Blind Man with a Pistol: The Evolution of the Modern Police State as Seen by Prison Authors
by Michael Hogan
|"What started it?"
"A blind man with a pistol."
"That don't make sense."
Minorities and most poor people in the inner cities have always lived with the knowledge that (for them at least) the forces of unlawful suppression and misuse of power far too often masqueraded as the forces of law and order. It was not until the Democratic Convention in 1968, however, that young middle-class Americans had a taste of it, as they and their parents watched Mayor Daley's blueshirts club protestors outside the convention hall. None who watched the TV coverage of the event can forget the terrorized young blond girl fleeing from the police, her hair disheveled, her forehead bloody; or the dull thuds of the nightsticks beating relentlessly on a fallen teenage boy, not half the size of one of the three officers brutalizing him.
Viet Nam had already awakened us from the sleep of trust into which the mediocre Fifties had lulled most Americans. Prior to Viet Nam, the business of government was considered too complex, the intricacies of war too awesome, for the ordinary citizen to untangle. As my father often said, right up until the time of the American withdrawal, "Does it seem likely that you kids running around and protesting in the streets know more about Viet Nam than the generals and statesmen who have access to data that none of you could understand?" It was an intimidating question -- one which most parents asked their children in those days. Our answer? Government in this country should not be so complex as to fall beyond the reach of ordinary intelligent folks. Ours was conceived, after all, to be a government of the people, not an elitist club of technocrats, Capitol Hill insiders, and officious generals.
For the white prisoners in our penal institutions during those years of political awakening and struggle, it was as if the world had passed them by. The Free Speech Movement, the peace marches, and the vigils and the protests against the war bore little relationship to the music heard inside. "If You Don't Love It Leave It" and "I'm Proud to Be an Okie" echoed in the cellblocks as a hundred transistor radios played songs by ex-convict Merle Haggard. Haggard, like most white prisoners, was conservative, patriotic, and accepting of the society. If he had broken one of society's rules, well, he paid for it and had done his time like a man. He never questioned the system itself.
Among the black prisoners, there was the genesis of a strong Muslim Brotherhood, which was to protect them inside and help many when they were released. The NAACP Legal Defense Funds was soon to take cases into every federal court in the land contesting whether one surrenders basic human rights like the freedom to worship, the freedom to write, and the freedom not to be subject to brutal physical abuse when one is incarcerated in an American prison.
However, most prisoners were not political. They simply felt that they were losers in the system, not that the system itself was questionable. What rage and frustration they experienced was directed at themselves, their families, their partners in crime. It never occurred to them that the system had begun spinning out of control. But it had. Returning veterans began swelling the ranks of police forces everywhere, as the war in Viet Nam ground gradually to a halt. And, as often happens after U.S. demobilizations, returning veterans contributed to the burgeoning prison populations as well. With Viet Nam over, the revolution on campuses ended and so did the protests. A presidential commission established by the Nixon Administration reported the only crisis of any political import: "the drug problem and crime in the streets."
Eighteen-year-old kids arrested for marijuana were finding themselves sent to maximum security prisons where they were often raped and brutalized, and sometimes killed, by "fellow criminals." The prisons grew more and more crowded as the drug scare become a natural ingredient of each new election and the laws became more Draconian. By the early Seventies, murders of young prisoners were occurring on the average of five a week. Prison rapes were so commonplace as to not even be recorded in many instances. Protective custody units had become a part of every major prison, and they were filled to capacity.
The prisons became even more crowded as legislators passed tighter "mandatory" drug laws. In Arizona, for example, one year to life for possession of marijuana, and ten to life with no possibility of parole until ten calendar years had passed . . . for possession of peyote. And this in a state where these drugs had been used by its large Indian and Mexican populations for hundreds of years before the land grab of the 1840s which made this U.S. territory.
