Underground Scholars

The New Yorker wrote an excellent article about the creation of the Underground Scholars Initiative at UC Berkeley. For the uninitiated observer, it may not seem like there is a pressing need for a formerly incarcerated student support group at an elite university. As it turns out however, there is a sizable population of formerly incarcerated students on campus in addition to individuals impacted by the system. The ability to retain their humanity and dignity in face of dehumanizing conditions is inspiring, to say the least. It’s even more impressive that these individuals have transcended their past transgressions to emerge on the other side with a brighter future within grasp.

How can we untangle structural injustices from self-inflicted harms?

Reactions to issues stemming from mass incarceration are usually dichotomous in nature. On one side, it’s common to hear rhetoric about politics of responsibility — ‘Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.” This coalition ignores or disregards inequalities in society that often lead individuals to lawless behavior in the first place. On the other side of the continuum is the blame-the-State bloc. The government is condemning individuals to a life of crime by not giving them a fair shot at success in life. By not providing accessible or adequate means to reach their end goals in life, people are forced to take matters into their own hands to survive. The reality of the situation, of course, is a blend of the two positions.

Even the most hardline pull-yourself-up-from-your-boot-straps types would find it hard to discredit the mountain of evidence that illuminates the racial & socio-economic disparities in the criminal justice system. If you grow up in the hood you have to work twice as hard to get half as far as others. Or, as Biggie Smalls put it, “Either you slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” Acknowledging the structural injustices, and sharing a mutual outrage, can be the start of expanding one’s capacity for empathy and solidarity. By any available metric it’s clear there are profound inequalities in society. Whether it’s the fact that supermarkets avoid ghetto neighborhoods like the plague (which creates food deserts), or the discrepancy between urban and suburban K-12 schools, or the lack of quality healthcare in city neighborhoods, or the role of the police in communities of color vs. white communities, it’s almost as if there is a colony inside of a nation. A combination of these factors, among many, many others, contributes to produce minority over representation in prisons and jails. To deny this reality is to embrace cowardice and apathy, two features that led to the events of last November.

By the same token, individuals who blame the State surely understand that personal accountability is a badge of adulthood. The State shoulders blame for creating environments that are devoid of upward mobility, but personal attitudes contribute to this conundrum. As long as guns and violence remain proxies for maturity, these attitudes will be contagious among youth.

By blending these two positions we can derive a meaningful analysis that can be applied to reform efforts. There is no doubt that the State creates atmospheres that lend themselves to lawlessness — people who have nothing are likely to do anything just to get something. Following this logic, reform should be aimed at the front end of the system to ensure fewer people ever enter the criminal justice system. Or, those who do commit crimes should be diverted to rehabilitation while incarcerated instead of incarceration for the sake of incarceration. Moving the discussion from theory to practice is where difficulty arises. But as long as we can correctly identify the problems, we can position ourselves for a hope of a better future by moving past the white hero narrative.


