Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Governor Schwarzenegger's Prison Reform Initiative: The Launch Video

My colleague Charles Weisselberg had called my attention to the online video of Governor Schwarzenegger's press conference announcing his prison initiatives on December 21, 2006. He had used it in his criminal law class to illustrate the multiplicity of purposes around punishment in contemporary society (he also pointed out that with the tall and broadly built governor standing near to an equally tall police officer and another man wearing a cowboy hat, you could mistake the video for a performance of YMCA by the famed "man" band The Village People). Sure enough, in describing the problems that his 10 billion dollar package of new construction and programs would solve, Governor Schwarzenegger invoked the promise of rehabilitating inmates with better prison treatment programs (a theme that he has brought back from near death in California), but also the threat of federal courts forcing the premature release of prisoners through strict population caps. The Governor criticized parole as a "broken system" presumably referring to its practice of sending thousands of California parolees back to prison on relativley trivial technical offenses, but also promised to increase enforcement of new anti-sex offender laws (mostly premised on the same flawed belief that lies behind our high parole recidvivism rates, i.e., that once you define a person as dangeorus even trivial misbehavior must be punished with confinement). All in all it seemed to illustrate what my friend Pat O'Malley aptly titled a prescient article on contemporary penality, "volatile and contradictory punishment"

Your jurisprude gives the Governator high credit for addressing California's prison crisis and making it a broad issue of state governance rather than a narrow problem of simply locking up more bad guys as a host of his recent predecessors have. Unfortunately, the most consistent in his speech invoked the logic of prisons as a spatialized strategy to exile feared stranger from our midst for as long as possible with little consideration of the actual costs and benefits to the communities from which they are exiled and to which they are just as summarily returned. But this circuit of knowledge and power that runs through state and federal governments, the media, security experts and ordinary citizens is one that has produced what the Governor himself describes as an "out of control" prison system. Unfortunately, these logics are likely to scuttle the most promising feature of his program, i.e., his goal of moving more prisoners and resources into the counties and nearer to the communities they come from (the voters who backed Jessica's Law aren't going to welcome new correctional centers in their towns).

Real reform requires a fresh start and a broad public discussion of the basic values and purposes that should infuse a redesigned system from front end sentencing to back end re-entry and community restoration. Governor Schwarzenegger has the credibility and personal charisma to lead that discussion but he won't do it by posing in front of law enforcement and pushing the fear buttons. He should start by placing blame where it belongs, not with the parole officers and other front line personnel, but with a line of recent governors who have made building and filling large warehouse prisons a primary form of state policy in California.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Schwarzenegger's New Deal

As Jennifer Nelson points out in the January 12, 2007, SF Chronicle (read her op-ed piece) , Arnold Schwarzenegger has emerged as California's first "New Deal" governor arguably since Pat Brown (1959-1967). Nelson, an aide to Republican governors Deukmejian (1983-1991) and Wilson (1991-1999), identifies the New Deal as the core values of liberal Democrats. In a different, but related sense, political scientists and historians think of the New Deal as a broad template for governing industrialized societies that emphasized collective but not necessarily state controlled methods of coordination including unionization, insurance, and access to scientific education and information. It is this kind of New Deal that California under Governors like Earl Warren, a Republican (1943-1953), and Pat Brown a Democrat, became the leading state version of; with its world leading public university system, its major investments in water and energy control, and its ambitious treatment oriented prison and parole system. That govenance model was largely abandoned, by governors to the right and left, including Ronald Reagan (1967-1975), Jerry Brown (1975-1983), George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. Many questions hang over Schwarzenegger's effort to revive this (a strategy perhaps predictable not only from his Kennedy marriage but from his professed admiration for Richard Nixon, our last New Deal president in many respects). One which I will blog further about this month is whether the vastly swollen size of California's penal system, and its culture shift away from ambitious treatment oriented goals and towards racialized warehousing, presents a fundamental obstacle both fiscally and in terms of the broad constellation of interests, practices, and sensibilities tied to this carceral behemoth (see my analysis of mass imprisonment in Governing through Crime, chapter 5).

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Power Effects of Public Executions

The enormous and still gathering backlash against the manner of Saddam Hussein's execution last month recalls Michel Foucault's famous analysis of the power effects of public executions and the reason for the shift away from public use of the death penalty across most of Europe and its satellite socities in the course of the 19th century. Saddam's execution was not public in the conventional sense, having taken place inside a prison rather than in a public square. But the large number of witnesses (as well as their boisterous behavior), and the cell phone video tape have effectively transformed the event into a kind of post-modern public execution (the execution of Tim McVeigh shared some features of this).

In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan (pp. 55-66), Foucault observes that public exections had very real political consequences for regimes that lacked the mechanisms of modern political publicity. By calling the public together to witness a spectacle of physical dominaiton and pain, the authorities produced an experience of the truth of their own power that could be expected to linger long in the memories of witnesses and be shared in their narratives. At the same time, however, they created dangerous possibilities of inversion, including moments of popular uprising.

In these executions, which ought to show only the terrorizing power of the prince, there was a whole aspect of the carnival, in which rules were inverted, authority mocked and criminals transformed into heros. The shame was turned round; the courage, like the tears and the cries of the condemned , caused offence only to the law. (61)
While Saddam's execution did not result in an immediate protest by the crowd who witnessed it (indeed their enthusiasm for the execution is one of the features that marred the event from a ritual perspective), but did show case Saddam and the law condemning him in almost precisely the inversion Foucault described.