Law Enforcement Assistance Administration funds came flooding into the cities. Not to provide education to the young, or clinics for recovering drug users. Not to provide the public with hard information. The money went to police helicopters, which hovered over the barrios of South Tucson and East L.A., to law courses for police officers on ways in which they could circumvent the Forth Amendment proscribing illegal searches. It went to training paramilitary forces, composed of demobilized Viet Nam vet rangers and marines, to kill or capture young citizens. The state prison population in Arizona skyrocketed from 800 to 2,300 in three years. A decade later, that figure had quadrupled. By 1990 there were seven prisons in Arizona with populations at peak levels, all over-crowded, and the incarceration rate was 80 out of every 100,000 citizens. Homeowners' doors were kicked in as the Burger Court effectively repealed the "right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures." In Pennsylvania, a young couple was held at gunpoint and terrorized for hours in their own home until the shotgun-toting narcotics detectives double-checked and found that they had burst into the wrong house. When the couple hired a lawyer to sue, they were subjected to so much police harassment that they were forced to move to another city.
In the prisons, even the most sluggish of the white convicts began to see that growing police power was creating more victims than it was protecting. Moreover, the courts -- filled to capacity with young drug offenders -- were forced to compromise with robbers, rapists, and "ordinary" killers in order to handle the vast overload and give priority to the governmental mandate. Plea bargaining became the order of the day. Defendants were now charged with multiple, often overlapping, offenses by the prosecuting attorney and told they would face decades in prison. Thus intimidated, they quickly pled guilty to the lesser of the criminal charges specified on the indictment. Trials became a luxury of the rich and upper middle classes. The price tag for the defendant or his family was prohibitive for most. $35,000-$50,000 for a simple possession charge. Another $30,000 if it was appealed. As much as $50,000 more if the appeal had to go to federal court. The Marxian dictum that "in a capitalist society the methods of oppression are capitalistic” found its way into the white middle class. Few families with two or three kids could afford the high cost of paying for the defense of one of their children arrested on a drug charge. However, knowing what could happen to that child if convicted, they could hardly afford not to, even if it meant mortgaging their house, borrowing from their employers or relatives, or closing out their retirement accounts.
By 1970, the average age of a white prisoner had been lowered drastically, while his average education had escalated. At a county jail, one could as likely find a Catholic priest as a shoplifter. In addition, some shoplifters like Joanne Little (raped by a county sheriff) became political prisoners, as the forces of law and order treated them far more brutally than any but the most vicious criminals had their victims.
People who had been incarcerated in the Sixties such as Angela Davis, Huey Newton, Daniel Berrigan, and T.J. Mahoney took a new look at the prison they had left. They were appalled by what they saw. They began writing to this newest generation of inmates, sending books and tapes, offering the consolation of those who had survived. They acquainted themselves with the victimized young, the feckless, the political prisoners (draft resisters, nuclear plant protestors), and the people of color serving sentences twice as long as their white counterparts.
Political ideas, which had never surfaced in American prisons -- as they had in Ireland, France, and England -- grew in the fertile soil of real oppression. In 1970, the Tombs in New York exploded, not in a riot but in a premeditated and planned rebellion. In 1971, the bloody massacre of Attica convinced even those few white prisoners who had no commitment to their black brothers that it was time for a serious reappraisal of the system. For many, it was the first time they had questioned civic authority. Now it occurred to them that perhaps Governor Rockefeller, who ordered the slaughter of the prisoners, was the real criminal; perhaps, even Richard Nixon, the chief proponent of law and order, who was in the years that followed to actively promote and solidify the arbitrary power of the criminal justice system while personally undermining its legitimacy.
Nor were these young prisoners inarticulate in their awakening. Manuscripts began to pour out of the prison in great numbers -- smuggled out by visitors and friends. At the Soledad penitentiary in California, a volume of poetry entitled Who Is The Real Criminal? articulated this new consciousness. In 1975, Miguel Pinero's Short Eyes was produced in New York. Chester Himes' novels of two violent detectives (who called themselves appropriately enough Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed) were made into movies. Meanwhile, Himes, an ex-con who had been arrested three times since his release for "parole violations" (driving a car, moving to a new apartment, writing instead of "working"), left the country and settled in Paris where, he said, the police still wore uniforms, knocked before entering, and avoided violating the law in their attempts to enforce it.
