Governor George Pataki has called for an end to parole for felons in New York state. His vile association with the issue is enough to taint the notion for many who might be concerned about the treatment of prisoners, but I think the elimination of parole is a good idea. A little attention to the way parole is used, both inside state prisons and in many communities in New York City, might convince you that the left should hijack the proposal from Pataki and his mob and demand that the entire Division of Parole be scrapped.
There’s a popular conception that parole shortens the time a convicted felon spends behind bars. The truth is a bit more complex. Parole just allows a judge to set an indeterminate sentence, setting a minimum and a maximum term. Recall that George Jackson was many years into a “2 years to life” sentence when he was executed by guards in Soledad, and it’s clear that parole can be used to increase a prisoner’s sentence as easily as to minimize it.
Ask any inmate with four or five years behind bars to predict the sentence another prisoner might serve, and the only information he’ll need to make a pretty good guess is the instant offense and the rap sheet. It’s extremely unlikely anything you do after the judge hands you your time is going to convince a parole board to send you home earlier than the routine bid based on your crime and your criminal history. On the other hand, plenty of things that happen while you’re incarcerated might convince the board to hold you longer than most people with similar cases. If judges merely handed out determinate sentences that reflected the routine decisions of the parole board, most prisoners would serve less time, not more.
Parole board decisions are so routine and predictable because the system isn’t designed to render decision’s based on the individual circumstances in particular cases. One of the key functions of parole is to manipulate the number of people in prison. Pataki has promised to reward upstate voters who supported him in the election with the construction of several new prisons in the region. It’s already the center of a burgeoning prison industry, and many in communities across northern New York view new jails as attractive opportunities for employment. Faced with the problem of justifying these expensive pork-barrel prisons while crime continued to drop, Pataki’s division of parole simply rounded up thousands of people on parole and returned them to jail. How else do you increase prison population while crime decreases?
Parole has another manipulative function: it’s a powerful tool for controlling the behavior of prisoners. There are always a lucky few prisoners who win release earlier than the routine. It’s hard, even for prisoners savvy enough to realize what a con parole is, to resist the temptation to join the lottery and hope for the winning ticket. So the promise of parole not only convinces inmates to participate in the mostly-bullshit vocational, education and psychological programs offered in prison. Parole also is a powerful incentive not to buck the system, not to demand the limited rights still available to prisoners, not to organize to resist abuses by guards and administration.
There are rules in prison covering every aspect of inmate behavior, down to the amount of toilet paper a prisoner can have. Many of them are routinely ignored, but an inmate who speaks out articulately about abuses in the system can expect to be ticketed for “destruction of state property” because he’s torn the sleeves of an old undershirt to make a tank-top to wear when he’s lifting weights in the yard. Or he’ll catch a tier three for possessing a weapon-the tin can lid that inmates save for slicing onions for meals that supplement the bland fare served in the mess hall. The results of the kangaroo courts that convict inmates of these offenses are then used to justify parole decisions that keep inmates locked up for another 12, 18 or 24 months.
But the opportunities for surveillance and manipulation afforded by parole extend far beyond the prison walls. Patterns of policing and court decisions on sentencing in New York mean that a huge percentage of the prison population for the entire state comes from just a few neighborhoods in New York City. In those neighborhoods, it’s more likely than not that a family has a least one member-a father, a son, a daughter, a grandchild-on parole. And if one member of the family is on parole, parole officers consider the entire home fair game for their visits. Mom and Dad see their right to privacy and protection against unlawful search trumped by the parole status of a single child.
There have been several court battles seeking to limit the rights of parole agents to visit and search to the restricted living area of the parolee, but in practice every room in the house is subject to the prying eyes of parole officers. And the officers work hand in hand with police, who send Division of Parole employees in places where they don’t have even the limited evidence necessary to obtain a warrant. So Parole Officer Friendly may be officially in the house to make sure Bob Ex-Con isn’t out past curfew, but he’s really there because cops suspect Bob’s little brother is selling dope or fencing stolen goods. And Office Friendly happens to see stolen jewelry “in plain view,” and serves as the witness to get the cops the warrant they need to make a more intensive search.
Finally, parole’s ability to interfere in the affairs of various communities goes even beyond the families and roommates of ex-cons. For some, a prison sentence provides the opportunity for personal growth and political development despite the best efforts of the department of corrections to make it nothing more than dead time. Historically, the Nation of Islam, most conspicuously in Malcom X, and the Black Panthers, benefited from the leadership of men who used their prison time wisely. But the restrictions of parole can effectively undermine the efforts of ex-cons to lead or share in progressive political activity.
