Ending Mass Incarceration? The Shortcomings of Left-Right Coalition Politics (1/2)
Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, discusses Obama’s call for criminal justice reform and the odd Left-Right coalition forming to carry it out.
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: What’s up, world. Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
We’ve long known that politics creates strange bedfellows. But what do we make of the wildly right-wing Koch brothers now working with the nominally progressive Van Jones and his Cut 50 project, that is, the plan to reduce the prison population in half in ten years, along with the ACLU, but also ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is often associated with funding and promoting the most right-wing of political candidates, most of whom call for more and privatized incarceration.
To look a bit more closely at this and related issues is Bret Grote, legal director to the Abolitionist Law Center, which is a public interest law firm inspired by the struggle of political and politicized prisoners, and organized for the purpose of abolishing class and race-based mass incarceration here in the United States. Welcome, Bret Grote, to the Real News Network.
BRET GROTE, LEGAL DIRECTOR, ABOLITIONIST LAW CENTER: Thanks for having me, Jared.
BALL: So as I said in the intro, what do–how, from your perspective, should we interpret this unity of the Koch brothers and again these nominally progressive organizations and individuals?
GROTE: In a word, critically. And you have to ask what are the constituencies that these organizations represent, and what are their motivations. The national publicity that’s been given to prison reform and criminal justice reform in the past couple of weeks has been building for a number of years, oftentimes under the rhetoric of being smart on crime.
And I think this should be understood as an exercise in rebranding. So the tough on crime, mass incarceration policies that have been designed and implemented so as to surveil, imprison, and subject to torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, poor people in particular the communities of color. These policies have been falling into disrepute amongst larger segments of the population and leading to sustained critiques and exposes in the media, and now popular uprisings from coast to coast.
So the Republican and Democratic parties realize that it is in their interest in maintaining order in the status quo to make some concessions, and to go through the motions of appearing to be listening and attentive to the grievances of those populations that are being targeted.
But if you examine the proposals that are on the table more closely, you will see that this is not aimed at ending mass incarceration by a long shot.
BALL: Well, let’s talk a little bit about those proposals if we can. And if we also could note very quickly that even in the statement you just made about the uprisings across the country, a lot of this has been led by prisoners themselves. That is, hunger striking and protesting the conditions that they have to suffer on a daily basis. So we don’t want to leave them out of this discussion as we talk about those who have now reformed or reconnected to, again, nominally address this issue of mass incarceration.
But talk to us a little about some of these proposals, and why you think that they are insufficient in addressing an issue of incarceration that you and your group have said and been working to abolish entirely.
GROTE: Sure. I want to focus on the remarks that President Obama made at the NAACP’s annual convention, right before former President Bill Clinton got up to make his own alleged apology for his role in creating mass incarceration.
And in Obama’s speech there is–it should be read. It’s being widely praised but I think very few people have listened to or read the speech aside from sound bites. And it is a deeply reactionary speech. The only thing that vaguely resembles a policy proposal is a call for reduction of sentences, of mandatory minimums. Potentially their elimination for nonviolent drug offenders. And he says that this is something the Congress should handle so the White House itself isn’t coming out with any specific proposal along these lines.
BALL: His policies–forgive the interruption. But his proposals also don’t address the majority of people who are held in state prisons, not federal ones, if I have that correct as well.
GROTE: Correct. The federal government only has direct jurisdiction over crimes that can be prosecuted federally and that have to invoke some sort of inter-state interest, typically, or some other federal interest. But with the power of the purse they can condition grants and other money to states based upon how they structured their criminal, legal, or prison systems. And they’ve had no trouble doing this when it came to providing conditions for states to get money to build more prisons.
But even if people who are incarcerated as nonviolent drug offenders, if all of them were released not just from federal but from federal and state prisons, the United States would still be the world leader in incarceration by a long shot. So this gives you some idea of what is really being discussed when Obama and Hillary Clinton and others say it’s time to end mass incarceration. They want to end it in such a way that still leaves the United States as the world leader in incarceration.
And we should also note that Obama’s not even talking about ending the drug war. Not incarcerating nonviolent offenders. He’s talking about reducing mandatory minimums or one of the things that he threw out there was giving judges discretion on how to impose sentences. Now, judicial discretion is traditionally, and up to the present, been exercised in a racist manner in the United States, and there’s no reason to think that it wouldn’t continue to operate in that way.
But by focusing on that one policy proposal, this brings me to a couple of important points about Obama’s remarks. The first is that this was not intended to be a first step in a complete overhaul of the system. Instead it was meant to define the problem narrowly so that Obama and the Democratic and Republican parties would be able to move forward and debate within these narrow confines on what is a safe political target on how to minimally reduce the prison population.
So they’re not likely to, they’re not going to upset the status quo or vested political or economic interests. Such as prosecutors’ associations, although there has been pushback from prosecutors already. From the Fraternal Order of Police. From the right wing of the political spectrum. It was a very safe call for minor incremental reform.
Additionally it should be noted that at the same time, Obama was saying that focusing on nonviolent drug offenders is diverting resources from law enforcement from going after the more serious crimes that exist. And so he spoke about how they needed to free up resources not to go into creating a social safety net or rebuilding the welfare system that Clinton has decimated or do something to address the growing poverty rates that are imposed by neoliberalism. Instead it was simply a reshuffling of money within the criminal, legal, prosecutorial and prison system so as to more effectively repress and manage the populations that are targeted by mass incarceration.
BALL: Bret, let me get you to hold right there. We’re coming up at the end of a segment and I want to give you a chance to fully finish your answer here and to address at least one or two other questions that I have related to this issue.
So Bret Grote, thank you for joining us here at the Real News Network. We’re going to stick around for a second segment.