For Himes, the American system of law and order was productive of great fear. The criminal justice establishment was seen by him (understandably as a black ex-convict), with some historical accuracy, as a white man's system. He wrote:
He came to feel the guilt or innocence of anything he might do would be subject wholly to the whim of white people. It stained his whole existence with a sense of sudden disaster hanging just above his head, and never afterward could he feel at ease with white people. (Lonely Crusade, 34)
Yet, what Himes couldn't see was that those who enforce this system's law are actually colorless, sexless, blind to any social end, and (as Himes was later to suggest in his fiction) expedient in their choice of means.
Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, Himes' most famous detective paid, are both black. The methods they use when interrogating people of substance, even in the African-American community, are obsequious, even fawning. However, when confronted with someone poor and unconnected, such as Covey, a tenement janitor who is neither charged with nor guilty of any crime, they operate quite differently.
When he entered Covey's bedroom, he found him lying sideways across the bed, a red bruise aslant his forehead, his left eye shut and bleeding, his upper lip swollen to the size of a bicycle tire, and Coffin Ed atop him with a knee in his solar plexus, choking him to death.
He clutched Coffin Ed by the back of the collar and pulled him hack.
"Leave him able to talk."
Coffin Ed looked down at the swollen bloody face beneath him. "You want to talk, don't you, mother?"
". . . I -- tole you -- all . . . I know."
Coffin Ed drew back his right fist as though he would hit him and his left hand flew to his mouth. Hitting at him from beyond, from where he was standing at the head of the bed, with the long heavy barrel of his pistol, Grave Digger struck with such force he knocked the back of his hand into Covey's front teeth so hard when he pulled it away screaming, three of the front teeth that Coffin Ed had loosened previously were embedded in the carpal bones of his hand.
The sergeant burst through the door, followed by his wide-eyed assistants. "What the hell!" he exclaimed.
"Take this mother-raper before we killed him," Grave Digger said. (Blind Man with A Pistol, 118)
These detectives punch prostitutes in the stomach; they insult and terrorize homosexuals. The detectives themselves seem to have no human relationships. They appear to make no sense out of the crimes they encounter, and they have no qualms of conscience for the crimes they commit in the pursuit of justice. The latter are, incidentally, more numerous than the former. They seem to be less than human, more like machines or sociopaths in the employ of an organization whose major weapon is the intimidation of the poor and the disenfranchised.
The genre invented by Himes, the anti-detective novel with the thug cop as hero, has become quite popular because of its accuracy and realism. The late night re-runs of Magnum Force and Dirty Harry, starring Clint Eastwood, as well as the popular TV police drama The Shield, aptly illustrate the pervasiveness of this new consciousness. They remind us of what we should have known all along: the police are no better than they have to be. Also, the more numerous and the more powerful they become, the greater the danger to the personal security of the working-class Americans.
For Alexander Pathy, author of Community and Correction, the problem appears to be that we have surrendered social responsibility. Instead of working with our neighbors to make our communities safer, we have asked the State to handle the problem. Instead of working with our children to develop an intelligent understanding of the uses and abuses of drugs, we have allowed the State to turn a family problem into a criminal one. This incredible collective error repeats the idiocy of the Volstead Act which allowed organized crime to turn its foothold in our cities into a stranglehold, corrupted the local government, brutalized the poor, and compromised the police who, asked to enforce an unenforceable law, accepted bribes with one hand, while they swung nightsticks with the other.
Among the American elite in the Roaring Twenties, however, cocktails were as common as sarsaparilla, just as during the height of the drug war one could smell the sweet smell of marijuana at half the parties in Beverly Hills, Long Island, or Aspen, and find cocaine in the candy dishes.
Organized crime profits from our drug laws, the police grow more corrupt, brutal and more powerful, selective enforcement is commonplace, and still the problem is not resolved -- cannot be resolved -- outside of the family, the community. It sounds almost like old-time Goldwater conservatism, but what one finds consistently in the literature which has come out of the American prisons is this: government cannot solve for us the problems that we are unwilling to solve for ourselves. The instruments of the State in such instances operate with no clear mandates and with conflicting pressures. They become instruments of repression against the young, the poor, the disenfranchised: the janitors like Covey who are unrepresented and helpless when confronted either by the organized machinery of the State (as in Judge Hoffman's court during the surrealist trial of Bobby Seale) or by the State run amok as in the interrogation techniques of Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed.
