Monday, August 21, 2006

United Kingdom/United States: Differences of Differences

Attempted bombing and conspiracy charges filed by the British government against 11 suspects, most of them British subjects whose families immigrated from Pakistan raises a set of intriguing comparative questions about the security situation in the United States. If the British charges hold up, we would have both a completed act of terrorism, the London subway bombings of July 2005, and a well calculated and in progress plan for mass terrorism comparable to 9/11 or worse. In contrast, there have been no reported terrorist attacks or serious attempts since Richard Reid's bizarre but potentially deadly shoe bombing attempt on a flight from Paris to Miami. Several alleged terrorist cells have been prosecuted, but the general consensus seems to be that none represented an imminent threat of credible violence. Even Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged this when he said of the British plot that it was much more than a thought or idea, apparently referring to the recent Miami conspiracy charges. So here is the comparative research question. Both countries have lots of immigrants from Muslim countries (and even Pakistan specifically). Both countries have engaged in the war in Iraq, support for Israel's bombing of Lebanon, and other arguably provocative acts.

Does the lack of discovered credible terror plots in the US since 9/11 suggest:

A. That the US is a "melting pot" society that does a better job not alienating Muslim immigrants? Thats the apparent view of the New York Times today.

B. Selection bias, i.e., different people (with a different relationship to the origins of Jihadi violence) immigrate from the same Islamic countries to the UK and the US.

C. That the British M15 is a more effective agency for discovering terror plots than the US FBI, Homeland Security, and domestic law enforcement agencies. Either because (1) they (UK) are less bound by constitutional and statutory restrictions (the Bush administration view) or (2) they (UK) rely more on traditional policing of suspicious individuals and less on both high technology data mining and low tech coercive interrogation methods (legal and illegal) than the US does?

D. Both results are arbitrary fictions of security agencies obsessively focused on Muslim immigrants and ignoring the real threat posed by others who do not fit the profiles but may have ideological or other reasons to produce acts of violence.

E. Make up your own theory

Friday, August 11, 2006

Why She Quit the Prison System

The state of California's massive prison system remains a subject of rare public discourse this week as the California Legislature is back for a special session largely focused on approving more money for corrections (more on that in a minute) and an election for governor looming in November. Schwarnegger called the special session arguing that for his reform and rehabilition oriented corrections vision to work, the system had to build enough new prison space to get ahead of the current overcrowding. It is true that California prisons are running well beyond design capacity and that space for any kind of rehabilitative programming is largely taken up with beds. The Governors proposal also includes some measures that are attractive to those opposed to an ever expanding prison system. Some new money would go into creating community facilities where prisoners pending release could get started in "reentry" before beginning their period of parole and the Governor would also move a large portion of the state's female prisoners to new facilities closer to the communities and families they come from. Critics support both of the latter proposals but argue that the much larger share of the money going to expanding the state's base of prisons will only lead to more overcrowding in an even larger system.

Its not clear how much difference Schwarnegger's open appeal to reform and rehabilitation really differentiates this moment for others over the past tweny years during which the executive and legislative branches have been mutually engaged in expanding the prison system. But one clear difference is the emergence of some key critics who are not part of the political elite in Sacramento and yet closer to power than academic critics (like your Jurisprude). On is Special Master John Hagar, whose blistering report and hearings were discussed in an earlier posting. This week sees the emergence of an even more unique voice for reform, that of Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin, former Director of the Department of Corrections, and until April, acting head of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency (which oversees both the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections and the state's juvenile justic system).
In a Los Angeles Times editorial column, on August 6, 2006, Woodford offered her first public statement on why she resigned that job last spring, only weeks after stepping in to fill the post when her predecessor, Rod Hickman resigned. Her reasons were simple enough. She left San Quentin where she already had a reputation as a reformer, to take over the statewide agency in belief that Governor Schwarznegger, who ran promising to blow up the boxes of California state government, would reform a real agenda for the first time in decades.

But despite high hopes at the inception, the reality is that not much has changed. Because of short-term political concerns on the part of state legislators, pandering campaign tactics that make politicians scared to be seen as soft on crime, and the extraordinary power of the correctional officers union, it's been impossible to truly turn around the system. Chronic underfunding and prison overpopulation continue, and the recidivism rate remains the highest in the country.
Woodford speaks for the unique perspective of a career spent entirely in California prisons, starting as a 24 year old correctional officer at San Quentin. During her time, the inmate population went from 26,000 to 170,000 and the budget of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will exceed 8 billion dollars notwithstanding chronic overcrowding an a medical system so broken that the state allowed it to be taken over by the federal government without opposition. What she has seen and understood is a story California voters need to know and which cannot almost certainly will not be part of the public discourse this election cycle or any other so long as both major political parties remain locked in a competition over who will act tougher against crime.

