AND DESTROY: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System
Jerome G. Miller, Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pbk. 1997], 304 pgs.
CRIME: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women
Beth E. Richie, Routledge, 1996, 186 pgs.
Reviews by Daniel Burton-Rose
Writing of the Nazis in 1948, Graham Greene said: "The totalitarian state contrives, by educating its citizens, to suppress all sense of guilt, all indecision of mind." "It is an apt description of the current state of the politics of crime in the United States," writes Jerome Miller, author of Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System. Miller doesn't shrink from drawing apt historical comparisons to contemporary U.S. political economy, and Search and Destroy doesn't flinch in identifying aspects of not a possible, or emerging police state in the United States, but what already is an ever more deeply entrenched one. The book describes the tightening noose around the collective neck of the American underclass with urgency and passion.
The numbers of Black men whose lives are touched by the criminal justice system--from those lightly bruised to those whose lives are destroyed--are grim: Miller estimates lifetime risk of criminal justice system involvement for Black males to be between 80 percent and 90 percent.
A wide web of criminalized behaviors are the tools used to catch these men. Miller offers, by way of example, 100 unserved arrest warrants he happened on in a Florida county court: only two were for acts which might have been violent, six resulted from people inadequately controlling their dog, and seven involved fishing violations. These are these kind of petty and often archaic violations people are getting jailed for every day. Once in jail, many cannot scrounge up the several hundred dollars for bail or a bail bondsperson, and if they have employment, they often lose it. A criminal record is also established--whether or not the arrestee is convicted--inhibiting future chances of employment.
Miller suggests that the disruption discriminatory and abusive law enforcement wreaks on Black communities has "been a major contributor to breakdown in inner cities." He attributes the attack to a law enforcement surge fueled by a distorting servant-to-power media, which kicked off massive crime coverage in the early 1980s, creating in many American minds a urgent problem that hadn't previously existed. Then, "because relatively few violent offenders could be found among the millions of underclass citizens of color who received the brunt of the newly energized justice system... the definitions of dangerousness were twisted and stretched to include as many among them as possible as often as possible." The result was an expansion of "the net of justice control ever more widely into the community where traditionally other agents of social control defined matters (e.g., family, church, school, etc.)." "Along the way," he continues, the process "has spawned an industry fully capable of producing sufficient numbers of new clientele to validate the need for its existence and justify its growth, demanding more police, arrests, prosecutions, and prisons."
Corroborating these assertions are studies documenting the substantial rise in arrests for non-index as opposed to index (serious) crimes over the decade of the 1980s, when the law enforcement frenzy began in its current incarnation. Only 5 percent of arrests in 1991, for example, were for what Miller classifies as violent offenses. The numbers of people being sent to prison for property crimes and drug offenses soared. Miller gives descriptions of what people were jailed for, and what effect it had on their lives, to make the statistics speak, and to make the pain they represent more tangible.
Miller spends much time describing the short failings of the criminal justice system, and it is assumed transitively that because Blacks are disproportionately effected by the criminal justice system, race is the primary issue at play. But his comments on class do not preclude it from being a driving force for criminal justice involvement: he states that "the justice juggernaut... tends to crush those more easily identifiable by race and socioeconomic status than by their violent of serious criminal behavior"; he feels that criminologist John Irwin's characterization of jails as "rabble management" is accurate. His assertion that "crime has become a metaphor for race," in the media and the narrow public debate is undeniable, but that's still not saying that rich Blacks are being sucked into the criminal justice system with any more gusto than rich whites are. Because a large factor in keeping so many Blacks poor is institutional racism, the line between classism and racism blurs. But many poor whites are being sucked into the criminal justice sinkhole by the same expansion of state power that Miller discusses--and with similar justifications of hereditary inferiority being used against them. They shouldn't be ignored.
A long revealing look at the academics and think-tank bottom dwellers who provided an intellectual veneer for the Reagan-era war on drugs and imprisonment binge is Miller's next subject. He reports "American criminological research came to resemble that generated for the Pentagon during the Vietnam War--focused on narrow issues for technical purposes in the service of ideology." "Punitive pundits" understood that to keep research money flowing they would have to tailor their findings accordingly. They found "nothing works" in rehabilitating offenders--with the fraudulent underlying thesis that genuine attempts to rehabilitate had actually at one point been made. Discipline, deterrence, and "incapacitation" are their preferred tools maintaining the status quo. Criminals weigh risks, and proceed accordingly--hence the strength of deterrence. This latter idea "made eminent sense to white middle-class policy makers of both parties who, having a stake in society and a fair amount to lose, could relate to the deterrent value of perceived risk."
Aggressive marketing and media receptiveness to these ideas assured that public debate moved to the right and that ideologically unsatisfactory efforts were left in the dust. Miller also places racist treatises like The Bell Curve into the healthy American eugenic tradition, as well as revealing the victims of that tradition in practice.
The direction Miller fears all this is headed towards is summarized in the title of his last chapter: "The Future: From Managerial Efficiency to Biological Necessity." The fear is that the current trend of dehumanizing the criminal class with "managerial efficiency" will be taken to its logical conclusion: internment camps (massive prisons by another name) and more final solutions. It will be the hard "biological necessity" that eugenicists have been preparing us for for most of this century. Unfortunately, U.S and world history doesn't offer many reassurances that this is implausible.
