IDOC Watch Abolition Study: A Dialogue about the American Carceral State

Posted on: June 8, 2018, by :

By Jeff Turner

Indiana Department of Corrections Watch (IDOC Watch) hosted its fifth installment of a series of monthly Abolition Study Sessions June 2nd. The event started in January of this year.

“The point of this is just to develop people’s understanding of the prison system,” said Nick, who heads the group. Each month, the group reads different texts about the history of the prison system and the abolition movement.

“I came to the last event. I didn’t know a whole lot about the prison system, interesting way to learn about the issues and things that happen inside the prison system and how they don’t treat people like people,” said Brian, one of the twelve in attendance.

Normally there are incarcerated inmates who read the texts and also participate, offering their insights, though not for this Abolition Study. This month’s text was “A War Within Our Own Boundaries: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Rise of the Carceral State,” an essay written by historian Elizabeth Hinton. While most people tie the massive rise in the incarceration of young black males to the policies of the Nixon and Reagan Administrations (The War on Crime, The War on Drugs, etc.), this essay details how, in the author’s opinion, it was actually the Johnson Administration’s liberal policies that created the framework for today’s carceral state.

Elizabeth Hinton’s essay describes at length how the turbulent civil unrest of the 1960’s essentially “reshaped the direction of Johnson’s Great Society programs, resulting ultimately in a merger of anti-poverty programs with anti-crime programs that laid the groundwork for contemporary mass incarceration.” The establishment of this framework, according to Hinton, began in 1965 with three pieces of Civil Rights Legislation: The Housing and Urban Development Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, and continued throughout Johnson’s time in office.

The two hour dialogue that ensued was particularly fascinating yet also quite dark and depressing when the implications are considered. The room, next door to Rabble Coffeehouse, was hot with no AC, the door therefore left open, and as a result the room was rather loud due to the goings on outside. But this did not deter anyone from participating in the dialogue. “Mass incarceration has very little to do with crime at all,” Nick said, describing the conclusions reached by many who have read declassified papers from the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan Administrations. “(It is) proportional to the population growth of young black males…profiting off of incarceration is more important than who we incarcerate.”

This statement is particularly troubling given the privatization of prisons across the country and for profit prisons, including here in Indiana which began under Governor Mitch Daniels. While the “War on Crime” started under Nixon (and continued under Reagan), the attendees echoed similar sentiments that liberals are actually complicit in mass incarceration. This is reinforced in the text that was the subject of the group discussion, that the Great Society policies of Lyndon Johnson were what allowed for the system we have today. “Social welfare programs were being put into place, where repressive and police policies were put into place in response to the Civil Rights Movement,” Nick added, expanding on this point.

“They moved in all these social programs and community centers, and replaced them with police stations, where police officers originally worked in those community centers,” said Chase, another attendee.

“We see the systematic problems of substance abuse, mental illness, but we’re responding by pushing more of this policing into communities and expect this this will help with it,” said Erin, a young woman in attendance. The policy of “predictive policing” used by law enforcement agencies across the country was also mentioned, and how these social welfare programs allowed for it to be more effectively implemented by putting the police into close proximity to marginalized communities.

The group was of a largely liberal/progressive mindset, but was highly critical of both political parties and the politicians at the local, state, and federal level who allow the carceral state to continue to thrive. There seems to be a naïve viewpoint held by certain liberals/progressives that Democrats are the “good guys” and Republicans are the “bad guys,” Erin commented. Even I sometimes fall victim to this mentality, a byproduct of the two party system that has led to the polarized, hyper-partisan Age of Trump.

“There is a strategy of using social welfare programs as a way of policing those who they (law enforcement) want to police,” Nick said in regards to this hypocrisy displayed by certain Democrats in Congress who many would assume would be opposed to this misuse of programs intended to help address racial disparities. “(The) Methods that we use can provide a sense of what actual freedom would feel like, or provide us a sense that there are authority figures who truly care, though none in reality seem to care. (They are) Using the poor to get votes.” In response to this, Erin suggested that we “burn the system down rather than try to keep the existing structure.”

All the group members, myself included, agreed with the reason why the carceral state still exists and why change is so slow and oftentimes obstructed by those in power: racism. An overwhelming percentage of young black males make up the prison population, as was previously noted, and they do receive harsher prison sentences, even for nonviolent drug offenses. The sentencing disparities between those in possession of powdered versus crack cocaine can also be construed as being racially biased, a group member commented. In fact, as Erin pointed out later in the discussion, there was really no notice of the nation’s harsh sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders until the opioid epidemic, where white Americans were affected.

Aside from burning the system down and starting again, as well as educating people about the nature of the carceral state and the prison system, no one seemed to have any concrete solutions to the concerns brought up during this discussion. Of course, I do disagree with the implications of Hinton’s essay, which seems to imply that Johnson spearheaded the creation these programs with the intention of further subjugating African-Americans in this country. The backlash to these policies is what led to Nixon winning the 1968 Presidential election, many scholars would agree, just as white backlash against Obama can be credited with helping get Donald Trump elected in 2016. The Great Society’s policies and initiatives were taken advantage of by opportunistic Republicans, who seized on this white backlash, especially in the South in regards to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which many credit with turning the entire South Deep Red for quite some time (a great many parts of it still are). Another term for this is the Southern Strategy. Racism has always plagued this country, and blacks were being disproportionally incarcerated long before Reagan, Nixon, or Johnson. But that digresses from the main subject of the Abolition Study. It was nonetheless particularly illuminating, and I learned a great deal in regards to how entrenched the carceral system is in American Society, a new form of slavery it could be called due to the racial disparities that exist when looking at those incarcerated. I also found it highly ironic how Johnson’s Great Society, liberal in nature, was being tied to the rise of conservatism in the United States that ensued in the following decades, and the formation of the current carceral state. Some interesting points were raised during this discussion that do challenge previously held viewpoints.

There will be a rally held at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana on June 23rd to encourage an end to abuses at the facility. Those interested in attending future Abolition Studies can find more information on IDOC Watch events on the group’s Facebook page, or online at www.idocwatch.org.

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