Neither Schwarzenegger nor his Democratic opponent, Phil Agelides, has shown any willingness to challenge the prevailing wisdom that locking the the way to govern well is to put the maximum number of people up for as long as possible. The fear of broaching that apparent consensus, and not the dollars of the Correctional Officers' union is what makes it very difficult for voices as qualified as that of Jeanne Woodford to change current course toward an ever more penal state. Still this is a time with more potential for a broad debate about penal policy to break out than any in recent memorh. California has openly admitted that its basic capacity to manage the present prison population is in a crisis. Even the request for more prisons is being made in the name of making space for reform programs rather than on the ability of more prisons to make Californians safer. A growing body of proposals for reforming the California system have been put forward by organizations like the Little Hoover Commission and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Jeanne Woodford is in a unique position to help convince the public of the need for fundamentally new thinking in correctional policy. One hopes that this op-ed piece is the first and not the last of her efforts to educate the public on why she quit the prison system.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Mass Imprisonment and Low Intensity Civil War

One of the predicates to the Hamas and Hezbollah raids that kicked off this summer's (other) mid-east war is the nearly 10,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli prisons, see, Craig S. Smith, "Freeing Prisoners Key Goal in Fight Agains Israel, "The New York Times, Friday August 4, 2006, A1. Sometime during the first Palestinian Intifada in the 1980s, Israel began to adopt extended incarceration as its primary strategy for containing the young Palestinian men in the occupied territories from engaging in a wide range of militant resistance activity against Israel (from stone throwing to murder). This never disappeared during the period of the Oslo peace process, as Israel used its imprisonment capacity to deal with militancy that its official partner in the PLO would or could not. Since the second Intifada began in 2000, this carceral strategy has hardened. As the tactics on the streets became more violent, so to has the number of Palestinians serving life sentences. (If anyone knows where there are good numbers on the proportion of life sentenced prisoners among Palestinians in Israeli detention, please post it or email me). The seizure of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah commandos last month, may signal the rise of the prisoner issue as a primary motivator of militancy (along with the older issues of land and blood) and bring Israel's carceral strategy for containing what has been, in effect, a low intensity civil war, into more global scrutiny.

From the perspective of Americans, the Israeli use of imprisonment as a central feature of its long term security management resonates with at least two features of our own national security landscape. Since 9/11, the Bush administration has adopted long term custody of Islamic militants suspected of jihadi terrorism as a primary strategy of its "global war on terror". Prisons like Abu Ghraib, Camp X-Ray, and un named secret prisons in Eastern Europe and Asia, have become some of the most controversial features of American strategy. Perhaps this reflects some direct borrowing from Israel of incarceration as a straetgy to suppress violent militancy. If so, one wonders why the US would embrace a strategy that at best is designed to maintain a permanent state of war, albeit within what its planners hope will be more acceptable risks of continuing violence.

The second analog is surely to the form of mass imprisonment that America has adopted in the war on crime and which has produced unprecedented levels of incarceration and the routinization of punishment for specific segments of the American population, like young African American men in the central cities. Criminologists, including your Jurisprude, have spoken of this as "mass imprisonment" in several senses that might be compared "mass communications", or "mass media", or even, to quote James Jacob's classic book, "mass society." It is mass imprisonment, because the priso is no no longer concerned primarily with the individual offender (Foucault suggested it was intended to be a veritable factory of individualism), but is instead self consciously applied to a population of "high risk" subjects. It is mass because it is carried out with little hope that it can become smaller again. The goal is not transforming young offenders into "normal" subjects, or even deterring law abiding subjects, but instead to permanently manage a segment of the most crime prone population. It is mass in the sense that it is routine, non-exceptional, and has become an established pathway through society. None of these mean that it is evenly distributed, it is highly targetted on young minority male subjects, but in their belonging to such a population. All of these features conspire to make mass imprisonment, and the criminal justice system that supplies it highly corrupting to a democratic society. Specificially, the resulting security systems are highly insulated and non-responsive to community needs, unaccountable to traditional notions of due process, and unconstrained by the aspiration to achieve a positive transformation of the subject.

I do not know whether there was any borrowing of mass imprisonment by Israel from the United States. We can see some clear similarities. The occupied territories produce many of the same kind of social control problems that America's zones of hardened urban poverty do. Both Israeli security and the US criminal justice system have the goal of making secure one population by aggressively policing another, creating massive problems of legitimacy and cooperation. In both contexts, mass imprisonment seems to be a measure of desperation as liberal governments struggle to achieve security demanded by a racially polarized electorate, under conditions of racialized social conflict, without departing too far from global norms of human rights. Along with the security wall Israel is building through the West Bank, mass imprisonment may represent a long term "solution" acceptable to Israel's political class. If so we can expect this summer's bloodbath to be part of a long term pattern.

Here, however, the parallels stop. Israel may ultimately develop a political solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. On that day, or more likely, on the way to it, thousands of Palestinian prisoners will return from detention to their settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. There they will be greeted as heros, by families whose sustenance has been a long term concern of Palestinian administrations. They will return having maintained a sense of pride in their identity as resistance fighters. That sense of honor, and the draw of fulfilling the promise of awaiting families, is surely the best hope for long term peace.

What of America's tens of thousands of prisoners? There seems little likelihood of a political settlement that would bring them home, nor has there been any effort to preserve or create a home for them. We might start with trying to imagine a way out of this carceral maze. A form of peace with honor from the war on crime.

I'm not aware of any scholarly work on Israeli detention centers for Palestinian prisons. On the court system that regulates this detention see, Lisa Hajjar, Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza (University of California Press, 2005)