Fighting Mass Incarceration Under Trump: New Strategies, New Alliances
By James Kilgore
Originally published on Truthout
December 26th, 2016
Yusef Shakur is a Detroit community organizer who spent several years in Michigan State prisons. "The prison industrial complex has found the right person to feed it," he told Truthout in response to the election results. Trump is of the same "cloth as Reagan, Bush and Nixon," Shakur added. "I expect the worst in terms of patterns of repression."
Among those working to end mass incarceration, Shakur's perspectives are not unique. With Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, the Obama administration often provided wiggle room for reformers to craft and occasionally pass legislation or win changes in policy. In states like New York, New Jersey, California, Mississippi and Georgia, state and local level reforms yielded considerable drops in prison populations. While the process often appeared painfully slow, contradictory and at times counterproductive, many activists were able to make some political progress and even attain recognition within mainstream policy circles. Radical critics in favor of prison abolition also found space to oppose prison and jail construction and keep discussions alive about alternative paradigms of justice.
Now -- boom. Any sense of a predictable shift toward reform is gone. A neo-fascist commander-in-chief who aggressively declares himself to be the "law-and-order candidate" awaits inauguration. His proposed chain of repressive measures by now have become frighteningly familiar fare: construct a wall along the Mexican border, set up a registry for Muslims, expand the scope for private prisons, restore stop-and-frisk policing.
While these are the more explicitly stated components of the new repression, the space Trump opens up for hate-based groups and campaigns could also mean attacks on queer and transgender people and people with disabilities. And in case we thought Trump was bluffing, he has brought in a team of people, led by his Attorney General-designate Jefferson Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who seem fully prepared to convert campaign promises into reality. While demonstrations against Trump have sprung up across the nation, drafting a more strategic response to the new rulers of the prison industrial complex remains an imposing challenge.
Rethinking Strategies: A Look at Jeff Sessions
While much has been made about Sessions' disqualification from a judgeship in 1986 over apparent Ku Klux Klan sympathies, his politics run much deeper. Over the years he has campaigned militantly against anything that smacked of liberal reform in Congress. He has opposed limitations of asset forfeiture to police, the use of consent decrees and the moderation of mandatory minimum sentences. He has shown a particular passion for anti-immigrant measures, with his office issuing a 25-page report on immigration policy in 2015 which blamed immigrants for job losses and declines in wages. Bob Libal and Judith Greene, long-time critics of private prisons and deportations, have labeled Sessions "the most prominent immigration hard-liner in the Senate." Sessions has been equally vehement in his support for continuing the War on Drugs.
Regardless of whether he has overt ties to the Klan or not, Sessions blows a loud dog whistle on race. His attorney general nomination received ecstatic acclaim from ex-Klan kingpin David Duke, who tweeted that the Senate must encourage Sessions to "stop the massive institutional racial discrimination against whites." Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin celebrated Sessions' appointment as well, calling his selection "a corrective measure, after Obama turned the Justice Department into the Black Panthers."
New Policy Directions
Historian and Harvard African American Studies Professor Elizabeth Hinton contends that Trump will attempt to highlight crime problems to shift attention away from structural economic issues. As a chronicler of the rise of mass incarceration during the Nixon and Reagan years in her From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, she says Trump's "rhetoric is very familiar." It promotes a "sense of chaos" and therefore the need for a "strong executive."
A key target for the new administration will be rollbacks of any advances made during the Obama years. Policing will be one major focus. Recently, resistance actions against state violence, largely sparked by the Movement for Black Lives, have made enormous strides in changing popular consciousness about policing. Mobilization also contributed to the elimination of stop-and-frisk in New York, as well as to reforms like the formation of civilian police review boards, the granting of reparations for police torture in Chicago and the increased use of the often controversial police body cameras. These and other actions have contributed to shifts at the top, such as Holder's memo to reduce prosecution of small-scale drug offenses and the setting up of some 23 federal investigations of local police departments, along with the propagation of 11 consent decrees related to policing. Trump has already indicated his intention to keep an eye on "Black Lives Matter," claiming that they threaten the lives of police. As prominent scholar, activist and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore told Truthout, "We can expect more power to police, more police and fewer protections against violations of the constitution concerning criminalization."
The new administration's main objectives may include not only bolstering the power of the police, but also thwarting further development of the Movement for Black Lives and other social movements, as well as squelching any efforts to expand human rights.
A second key area for rollbacks is reform legislation and policy changes, particularly measures aimed at the racialized War on Drugs. Despite considerable media attention, federal sentencing reform has had minimal success. However, Obama has delivered clemency to more than 1,000 people in the federal system, most of them serving long terms for nonviolent drug offenses. Trump has been highly critical of Obama's use of clemency, claiming the president is letting a lot of "bad dudes" back onto the streets.
More importantly, mobilization and popular education on this issue have turned public opinion strongly toward lesser penalties or treatment for drug offenses. The legalization of recreational marijuana in seven states, plus the effective decriminalization in many jurisdictions, constitute major victories for progressive campaigners.
