The American Way of Punishment

This week the Chronicle of Higher Education has published a series of articles from the Chronicle Review under the above heading that explore the issue of mass incarceration in America from academic perspectives.  No one, including myself, will agree with everything in the five articles that have appeared, but all are thoughtful, informative, eye-opening and well worth reading.  Plaudits to the Chronicle for running them.  My only complaint is that some of the pieces are behind the paywall; I urge the Chronicle to make them freely available.

Perhaps the most inspiring and important article is “From Theorist to Activist,” which tells how Vanderbilt University philosophy professor Lisa Guenther was transformed from a self-described “monkish” student of phenomenology to an activist in the prison reform movement.  The author of Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), a book that I’m going to put high up on my personal reading list, she’s become what the article calls “a go-to source for a growing cadre of journalists and policy makers on the lookout for plainspoken but provocative testimony about human-rights abuses in American prisons.”  Appropriately enough, Guenther began her work by volunteering to teach philosophy to inmates:

Every week, 10 death-row inmates and a revolving group of three to six volunteers, usually graduate students from Vanderbilt, read and discussed philosophy. In short order, though, the gathering became less of a curated book club and more of a social-justice discussion group, complete with subcommittees focused on domestic violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, prison medical care, and death-penalty law. “Ultimately, we bring people from the outside and inside together, to teach and learn from one another,” Guenther says.

In many ways Guenther can stand as a magnetic role model for engaged scholarship and faculty activism from whom we all can learn much about both incarceration and truly meaningful philosophy.

Another article is “What I Learned in Prison,” by James Kilgore, a former inmate now teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Kilgore is known to AAUP as the target of an ultimately failed effort to remove him from his teaching positions because of his criminal background.  His novels about Africa are among the most interesting pieces of political fiction I have read.  In this piece he outlines four main “talking points” about prison life.  In doing so he provides, as one commenter put it, “a valuable perspective that most of us can’t get elsewhere.”  In prison, he writes, “the abnormal becomes normal,” and “the most abnormal thing that becomes normal is the endless stream of black, brown, and poor white bodies flowing through those gates.”  Kilgore has recently published Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (The New Press, 2015)

Yet another book provides the basis for “Defending Their Homes,” which offers a portrait of Michael Javen Fortner, an assistant professor in the City University of New York’s School of Professional Studies and his book, Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment (Harvard University Press), forthcoming next month.  Fortner argues provocatively that in the early 1970s growing disorder and addiction drove many working- and middle-class people in Harlem and elsewhere to mobilize for tougher crime policies.  Hence he reluctantly concludes that black people are “partially responsible” for the misery suffered by African-American “sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers.”  “It is a Cain and Abel story,” Fortner says. “And there’s something uncomfortable and fundamentally tragic about that.”  This piece reminded me of journalist Jill Loevy’s recent spellbinding book Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, which argues that poor African-American communities are simultaneously over-policed and under-policed.

The two remaining articles are by scholars who study incarceration.  In “Why Criminal Justice Isn’t Just,” Adam Benforado, associate professor of law at Drexel University and author of Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice (Crown, 2015), argues that “Our approach to criminal justice is failing us.”  He writes:

Operating on incorrect models of behavior, we end up training our detectives in interrogation techniques that lead to false confessions and employing identification procedures that contaminate witnesses’ memories. We convince judges and jurors that being objective is a choice, when numerous biases operate beyond our conscious awareness or control. We purport to execute only those who most deserve it, but walk down death row and you won’t see the worst of the worst. You’ll see people with ineffective lawyers; you’ll see a disproportionate number of people who just happen to have darker skin and thicker lips; you’ll see innocent people — one out of 25 by the best estimate.

Benforado’s solution involves adopting insights from psychology and neuroscience that allow us “to develop a more realistic understanding of how witnesses, detectives, and others think and act.”  This would be, he says, part of a broader effort to embrace “an evidence-based approach to justice” that “also implies a more fundamental realignment of our legal system: reconceiving the fight against crime in public-health terms.”

Finally, in “‘There Is Blood, a Lot of Blood, Very Red Blood’,” Justin E.H. Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris Diderot, offers an impassioned but reasoned argument against the death penalty.  He emphasizes how much retention of capital punishment distinguishes the U.S. from most other countries in the world, especially those we consider our peers.  At the same time he stresses as well the fundamental American ambivalence on the issue.  He concludes: “When it comes to capital punishment, the U.S. government adheres to international norms recognized and valued principally by its declared enemies. America stands with the warlords, whose reigns depend on the regular demonstration of power over life and death.”

Go read these articles and, once again, congratulations to the Chronicle for publishing them.

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