An All-American Police State

Against the Current, No. 86, May/June 2000

Louise Cooper

Lockdown America, Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis
by Christian Parenti
(London/New York: Verso, 1999) 290 pages, $25 hardback.

THE MILITARIZED RESPONSE to WTO protests in Seattle, as well as the New York police killing of Amadou Diallo, has prompted concern even in mainstream circles about growing police brutality.

Yet as Christian Parenti shows in this powerful indictment of U.S. criminal justice policy, these policing methods are nothing out of the ordinary in contemporary America. For activists and scholars seeking to understand the origins and consequences of a system which currently places one in ten African-American males in jail, this book is a must-read.

Poor communities of color are regularly subjected to police and judicial abuse as a first step in what amounts to an increasingly repressive and racist system of criminal justice and law enforcement operating on our streets today. Moreover, at a time when measures such as California’s Juvenile Crime Initiative (Proposition 21) raised the stakes by making youths 14 and older increasingly vulnerable to prosecution as adults, the urgency of placing criminal justice issues at the forefront of the social justice agenda has never been greater.

So what are the origins of this crisis and what can be done about it? Parenti’s analysis places these developments squarely at the center of contemporary American capitalism: His central argument is that social instability generated by ruling-class efforts to restore profitability lies at the heart of the criminal justice buildup of recent years.

As the Reagan revolution hobbled the welfare state and broke union power, one result was an increasingly impoverished working class that had to be effectively managed and contained. The “emerging anti-crime police state . . . though not necessarily planned as such, is the form of class control currently preferred by elites because it does not entail the dangerous side-effects of empowerment associated with the co-optative welfare model.” (241)

Not only is this a compelling analysis; it also challenges the assumption held by some on the left that the rise of the prison system is mainly driven by the corporate pursuit of profits directly derived from prison labor and prison construction.

Parenti substantiates this argument with a remarkably detailed account of how the U.S. criminal justice system has evolved over the past thirty years. He shows that it was the social protest movements of the sixties that provided the impetus for the first wave of “criminal justice build-up,” and which resulted in a significant retooling of local law enforcement in the early seventies.

But it was Reagan’s upward-income-redistribution response to a crisis of profitability, which had intensified in the late seventies, that was the catalyst for the second — and ultimately more critical — wave of criminal justice buildup.

According to Parenti, “by 1987 Reagan had delivered the richest 1 per cent of the population a net tax saving of 25 percent; while the poorest tenth of workers saw 20% more of their incomes swallowed by taxes.” (41)

The successful achievement of falling wage rates, restored profitability, and a significant reduction in the power of organized labor also created growing numbers of poor people. Containment of the resulting instability took the form of the `war on drugs:’ a program designed to quell the fears of a public “racked by economic and social anxiety.” (239)

While its origins may have lain in the overt law and order campaign rhetoric of the time, this program went far beyond electoral strategy to encompass far-reaching legislative changes. Between 1984 and 1988 significant anti-crime legislation was passed.

Politics of Mass Incarceration

The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act alone created twenty-nine new mandatory sentences for drug convictions, removed the right to probation or suspended sentences in drug cases, and provided an influx of $124.5 million in federal funds to the Bureau of Prisons, most of which was allocated to new prison construction.

The 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act allowed the use of the death penalty in drug-related felony cases, provided huge sums for anti-drug policing, and created numerous “user accountability” statutes such as the one-strike law that evicted tenants of public housing projects convicted of criminal activity.

For Parenti, then, this second wave of the criminal justice buildup was a politically engineered response to the contradictions of the new, leaner capitalist economy — the “policy bi-product of a racialized, anti-crime discourse,” initiated to win elections, but which also served to “absorb the dangerous classes without politically or economically empowering them.” (241)

The impact of this legislative onslaught is well known: a massive jump in narcotics arrests (from 800,000 in 1985 to 1.4 million in 1989), increasing attacks on users, and a policing strategy that gravitated toward mass arrests and full-scale “sweeps” through “drug-plagued” neighborhoods.

The overall result was an incredible increase in state and federal incarceration rates (the state and federal prison population increased from 500,000 in 1985 to 1.7 million in 1998 and will exceed two million this year), with a substantial leap in the number of federal drug convictions (a 161% increase between 1980 and 1987).

African-American communities became the primary target of this anti-drug crackdown. While constituting only 12% of the population, African Americans constituted 23% of all drug arrests in 1980; by 1990 this figure had grown to a staggering 40%.

Nor did this assault end with the Reagan/Bush era. The 1994 Crime Bill ushered in by Clinton in the wake of the Los Angeles riots served only to compound what had gone before.

Turning from this macro-level account of why the criminal justice crackdown emerged, Parenti then engages in the debate about the so-called “prison industrial complex” that is said by some to be driven by a demand for prison labor and the local economic benefits of prison construction and employment.

Parenti acknowledges that these interests exist, but argues that their importance to the rise of lockdown America has been exaggerated.

Prison-building may be happening at an alarming rate (to the tune of $7 billion a year) and is frequently focused on small, depressed towns seeking a boost to faltering economies. But this type of prison-based growth seldom provides more than a short-term stimulus to a sagging economy, and its impact is extremely localized, failing to offer the kind of economic linkages or broad Keynesian stimulus necessary for sustained economic growth.

Similarly, the private prison industry — while clearly clannish, politically sophisticated and extremely influential — is not, Parenti argues, quite as prominent as some claim, accounting for only five percent of prison beds nationwide.

Prison labor, while undoubtedly one of the most insidious aspects of the U.S. prison system, may also not be quite what it seems. Championed by the right as “efficient economics and moral just deserts” (230) and a fixation of the left for whom it represents the ultimate condemnation of capitalism, prison labor has become a significant political issue in recent years. Yet as Parenti argues, prison industries are neither profitable nor particularly widespread.

Less than five percent of the entire incarcerated population (proportionally fewer inmates than in 1980) are employed in prison industries today. Moreover, most inmates work in state-owned enterprises which, despite being heavily subsidized, having a guaranteed market and access to an unlimited supply of low-wage labor, are not particularly efficient.

Prisoners today may sell everything from airline tickets to jeans, but the returns are simply not good enough for most private sector companies to get involved.

Parenti thus persuasively argues that the present day prison system is not about narrow business interests tied to prison labor and prison construction, but is in fact far more integral to the effective social-political functioning of contemporary American capitalism.

Parenti offers few recommendations except to argue, primarily, for less policing and shorter sentences. While he supports rehabilitation as a potentially effective tool, he ultimately argues that providing limits to incarceration is the only way forward. This, he says, cannot happen without widespread popular resistance and a commitment to creating jobs and futures for those who are failed by the system as it stands today.

If anything, Parenti’s analysis suggests that opposing the criminal crackdown should be higher than it already is on the agenda of the left. Its defeat would constitute a fundamental challenge to the viability of the new social order.

ATC 86, May-June 2000