GROTE: Thanks for having me, Jared. My pleasure.
BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News Network. For all involved, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. And as always as Fred Hampton says, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. We’ll be right back. Peace, everybody.
BALL: What’s up, world. Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball again here in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our conversation with Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, as we look again critically at the unity of the Koch brothers, Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Eric Holder, the Obama administration and others as they claim to be addressing the issue of mass incarceration. Bret Grote, welcome back.
GROTE: Thanks for having me, good to be here.
BALL: So you were outlining some of your concerns with the proposal in our last segment, and we’ll invite people if they haven’t to go back and check out part one. Of course, that will make this conversation make much more sense.
Let’s talk–let’s continue to talk about your critical views here of this unity. So you outlined a little bit of the Obama administration’s perspective of this. One of the questions that I did want to ask you is, is there a secondary market that the Koch brothers could be looking to get into? That is, if the prison population is being drawn down officially in terms of the prison system, is there something else that they could probably be looking to to capitalize off of, rather than as their own campaign, the We Are Koch campaign, is suggesting that they’ve sort of just made some sort of ideological shift to being more concerned with how people are treated here in the United States, specifically those who are incarcerated.
But could you respond to that concern, at least that I have, and their motives here.
GROTE: Right. I’m not certain of any particular investments the Koch brothers may be pursuing along these lines, it has been–it has been the case that alternatives to incarceration, whether you’re talking about re-entry programs, halfway houses, so-called community corrections, drug courts, mental health courts, et cetera. As these have been propagated around the country they have become appendages rather than replacements to the existing system. And while incarceration rates might rise or fall a little bit in the state of federal systems from year to year, the system of control continues to expand outside of the specific confines of the prison, and probation and parole systems.
So I think it would be entirely predictable that there are going to be markets that are opened up so that private capital in collusion with the government are figuring out ways to make sure that the underclass that is subjected to mass incarceration is then going to be subjected to state and corporate control upon their release into more cost-effective means of repression.
So I think this is entirely predictable. And you know, we can check back in a year or two and see what sort of investments are going on along these lines. But I think it’s something to be very wary of.
BALL: The other thing I wanted to ask you is that for someone who has been involved with the abolitionist movement for so long, that is, prison abolitionist movement for so long, and one who also deals with political prisoners specifically, I’m wondering what you think it means for the, how people interpret our situation or interpret or develop analyses for redressing these problems that are faced, that we face in terms of incarceration or any other. That is, is there something ideologically or politically narrowing in terms of its impact on the rest of us when we see these sort of coalitions forming from the established right and the established left that might limit the ideas we develop and the methods that we, around which we–or the ideas around which we organize to address these concerns.
So if you understand my question, I’m wondering what you think about that, and if this is, if this coalition with the Koch brothers and Van Jones represents something that could inhibit more progressive organizing efforts to address this and many other issues.
GROTE: Yes. Absolutely. I understand the question is exactly where I think this conversation should go. I think the narrowing of the problem and how it’s defined is one of the primary purposes for this bipartisan push for reform.
As an aside, the bipartisan nature of the reform efforts really isn’t remarkable at all. The Democratic and Republican parties have been united in criminal-legal policies and practices for decades, since time immemorial, including the rise of mass incarceration. But if we were to go back to Obama’s speech for a moment, he defines mass incarceration as a problem of locking up nonviolent drug offenders for too long. This is not empirically supported. The data shows that there were three waves leading to the consistent rise in the incarcerated population.
The first on in the ’70s which had to do with sending people convicted of more minor felonies to prison at greater rates. Then there are the drug convictions associated with the cynical and pretextual drug war, which was really just an excuse for paramilitary occupation of communities of color. And then in the early, the mid-’90s we began to see increased sentences for a wide variety of offenses, including and especially the increase of life sentences and life without parole sentences.
But in defining the issue of mass incarceration of one that is giving us, quote, diminishing returns on public safety, another remark that Obama made, or that it is not cost effective, it is ignoring the fact that the system of mass incarceration was a deliberately designed, calculated, meticulously legislated and constructed effort to create the largest penal system that the world has ever seen, that incarcerates black people at four to five times the rate of apartheid South Africa and that is a system of race and class control. It is a system of heteropatriarchal power and social structuring.
If a politician were to have said in the ’80s or the ’90s that their plan for public safety was to have a massive increase in agents of state violence, to saturate poor communities and communities of color, to engage in racially discriminatory surveillance, arrest, and charging, to especially target those with mental health issues, developmental disabilities, those who are survivors of childhood trauma and sexual violence, and to round these people up and put them in densely concentrated, fortified institutions where every single decision of their life was micromanaged and subjected to rigid, arbitrary, punitive control–if any politician were to have made that speech they would have been looked at as a fascist.
So they packaged it differently as tough on crime, and have created a system of control that is quite formidable, and now they’re tinkering around the edges because we are in the midst, not just a growing critique of this system, but a full-blown legitimacy crisis of the neoliberal mass incarceration state. And they are doing what they can to try to steer popular rebellion and activism into the safe channels of electoral reformism and to legislative lobbying. And in the case of Obama and Bill Clinton at the NAACP convention that they spoke of, into Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president.
BALL: Bret Grote, thank you very much for joining us here in this edition of the Real News Network. This segment of the Real News Network. And we’ll follow up with you another time to talk about more specifically about your work with political prisoners, and most specifically around your work with Russell Maroon Shoatz. But thank you very much.
Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, thank you for joining us here at the Real News Network.
GROTE: Thanks for having me, Jared. My pleasure.
BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News Network. For all involved, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. And as always like Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. We’ll catch you in the whirlwind, everybody. Peace.
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