H. Bruce Franklin in his book Prison Literature in America: The Victim As Criminal and Artist stresses that more and more prisoners have begun to see themselves not as individual outcasts but rather as members of a social subclass. And, from this point of view, he writes, American society as a whole constitutes the primary prison. He goes on to quote Malcolm X in this regard. "Don't be shocked," wrote Malcolm in his Autobiography, "when I say that I was in prison. You're in prison. That's what America means: prison."
The view is radical but it appears less and less absurd as we consider comparative data from other systems or even from earlier stages of our own. The evidence is empirical, immediate, and frightening. Per capita, the United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation in the so-called free world. And that number has been increasing exponentially over the past three decades.
The movie Straight Time with Dustin Hoffman indicates the web an ex-offender becomes entangled in immediately upon his gaining his release on parole. The movie, based on a novel by ex-prisoner Edward Bunker, shows a newly-released ex-offender faced with the choice of violating his remaining sense of integrity and his hard-earned loyalty to another human being, or violating his parole and being returned to a maximum-security prison. More and more ex-offenders face such choices each day, with loyalty and integrity more and more surrendered out of fear.
Reading newspaper accounts of recent arrests for narcotics possession, one cannot help but draw parallels between Stalinist Russia and America today. Ninety percent of all such arrests are made based on secret testimony of "reliable informants" or undercover agents (secret police). Anyone in Stalinist Russia could have his freedom or his life seriously compromised by an anonymous tip that he was a reactionary or bourgeois. Today even the head physician of the Olympiad can be under Justice Department or DEA scrutiny based on a similar tip relating to prescribing of drugs. Government encouragement (substantial cash payments) to narcotics informants is another case in point, as are the revised conspiracy laws making it unnecessary to have corroborating evidence or testimony to confirm the accusations of a co-conspirator. Such laws, playing as they do on human weakness, are gradually making our society a nation of informants. Such a nation grows to live in such suspicion and mistrust of their fellow man that a police state is ultimately seen as the only alternative to anarchy. "Without human trust," Dostoyevsky noted, "the word 'civilization' becomes meaningless."
When former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young suggested that there were political prisoners in the United States as well as in China, the Administration and even the liberal press was outraged. And yet, what kind of prisoners were Joanne Little, Robert Ellsberg, the students in New Hampshire who protested at Seabrook, the conscientious objectors incarcerated for years in federal prisons because they chose not to run to Canada, the thousands of Latinos serving mandatory life terms in Southwestern prisons of victimless crimes? If they are not political prisoners, then one must assign a very narrow definition to the term.
Most state prisons in this country have become so barbarous that federal courts -- which traditionally kept a hands-off policy in regard to their administration -- have been forced to exhibit some concern about basic human rights. In Holt v. Sarver, the U.S. District Court noted:
It is one thing to send a man to the penitentiary as punishment for crime. It is another thing for the State . . . to do nothing meaningful for his safety, well-being and possible rehabilitation. It is one thing for the State not to pay a convict for his labor; it is something else to subject him to a situation in which he has to sell his blood to obtain money for his own safety, for adequate food, or for access to needed medical attention. (Holt v. Sarver, 309 F. Supp. 362, 381.)
After Attica, one National Guardsman testified in the U.S. Court of Appeals that:
beginning immediately after the State's recapture of Attica on the morning of September 13 and continuing at least until September 16, guards, State Troopers and correctional personnel had engaged in cruel and inhuman abuse of numerous inmates. Injured prisoners, some on stretchers, were struck, prodded or beaten with sticks, fists, belts, bats or other weapons. Others were forced to strip and run naked through gauntlets of guards armed with clubs which they used to strike the bodies of the inmates as they passed. Some were dragged on the ground, some marked with an "X" on their backs, some spat upon or burned with matches, and others poked in the genital with sticks. (453 F.2d 12)
Commenting on the cases following Attica, Ronald Goldfarb in his documentary Jails: The Ultimate Ghetto of the Criminal Justice System noted:
Brutalities from officials on inmates, nonetheless, continue free from interference. Particularly where inmates stay for short periods of time and there is a frequent turnover in population, inmates are subject to almost constant threat of physical or sexual attack. . . . This is a fact of life in all jails.
