The hidden cost of 'zero tolerance'

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The Independent Culture

Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis by Christian Parenti (Verso, £20)

Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis by Christian Parenti (Verso, £20)

IN HIS excellent Crime and Punishment in America, Elliott Currie notes that the 1967 Kerner Commission on Urban Disorders brought the US to a law-and-order crossroads, agreeing that "we could never imprison our way out of America's violent crime problem." Resisting crime meant "attacking social exclusion".

Instead, the US took another road, resulting in "bursting prisons, devastated cities, and a violent crime rate unmatched in the developed world". Enter Christian Parenti and his stunning, evocative Lockdown America. Pinpointing the political moments that shaped America's draconian criminal-justice policies, he reveals corrupt policing and imprisonment and the overt targeting of "problem populations".

Lockdown America is a critique of a cynical devaluation of the democratic process. From his careful analysis of the Watergate fall-out to his "nuts- and-bolts history of profound economic crisis", Parenti reveals the hidden depths of an authoritarian project's "battle for hearts and minds". This was Ronald Reagan's inheritance - the backdrop to his war on crime. Economic libertarianism could not be delivered without social authoritarianism.

Parenti shows how the federal judiciary was stacked with "mean-spirited" zealots; how permissive forfeiture laws were relentlessly enforced to pursue a campaign of racist state intervention. He establishes behind- the-scenes connections between Reaganomics, anti-communist strategies in Central America and the "right-wing cultural backlash" - the foundation for the construction of the "underclass". This strategy, as in Britain, targeted "idlers" and "loafers" as marginals by choice rather than circumstance. At its heart was "race spoken through the code of crime and welfare".

Parenti then takes apart the myths of "zero tolerance" or "quality of life" policing. It is a tale of "rapidly and insidiously escalating police powers" resulting in an "American-style democratic police state".

Of course, the broken windows were fixed, the streets cleaned and the subway secured to make Manhattan presentable. But as "zero tolerance" swept the US, policing became "overly aggressive". The clampdown exacerbated a climate of fear. Virtually unaccountable, the police routinely violated civil liberties. Paramilitary Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) units literally went to war: "their task, destruction and conquest... the civilian community, the enemy." For politicians, this was a small price to pay for urban renewal.

Parenti relates this social pathologisation to the spiralling incarceration rate, which is used to manage "the contradictions of restructured American capitalism" while giving politicians a bankable ballot-box currency. Yet mass imprisonment "terrorises the poor" and "warehouses social dynamite".

These detailed chapters are painful, as Parenti catalogues the rape, torture and brutality endemic within US prisons. His argument is convincing: rape has become "central" to the politics of incarceration. In male jails, prisoner rape is condoned; in women's prisons, coast to coast, "guards routinely rape women prisoners with near-total impunity".

In 1985, 500,000, were incarcerated in federal prisons. By 1998, the figure was 1.7 million. This includes a 500 per cent rise in women's imprisonment. Such numbers cannot be effectively managed, with prison life dominated by powerful gangs. At the end of the line come super-maximum prisons run on regimes of "extraordinary isolation". The key has, literally, been thrown away.

The financial rewards of prison expansion are staggering, with over half a million full-time employees and an annual expenditure of US$35 bn. Increasingly privatised, prison is bigger than "any Fortune 500 company except General Motors". For "industrial-military complex", now read "prison-industrial complex" - a form of "carceral Keynesianism" that revives "economically moribund regions".

Parenti's conclusion is clear. With "soft" forms of control easily grafted on to repression, executions and brutalising regimes have been made compatible with anger management, restitution and shaming. "Therapy and the gas chamber are by no means mutually exclusive." Decarceration is his first priority, followed by decriminalisation.

Lockdown America is impressive: hardly a sentence passes without a reference. Direct quotations from politicians, commentators and witnesses are painstakingly reproduced. The book is in the best tradition of investigative journalism, paced like a fine novel, and carries the authority of meticulous academic research. It should be compulsory reading on Home Office course 101.

The reviewer is Professor of Criminology at Edge Hill University College and author of 'Hillsborough: The Truth' (Mainstream)