January 06, 2003
Behind the walls

Here's a great interview with Mark Pitcavage, former proprietor of the Militia Watchdog and current fact-finding director for the Anti-Defamation League, not to mention a classmate of mine from Trinity University. Mark's been tracking hate groups for years now, and he has some excellent insights as to how and why our jails are a fertile recruiting ground for them:

IR: You note in your report that the men who murdered James Byrd Jr. in the Jasper, Texas, truck-dragging incident had developed their racial beliefs while behind bars. What is the link between incarceration and politicization?

PITCAVAGE: Exactly what dynamic occurs varies with each particular individual, but there are some universals. Prisoners have a lot of time on their hands, and as a result they are desperate for reading materials. They are desperate for stimulation. Some of them are just fine with pumping weights, but others aren't and seek out extremist publications as well as non-extremist publications. You see prisoners asking for free subscriptions, for correspondence, for people to send them materials, anything. They may not be ideological at that point, but they want something - and the material they get can lead to their politicization.

Another thing is that many prisoners want to justify or rationalize what they have done or what has happened to them. They don't want to say that they did something wrong or deserved what they got. This is true whether you are black or white. By adopting a particular ideological slant, you can rationalize that you are not a simple criminal, that you are in jail for political reasons.


IR: Is there a relationship between getting recruited into these racist groups and then committing hate crimes or other violence after leaving prison?

PITCAVAGE: My suspicion is that there is probably not a huge link, because a lot of these people just join the gangs while they are in prison, then leave them when they get out. But the fact is that some prisoners do get genuinely politicized, and on top of that prison gives them an education in violence. It's a mess. I think that is what happened in Texas [with the murderers of James Byrd Jr.], and the result was one of the most inhumane acts ever perpetrated in modern America.

I've written about the perils of a punitive approach to criminal justice before, and I firmly believe that locking up broader classes of offenders is the most expensive and least effective way of dealing with crime. Mark's interview provides a lot more ammunition in this argument.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 06, 2003 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

This has less to do with too expansive a "punitive approach" and more to do with the simple fact that we consistantly built too few medium and mimimum security prisons. As a result parole violators, drug users, and burglers (i.e. non-violent offenders) end up in the same prisons as rapists and murderers (i.e. violent offenders). This has ancillary effects to be certain, although it is difficult to assign blame in individual circumstances.

On the issue of rehabilitation, however, it's more or less a pipe dream. The general consensus in penology is that rehabilitation isn't a valid reason for imprisonment, as studies have shown that rehabilitation programs almost universally do not work. The recidivism rate remains the same for both participants and non-participants. This explains why longer sentences, although quite expensive and perhaps unjustified, do tend to reduce overall crime rates. This is not to say that no other factors are involved in reducing or increasing crime rates, but increased incarceration is generally accepted to be a serious factor nationwide, and so denying it for purely ideological reasons gets us nowhere.

(BTW- I deal with these and other issues in my essay on the history of America's penal system.)

Posted by: Owen Courrèges on January 7, 2003 12:48 AM

Goodness, is it ever a small world. I knew Mark Pitcavage quite well back in the heyday of the GEnie Science Fiction Round Table. One smart guy.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden on January 7, 2003 9:16 PM