The New York Times noted that Goldfarb's book compelled us to "acknowledge with fresh disgust that jails are mainly instruments of revenge and illegal punishment." It reminds the readers that people with resources don't spend time in jail unless the crime is capital; jail is the instrument of repression for those without money or connections.
When the criminal becomes the victim, then society itself becomes criminal. It is apparent that possession of marijuana should not be punished by brutal sexual assault, that shoplifting should not result in being stabbed to death, and that peaceful protest should not result in isolation cells and beatings by guards. Nor should the mere fact that one is in an institution where an uprising has occurred subject one to days and weeks of torture and even death as it did for the prisoners in Attica.
For American convict writers to see in this governmental behavior a warning to society is not unusual. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's prison experience gave him similar insights into his society, insights which he probably would not have come by otherwise because he was both a loyal communist and a chauvinist Russian. While Solzhenitsyn's books about Russia have become popular in this country, his comments on American society have not been so well-received. Once a popular speaker at U.S. colleges and conservative fundraisers, the ex-Soviet prisoner became persona non grata at the White House and in most academic circles by the time of the Bush election.
John Leon Natkie, a poet in the Florida prison system, wrote that "the next revolution in America will not come from the African-Americans, women or Chicanos, but from prisoners and ex-prisoners. It is always the underclass, which has had the best instincts of the dangers of the system. And prisoners are becoming politically conscious enough to articulate those dangers."
The revolution in aesthetics has already begun. In prison literature, there is a strong movement away from the didactic on the one hand and on the imagistic on the other. Prison literature is clear, simple, direct, or it leaps into the surreal like the novels of Kafka, Kosinski or Marquez. Kafka and Kosinski wrote of characters in conflict with the State in Eastern Europe; Marquez of characters in conflict with a government in Colombia. All viewed the rising power of the police state in their respective countries with alarm. They considered it something inhuman -- something which could not be stated in realistic terms, which could not be wholly contained in metaphor, simile, or some allusion to classical Greece or the bible. Rather, it appeared to be a phenomenon beyond realism, with the government's power to oppress magnified a hundred times by public education, by the control of the mass media, instant communication, constant surveillance, psycho-chemical research, and a growing willingness to employ manipulative techniques which violate human integrity -- all in the interest of "public order" or "homeland security."
Ivan Illich in his perceptive book, Tools of Conviviality, notes how all the tools of learning are in the hands of those whose job it is to manipulate them in their own self-interest. In New York City, language carrels, videotapes, computers, and other educational aids are locked up in public schools and universities where they can be used only if one is a staff member, or if one is enrolled in a recognized, i.e., government-approved, program of study. Funds which would allow such resources to be made available to the public though the public libraries have been cut from the city budget. Proposals to allow citizens' access to public schools after they close for the day, and on weekends, have also been rejected for "fear of vandalism." The schools have become institutions for the dissemination of certain ideas, values, and sets of data rather than open places of learning.
A student in New Jersey will use essentially the same history text as a student on Phoenix. He will then take the same national tests, have the same basic "education, and take the same ACT or SAT exams." At the university, he will do the same thing: follow a course of prescribed studies, submit to the academic values propagandized, take the standard comprehensive exams in which he regurgitates the values given, then receive the degree. The indispensable Graduate Record Exam (GRE) will then determine if he is to go on for advanced work. Few students have either the time in a crammed degree-track schedule, the audacity to go against the system, or the experience in independent thinking, to get a real "education" in the sense that John Henry Newman described in The Idea of A University.
H. Bruce Franklin observed that "in truth it may not be going too far to say that the prison and the university provide the contradicting poles defining the fields of aesthetics, as well as some other areas, for in our society the two main competing intellectual centers may be the universities and the prisons." The force of conformity in any institution is considerable. At the university, value is to a great extent defined by the cleverness with which one conforms, the rapidity with which one can assume a respectable position, well-footnoted and carefully researched (which is to say, a position supported by the authorities). In the prison, value is also defined by the cleverness with which one conforms, i.e. how quickly one becomes a "model prisoner." For the university student, a degree is the goal. For the prisoner, a parole.
