Mass in­car­cer­a­tion no an­ti­dote to crime

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Christo­pher Croke

On the Run: Fugi­tive Life in an Amer­i­can City By Alice Goff­man Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 288pp $50 (HB) ANY­ONE fol­low­ing the me­dia cov­er­age of last month’s shoot­ing of Michael Brown, an un­armed black teenager, by a heav­ily armed white po­lice­man in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, might as­sume the col­lec­tive so­cial despair was be­cause the tragedy was so rare. But Brown, 18, was one of five young black men shot dead by po­lice in the US last month alone. His death is just the lat­est episode in the com­plex racial drama of Amer­i­can crim­i­nal jus­tice poli­cies.

Since the late 1960s, the US prison pop­u­la­tion has ex­panded eight­fold. So­ci­ol­o­gists have put a la­bel on this phe­nom­e­non: mass im­pris­on­ment. It forms part of a broader puni­tive turn in which US so­ci­ety be­gan lock­ing up more peo­ple for longer terms.

No group suf­fers more from th­ese trends than black men. One in three can ex­pect to find them­selves in prison dur­ing the course of their lifetime. There are more African-Americans in prison than in higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions.

Septem­ber 20-21, 2014 More than 60 per cent of black male high school dropouts end up spend­ing some time in prison. In On the Run, Alice Goff­man, a young Amer­i­can so­ci­ol­o­gist, ex­plores what th­ese sta­tis­ti­cal pat­terns look like for the peo­ple whose lives they doc­u­ment.

Be­tween 2002 and 2007 Goff­man un­der­took field work by liv­ing in a poor, majority-black neigh­bour­hood in west Philadel­phia that she terms 6th Street. Although it is far from the poor­est sec­tion of Philadel­phia, 6th Street’s best days are be­hind it. White flight in the 1970s and de-in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion have left be­hind a com­mu­nity of few jobs and much mis­ery. It is a place where ‘‘po­lice he­li­copters cir­cle over­head, po­lice cam­eras mon­i­tor passers-by, and po­lice rou­tinely stop, search and ar­rest peo­ple in the streets’’.

Goff­man’s ac­count largely cen­tres on the lives of two fig­ures: Chuck, the mid­dle of three brothers, who lives in his grand­fa­ther’s house with a crack-ad­dicted mother; and Mike, his friend who comes from a slightly less mis­er­able back­ground. Their lives are form­less and tran­si­tory. If they are not in and out of prison, they are dodg­ing court dates or angry girl­friends. For the six years the book tracks, Mike spends more than half the time in prison and 87 of the 139 weeks out of prison on pro­ba­tion or pa­role. There is a sim­ple and com­pelling ar­gu­ment at the core of this book: high im­pris­on­ment rates and in­ten­sive polic­ing have turned many black neigh­bour­hoods into ‘‘com­mu­ni­ties of sus­pects and fugi­tives’’. In 6th Street, as in many places like it, Goff­man con­tends a new so­cial fab­ric is emerg­ing where ‘‘a cli­mate of fear and sus­pi­cion per­vades every­day life’’.

It is clear that 6th Street is a com­mu­nity pal­pa­bly lack­ing in trust. Men don’t visit their girl­friends for fear they may turn them in. Fu­ner­als are avoided or at­tended at great risk be­cause the po­lice are watch­ing. Hos­pi­tals are sim­i­larly dodged and bro­ken arms are fixed by hos­pi­tal jan­i­tors with pur­loined sup­plies. The cen­tral irony is that this com­mu­nity, while so heav­ily po­liced, is so poorly safe­guarded. Many of its res­i­dents are fugi­tives in their own homes.

On the Run is not a sim­ple moral­ity tale. Its char­ac­ters are not the carceral state’s un­wit­ting vic­tims. Crime is still a choice for those who com­mit it. But Goff­man’s larger ar­gu­ment is that choice is made much more dif­fi­cult than it should be by the ag­gres­sive pros­e­cu­tion of lowlevel of­fences. After a pe­riod in ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion, Chuck is too old to re-en­rol in high school. Nearly half of the ar­rests made in the com­mun- ity are for tech­ni­cal vi­o­la­tions (such as drink­ing while on pro­ba­tion). Huge num­bers of war­rants are is­sued for delin­quen­cies with court fees, or fail­ure to at­tend court. It’s much the same in Fer­gu­son. Last year, fines and court fees were the city’s sec­ond big­gest source of rev­enue and the lo­cal court is­sued about three war­rants per house­hold. Once you are caught up in the sys­tem, es­cape is nearly im­pos­si­ble.

Com­mu­nity life be­comes dom­i­nated by avoid­ing au­thor­ity. Young chil­dren pull down each other’s pants to do “cav­ity searches”. “Call list” (the list of ap­proved peo­ple who can con­tact in­di­vid­u­als in prison) be­comes syn­ony­mous with close friends. But it also breeds new and al­ter­na­tive forms of law-break­ing. A pass­port photo booth dou­bles as a place to buy il­licit clean urine for drug tests. Prison guards ac­cept oral sex and cash to pass drugs on to pris­on­ers.

Im­pris­on­ing large num­bers of black men threat­ens fu­ture gen­er­a­tions too. An AfricanAmer­i­can child born to­day is less likely to be reared by both par­ents than a black child born dur­ing the slav­ery era. To a large ex­tent this is be­cause too many of their fa­thers get locked up. One in four black chil­dren born in 1990, for ex­am­ple, had an im­pris­oned fa­ther by the time they turned 14. Pa­ter­nal ab­sence goes some way

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