Crime, Punishment and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment

The prison system in the U.S. stands alone in the modern Western world as a model of mass incarceration. The "tough on crime" stance taken by elected officials from across the political spectrum has not halted the resurgence of crime in the last few years, nor has it helped prevent ex-inmates from once again ending up behind bars.

How did the U.S. devolve into a nation that incarcerates over 2.13 million people, when just a quarter century ago the number was 475,000? What happens when the criminal justice system deals out vengeance instead of justice?

Sasha Abramsky delves into these questions in his new book, American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment, a title that alludes to the ancient Greek goddesses of vengeance. It follows in the tracks of his first two books, Hard Time Blues and Conned, and tries to synthesize what he has learned about criminal justice in the U.S. since an article assignment first piqued his interest around eleven years ago. American Furies traces criminal justice through American history, including the psychological and religious issues, and the power dynamics involved in the development and implementation of recent policy.

Abramsky's quiet Sacramento home is a far cry from some of the dark scenes he has witnessed in his research. AlterNet interviewed Abramsky there about his book and his ideas on how to extricate this country from an age of mass imprisonment.

Prema Polit: Why has the U.S. become incarceration central when other countries have taken a different route?

Sasha Abramsky: I think one of the reasons is that America took a distinctly conservative turn in the 1970s. Other countries went through their conservative moments, England being a case in point with Margaret Thatcher, but they didn't quite have the sort of populist conservatism that we have here. One of the effects is that there has been a pandering to really very ill thought out prejudice on an array of issues. Then a result of that in the criminal justice debates are very simplistic laws like "three strikes and you're out." They sound good in 15-second sound-bytes, and they're lousy public policy.

I think that the other reason, paradoxically, is that we're extremely wealthy, and extremely powerful. Most states, when they're at the zenith of their power, in addition to projecting themselves out onto the world also seem to impose order on their own populaces. America is the big cheese at the moment, so we're seeing those social policies playing out in America in a way that they're not playing out anywhere else right now.

An example is England in the late 19th century. Brimming with self-confidence, it believes that its political, social and economic systems are the best in the world. Its empire is at its maximum expansion. You see very similar policies in late 19th century England that you see here.

I think what's distinct about the American system is that America has reached the zenith of its power at a moment when technology provides so many opportunities for the state to insert itself in ways that it couldn't previously. One of the most fascinating things that comes to mind is that in addition to being liberal with its use of incarceration, we have technology that allows the state to eavesdrop, to control, to regiment the lives of its prisoners in a way that no other prison mechanism in history has been able to do. So we're not just creating more prisons, we're creating more secure prisons and more regimented prisons. We're not just creating more jobs for prison guards, but we're creating an entire subset of the economy based on the technology of incarceration.

PP: You wrote about the "Nothing Works" movement, which dismissed rehabilitative efforts for prisoners as ineffective. So what does work?

SA: I guess I should backtrack and explain what the "Nothing works" philosophy is. It's an idea which both the left and the right came to believe in in the 1970s. The idea was that a ton of money and a ton of resources had been invested in trying to create rehabilitation structures inside prisons for criminals. They were tailored to meet individual needs, and they were designed to recalibrate the way people behaved and also their belief structures. The left came to hate it because they concluded that these rehabilitation efforts were very totalitarian, that they were an attempt to sort of remodel people to meet social norms. And the right hated it because they thought it was wishy-washy. The consensus is that it should just be about punishment, that we should just get back to the basics. That's been fairly prevalent for about 25 or 30 years at this point.

But there is evidence that there are things that do work: some of the new drug-treatment programs, some of the diversionary courts, the mental health courts, drug treatment courts that don't put people into prisons in the first place but put them in structured care in the community. They do have success rates. But how do you measure success? That's one of the key problems here.

There's a group called the "Fortune Society" in New York, and I've worked with them for many years. Their clients are mainly drug-addicted ex-prisoners. The director of Fortune is a woman named JoAnne Page. She'll always stress to me that if you look for success in terms of absolute change, you'll never find it, because that's not how human beings work; they don't suddenly change overnight. She says that the way you have to look for success among her clients and more generally is to look for incremental change. Can you set in motion a chain of events that will gradually take someone away from drugs, gradually transform how they see themselves, how they see their role in the world, transform them from criminally minded to being a law-abiding, productive citizen.

