The Rise of the “Permanent Prisoners of War” in America

Tuesday, August 25, 2015
By Paul Martin

By David Swanson
Global Research
August 25, 2015

If someone has had the good fortune not to encounter the world of U.S. police and prisons, and the misfortune to learn about the world from U.S. schools, entertainment, and “news” media, a great place to start understanding one of the worst self-inflicted tragedies of our era would be with James Kilgore’s short new book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time, followed up by Radley Balko’s longer Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.

Both books tell a story of gradual change over the past half-century that has resulted in the police going to war against people they were supposed to serve (call it a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on terror, it’s always in fact a war on people). And what do you do with people captured alive during a war? You lock them away as prisoners of war until the war ends. And if the war never ends? Well, then you bring back the death penalty, create life sentences for lots of crimes including for kids, impose mandatory minimums and three-strikes, and transform parole and probation from rehabilitation to reincarceration services.

The story of this gradual change is one of legal changes (court rulings and legislation), behavior, and popular belief — with each of these influencing the other two in a vicious cycle. You can’t quadruple a prison population in 40 years without instituting a different belief system. You can’t ship black prisoners to be guarded by rural whites employed by for-profit companies, or lock up immigrants indefinitely while they await hearings, and not alter the belief system further. You can’t run several successive election campaigns as contests in meanness and not see changes in policy and behavior. You can’t give police military weapons and not expect them to adopt military attitudes, or give them military training and expect them not to want military weapons. You can’t give crime 10 times the coverage on the “news” and not expect people to imagine crime is increasing. You can’t start smashing in doors without alienating the police and the people from each other.

Kilgore reminds us that the popular movements of the 1960s had an impact on popular thought. Opposition to the death penalty peaked in 1965 and was over 50% from 1957 to 1972, dropping to 20% in 1990. In 1977 only 37% of people polled rated police officers’ ethics as high, a number that rose to 78% in 2001 for no apparent substantive reason. As late as 1981 most Americans thought unemployment was the main cause of crime. We’ve since learned of course that crime is caused by evil demonic forces that possess the bad people of the earth.

The creation of the world’s largest ever collection of permanent prisoners of war — a trend that would translate perfectly to the war “on terror” abroad — developed through cycles, including partisan cycles. That is to say, Nixon had a horrible impact, Carter briefly slowed the mad rush to prisonville, and Reagan and Bush built on Nixon’s policies. The war on drugs was created as a means to militarize the police and involve the federal government in more local law enforcement, not the other war around. Reagan’s attorney general announced early on that, “the Justice Department is not a domestic agency. It is the internal arm of the national defense.” The end of the Cold War saw the military looking for new excuses to exist, and one of them would be the war on drugs.

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