Morality demands Abolition

We need to talk about the contours of prison abolition in the twenty-first century. As a social movement, abolition has taken on different forms in the universal arc of justice. Prison abolition is often misunderstood as burning down prisons and other revolutionary imagery, but it more so revolves around eliminating the need for prisons in society. That is a significant distinction, folks. To flesh out this idea, let’s turn to Angela Davis for a working definition:

When we call for prison abolition, we are not imagining the isolated dismantling of the facilities we call prisons and jails. That is not the project of abolition. The notion of a prison-industrial complex reflects the extent to which the prison is deeply structured by economic, social, and political conditions that themselves will also have to be dismantled. Capitalism continues to produce problems that neither it nor its prisons are prepared to solve. So prison abolition requires us to recognize the extent that our present social order – in which are embedded a complex array of social problems – will have to be radically transformed.

The rise of the prison industrial complex and its continuing grip on the lifelines of society is not a necessary development. Not only is it an indictment of an unfettered & racially motivated punitive impulse, but it also speaks to larger issues emanating from contemporary global capitalism. If this moment of hyper incarceration happened in the past, we would look to it in horror and disgust as a dark chapter in our history.

Folks who have nothing will do anything to get something. An abolitionist framework accepts this premise, points out the reasons why certain communities have no autonomy, and seeks to correct past injustices. It seeks to understand the connections between institutions that we usually think are disconnected. It realizes that education is a major linchpin of institutionalized racism. And, perhaps most importantly, an abolitionist framework grasps that persistent poverty in the heart of global capitalism leads to larger prison populations, which in turn reinforce conditions that reproduce intergenerational poverty.

Prison abolition is a project that reimagines institutions, ideas, and strategies, and seeks to create new institutions, ideas, and strategies that will render prisons obsolete. A world without prisons is conceivable.



The shadowy domain of Pay-to-Stay jail programs

What are pay-to-stay jail programs?

Pay-to-stay jails are city operated jails in CA that allow certain folks convicted of misdemeanor and low-level offenses to spend their time in secluded jails that are relatively comfortable and removed from the usual custodial settings in CA for a daily fee. The pay-to-stay jail options are exclusively offered in Southern California counties, with one option in Fremont as the lone exception. Currently, there are nearly 200 beds for rent in Los Angeles and Orange counties. An excellent LA Times expose revealed that, “The California penal code section that allows people to serve county jail sentences in city jails specifies that the option is available for misdemeanor offenses committed in the same county where the pay-to-stay jail is located. But in practice, judges have allowed offenders convicted of felonies to participate in pay-to-stay — and allowed others to take advantage of the program even though they committed their crimes elsewhere. Nearly every pay-to-stay program welcomes people whose crimes have taken place across county or even state lines. In Southern California, city jails have housed more than 200 people who broke the law in Arizona, for instance, and have also accepted clients with arrests as far away as Iowa, Washington, Minnesota and Montana. Prices vary widely, with each city setting its own rate. Defendants can get a bargain-basement bed in La Verne for $25 a night or pay a modest $75 a night in Hawthorne. Or they can splurge, paying $198 a night in Redondo Beach or $251 a night in Hermosa Beach. Monterey Park even offers the option of serving time in half-day increments, for $51. The region’s pay-to-stay jails took in nearly $7 million from the programs from 2011 through 2015, according to revenue figures provided by the cities. In attracting paying customers, some cities openly tout their facilities as safer, cleaner and with more modern amenities. The Santa Ana jail’s website, for example, notes that jail is a ‘highly disruptive experience’ and promotes its jail as a place where criminals can serve their time in a ‘less intimidating environment.’ One of the most attractive conveniences in pay-to-stay programs — not available at county jail — is the option to go on work furlough, which allows people to go to their jobs with an ankle bracelet and return to the jail in the evenings to sleep. At least eight city jails offer work furlough, and most of the other pay-to-stay facilities allow people to serve time on weekends.” The work-release program recently allowed a professional basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers to play in games while serving time for a DUI.

Who’s staying in these programs & for how long? 

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This sounds incredibly problematic. 

Yep, it certainly does. But it’s just another example that it’s better to be rich & guilty than poor & innocent in the criminal justice system. County jails in CA are replete with themes of brutality, overcrowding, violence, and fear. In comparison, pay-to-stay jails are like paradise. Just look at this advertisement:

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Is it still punishment?

Yes, but also not really. There is still a modest deprivation of liberty, but pay-to-stay allows these folks lives to go on mostly uninterrupted — a feature of the criminal justice system that few are privileged to enjoy. Demographic breakdowns of who’s taking advantage of these programs is not available, but we are probably correct in drawing our own conclusions about these *qwhite* interesting programs in Southern California.