If you look at the really innovative drug-treatment programs that try to reintegrate people into jobs and housing and so on, they deal in incrementals. Wherever you look, the more successful programs are the ones that aren't overly ambitious. They deal with the art of the possible.

PP: Some people say that the criminal justice system makes sure that the accused has all these rights, but ignores the victims. What is your response to that?

SA: One section of my book is on the victims' rights movement. I profile a woman in Alabama who is one of the more vocal proponents of victims' rights. She's been very instrumental in moving Alabama in a more conservative direction when it comes to crime and punishment policies. And that's precisely her point, that the way the criminal justice system works all too often the victims feels neglected. They feel that the rights of the defendant outweigh that of the victims, they feel that the court system is stacked in favor of the defendant because you have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. To a degree they were right. I think there was a period in history when the court system became coldly indifferent to the needs of the victim, and so in the 1970s era, there probably was room for a victims' rights movement to emerge to address that.

My argument with the victims' rights movement is that it has outgrown its original role, and that it's channeling the emotional response of the victim into making public policy. And I think that's dangerous, because when you're victimized you're almost certainly going to have an extremely emotional response. As an individual, that response makes perfect sense. If I were a crime victim or my family was, I would have an emotional response, and I would want that emotional response to take center stage in the criminal justice system. But that's not how the system is supposed to work.

One of the basic underlying intellectual foundations of modern criminal justice theory is that you need a dispassionate state, that if you allow the emotions of the victims to govern public policy, you're going to get a very brutal state response. In a sense you're going to turn the state into a distributor of vengeance rather than justice.

PP: What was the most surprising thing that you encountered while researching and writing American Furies?

SA: I went out in 100-degree heat into the desert early one morning with a group of women. They had mostly been convicted of parole violations or probation violations, but very minor offenses. For the next three or four hours I watched them lower coffins into a pauper's grave, in the desert, next to an air force base. There was this extraordinary image, surrounded by these shotgun-toting sheriff's deputies. And they're these two-bit characters, these women who were addicted to cocaine, young women convicted of welfare fraud, that kind of thing. They're chained at the ankles, and they're sweating and they're miserable, and there's no point to their work.

I found that was the most extraordinary thing that I have ever seen when I've been reporting on criminal justice, that to me really spoke to everything that's gone wrong in the way that we implement criminal justice here.

PP: These days all politicians want to be "tough on crime," which people take to mean harsher sentencing. What is an alternative definition that we might adopt?

SA: The definition that I've heard said by quite a few criminal justice experts over the years is if you're going to be truly tough on crime, then measures of success should be a lowering of the crime rate and a lowering of the recidivism rate - the rate at which people who have been in the prison system then come out are bussed back into the prison system, partly because they commit new crimes or they violate parole. Now if you can craft a series of policies that over the long term reduce crime and over the long term reduce the number of people who are cycling through the system then you're really making society safer, and you're doing it in a way that is financially viable because you're not building more and more prisons at a staggering cost. That seems to me the sensible definition of "tough on crime" because it's structural. It means that you're tackling some real root causes of why crime occurs and who is committing it and how to stop it.

What's happening right now is based on the 15-second sound byte. It's the idea that if you can pitch the public a policy that's easy to explain in the 15 seconds that you can be allotted in the local TV news show, then you can claim your "tough on crime" credentials. Now, it's impossible to explain the complicated, good public policy in 15 seconds, but it's very easy to pitch something like "three strikes and you're out" because it's slogan based.

The result is this sort of endless cycle of increased incarceration. We've incarcerated so many people at this point that if they really were tough on crime, with successful, well-defined tough-on-crime laws, we'd have nobody committing crimes at this point. But that's not happening.

The last couple years in all the big cities, including here in Sacramento, the crime rate is up. And it shouldn't be happening, because the incarceration rate is still going up; every year it is going up by 50 or 60 thousand people. So if we really had a successful tough on crime policy, we wouldn't be having these debates right now about why is it so many teenagers are shooting each other, why is it that so many people are still taking drugs?

