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Do Police and Prisons Make Us Safer?

Morning, BPFers!  It’s our last day of the month of Lies That Build Empire — can’t believe it’s already over.  We were holding out hope for certain pieces to come through today, but the writers need more time, and / or what they made will be better suited to feature later.  No big deal.  But we didn’t want to end the month without questioning this potential big Lie: is it true that police and prisons, as institutions, protect and defend people, and promote peace and justice?

What follows is just a collection of resources and snapshots to start a conversation: definitely not a comprehensive treatment.  All these examples come from the U.S. — the most-incarcerated nation in the world, with one in every 100 adults locked up — but please feel free to discuss situations in other places.

Just esterday, BPFers Mia Murrietta and Tyson Casey shared on Facebook some of the “Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States,” via the Center for American Progress.

  • “FACT: While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. Like and Share if you think this needs to change.”
  • “FACT: Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders — for the same crimes.”
Today and tomorrow at the UC Berkeley School of Law, a conference will explore “Race, Domestic and Sexual Violence: From the Prison Nation to Community Resistance.”   You can catch the livestream of the opening keynote by Beth E. Richie (author of Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nationhere, at 5pm Pacific time.


To oversimplify a long and complex story, organizations like INCITE! Women Of Color Against Violence, queer liberation groups, and other formal and informal community groups have been working for years to question mainstream ideas that the best way to address hate crimes or domestic violence is to criminalize them.

What does it mean to mandate further intervention by police and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) into communities of color already experiencing crises of deportation, or overwhelming and disproportionate lockup (see above)?

Out of necessity, communities large and small have been working to develop strategies for intervening in interpersonal harm that don’t involve calling police and risking further harm from state intervention.  Many examples of this, including the day-to-day decisions of everyday people, but just to name a few formalized programs:

Safe OUTside the System, a collective within the Audre Lorde Project

Creative Interventions, with their 600+ page toolkit

UBUNTU of North Carolina (great archived material)

Communities United Against Violence (CUAV)

Philly Stands Up!

I’m sure we can name a lot more.

One of the speakers at the UC Berkeley conference, Dean Spade of the transgender legal aid organization Sylvia Rivera Law Project, also collaborated on a recent book called Prisons Will Not Protect You.  Published as part of the Against Equality series of anti-assimilationist queers, the book points out that criminalizing “hate crimes” does not actually address systems of oppression and patterns of violence that marginalize queer people.  In fact, it strengthens a police and prison force that disproportionately incarcerates transgender people — especially Black transgender people, of whom 47% have spent some time in prison.  How’s that for safety?

Harms of police intervention and incarceration don’t just affect the people being locked up.  Once someone goes to prison, entire families sometimes have to move in order to be near enough to visit their loved ones, which itself can be a time- and soul-sucking process.  The top photo of this post, which I took at a rally I attended (along with 400 others) at a women’s state prison in Chowchilla, California, shows protesters held up a banner that read: BRING OUR LOVED ONES HOME.

A Chowchilla prison protester with their child; in the background a banner saying “OVERCROWDING = DEATH”

Deportation, transfers to faraway facilities, and solitary confinement also tear apart families and communities.

And in news of what was already known, the New York Times recently reported: “Long Prison Terms Eyed As Contributing To Poverty.”

For most of their daughters’ childhood, Mr. Harris didn’t come close to making the minimum wage. His most lucrative job, as a crack dealer, ended at the age of 24, when he left Washington to serve two decades in prison, leaving his wife to raise their two young girls while trying to hold their long-distance marriage together.

His $1.15-per-hour prison wages didn’t even cover the bills for the phone calls and marathon bus trips to visit him. Struggling to pay rent and buy food, Ms. Hamilton ended up homeless a couple of times.

“Basically, I was locked up with him,” she said. “My mind was locked up. My life was locked up. Our daughters grew up without their father.”

The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America’s incarceration rate has risen to be the world’s highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.

Again, this post is by no means exhaustive: we haven’t even touched explicitly on the War On Drugs, prisons and detention in the military (in breaking news, Breanna (Bradley) Manning pleaded guilty to misusing classified material), surveillance, drones, the history of policing, police brutality and murder, the meaning of “abolition” — so much to discuss!  Good thing we have a whole year, if not more.  Next month, keep an eye out for a Buddhist Peace Fellowship staff review of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness.

