By James Kilgore
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 said 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. The Obama administration often provided wiggle room for reformers to occasionally win changes in policy. In New York and several other states, reforms yielded considerable drops in prison populations. Now any sense of a predictable shift toward reform is gone. A neo-fascist commander-in-chief is unleashing his chain of repressive measures. His collection of reactionary cabinet ministers assures us the iron fist is the new reality,
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” in promoting “a sense of chaos.”
Already Trump has targeted rollbacks of advances made under Obama. Policing will be one major focus. Over the years, resistance against state violence, largely sparked by the Movement for Black Lives, made enormous strides in changing popular consciousness about policing. 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 thwarting further development of the Movement for Black Lives and other social movements.
A second key area for rollbacks is reform legislation and policy changes, particularly sentencing reforms to roll back the racialized War on Drugs. The fate of this reform agenda remains unclear. A number of prominent ultra-conservatives, including the Koch brothers and ardent Trump backer Newt Gingrich, remain committed to criminal justice reform initiatives in the fiscal conservative vein. They may gain some influence. In any case, the new White House will usher in a much-reduced role for the progressive criminal justice-oriented think tanks that wielded considerable influence within the Obama administration.
Trump has moved quickly on his immigration vision, waiting only a few days after inauguration to sign an executive order to build the infamous “Wall.” His immigration agenda also 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% of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention beds. If Trump wants to undertake massive deportations, the feds will need extra places to hold people who are being sent across the border. Private providers stand ready to fill the gap.
Ultimately, conservative intentions to reduce prison numbers may fit nicely with plans by the GEO Group and CCA to bolster their operations in “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, the nation’s largest provider of electronic monitors.
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 appear. A starting point is recognizing that the criminal legal system is not a monolith totally under federal control. 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 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 “multi-racial” and “multi-ethnic.”
Moreover, while most agree on the need for a coming together, the form of such solidarity may not ultimately be a single 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.”
Moving Into Action
In Portland, Oregon, activists focused attention on the financial backers of differing systems of oppression. They targeted Wells Fargo Bank, not only for its support for private prisons but 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 this author 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 said. 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.”
James Kilgore is an activist, researcher and writer based in Urbana. He is the author of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (New Press, 2015). He is active in local social movements such as Build Programs, Not Jails and FirstFollowers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or @waazn1 on Twitter.