The fate of this reform agenda remains unclear. Sessions has been a consistent proponent of maximum punishments for all drug offenses, even going so far as to state to a Senate hearing in April that "good people don't smoke marijuana." However, a number of prominent ultra-conservative Republicans, including ardent Trump backer Newt Gingrich, crafted a letter to the president-elect urging him to continue the reform process, largely focusing on the fiscal benefits of reducing prison populations. Meanwhile, the Koch Brothers, whose foundation has supported numerous criminal justice reform initiatives in the fiscal conservative vein, have moved away from their critical view of Trump. In fact, Trump has drawn a number of advisers from the Koch empire, including White House Counsel Don McGahn.
The presence of the Koch Brothers' network within the White House will likely coincide with a much-reduced role for the progressive "criminal justice-oriented" think tanks that have wielded considerable influence within the Obama administration. The Koch Brothers' criminal justice experts will be much more at home with Trump's views on policing, cultural issues, privatization and reducing the social safety net. While many critics of mass incarceration remain skeptical of bipartisan reform, Philadelphia activist Reuben Jones, the executive director of Frontline Dads, argues that there remains a need to get some bipartisan support, even if it means appealing to the "financial argument" of fiscal conservatives. Otherwise, he says, "we can't move our agenda forward." Jones argues that such alliances are especially critical in states with Republican governors and legislatures where legal changes remain virtually impossible without some buy-in from conservatives. Time will tell whether even these budget-based reforms will be able to move forward amid the renewed environment of law-and-order rhetoric.
Trump has moved quickly on his immigration vision, waiting only a few days after the election to reiterate his determination to build a wall along the Mexican border. He declared on "60 Minutes" that he would deport 2-3 million immigrants, all of whom would be "criminals." While advocates for immigrants' rights have rejected the contention that there are that many undocumented folks with criminal records, across the country activists have been moving swiftly to prepare for an onslaught. To make matters worse, ICE has already begun extensive roundups of undocumented folks since earlier this year.
Trump's immigration agenda has deep ties to his desires to expand the role of private prisons. While private prisons remain small shareholders in the state and federal carceral market, they control over 60 percent of ICE detention beds. If Trump wants to undertake massive deportations, the feds will need places to hold people who are being sent across the border. This opens the door to a wide range of new construction, as well as rental agreements with jails or prisons with idle capacity. As Grassroots Leadership's Bob Libal told Truthout, "Trump's victory has certainly given the private prisons reason to celebrate."
The private prison agenda seems unlikely to end there. The share prices of the two major firms in the sector, the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA, now rebranded as CoreCivic), have risen by 41 and 67 percent respectively since Election Day. Their marketing departments are heating up for new opportunities to be fed by the prison-industrial complex. One likely option is knocking on old doors. For example, in 2012 the Florida state legislature narrowly blocked a bill (the vote was 21-19) that would have privatized 24 prisons. A rerun might yield a different result. Moreover, with more state governorships and legislatures moving into Republican hands, CoreCivic may apply its new letterhead to its infamous 2012 letter sent to 48 governors offering to purchase and run prisons.
In addition, any conservative intentions to reduce prison numbers may fit nicely with plans by the GEO Group and CCA to bolster their operations in the field of "community corrections." In recent years both companies have invested in user-funded post-release operations like day reporting centers, compulsory anger management classes and drug treatment programs. The GEO Group also owns BI Inc., the nation's largest provider of electronic monitors. The use of monitors has been labeled by anti-surveillance activists as "E-Carceration," a way of using technology to shift the site and costs of locking people up from state institutions to poor communities.
In charting new territory, the private prisons have a set of highly influential silent partners well known to Trump: the nation's major banks and finance houses. As a recent report from In the Public Interest reveals, GEO and CoreCivic rely heavily on large financial institutions to back their deals, as well as to underwrite government bonds mobilized for carceral construction. The report targets Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, BNP Paribas, SunTrust and U.S. Bancorp as the major players. With the large influx of Wall Street functionaries into the Trump team, grease for the wheels of private prison deals at all levels should be plentiful.
The Muslim Registry
Trump has backed off on his campaign threat of an absolute ban on Muslim immigration and dodged commitment on establishing a Muslim registry. However, a number of events suggest that a registry remains on the agenda, including reporters capturing a photo of aspiring cabinet member Kris Kobach carrying a document into a meeting with Trump outlining plans for "special registration" of immigrants from "high-risk" countries. This approach would mirror a similar registry established by George Bush immediately after 9/11 that targeted 25 such countries, 24 of which were Muslim-majority nations. President Obama suspended the program in 2011, and recently gave signs that he is thinking of scrapping it entirely.
Other Trump camp members may have harsher measures in mind than registries. Carl Higbie, a Trump supporter and spokesperson for the Great America super PAC, recently told Megyn Kelly on Fox News that the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II constituted a "precedent" for a Muslim registry. Other precedents include existing registries for individuals convicted of sex offenses and those with gang affiliations.
Finding Strategic Interventions
Responding to Trump's agenda on mass incarceration requires action on two levels. First, there is a need to find areas where intervention can be effective. In terms of addressing immediate election results an obvious priority is contesting the disenfranchisement of some 6.1 million people, especially those with felony convictions.
