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Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation

The editor of DRCNet's Week Online interviews Sasha Abramsky, author of a new book on our prison system, focusing on the non-violent and petty criminals that fill America's prisons and the drug war connection.

Sasha Abramsky, 29, is a New York-based journalist whose work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. He has covered crime issues for the last five years, and was awarded a Soros Foundation fellowship to write "Hard Time Blues" (Thomas Dunne Press/St. Martin's, $25.95 HB). "Hard Time Blues" tells the story of the growth of the American prison system in the past quarter-century, focusing on the petty criminals who fill it as well as on the politicians who created that growth and the broader social conditions that laid the groundwork for it.

WOL: "Hard Time Blues" starts out with Billy Ochoa going to court in Los Angeles. Will you tell our readers what you're doing with "Hard Time Blues" and how Billy Ochoa fits in?

Sasha Abramsky: I wanted to explore some of the social and political forces that led to a prison system tripling in size in 25 years, and I wanted to humanize the consequences. The best way to do that was to write about inmates and their families, but I intersperse that with material on the politicians and the victims' rights people. Billy Ochoa is 58, a heroin addict since he was 17, and a career petty criminal. Not a particularly nice guy, but not violent. He was arrested for welfare fraud of about $2000, but had priors for burglary and got three-striked, got the book thrown at him. The judge gave him 25 years for each of 13 counts of perjury in the welfare fraud, and threw in an extra year, sentencing him to 326 years. I wanted to show who is going to prison, who are those 1.2 million people behind bars for nonviolent offenses, those hundreds of thousands doing time for drug possession or dealing or crimes associated with drug addiction. I wanted to see who was serving those draconian sentences.

WOL: This is a pretty grim topic. How did you become interested in it?

Abramsky: I'm a journalist and I'm interested in politics and economics and how political and social changes intersect with people's lives. I was doing articles about life in New York City and I began to realize that prison and the criminal justice system was a huge unreported topic. I guess it really began to take off when City magazine assigned me a piece on juvenile justice in New York state. I've been at it for five years now.

WOL: What is it about illicit drugs that makes it possible for our society to imprison for decades or even for life someone who has neither harmed someone else nor damaged or stolen someone else's property? Or what is it about our society? Early on, you wrote about the Puritans and their belief that crime was sin and vice versa. Is that still playing out?

Abramsky: For a hundred years, America has had a war on drugs, a very punitive response to what is primarily a medical problem. Its origins are tied into the prohibitionist movement against alcohol. This combination of morality and legality has created a uniquely American framework of laws to deal with millions of drug users. It also has to do with when America was founded, and by whom. The Puritans brought harsh moral and political views with them across the Atlantic, ironically at the very time Europe was throwing off that harsh, pre-Enlightenment politics. That powerful interplay of morality and law was a unifying force for a young culture with certain hopes and fears, and one of the main arenas of fear was crime and punishment. You have both liberty and puritanical repression historically coexisting in America. You have the language and trappings of liberty and political structures that deliver liberty for the vast majority, but at the same time laws that imprison an increasing minority. This is a country moving in two directions: For the majority, a free country; but for the minority, an increasingly coercive country. I wanted to explore what happens to the minority when they run up against a coercive criminal justice agenda imposed by the majority. Not everyone is innocent, of course, but when the criminal justice system is used instead of investment in the inner cities or adequate job training, when it is used as the front line tool for social policy, that's when it starts to go wrong.

WOL: You identified three powerful political impulses -- anti-crime, anti-welfare, anti-immigration -- driving the prison binge, and you clearly show how these impulses can be ridden by politicians. And there are passages in the book describing the role of the media. What is your sense of the role of the mass media in creating the conditions for the turn to prison?

Abramsky: I don't believe the conspiracy theories surrounding the reporting of crime. I don't think there are conscious decisions to misrepresent crime, no cabal of editors saying "let's get those inner city black kids." But increasing competition among the mass media, especially with TV, meant editors needed quick, easy, cost-effective visuals that would draw an audience, and violent, sensationalist images brought in an audience. They appealed to the primal fear of victimhood. That kind of reporting doesn't account for underlying trends, instead it covers every gory crime, and people think the neighborhood is besieged by crime when it has in fact gone down. In the past decade, crime has gone down in almost all categories, but that is not being well covered by the press. Once you have an emphasis on high-profile crime coverage, then it is easy to create a public panic. People feel besieged by violent criminals and respond accordingly. You get Three Strikes laws, the abolition of parole, all these very, very expensive and counterproductive policy choices. It's about retribution, not rehabilitation. No perks for criminals sounds good, but you have a policy that doesn't deal with the underlying problems that lead to crime, nor the need for rehabilitation that most offenders have. You're just stockpiling problems for when these people get out of prison.