Previously in the shadowy domain series: Sentence enhancements, Gang Injunctions

Second chances

In CA, there have been over 500,000 arrests for marijuana offenses in the past ten years. But now that marijuana is legal, what is CA going to do with all these folks? The answer might surprise you — CA is going to do the right thing. CA is offering the opportunity to have criminal records cleared or reduced for marijuana offenses ranging from serious felonies like distribution, to small infractions like simple possession. At least 4,500 folks have already submitted petitions to have their sentences re-evaluated, but prosecutors reserve the right to challenge such requests by looking at criminal history or threats to public safety.

Many Californians probably don’t know this mechanism for a clean slate exists. It’s on us to spread the word.


Who is afraid of too much justice?

Nothing short of abolition will correct the over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system. The racial disparities that exist in the criminal justice system are not simply unfortunate or unavoidable consequences, but rather intentional State-sanctioned disappearances. The accepted way of challenging discrimination is to rely on the Courts to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority, but as we’ll look at shortly, Courts are not impartial observers, but rather function as stewards of the White Supremacist State we live in. Any hope for meaningful change will have to come from outside the current box we exist in.

The watermark case of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system is McClesky v. Kemp (1987). The NAACP Legal Defense Fund presented extensive statistical evidence of racial disparities in Georgia’s death penalty system. They found that prosecutors sought the death penalty in 70% of the cases involving black defendants and white victims, 32% of the cases involving white defendants and white victims, 15% of the cases involving black defendants and black victims, and 19% of the cases involving white defendants and black victims. While noting that racial disparities certainly existed, the Supreme Court decided that statistics alone did not prove a discriminatory purpose and characterized the racial disparities as an ‘inevitable part of the criminal justice system’. Further, the Supreme Court expressed concern that if they ‘accepted the claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the captial sentence decision, we could be soon faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty which throws into serious question the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system.’

First off, racial disparity undoubtedly exists in sentencing. Denying this is akin to denying global warming, another trend that is backed by obvious evidence but is still denied by many.

Next up, let’s dig into the principles that underlie our entire criminal justice system as the Supreme Court beckons. This line of thinking is a fear of too much justice. Any critical observer of United States history understands the law evolved as a means for the elite to preserve their hierarchy. From slavery, to convict leasing during Jim Crow, to mass incarceration today, this continuum of State-sanctioned efforts to fundamentally dismantle communities of color is painfully transparent. The first organized police force funded by the State during the colonial era was the slave patrol. It’s difficult impossible not to draw parallels between the first police force that rounded up slaves attempting to escape, and police officers today that continue to kill unarmed black men without consequence.

When the Supreme Court ponders the principles that underlie our criminal justice system, how could the answer possibly be anything other than White Supremacy? This answer may frighten the White liberal who believes it’s the conservative movement who’ve built the prison industrial complex, but actually White apathy & cowardice is not restricted to voting Red on election day. Procedural justice pacifies us by giving the appearance of substantive justice, but the presence of Due Process laws doesn’t necessarily produce just outcomes. Despite the specific origins of legal protections like the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court has taken a passive view of their own ability to address the suffering emanating from twenty-first century manifestations of racial discrimination. As the Courts become less available as a legal resource for challenging State-sanctioned White Supremacy, and at times even endorse such discriminatory intentions, communities are left with few options in search of justice. Abolition doesn’t sound radical in this context, it sounds like the moral choice.


On the horizon: Prison reform in 2018

What should we expect in the realm of prison reform in the new year? Perhaps this premise is better presented as what can we demand in 2018. There are critically important petitions being circulated, which will hopefully be present on the upcoming November ballot. The Governor race will play a significant role, but it’s not yet clear what policy direction we’re headed for. (Vote for John Chiang, folks).

We know that there won’t be any executions in CA in 2018, but the largest condemned population in the Western Hemisphere won’t be shrinking anytime soon. Nationwide, the story is different.

This blogger will be shifting from a student to community organizer role in 2018, while also attempting to secure a civil servant position with the state at the intersection of education & incarceration. With one foot in the grass roots local organization world, and the other in the bureaucratic policy world, 2018 will be a year to be a catalyst for the change that is desperately needed.

It’s utterly disgusting that this beautiful state is a global leader in human caging. CA is on a reformist trajectory, but the pace is slow & easily thrown off course. Abolition remains the moral choice. We must invest in people, not police & prisons. The passion for freedom must be stronger than their walls.