Beyond that, several possibilities open up. A starting point is the recognition that the criminal legal system is not a monolith totally under federal control. Rather, there are 50 state corrections departments and over 3,000 county jails. The laws and policies that govern these jurisdictions are made at the level of state legislature, county board or city council. While the feds control some funding flows to local law enforcement, the justice system is mostly financed via state and local taxes. As Ruthie Gilmore told Truthout, we need to set our sights on "local specificity" and recognize differentiation across the system. This means acknowledging differing realities both between and within states. While national figures for incarcerated populations have generally decreased since 2009, the changes are not uniform. In 2014, for example, (the most recent year for which national data is available) of the 45 states that reported their prison population data to the Bureau of Justice, 23 showed declines while 22 showed an increase. Jail populations show similar differentiation. In fact, according to a 2015 report from the Vera Institute, rural jail populations have been growing much faster than those in urban areas where reform measures like drug courts and liberalizing bail regimes have taken hold. Ultimately, accounting for local specificities means developing strategies appropriate to actual conditions, not merely responding to national trends.
While developing local plans of action is crucial, many activists also advocate broadening the scope of the movement against mass incarceration. Elizabeth Hinton emphasizes the need to form "new alliances and coalitions on the ground." She notes that opposition to Trump has "galvanized new groups of people" who can be drawn into action. New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, a long-time advocate of the need for a social movement to end mass incarceration, now argues that such a movement needs to be "multiracial" and "multiethnic." Her points seem to fuse with comments by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza at the recent Facing Race conference in Atlanta: "If there's anything this political moment should teach us it's that we're all going down." Garza stressed that intersectionality in this context meant being "united" but also being "coordinated." In the context of mass incarceration, such calls highlight the difficulties of building links with the considerable cohort of white supremacists among the white prison population and their families. While prison strikes, such as those at Pelican Bay in California, and the national prison labor strike this fall have made inroads into building racial unity within the prison population but much more needs to be done.
Moreover, while most agree on the need for some kind of coming together, the form of such solidarity may not ultimately be a single social movement organization. Mariame Kaba, who played a key role in Chicago's organizing against police torture, cautions against false visions of one big tent: "What you need in particular moments are strategic alliances ... that address the particular need or the particular thing you're fighting. But I don't need ... for everybody to come together."
Moving Into Action
Activists addressing the criminal legal system in many quarters have begun to implement the ideas outlined by Alexander and Garza. Immigrants' rights advocates were quick to move into action. In Los Angeles, a few days after the election, a 500-person popular assembly gathered to share testimony and ideas for responding to immigration raids. Universities in at least seven states have begun the process of declaring themselves sanctuary campuses -- safe refuges for undocumented people sought by ICE. The president of Trump's alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, declared "We are, and remain, resolute in our commitment to Penn's undocumented students and will do all that we can to ensure their continued safety and success here at Penn."
People in Philadelphia took it one step further, organizing what they call "sanctuary in the streets." This would mean teams of "first responders" arriving the minute ICE tries to carry out an immigration raid. These responders would surround the house to sing, pray and film the raid. Peter Pedemonti, cofounder of what is called the New Sanctuary Movement, said that some first responders would be willing to risk arrest with direct action to halt the detention of undocumented individuals.
In Portland, Oregon, activists focused attention on the financial backers of different systems of oppression. They targeted Wells Fargo Bank, not only for its support for private prisons but also because of the bank's role in financing the corporations involved in building the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Gilmore echoes the solidarity approach of those involved in the sanctuary movement and efforts to isolate banks. She says this is a way of acknowledging that we "are clearly part of a bigger struggle." She also adds that "internationalism is a must."
Real News Network producer Eddie Conway agrees. Conway, a former political prisoner who spent over 43 years in prison on a fabricated murder charge, believes that the repressive actions of Trump will not only intensify policing but will also slash public benefits. This, he contends, will force people to develop counter-institutions as a mechanism of survival. However, he fears the coming of Trump will eliminate any chances of release for current political prisoners and notes that "today's organizers are looking at the prospect of becoming political prisoners in the future."
Despite his concerns, Conway has not abandoned hope. He told Truthout the "seeds of a new movement are there." He went on to urge activists to abandon notions of "American exceptionalism" and learn from the experiences of other countries that have endured regimes of repression and austerity. Conway draws inspiration from the food networks in Greece, the cooperative system in Spain, and the mineworkers in South Africa.
In Conway's view, solidarity must undergird all our efforts. "Anti-fracking has direct relations to Black Lives Matter, immigration and gender rights," he told Truthout. These issues and movements "are not yet connected but they need to be ... the only way is to develop alternative institutions," he added.
Yusef Shakur agrees that such a change in mindset is essential for the long-term. We have been "functioning like the struggle was a forty-yard dash when it is a marathon," he said. "It is time to build a critical mass movement ... organizations need a unified voice to dismantle the system of white patriarchy."
Note: The author would like to thank Craig Gilmore for advice on this article.
James Kilgore is a writer, activist and educator based at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). His most recent book is Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (The New Press, 2015). He is also the author of three novels, all of which were drafted during his six-and-a-half years in state and federal prisons in California. Follow him on Twitter: @waazn1.