Prison Abolition and the War on the Poor

The DSA policy of abolishing prison is an aspiration, but it needs to have the practice to be meaningful.  The word “abolish” has weighty meaning in U.S. history, as in ending slavery.  It means “do it now.”  The abolition of slavery happened in a moment, but 164 years later, we still see the damage that slavery, racism, and capitalism have done.  Even if Bernie Sanders's full campaign program is passed, there will be millions of people, damaged by capitalism, who lack the skills, education, and belief that society can work for them.  We owe these people more than a correct position.  We owe them programs and the understanding that to end the damage of capitalism and prisons, we will need to struggle for generations.

The neo-liberal system perpetuates poverty, inequality, and racism that are not bugs, they are system features.  The functions of poverty production need to be seen as a political choice in the U.S., inasmuch as many European countries have substantially reduced poverty as we know it.  The single-minded focus on getting rich generates inequality, lack of social support, the lack of encouragement and outright hostility to communities of color and the economically disadvantaged.

The current increase of imprisonment started in the 1970s when neoliberal economics began to achieve dominance, and markets were to be the solution.  The war on drugs aimed at punishment as a solution followed soon after that.  These forces resulted in an excessive rise in the U.S. prison population, which is unique in developed countries.  Other developed countries can range from less than 10% in Denmark to 20% in the U.K.

Social trends over the decades, Trump aside, move toward less violence occurring between people, between partners, families, and schools, as well as declining animal cruelty.  However, overcoming the desire to punish instead of use analysis or engage in dialogue is still often a struggle.

The War on the Poor

Poverty functions to secure the influence of wealthy Republicans and Democrats by demoralizing the poor so that they do not challenge the system.  The poor are often overwhelmed and divided, which leave them voting less.  The rich own and control the news and use science to limit political choices, create internet chaos, and secure the nation's political discussion to their hegemony.  The poor are blamed for their poverty, using this view.  The Republican War on the Poor reveals their goal of running the government for their interests.  One president said the business of the U.S. is business.  This view means All Power to the Profiteers and damns the poor.

Many people are in prisons because of legal entrapment.  There are those needlessly in jail for small infringements, such as cannabis possession.  People are often pushed to plead guilty to a lesser charge when they are not able to post bail.  These arrests create a legal history that jeopardizes employment and often falls mainly on communities of color.  This sabotage needs to end.

Racism has caused some poor to think that middle-class society has no opening for them, and often, they are blocked.   Sabotage by the law, our economy, and disrupted families have often crippled the ability of those in poverty to communicate and get along with other people and work.  Low-income families with several jobs sometimes do not have the time or funds to spend on their children for their needed education, socialization, and development.

The police focus on the poor, and in the example, Ferguson, MO, the police have actively sabotaged them by blocking their way to get to work by fines.

Our health care system is the major cause of bankruptcy.  This practice is not copied by other developed countries.  Many poor are not covered by health insurance at all.  It appears that the only thing our health care system excels at is the creation of millionaires and billionaires.

Voter suppression, gerrymandering, programmed misinformation, money in politics, the turmoil of poverty, and the abandonment of democratic values, minimize the poor's ability to defend themselves.  These attributes go a significant way to promote the "need" for prisons and police as these are the institutions chosen to deal with capitalism's inequality.

The neoliberal task for the prisons and police is to manage the mentally ill, less educated, disadvantaged, and the poor.  These institutions are militarized and not set up or trained to be social services to care for these people.  The result is that prisons and police add to and perpetuate capitalist chaos.

The Alternatives

We admire countries that have socialist tendencies aiding and growing people.  They view prisons differently as seen in a recent 60 Minutes broadcast (March 31, 2019), as well as in the Michael Moore film, “Where To Invade Next.” In those media broadcasts, both Germany and Norway are shown to have prisons that rehabilitate, retrain, mature, and educate people so that they can fit into society. These countries spend more of their money supporting and aiding people than prisons and police.  The result is fewer prisons.

Developed countries have support for families and children more advanced than us, but  Bernie's positions would diminish, but not abolish the damage already made.  The 60 Minutes program showed group therapy aimed at creating abilities to dialogue, acquire anger management skills, and learn how not to resort to violence when there are differences.  The program also showed lifetime prisoners acting as counselors to newer inmates to help them grow out of their tendency to fight.  This aid achieves meaning for them, and the counseling should be paid.  

One European response is having excellent schools and paying teachers significantly more than most in the United States.  Some U.S. states pay teachers poverty wages.  Our social safety net somewhat protects citizens from physical and mental illness and economic stress, but that safety net is small and under attack.

Elements of our society are already working on stopping our school-to-prison pipeline. Those efforts, too, may set the stage to help abolish prisons.  People are running for prosecutor positions on the platform not to use marijuana charges or cash bail requirements that sabotage poor people's jobs and lives.  In Northern Virginia, two commonwealth attorneys have won primaries on these positions in a movement against the war on the poor.  George Soros significantly aided both candidates, but, perhaps, we will be able to replicate this process on our own.

A prison abolition campaign would include electoral work, working with allies, inspecting local jail situations, and visiting prisons to see what aid is necessary.  The electoral work is backing progressive politicians and prosecutors who are emerging today.  As citizens, we should be able to study what is happening with local prisons, maybe aided by friendly politicians. Do these prisons have support for rehabilitation and education?  Do they have libraries?  Would we be able to visit prisoners and share personal or magazines? Journals?  This work would be new for many, and we have much to learn from allies who are already involved.

Reducing prisons is promising, given that we spend $50,000 a year per prisoner, the crime rate is low, and the need for the War on Drugs retreats.  Progressive prosecutors are beginning to slow unneeded incarceration.  However, change can only happen by mobilizing to help and grow society, not by the chaos of Trump's attacks on the poor.

Future Need for Prisons?

Are there people who need to be in prison?  In a just society that functions well, there would be few in prison.  Maybe the neo-Nazis who threaten and have killed could use jail time.  In Norway, there is a neo-Nazi in prison who killed 77 young socialists and also a prison that allowed day trips for neo-Nazi prisoners to be in a play.  Those prisoners robbed several banks and murdered two police while on leave.  We also have a Georgetown Law professor who had two pleas accepted by the Supreme Court while in prison for bank robbery.  Sometimes people do stupid stuff and we need methods to allow them to reconsider actions.  Capitalism has sabotaged many in our society who need our help, and help them; we must if we are to abolish prisons.  We also must bring justice to the judicial system by changing laws and installing an ethic of serving the people so we may make them whole.  That does not mean there should be no way to protect us from criminals,  neo-fascists, and ourselves.

A program to abolish prisons and police needs more than a slogan identifying us as the most left.  We need a program with the understanding that the struggle is to win control for all the people to create a more just society.

The new book The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale prompted this article.

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