PP: You took the title "American Furies" from the ancient Greek drama about murder, vengeful spirits, and the creation of a court of justice. How far have we come since those days?

SA: Clearly in some ways we're a world away from the world of ancient Greece. Our technology is different; the scale of our society is different; the things that we find as criminal are different.

The reason that I chose "American Furies" as a title is that I wanted to in a sense explore the mythological qualities of crime and punishment. The Furies in ancient Greece were these goddesses who basically would chase the guilty around the Mediterranean world, and if not directly deal out punishment, would terrorize the guilty into death. They were these far larger-than-life characters that were designed to show how powerfully the Greek society understood notions of right and wrong and crime and punishment. I think that's a perennial theme in the human saga, that society is always going to look at crime and the transgression of the social code as being extremely serious, and it's always going to create its own responses designed to impose order; it's always going to make it's own equivalent to the Greek furies to deal out justice.

What I think happens every few centuries in different parts of the world is that the state goes completely overboard in its response to crime, usually in response to a panic about crime. You see it in Tudor England when there's this rash of hangings. Over a couple decades you see 70,000 people hanged. You see these very vengeful social movements that tend to take the state with them. And I'm arguing in American Furies that America is in the middle of one of these periodic crime hysterias. It's created this larger-than-life response, this almost mythological quality to our criminal justice system.

PP: You explore the history of the criminal justice system in your book. What's next?

SA: We're at a turning point and can go one of two directions. We've either reached the apogee, and we're at the point where it's almost impossible to build more prisons and fund more prisons and put more people in prison. And if that's the case, and there's some evidence that a lot of states are moving in that direction, then we'll see a renewed focus on rehabilitation, we might well see an expansion in drug treatment course, more money to mental health, and that's the somewhat optimistic scenario.

The other scenario is that we're stuck in a cycle of fear. Whether it's fear of drugs, whether it's fear of illegal immigrants, fear about terror, whatever it is. And some of the fears are valid; there's a valid reason to be fearful of terrorism. But I think we're stuck in a moment where these fears may congeal into another epidemic of incarceration. You do see in many border regions these ribbons of facilities set up to house INS detainees, or ICE, Immigration Customs Enforcement detainees. I do think there's a risk that the immigration debate could slide in the direction that makes it more likely that we mass incarcerate illegal immigrants.

PP: What changes do you think would most benefit the criminal justice system?

SA: One of them is mental health. There's a half a million seriously mentally ill people behind bars. That's a huge number, and that's the wrong place for most of them. There are lots of people committing low-end crimes, especially drug crimes, that have serious mental illness that could be much better treated, and much more cheaply treated outside prison. So I think one way to at least start to tackle this problem is to really invest in the community mental health services. Try and catch people with illnesses and treat people with mental illnesses before they end up in court.

I think another thing that overnight would transform the criminal justice system is more sensible dialogue about drugs. That dialogue should change to, "Well, we have a serious crack and heroin epidemic. Is the best approach incarceration, or should we make it possible to access treatment programs from the outside, funded by the state." And then if they do still get in trouble, really create a country-wide instead of a haphazard network of drug-treatment course. Because, now, depending on where you live, for the same crime, you're either going to prison or to a drug-treatment facility. I think this needs to be standardized.

If you deal with drugs and you deal with mental illness, overnight you reduce the scale of the prison population, and then you can introduce other changes. You can reduce the number of people in prisons; you can invest money in better parole and probation structure and all of that.

PP: What is the most important message or idea to take away from American Furies?

SA: I want American Furies to show people that the criminal justice system isn't behaving in the way that we think and we hope it behaves. And I'm using behave deliberately here, because I think that even though the criminal justice system is basically a series of institutions rather than individuals, it's also very much subject to political whim -- to the whim of politicians, and the mood of the electorate.

I want people to take a deep breath and say, "Alright, nobody wants to live in a world besieged by crime. People who break a law need to pay a price, but are we doing this in the most sensible way possible?" I want them to read my book and come away from it saying, "No we're not." Whether you're left wing or right wing, whether you're a tough law and order person, whether you're a diehard fan of rehabilitation, I think anybody who reads this book should say, alright, we have a real problem here. We have way too many people in prison, and it's coming at a tremendous financial and moral cost to the state of our society.

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