Since the Seventies, however, such conformity has grown increasingly unattractive to most prisoners. Also, because of overcrowding, lack of staff, brutality, sexual assault, and problems of survival, it has become increasingly difficult. Even the most easygoing prisoner might find himself thrown into an isolation cell during his term. As Lewis Merklin points out in his book They Chose Honor, even draft resisters in federal prisons were found to be incapable of adjusting to the Kafkaesque system, despite their readiness to be model prisoners, do their own time, stay by themselves, and get out without violence or injury to themselves or others.
As a result, the prison system over the past four decades has been spawning large numbers of independent, imaginative, and radicalized thinkers. Writers from the prisons have increasingly become creators of culture rather than commentators on it or simply imitators of the dominant themes.
Interestingly enough, none of the truly significant authors to come out of prison has been offered a position with a university. Etheridge Knight, whose poetry appeared in every contemporary anthology including the definitive Norton's, eked out his ragged existence doing high school gigs, occasional readings, or writing reviews. J.J. Maloney, despite his creative genius and his abilities as a teacher, earned his living as a part-time investigative reporter. Chester Himes, exiled in France most of his life with a half dozen novel to his credit, died unacknowledged by American academia although is novels are taught in American universities.
There are few courses taught at an America university which focuses on the literature which has come out of American prisons over the past two centuries. Most of the names mentioned in this article are unknown not only to the undergraduate but also to the graduate student of contemporary American literature. This level of cultural illiteracy in the U.S. has no equal abroad. It would be akin to ignoring Andre Gide in France, Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Russia, Gunter Eich in Germany, or Nazim Hikmet in Turkey. Unconscionable.
Such a vacuum cannot exist long, however. Already there have been significant efforts made by local arts councils to get such writers into schools. Two ex-prisoners have received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Colorado Humanities Program now offers a fellowship in prison literature. Jimmy Santiago Baca, a former prisoner, was recently a visiting poet at Yale. All of these events , of course, are on the periphery of academia, not the inner sanctum. But the revolution of which Natkie spoke has begun. It is affecting, eve as I write, not only the criminal justice system which is its base, but our culture, our values, our aesthetics as well. Perhaps it is not too much to expect that it will widen our concern for each other, help us to grow in trust, limit the awful growing power of the police state, and result in institutions being reconfigured into instruments of service rather than instruments of control.
Most significant about recent prison literature is its lucidity, its directness, its passionate commitment to the affirmation of human dignity. Few prison writers have a political or nationalistic axe to grind. They are, for the most part, internationalists who see the dangers inherent in all governments.
The fear of a police state, the view of America as a prison, runs like a fine thread through most of the recent literature. I do not think it is a theme which one can easily reject; it seems clear that it is a perception supported by ample evidence. One either ignores the evidence, or one begins to re-examine society in a different light.
If the fears of these authors are well-grounded, then the solution is obviously not a bloody revolution in the street, but rather a bloodless one which reaffirms our mutual responsibility as neighbors, which replaces suspicion with trust, betrayal with loyalty, and looks, as Marge Piercy writes, to the "slow accretion of community, hand on hand," to solve our social problems. These prison writers warn us not to exchange personal and social responsibility for an abstract and impersonal law-and-order regime.
Whether incarcerated for robbery like Malcolm X or being true to a non-violent Quaker tradition like William Stafford, the pull of the literature written by prisoners and ex-prisoners is identical. It is revolutionary, as Natkie asserts. But it is revolutionary in an unexpected way. Its pull is back to humanism and away from any system that does not affirm our humanity. Intrinsic to the understanding of this literature is the dialogue in which it attempts to engage us. There can be no passive reader, no indifferent listener. It is a literature of confrontation: direct, desperately committed. As Stafford writes in his poem "A Ritual to Read to Each Other":
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider --
lest the parade of our mutual lives get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give to each other -- yes or no, or maybe --
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
Michael Hogan is the author of The Irish Soldiers of Mexico, Los Soldados Irlandeses de Mexico, Molly Malone and the San Patricios, Making Our Own Rules, Mexican Mornings: Essays South of the Border, and Imperfect Geographies.