To Lessen Crime, We Have To Look Beyond Prisons

by Gretchen Kaufman

As another day closes, thousands of Americans nationwide are denied the setting of the sun, denied the basic human needs of safety and non-violent physical contact. These Americans are prisoners, but not as they have ever been before. A new phenomenon is cropping up across this vast nation: privately run lockdown facilities (commonly called "Supermax prisons"). The 23-hour lockdown practice began in Marion, Illinois, when prisoners were confined following the murder of a guard.
Until then lockdowns were an extreme, temporary measure. Marion was the first to sustain a 23-hour lockdown, and when the only cries of injustice came from the prisoners themselves, other facilities were encouraged to follow suit. These "control units" began as a way, in theory, to segregate the excessively violent elements from the majority of the prison population. But they became prisons within prisons, a method of punishment with more potential for violence than the inmates themselves.
Conditions in these supermax security housing units (SHUs), have drawn the attention of several human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown, The Colorado Committee Against Control Unit Torture and The Coalition for Prisoners' Rights have developed, citing racial inequalities and economic disparity as persisting conditions that allow supermax units to continue dispensing punishment at will.

Drug-Related Felonies

The myth that only the worst of the worst will be subjected to the horrors of isolation may be what keeps the American public from acting. But it is only a myth. Due to the rabid War Against Drugs America that has been waging since the 80s, a significant proportion of felonies are a result of non-violent drug-related offenses. The popularization of the relationship between drugs and violence has led many to be unsympathetic even toward the drug offender, who has not committed a violent act. The potential for violence is there, but exists only because prohibition creates a climate in which business practices cannot be regulated, products cannot be controlled or protected, and competition is rampant and fierce. Yet still some drug dealers and many drug users resist the temptation to turn to violence. Some people use drugs, some people are violent, some people use drugs and are violent-but it cannot be said that they always go hand in hand.
Booming Prison Industry

There is a second business that is booming in the Age of Fear, and that is the prison-building business. Entire prisons are now being constructed that, like Alcatraz, are designed entirely for control unit housing. The rapid growth of these questionable institutions gets pawned off as a double-good. The state is creating desperately needed jobs and is also effectively "getting tough on crime" as promised. But the construction jobs are temporary, and prisons are filled soon after completion, leaving still more unwanted citizens to be dealt with.
Unequal Offenses

The fact that the law demands harsher sentencing for possession and distribution of crack cocaine (a substance more likely to be used by the poor and minorities) than powdered cocaine (more likely to be used by more affluent whites) is often cited by those arguing that the criminal justice system is racist. The poor are more likely to be tried in criminal court for such crimes as burglary, drug use and assault, while the rich more often commit white collar crimes, such as tax evasion, which are tried in other courts.
And finally there are economic and emotional circumstances that more urban minorities find themselves in that increase the likelihood that they will be monitored by the authorities. Whatever the reason, the result is clear: a higher percentage of African Americans and Latinos are arrested, convicted and sentenced.
New Disenfranchisement

Once a citizen has been convicted of a felony, she or he forfeits his or her right to vote. This means that a large proportion of minority citizens cannot affect the democratic process that controls their lives.
Once upon a time, just after the abolition of slavery, there was such a large African-American voter turnout that statesmen were forced to appease the black population, to make minority concerns their own concerns. Shortly after, the Jim Crow laws took affect, banning this powerful minority from the polls. Couched in land and literacy requirements, the disfranchisement laws carefully skirted such a dramatic pronouncement as "No Blacks may vote," but the result was clear and intentional.
How different is the rash building of supermax prison units? How different are the results?
Workable Alternatives

As any social scientist knows, one must propose an alternative to undesirable behavior instead of simply condemning it.
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is among the organizations that oppose our current method of dealing with crime. "Prevention, not punishment, should be our goal," they say. The alternative AFSC proposes is a program called H.I.P., Help Increase the Peace. H.I.P. workshops help teach kids alternatives to violence, how to control their own lives and confront prejudice.
Trained mediators are available to act as an unbiased third party if so ordered by the court. Defendant and plaintiff and either one or two mediators confine themselves to a room and talk for hours, sometimes days, until a satisfactory solution is reached. Mediators are unassuming, armed only with the ability to respect all parties involved. Like H.I.P. training, mediation struggles to uncover the simple, unchallenged assumptions that pave the way for violence, disposing of behaviors instead of people.

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This story was published on August 6, 1997.