[PRISONACT] Behind bars

AICAP <deportee@...>

From: radtimes <resist@...>
Subject: [PRISONACT] Behind bars

Behind bars


Saturday, March 16, 2002
Dan Gardner

The case against an American style justice system;
Across the world,
politicians have heard that the U.S. has found the
solution to crime, but
the American illusion of safety through punishment
has been bought at an
awful expense.

While Americans overwhelmingly credit their
get-tough approach with reducing
crime, most criminologists believe tougher laws
did little to make the
streets safer. Punishment is simply not an
effective way to cut crime.

- - -

One evening last spring I took a walk on the
famous streets of San
Francisco, looking for a little solace. It had
been an exhausting week of
travel and research -- not just physically
exhausting, but morally.

A day's drive north of San Francisco, I had toured
Pelican Bay state prison,
one of the new breed of "supermax" lockups --
tiny, alien worlds where
prisoners spend virtually every waking moment in
concrete cells, stripped of
almost all human contact, as days, weeks, months
and years creep by.

I had spoken with a retired police officer who
argued that all prisoners
should be locked in solitary and joked about
preventing escape by outfitting
inmates with explosive neck-collars.

I turned on the television to see a congressman
attack the sentence of a
13-year-old boy convicted of second-degree murder
-- life with no chance of
parole for several decades -- as unacceptably soft.

I walked the dark steel ranges of San Quentin
prison and met a man sentenced
to life under the state's "three-strikes" law for
possessing a single rock
of crack cocaine.

These raw realities were numbing to witness. Worse
was what they said about
the culture that created them. This was a culture
that understands only an
innocent "us" and a predatory "them," a culture
obsessed with the infliction
of punishment, a culture in which videotapes of
police officers beating
suspects into submission had become highly rated
television entertainment.

But San Francisco was a relief. In that beautiful
city of light and colour,
the punishing reality seemed far off, at least if
you forget that San
Quentin is just a few kilometres away. So I walked
and tried to forget.

And as I walked, three different street dealers
offered to sell me crack.

- - -

Roughly 20 to 25 years ago, the United States
embraced a package of harsh
criminal justice policies often marketed under the
slogan "tough on crime."
The idea is simple: Putting more criminals in
harsher prisons, and keeping
them there longer, will remove the bad guys from
the streets and deter
others from getting involved in crime. Punishment
is the key to crime
control, in this philosophy. If punishment is
light, crime goes up. If it is
tough, crime goes down.

It's not a new idea. In the modern era, the first
state to create a
tough-on-crime justice system was the Soviet Union
under Joseph Stalin. As a
result, from Stalin's time until the fall of
Communism, the U.S.S.R. had by
far the world's highest rate of imprisonment.
Today's Russia inherited the
Soviet Union's swollen prisons, but it recently
ceased to be the world's top
jailer. That honour now goes to the United States
of America.

In another age, the American public would have
been bothered by the
knowledge that the United States puts more of its
people behind bars than
Russia. Not today. Since the early 1990s, crime in
the United States has
dropped precipitously. For the great majority of
Americans, the conclusion
is obvious: The country got tough on crime and the
streets became safer. The
hardline approach worked.

Inevitably, that conclusion did not stay within
American borders. American
cultural exports consist of more than just
Hollywood and Coca-Cola. Public
policies are also sold internationally, and few
fields of American public
policy have been exported more successfully than
criminal justice.

Across the western world, politicians have heard
that the United States has
found the solution to crime. They have also
learned from American experience
that crime can be the perfect political tool.
Motivated by both principle
and self-interest, many have begun pushing their
nations to adopt American
justice policies. In no country is this truer than

The government of Ontario's approach to crime is a
virtual duplicate of the
American model. So is the crime platform of the
Canadian Alliance. Even the
language many Canadian politicians use when they
talk about crime -- "zero
tolerance," "truth in sentencing," "adult time for
adult crime" -- was
invented by American politicians to sell American

We should be concerned. While it's true that
Americans overwhelmingly credit
the get-tough approach with reducing crime, the
few who disagree include the
experts who actually study crime: Most
criminologists believe tougher laws
did little to make the streets safer. Punishment
is simply not an effective
way to cut crime. Even something as draconian as,
say, sentencing a man to
life in San Quentin for possession of crack won't
stop crack dealers from
popping up on street corners.

Worse, the American illusion of safety through
punishment has been bought at
awful expense. Part of that cost lies in the
billions of dollars spent
building and staffing prisons. But payment also
comes in more intimate and
insidious forms. A nation cannot sweep up and
imprison vast numbers of
people without inflicting manifold harms on
families, neighbourhoods and
communities. And who can quantify the costs paid
in lost liberty, as freedom
is seized in the search for a mirage?

This series will explore crime and punishment in
four countries: Canada, the
United States, Russia and Finland.