Good books to read Part III

Part I

Part II

The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America — Naomi Murakawa

  • It has been well established in public discourse that conservative politicians are to blame for this age of Mass Incarceration. From Nixon’s law & order rhetoric, to Reagan’s War on Drugs, conservatives have consistently been demonized as the culprits of the incarceration boom. This book tosses those premises out the window and reconceptualizes the political framework that built mass incarceration. Murakawa traces the development of postwar liberalism to the growth of the budding carceral state as complicit co-dependent phenomena. By analyzing several Democratic crime bills it becomes evident that liberal law & order ideologies were just as harsh and unforgiving as conservative ideologies. Murakawa offers case studies of the Truman & Johnson administration’s, as well as the prison riots of the 1970’s, to demonstrate that democratic stakeholders pushed for punitive responses as much as, if not more than, their conservative counterparts. While parts of the book seem to deviate from the theme the title would suggest, it remains a well-rounded analysis that challenges commonly held assumptions about who laid the tracks for the carceral state we live in today.
  • Deadly Justice is a comprehensive examination of our modern experiment with the death penalty that leaves readers feeling queasy. In 1972, the Supreme Court invalidated all existing death penalty laws in the landmark decision Furman V. Georgia. At the time the Court highlighted the arbitrary and capricious nature of capital punishment that made it constitutionally impermissible. Four years later, in Gregg V. Georgia (1976) the Court approved a system with special guidelines to reduce the problems earlier identified. This book takes up the question of whether the new system has worked as intended, or if the law in action still operates with elements of bias and arbitrariness. The empirical focus of the book provides undeniable evidence that not only do the vast majority of the issues that instigated Furman still exist, but a myriad of new problems have arisen as well. The new features of capital punishment include; costliness, botched lethal injections, decades of delay, geographic concentration in just a few jurisdictions, high rates of reversal, last minute stays of execution, and the proliferation of inmates with mental illnesses on death row. Deadly Justice proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the modern death penalty is even more unconstitutional than its historical predecessor, and efforts to repair the system have failed miserably.
Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons around the World — Baz Dreisinger
  • Comparative prison analyses are intriguing on a number of levels, but few accounts dive as deep as Incarceration Nations. Dreisinger takes readers on a journey to prisons around the world to expose them for what they really are: global hellholes. In Brazil we learn about their use of solitary confinement to break inmates. In South Africa we witness the potential of mercy in criminal justice systems with an emphasis on truth and reconciliation. In Uganda we see how art is used to help inmates externalize their trauma and make peace with their situation. Throughout the book Dreisinger recites unbelievable anecdotes that showcases the range of intelligence & humility in the face of dehumanization and brutality. The book ends on a cheery note by illuminating the potential for restorative justice practices that repair broken individuals and communities. This book is a much-needed exercise in empathy
When Police Kill — Franklin Zimring
  • World renown criminologist Franklin Zimring is back with his new book that examines police use of lethal force. Readers are immediately faced with the striking realization that the government doesn’t collect reliable statistics on such encounters. Journalists & scholars often pick up the slack, so Zimring first sets out to synthesize the different counts of Americans shot and killed by police. The data of over 1,000 police shootings in 2016 paints a recurring picture. When officers feel threatened, particularly when they are alone or fear a gun may be involved, they are more likely to fatally shoot a citizen. Zimring theorizes that 50-80% of police shootings can be eliminated with more restrictive administrative guidelines on when officers can or should use lethal force. In his words, “1,000 shootings a year are not the unavoidable result of community conditions or of the nature of policing in the United States.” Zimring proceeds to recommend additional policies that could be adopted to further reduce the prevalence of police shootings. Ostensibly the preservation of civilian lives is the ethos of policing, but this mission needs to be reinvigorated. Racial violence in policing is not simply an administrative problem. This important work cuts through data to provide the reader with a detailed understanding of why police kill & what can be done to save lives.
Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson — George Jackson
  • Soledad Brother is the testament of black activist George Jackson written from 1964-1970. Identified as a black militant by prison administrators, Jackson was ultimately gunned down by prison guards following an unsuccessful escape attempt at San Quentin State Prison. (James Baldwin famously remarked, “No black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did.”). Initially incarcerated on a one year to life indeterminate sentence, Jackson was continuously denied parole and housed in solitary confinement for seven of his eleven years behind bars. Marxist and Maoist thought heavily influenced Jackson, and this message comes through with every letter. His calls to action centered on tearing down the deeply rooted racial power inequalities in society. Most of the early letters are written to his parents, and the reader accompanies Jackson as he becomes increasingly incendiary. His chilling reflections tell the story of a young man who was sick and tired of being sick and tired (to borrow Fannie Lou Hamer’s refrain). One of his last letters from the summer of 1970 is an apt example of his style:
  • “At these moments I feel a thrill of promise, but that’s only for a moment, the rest of the day is elevated to the pledge I made to myself, a compact that I would never live at ease as long as there was or is one man who would restrict my and your self-determination.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx — Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
  • My goodness, folks. This book right here sticks with you for a very, very long time. As the title would suggest, Random Family is a coming of age true story of four primary subjects growing up in the Bronx. LeBlanc immersed herself in their lives for eleven years to compile this masterful work that is chalked full of acutely distressing transgressions. Themes of teenage pregnancy, drug dealing, violence, poverty, prison, and inter-generational trauma are present at all times. Flip to any page of this book, and that alone would contain enough drama to produce a feature film or its own book. The life narratives we follow are gripping, ruthless, and heartbreaking. It’s truly shocking how remarkable life events are passed off as unremarkable and ordinary to the central characters. Transparent observations beget incredibly detailed accounts which allows the reader to experience the trials and tribulations of life in the modern ghetto. The common adage that people are products of their environment takes on a sudden urgency while reading this book. An example of LeBlanc’s enthralling style:
  • “Prison was the fulfillment of the empty promises of the ghetto: It positioned you even further out on the margin of things. Cesar’s ability to sustain vital relationships in the outside world could wither with each passing year. He didn’t have the resources he did on the outside — spotless sneakers, brand new clothes, his sexual prowess, different girls to impress and experience. Roxanne wasn’t suited for the long haul; he’d yet to see their baby, and her explanations felt like excuses. Coco wanted to make the effort, but she was disorganized and easily distracted. “You try to fill your little black book,” Cesar said. “You’re gonna need a lot of spare tires throughout this ride.”

