Criminal Injustice: Confronting the prison crisis


South End Press, 1996; $18.00

Reviewed by Christian Parenti


Incarceration is becoming
one of the defining institutions of American
society. Even the half-way politically literate
are familiar with the harrowing statistics: more
black men in net of prison/jail/probation than in
four year colleges; 80 percent of all new federal
convictions are for non-violent drug crimes; the
lock-up budget in California eclipsing state
spending on education. Then there is the larger
cultural buzz about law and order: the endless
police shows, news as crime blotter, and the
hysterical rantings of the Mark Klasses and Fred
Goldmans. It’s been a rapid shift from the
red bogeyman to the criminal enemy among us, and
left intellectuals and activists are just
beginning to catch up to the problem.

With the publication of Criminal
: confronting the prison crisis,
grassroots intellectual triage has begun. Editor
Elihu Rosenblatt has stepped in the breach and
gathered up a battery of new and previously
published left articles on imprisonment. To
borrow a favorite approbation from a slightly
insane Cypriot comrade: "this book is a hand
grenade in your hand." Indeed it is. Criminal
is an essential piece of any
activists intellectual arsenal. Rosenblatt’s
anthology calls on voices from both sides of the
prison wall and systematically covers every angle
of American imprisonment, from political economy
to HIV to political prisoners to the unique
horrors of woman’s prisons.

Some of the strongest
essays are in the beginning (Mike Davis’s
Joel Olson’s, and Alex Lichtenstein’s
among them) and in the end where control units
are addressed. (Fans of Lichtenstein and
Kroll’s American Friends Service pamphlet,
reprinted in Criminal Injustice, should
also check out the formers new book on convict
leasing.) Nancy Kushman’s essay on the
incarceration of women, pas and present, is also
very good; a concise and powerful indictment of
double tyranny that female inmates
face—first for being criminals, second for
threatening cultural notion of femininity and
gender more generally.

Much to its credit Criminal
gives the otherwise demoralizing
question of the fin de siecle
incarceration binge and empowering spin. First
person account from inside and reports from the
direct action trenches outside—most notably
by the extremely dedicated Judy
Greenspan—show that even in the most dire
circumstances, such as on the slow-motion killing
floors of Vacaville, Chowchilla, and Lexington,
organizing is possible.

It’s important to
point out that Criminal Injustice fills a
gap that should be, and in the past was, also
occupied by left academics. But the new
criminology of the early 1970s was smashed. The
radical center for Research on Criminal Justice
at UC Berkeley was disbanded as soon as it became
effective and the post-1970s generation of
academics have, by and large, proven themselves
to be a pack of craven and haughty careerists.
Thus the discourse on law and order has been
snatched up and quickly monopolized by the New
Right. This history makes Rosenblatt’s book
all the more refreshing and singularly important.

The book’s main
weakness, which is more a function of spatial
constraints than political oversight, is in not
dealing with the extremely problematic question
of crime. One essay, by Karlene Faith, does touch
on the question but only in passing. The question
still remains: what is crime in a late-capitalist
society? After all most people think about
incarceration only in relation to the very real
horrors of street crime. Thus the reality of
predatory crime must be addressed in left
arguments and strategies.

In the last analysis this
book is key. As Gil Scott Herron said:
"Nobody’s fighting cause nobody knows
what to say." If enough people read Criminal
Injustice we will know what to say and we can get
on with the fight much better.