In Russia, the prisons are jammed, filthy and rife
with disease and
violence. This is the legacy of Stalin's get-tough
policies, a legacy modern
Russia is struggling to leave behind.

In the United States, justice policies remarkably
similar to Stalin's have
produced the greatest incarceration boom since the
Soviet tyrant's death.
American wealth has allowed the U.S. to deal
better with its nation behind
bars, but still, the damage inflicted on both
sides of the prison gate is

In Finland can be found the alternative -- and
proof that harsh punishment
does not reduce crime. About 30 years ago, Finland
began a wholesale
revolution in criminal justice, moving from a
tough, Russian-style system to
the western European model in which punishment is
not the focus of crime
control and prison is used as sparingly as
possible. If there was anything
to the tough-on-crime philosophy, that shift
should have caused crime to
soar. It didn't.

Canada, as usual, is suspended somewhere in the
mid-Atlantic, halfway
between the American model and the Western
European. We imprison more
offenders than western European countries, but far
fewer than the United
States. Some of the sentences we hand out are
similar to western European
norms, but some, especially for the worst crimes,
are in line with American
norms. Some of our prisons look and operate like
Western Europe's while
others are in the American mould.

The root of these contradictions is a fundamental
clash of visions. Whether
we recognize it or not, that clash can be found in
just about all criminal
justice controversies. Parole, young offenders,
"Club Fed," mandatory
minimum sentences, boot camps, sentence lengths:
When we debate these and
other issues, we are really making a choice
between two visions of crime and
punishment. Slowly and steadily, we are choosing
between the western
European and American models.

Unfortunately, the debates are never framed that
way. Instead, we focus on
one small aspect of criminal justice, wrench it
out of context, and make a
decision about it that ignores the wider

Consider the protest by family members of murder
victims upset that
convicted murderers were sometimes being sent to
lower-security prisons
early in their sentences. The families, and some
politicians, were furious.
When the issue got media attention, the solicitor
general immediately
announced that offenders serving life sentences
would have to spend at least
two years in maximum security. The families and
the police were satisfied
and that was the end of it.

But as we will see in this series, the original
policy was in line with the
western European model, while the new policy is
very American. It is also
likely that the new policy is illegal because it
violates a federal law
aligned with the western European philosophy.

So which is the right way to go? To give a full
answer to that, you have to
first see that more is at stake than just this one
issue. One policy follows
Western European justice principles; the other
takes the American lead. In
choosing the one that follows the American lead,
we tacitly accepted key
American principles of crime and punishment and
put in place an important
precedent that could well affect future policies.
We nudged the whole
criminal justice system a little more in the
American direction. Did anyone
consider that? Not at all. There was no discussion
of the underlying
principles involved. Even the fact that the new
policy probably violates
federal law was never mentioned. There was simply
a blur of emotions,
headlines and announcements. And then it was on to
the next controversy.

That's why criminal justice issues have to be put
in a broad context. What
we decide about parole affects the whole criminal
justice system. The same
for young offenders, "Club Feds," and the rest of
the hot- button issues. In
each case, we are choosing between the western
European and American
criminal justice philosophies. It's happening
whether we realize it or not.
Do we want an American criminal justice system?
That's the fundamental
question. And each time we deal with issues like
sentence lengths and prison
conditions, we go some distance to answering it.

- - -

If it seems impossible that Canada would ever
become as punitive as the
United States, consider California. Just 25 years
ago, that state had one of
the most liberal justice systems in the United
States, a system that was, in
some ways, far more liberal than Canada's is
today. Now it has one of the
toughest. California's Democratic governor
supports the death penalty and
has boasted that no lifer will ever be released
while he's in power. The
most powerful political lobby is the prison
guards' union. The phrase "zero
tolerance" was invented in California. It is home
to one of the harshest new
prisons on the planet, Pelican Bay State Prison.
It is a state with prisons
the size of towns, a place where a man was
sentenced to life for stealing a
slice of pizza.

And all of this has the overwhelming support of
the people of California --
the same people that, just a few decades,
supported a liberal criminal
justice system.

In 1910, an earnest young prison reformer
declared: "The mood and temper of
the public in regard to the treatment of crime and
criminals is one of the
most unfailing tests of the civilization of any
country." That reformer was
Winston Churchill.

I thought of Churchill's maxim while touring
Pelican Bay. At the
checkpoints, guards sell an array of souvenirs
that puts to shame many a
museum gift shop. There are ballcaps, pens, mugs,
cups and T-shirts in
assorted varieties. "Pelican Bay Bed and
Breakfast," one of the T- shirts is
emblazoned: "The Hard Time Inn."

There's no question about the mood and temper of
the American public in
regard to the treatment of crime and criminals.
The only question is whether
we feel the same way.

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