CA’s for-profit bail system is morally bankrupt

Every year nearly 1 million people are arrested in CA and booked into county jails. Their freedom to go home hinges on whether or not they can afford bail (the average bail in CA is $50,000). As a result of unrealistically high bails, 60% of people in jails nationally are legally innocent. They haven’t been found guilty of any crime, but they can’t afford bail so they sit in jail until their trial.

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Others may opt to work with for-profit bail companies to have those entities put up their bail. Bail bondsmen require a nonrefundable fee, usually about 10-15% of the bail, and they put up the rest. This type of commercial bond is a three-party contract between the defendant, the court, and the bond agent. The bond agent agrees to forfeit the bail amount if the defendant fails to appear in court. On the streets surrounding any local jails there will be a proliferation of bonds businesses advertising their services.


The US is one of only two countries (the other is the Philippines) that allows private bail trade. As one would expect this a very lucrative and profitable business. The for-profit bond industry is estimated to be worth more than $2 billion with upwards of 15,000 bail agents across the country. The 8th amendment is noted for its ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but also tucked in the constitutional language is a ban on excessive bails. This constitutional right is routinely flouted by courts in assigning bails. Instead of the severity of crime in determining the bail amount, it often depends on the jurisdiction in which one commits a crime that determines the bail.

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The for-profit bond reform movement has been swiftly moving throughout the country. Two dozen states have already adopted legislation geared at tackling this issue. Currently, Legislation is making it’s way through CA that would reform the for-profit bail system.

The CA proposal would establish a county-by-county review board that would oversee defendant’s cases and their likely public safety risk when they’re arrested before giving courts recommendations about the terms of releases. The Bill would direct the review boards to base any release decision on whether someone is likely to re-offend or show up in court. This piece of legislation is a good start in the right direction of equalizing treatment for all. In our current system it’s better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent.

One of the many mistakes the current Administration is making

Inmate education programs should not be a bipartisan issue. Let’s actually rehabilitate these people while they are incarcerated, we refer to prisons as “Corrections” institutions anyway, so let’s fuel the proliferation of educational programs that can empower & liberate inmates. Instead, the current administration has signaled that it plans to terminate such programs. Amy Lopez was hired by the Obama administration to overhaul educational programs in federal prisons in hopes of easing re-entry into society. The recent decision to fire Lopez and squash educational programs is tragic on so many levels. Attorney General Jeff Sessions believes education doesn’t have much benefit in reducing recidivism. Empirical studies and common sense indicate that Sessions is delusional in thinking educational programs are a waste of resources. Education is a relatively low-cost program & when you look at the direct savings (for every dollar invested in a prison education program it will ultimately save taxpayers $4-5 in re-incarceration costs) that’s an enormous savings.

Now for the good news. States can take the charge and choose not to follow suit in adhering to Session’s guidelines. Of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the US, only 197,000 are in federal prisons. The current administration has rejected compassion and financial savings as a M.O. by gutting these educational programs. It’s time for States to step up. In CA,  CDCR, the largest prison system in the world, and the California Community College system, the largest higher education system in the world, have announced a partnership. Throughout US history, CA has cultivated it’s own unique exceptionalism. The time is now for other states to replicate CA’s model of face-to-face instruction model in prisons.