I also haven’t really gone into how the lies that More Prison / Policing / Surveillance = More Safety contribute to building empire.  But maybe that’s something we can get into in the comments.  Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

May all beings be safe; may all beings be free.

Comments (4)

  • Belinda G

    Such a rich, distressing, freaky and difficult nexus here. On the one hand, the leading cause of death for women is domestic violence. Let’s be real about the threat that partners pose to women and children. It’s stunning. On the other hand, is locking these guys up anything more than a short-term fix? Obviously not. But I think it’s up to us as innovators, organizers and radicals to think through an approach to family violence that honors the deep fear and danger so many women live in with our commitment to longer-term community solutions. I know many friends and colleagues who would do a lot to have the cops actually show up when they’re called out on DV, and actually do their job to protect women and kids in danger. I was one of those. I know a lot of others who believe the cops should never be called. There’s no easy answer, and there’s no ideological solution here. That’s the messiness of our systems, our lives, and the interlocking oppressions that rule many of our lives – despite our radiant natures that somehow do shine through.

  • Katie Loncke

    So messy; so not-easy, yes. Thank you for emphasizing that this is all in relationship with interpersonal violence that endangers people — women, children, and statistically in terms of percentage, gender-nonconforming people especially. Protection is paramount. Which is also why I’m looking forward to hearing how Buddhist activists are conceiving of protection, since our aim is to look beyond the short-term fixes and false solutions, as you say, and try to account for the whole picture, all beings who are affected by different methods of responding to harm.

    For myself, in the one successful experience I’ve had intervening to stop interpersonal harm like this (someone’s ex was harassing and intimidating them, really scaring them), we still had to resort to threats. A group of us got together with the harassed person and, long story short, let the ex know that if he didn’t stop calling her, and start avoiding her in shared social spaces like she wanted, then we’d help her expose the abusive nature of his behavior (and the abuse in their past relationship) to their whole circle of activist friends. The fear of exposing his hypocrisy in his ‘radical’ milieu was, in this case, enough to get him to stop. And it was a really deep fear: I met up with him once to write down the terms of the agreement, and he was visibly shaking and sweating. He seemed really embarrassed. I don’t know if the experience dissuaded him from repeating abusive patterns with other people, but he never called this particular ex again.

    I’m certainly not saying that this would work in all situations, and again, I don’t want to downplay the need for protection. But I do personally feel drawn to communities trying to work out ways we can show up *for each other* in cases of DV or child abuse.

    Thanks again for wading through the mess with us, and reminding us of radiant nature shining through the oppression. Yes.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    I believe both police and prisons are necessary, and I’ve had occasion to be quited grateful for both. That said, there are myriad problems with trends in policing (militarization, etc.), and persistent problems with “police” culture (to cite nearby cases: witness scandals in both the LAPD: the Rampart Division in the late 1990s and, more recently, the LA County Sheriff’s Department: Men’s Central Jail). And of course the prison system is a nightmare (‘cruel and unusual punishment’ exemplified by solitary confinement). Ongoing “access to justice” and related habeas corpus problems exacerbate racial discrimination and poverty variables, particularly with regard to sentencing and incarceration.

    Toward understanding of the nature and complexity of the latter problem with regard to law generally and our legal system in particular, I put together this compilation (bear in mind this was at a ‘law blog’ so the literature was aimed primarily at a certain class of readers, although many of the titles don’t require any expertise in the law, criminal or otherwise, to be intelligible, accessible, or informative): http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2012/11/toward-teaching-prison-lawand-a-bibliography-on-punishment-prison–1.html

  • Richard Modiano

    The answer to the header question depends on your position in the social hierarchy. For example, here’s an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times from an article about the late Christopher Dorner’s allegations against the LAPD:

    “We look at the police differently from the way you look at the police,” said Hodari Sababu, 56, a tour guide who has lived in the South Central section of Los Angeles for 40 years. “In your community, the police is there to protect and serve; in my community, the police are there to harass and to insult and to kill if they get a chance.”

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