Sea, and walked into the local branch of the Bank of America. He waited in line to see a teller, and, when his turn came, he pretended to have a gun under his shirt and quietly demanded that the teller give him her cash. As she was passing out the money, he apologized for frightening her; meanwhile, she was hiding a GPS device among the bills.

“He left the bank, his crime apparently unnoticed, and returned to the truck for the drive home. On the way, he got confused and took a wrong turn through Monterey before he got back on the right road home. Twenty police cars from four different police jurisdictions followed the GPS signal and stopped him 45 minutes after he left the bank. He immediately confessed, explaining that he needed the money to help his dad pay the family mortgage. When his case came to trial, the DA pressed for two years in State Prison. The judge decided that six months in the county jail and five years probation would be enough.”

In Texas or anywhere in the South the fellow would probably have got 25 years. But in desperate times one can expect people to do desperate, stupid things, and this decent judge showed compassion and understanding. One can’t say the same for many Americans, starting with the Republicans in Congress who’ve been happily voting for a cut-off in benefits for the jobless, while simultaneously engaging in the politically insane enterprise of repealing the 14th Amendment, no longer making it a constitutional provision that those “born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” Do the Republicans want to cede Texas and Florida permanently to the Democrats?

Conspicuous good works are always a feature of Depression, the rich zealous to purchase moral insurance. Some billionaires, led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have been pledging that they will earmark not less than 50 per cent of their personal wealth for charity. But since whatever they give away is tax deductible, so revenues to Uncle Sam will drop.

The rich don’t get to be rich by being the nicest guys in the shark tank. As Carl Ginsburg recently remarked in a fine piece on this site, “In its fledgling years, profits on Bill Gates’ software were reportedly 70 per cent annually. Another way to gauge Gates’s billions is by catching a glimpse of the multitudes of students priced out of the computer market – thanks in part to that Great Giver’s expensive software – lined up daily at community college libraries for some free access to computers, each machine an expression of Gates’ creative commitment to profit in the +40 percent range – a gift Gates gave himself that keeps on giving. As Gates told Fortune: ‘The diversity of American giving is part of its beauty.’”

We can probably expect more laid-off workers going postal, as David Rosen discussed here on our site last week On August 3, at seven am, Omar Thornton showed up for a disciplinary hearing at the Hartford Distributors, a Budweiser distribution warehouse in Manchester, Connecticut. Thornton had been caught on video pinching some beer. They asked him whether he wanted to be fired, or just quit. Thornton pulled out a handgun and killed seven fellow employees before shooting himself dead. Before he loosed off his last shot into his head, Thornton, a black man, called a friend on his cellphone and said he’s taken care of some racists who’d been giving him a hard time. Unemployment means fear and fear nourishes racism, all the more because we have a black president. Racism is drifting across America like mustard gas in the trenches in World War One.

And, final token of hard times, we have Bonnie and Clyde on the run. In their latest guise the duo consists of John McCluskey and his cousin and fiancee, Casslyn Welch, who’s no Faye Dunaway. She threw some wire cutters over the fence of her man’s Arizona prison. Cops suspect them of killing a couple of retirees, then stealing their truck and heading north up to the Canadian line through Glacier National Park. That’s the last sanctuary in America of Ursus horribilis, the American grizzly. Behind them the cops, ahead the bears. It could be the first movie of a new time.