Just like the petty rules routinely ignored within prison, parole conditions often include restrictions exercised at the discretion of individual parole officers. They tell parolees that can’t be outside after 10 PM, that they can’t drive, that they can’t use computers, that they can’t associate with certain people, even that they can’t rent porno videos or dress in drag. It’s almost impossible to find court decisions limiting the powers of parole officers to set rules for parolees, including rules that have no conceivable relationship to the offense that gave rise to the original sentence. (Requirements that parolees attend some kind of counseling-whether drug or alcohol programs, “anger control therapy” or other phony rehabilitation scams-are almost universal, another way to funnel state money to people profiting off the exploding prison population.)
In most cases, many of these rules aren’t enforced. Thousands of parolees in New York stay out past parole-imposed curfews every day. But the rules remain, making parolees vulnerable at any time. Ex-cons who are serious about working for social change face the threat of vindictive action at any time. This is a measure of social control directed not just against the parolees themselves, but against the entire communities, effectively removing some of the “best and the brightest” and returning them to prison, or limiting their freedom to fight for political change with the threat of continued incarceration.
And such vindictive return to prison isn’t limited to parolees who present a political challenge to the system. Parole officers seem to hate ex-cons who are self employed, and often claim that businesses run by parolees themselves don’t meet the parole mandate to “seek and maintain employment.” Lots of parole officers are jealous of parolees who make more than the officers (who are grossly overpaid, so have little cause for complaint). They can easily harass such parolees, either paying repeated visits to a job site until the parolee loses his job or creating parole conditions that make it impossible for the former inmate keep working.
Ending parole would deprive the cops inside and outside the prison of one of the most pernicious tools of social control. It would free up money wasted in parole administration and phony required “rehabilitation” programs for genuine institutions to provide education, vocational training, and treatment for drug addiction. Call Pataki’s bluff in New York, and call the bluff of “tough on crime” advocates all across the country. Let’s get rid of parole-and then start talking about getting rid of prisons.
I really like your thoughts on parole and particularly your attention to the underlying surveillance- and profit-focused agenda of so-called rehabilitation programs mandated by the criminal justice system. I think that sometimes, because lots of us are working against the punitive approach of criminal justice, trying to call the bluff on the “punish-to-deter” logic, and trying to encourage preventative and rehabilitative alternatives to addressing crime and drug use, we forget to question the very terms by which the state sometimes claims rehabilitative motivations.
I’ve been doing work on the ways that the drug war’s punitive approach has affected disability policy, so that now drug users are excluded from programs like SSI/SSDI that are supposed to help poor disabled people get rehabilitated, and the Americans with Disabilities act, which is supposed to protect people with disabilities or a history of disability from discrimination. The idea that punishment is the only appropriate response to drug use is has infiltrated once-rehabilitative disability and poverty policy to take away some of the minimal support that poor drug users formerly were entitled to, policies that helped reduce many harms of drug use and poverty (homelessness, lack of access to medical care, etc.) However, when I’ve talked to people about these ideas, they’ve often said to me, “Yeah, I agree, courts should give out mandatory drug treatment in addition to prison sentences.” This, of course, is not the response I’m after, being that I share your distrust for state-mandated “rehabilitiation” programs, and would like to see prisons abolished.
Why would it make sense to believe that the state is truly interested in rehabilitation when they only enact policies which maximize harm from drug use? Why would I trust the rehabilitative motives of a government that spends at least 65% of the \\$18 billion dollars spent annually on the drug war on law enforcement, and less than 35% on treatment and prevention? Why would I trust that a government wants people to be able to participate equally and fully in society despite a history of crime when they’ve just passed a law that takes financial aid away from kids caught with drugs who are trying to go to college?
I think your article suggests that we keep our skepticism up when it comes to purported rehabilitative efforts, and recognize that the desire for surveillance, regulation, and profit (not to mention white supremacy) motivate decisions in the criminal justice system, not compassion for life in poverty, rehabilitative goals, or a vision of human equality. I really appreciate you sharing your knowledge of the parole system and the politics and law that insulate it.
xoxo Jane Spade
Reading your response, I was really struck by your comments on the amount the government spends on law enforcement versus treatment and prevention. I used to think it was ironic because every drug or alcohol program I've ever seen or heard about in jail is in some way modeled on the AA/12 Step philosophy which works, when it does work, because of two principals:
1) It's voluntary
Then the state puts them in settings where they are neither voluntary nor anonymous, and claims it's doing drug rehabilitation!
I was also heartened to see your hostility to prisons in general. I was talking to Jennifer a few days ago about that. The question of what we would do if we didn't have prison as an alternative is a genuinely difficult one, and it's one that won't be answered unless we start off with the proposition that prison is not an alternative and then do the hard work of thinking about what we would do with all the various different people we put in prison now. It seems to me that society as it's now constituted just can't exist without prisons--a strong sign, for me, that it's the society itself that needs to be reinvented, rather than think we might be able to reform prisons in such a way that would make the useful institutions.
I can't wait to see the full issue of MAKE. Thanks for doing this important work.