Monday, December 26, 2016

The Long Range Master Plan to Imprison Blacks

On Nixon's orders, in the spring of 1970, the Bureau of Prisons devised a ten-year "Long Range Master Plan" to expand and modernize the American correctional system. The $500 million initially allotted for this expansion--more than $1.5 billion in today's dollars--represented an entirely new phase of investment in federal prisons. The Department of Justice, created in 1870, had operated only three penal facilities for the first fifty years of its existence, although it steadily opened twenty-four more between 1923 and 1950. Mitchell worked closely with the Bureau of Prisons as it set out to construct a dozen prisons for adult men, a dozen reformatories, four women's prisons, four psychiatric facilities and a special Metropolitan Correctional Center to replace overburdened jails in select "high crime" urban areas by the end of the decade. Nixon had called for a "prototype" at the federal level that would inspire states to follow suit and the administration's strategies reverberated throughout the entire American penal system.

The Nixon administration's commitment to a complete overhaul of American prisons all but ensured the future arrest and incarceration of millions of Americans far removed from the meeting rooms of the White House and the Bureau of Prisons. Mitchell and other Nixon officials knew well that their anticrime policies would result in a significant increase in the number of Americans behind bars. The draconian sentencing measures Nixon planned for Washington, D.C., as well as the heavy-handed policing strategies he and other conservative policymakers supported, were rationalized by the idea that incarceration functioned as a powerful crime deterrent, the value of which could only succeed if punishment was certain. "Deterrence and retribution, many times overlooked in the languages of crime justice, are again being recognized as valid reasons for incarceration," as Norman Carlson, the director of the Bureau of Prisons from 1970 to 1987, testified before the House Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of Justice in 1975. In embracing the expansion of the prison system and the incarceration of violators for long periods as the only effective means to protect society, Carlson and other Nixon officials believed prisoner rehabilitation was an impractical goal. "The idea that violent offenders can be rehabilitated by some combination of vocational, counseling, and other programs, inside or outside an institution, has yet to be demonstrated," Carlson argued, citing the work of criminologist Norval Morris and political scientist James Q. Wilson. Far from an inevitable process, the deliberate strategy of increasing the number of prisoners that federal officials and law enforcement authorities embraced throughout the 1970s was a critical aspect of the War on Crime.
Within the federal prison system, black and Latino Americans came to occupy every additional prison bed called for by the Long-Range Master Plan. Between 1970 and 1977, a period in which the percentage of federal inmates who were black and Latino increased from 27.4% to over 38%, the Bureau of Prisons opened fifteen new prisons for 4,871 inmates. At the same time, federal prisons took in 4,904 new black and Latino Americans. Observing this development at the annual meeting of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in 1974, corrections expert William Nagel said, "We must conclude, therefore, that the new prisons are for blacks."

-excerpt from Elizabeth Hinton's From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, Harvard University Press, May 9, 2016.