Miller lays out what he would like to see done with the criminal justice system. Refreshingly--because it is so necessary-the recommendations go beyond a simple reformism. They deal with "criminality" as what it is: something between human error and logical behavior depending on the bankruptcy of the perpetrators' options and other recourses. Miller knows the proposals are a wish list, very unlikely to be instituted "without major political changes in the nation," and for this reasons seems almost reluctant to lay them out. But they're necessary to avoid the further entrenchment of an authoritarian state, and as such offer a vision that needs to be moved towards.
Compelled to Crime is a painful picture of the way in which an unattainable self-image engrained and withheld by dominant cultural forces tears and wounds people. "Personal responsibility" is something the battered Black women whose lives it describes have not had the luxury to experience: the question in regards to their abusive mates is a more difficult issue, as Miller's work partially demonstrates.
The most favored girl in their impoverished families, the cost of maintaining that love involved absorbing the dominant ideology of what a family should be. It also often involved not revealing sexual abuse, because smart girls wouldn't get themselves into such situations. Encouragement in academics dwindled as they entered puberty, and in their late adolescence they found themselves walled in by the institutional constraints of "traditional Black women's work." As they encountered disappointing race and class restrictions, self-sabotage began to play a role: no one could make them fail, they would retain that power themselves.
In their personal lives, the responsibility of trying to create the family they were expected to have involved covering up more abuse-physical, emotional and sexual--while focusing their energy on making their nuclear family into what it was supposed to be. The women expected a lot from the relationship, but little from the men. Sometimes drug use created a new bond between the women and the abusers, sometimes stealing together did--with the women taking most of the risk. Regardless, the criminal activity was often seen by the women as a way of postponing more violence.
In all cases, the levels of torment by their male partner got worse with time: tortures as macabre and extreme as being forced to literally eat shit, to stand on a frying pan as the abuser gradually turned up the heat, and getting a hand chopped with a meat cleaver. Most of the women were permanently disfigured. In several cases the abuser killed a child of the women, then convinced the state to charge her with murder. Physical deterioration in the women was rapid, due to batterings and compounded by the use of drugs and alcohol. The downward spiral, from favorite girl to junked up thief, prostitute or even worse in the eyes of the law, ended for a time on Rikers Island, one of the largest penal colonies in the world, and New York City's biggest jail.
Such are the tales Beth Richie tells, and such is the model of "the gender entrapment of battered Black women" that she articulates. The book is an excellent companion to Miller's focus on men. Gender entrapment is a negative feedback loop that constantly takes its victims to new levels of low. Walled in by race/ethnicity, class and gender, the women are railroaded by societal norms and underclass restrictions from relatively happy girlhoods to the dreamless nightmares that many endure once they reach a sort of bottoming out in state detention. For some jail offered a sort of respite, as well as a form of protection. At the same time it was consistent with the degrading and disrespectful treatment they had become used to.
The women stayed with their abuser until arrested for crimes: drug offenses, property crimes, prostitution, arson, murder--crimes to which their abuser undeniably led them. Richie points out that given the predictability of private life abuse versus the untrustable unpredictability of public space, and the fact that violent men are more likely to kill the woman they are abusing if she leave than if she stays, the women's choice to stay with the abusive companions was in some respects logical. It was, as Richie writes, "part of their survival strategy."
Richie's gender entrapment model is drawn from open-ended life history interviews with 26 battered Black women at the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. Richie also spoke with six Black women who were not battered, and five white women who were, as a way to highlight and pinpoint the different forces of entrapment that African American women abused by their intimates face. The text consists of Richie's gender entrapment thesis being developed and fine-tuned as good-sized chunks of the women's words illustrate the points she is making. The words of the prisoners bring a stark immediacy to the material: Richie's analysis brings together the common threads and points the finger at an unjust social system.
The use of the reference groups deepens Richie's works by providing a good look at the circumstances non-battered Black and battered white women face as well. Women continue to be trapped in abusive relationships, locked in bedrooms and cells. Richie's honest look at why they're there is very welcome.
Search and Destroy and Compelled to Crime illustrate the narrative possibilities of criminological research. The books are lonely in their integrity, John Irwin (co-author of It's About Time: America's Imprisonment Binge [2nd ed., 1997] and author of The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society  among others) being the most notable accompanying colleague. What they do is a true criminology, concerned with where crime comes from and what it is, as opposed to penology, looking for better and more effective ways to make people do what they are told.
The central struggle is between the Right's beloved "free agents," independent criminal actors who weight involved risks vs. the Left's emphasis on "root causes," or any consideration of the context of the crime and the context of the perpetrator's life. The differences between these two standpoints are represented on one hand by a reliance on crudely manipulated statistics, telling the white middle class through their media that their prejudices are justified, and on the other a narrative, almost literary sociology, in which lives are described and the individuality of each case is taken as a given.
The power of narrative criminology is that it is much harder to torment someone with a face. As such it is an effective way to combat the conversion of the poor into fodder for a law and order regime. With a police state consolidating and the so-called crime-control industry ballooning, I for one want to see who is being consumed.
Daniel Burton-Rose is a student at Oberlin College and co-editor of This Ain't Your Daddy's Country Club: Prisons, Profits, and the Celling of America, a prison legal news anthology. (Common Courage Press, spring 1998).