WOL: Former California Gov. Pete Wilson is the second main figure in your book. What does he represent? Is he merely emblematic of a certain class of political entrepreneur or is he the epitome of the breed?

Abramsky: I focus on Wilson because he's a particularly opportunistic politician in a time of opportunistic politicians. Wilson is fascinating because, like his mentor Nixon, he very skillfully pandered to the silent majority. He played to certain fears, and he stoked those fears. He created a sense of "us against them," which is generally a very good way to energize an angry lower middle-class electorate who vote and read newspapers, but aren't necessarily completely informed. He pitted the fearful middle class against the poor, against those who commit crimes, but who aren't necessarily the murderers and rapists they fear. Wilson simplified the argument: If you aren't for Three Strikes, you're soft on crime. He framed the argument so it was assumed to be about murderers, rapists, and armed criminals, but lost in the roar is the fact that the law snared huge numbers of petty criminals, people who are nuisances, dropouts. Wilson's policy was very expensive, very counterproductive, and lowered the terms of the political discourse on crime. He was a very skillful demagogue, and his policies ended up having such a detrimental effect on criminal justice that he deserves the focus.

WOL: A few weeks ago, DRCNet interviewed Noam Chomsky, and he described the war on drugs as largely a form of social control, a way to deal with "superfluous" populations by mass incarceration and intimidation. He described social and economic policies from the Reagan era onward that I think he would call class warfare, with the drug war as essentially a police action to hold down the dangerous classes. Does your research lead to you subscribe to that view?

Abramsky: Chomsky is generally right on this issue. The increase in poverty, the increase in the ghetto-ization of poverty is undeniable. We abandoned the inner city and moved from a war on poverty to very punitive policies directed at people who were poor. But is the war on drugs entirely about that? No, I don't think so. It's not that deliberate. There were extreme social problems emerging, you had spikes in violent crime, you had an increase in drug sales, and all that led to popular panic. It would be naive to deny that there had been some collapse in social structures. So the war on drugs is also about regaining some semblance of normality. That's where I would part with Chomsky. The war on drugs is not a deliberate effort to repress the dangerous classes, but is an unintended consequence of using the criminal justice system to deal with these underlying social problems.

WOL: Has the politics of tough on crime been neutered by the Clinton-era Democrats' toughness, falling crime rates, and the cost of all those prisons and prisoners? We're starting to see the prison population leveling off across the country for various reasons. Is it the beginning of the end for the prison boom?

Abramsky: I don't think we'll see the same stampede toward increased incarceration that we saw in the 1980s and 1990s; this era of extraordinary growth in the US prison population is very possibly at an end, but that doesn't mean the appeal of being tough on crime is over. Clinton, like Wilson, essentially pandered to the crowd, and the prison population doubled. But now, questions are being faced. Will budget crunches mean we can't afford to build new prisons? We're seeing that even in the South, places like Louisiana and Alabama are having to contemplate sentencing reforms. But beyond the economic impact, people are beginning to think about the moral impact of putting people in prison for life. In California, we just had a court ruling striking down certain provisions of the Three Strikes law, specifically that people whose third strike was shoplifting cannot be sentenced to life in prison. It's cruel and unusual punishment. But if we are looking for a more balanced criminal justice system, we still have a very long way to go.

WOL: Do you take a position on drug legalization?

Abramsky: The question of legalization is complicated and a little bit outside the rubric of what I was writing about, but I am prepared to recognize differences between soft and hard drugs. Hard drugs are socially destructive and should not be condoned. That said, it is not sensible to just cycle someone in and out of prison and not provide treatment. There are probably 850,000 prisoners who need it and only 150,000 beds. We're only spending four cents of our drug war dollars on rehabilitation. It doesn't make sense. Are the priorities of the drug war correct? No. Our priorities are wrong.