Threats to public safety

As a society, we lock people away because we believe they have violated the law. This law is presumed to be largely just. We do not generally assume that it is the product of a privileged group of mostly wealthy, white men aiming at anyone who is not wealthy, white, and male. And we make these assumptions despite the fact that the U.S. locks away a larger proportion of its population—and a greater number in aggregate—than any other country in the world, including China,[1] which has a population roughly four times as large. Even though these statistics have been widely publicized,[2] the criminal injustice system rarely faces serious challenge.

Indeed, in California, where courts—all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court—have found that prison overcrowding amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and have placed the prison system under federal oversight, Governor Jerry Brown has been resisting a mandate to reduce the prison population, citing a threat to public safety.[3] To a large degree, these “threats to public safety” are poor or of color; they have been convicted of offenses that are less costly and less dangerous than those crimes committed by so-called “white collar” criminals. But stigmatizing the poor and portraying them as a threat helps to keep the wider population in line: they are reduced to superficial archetypes both to be feared and to be seen as examples of what members of the working and middle classes dare not become. So even the slightly better off comply with a profoundly unjust economic system that creates the desperation that results in much so-called “common” crime and we largely ignore the crimes of the wealthy.[4]

But are these “threats to public safety” really so threatening? That’s dubious. Fielding Dawson tells a story of teaching drama to a group of prisoners. In his telling, it’s difficult to produce and rehearse a play when it is not known which actors will be available to play the parts—because they’re in a situation where they are set up to fail, incurring the wrath of the institution and winding up in “the hole” for indefinite periods of time. But Dawson saw his students as human beings who were well able to articulate both an understanding of their situation and a humanity that far exceeds that of the institution they are subjected to.[5] It is, of course, possible to excuse these particular prisoners as a self-selected group portrayed at a fictional prison,[6] possibly a composite of prisoners Dawson has encountered in real life, “teach[ing] at prisons such as Sing-Sing and Attica, the site of the bloody 1971 uprising,”[7] consisting of a non-representative minority which chose to stage a play for their fellow prisoners.

But looking again, many U.S. prisoners have been incarcerated for increasingly harsh terms for being on the wrong side in the “war on drugs,”[8] a hypocrisy that has hardly succeeded in reducing, let alone eliminating this purported scourge.[9] Even if all these human beings were drug dealers or traffickers—many of them were not—this is crime that only becomes violent because it is illegal. With often more dangerous, but legal, drugs—tobacco and alcohol—we do not see anything like the violence that is present in a business that has been forced underground, a violence so extreme that some Latin American countries have called for decriminalization or legalization.[10]

So again the question: are these alleged “threats to public safety” really so dangerous? Some of them may well be. But yesterday, on July 8, 30,000 of these human beings, who have more reason than most to be cynical about “the system” and their ability to influence it, refused both breakfast and lunch, participating in a hunger strike, protesting California “state policies that allow inmates to be held in isolation indefinitely, in some cases for decades, for ties to prison gangs.”[11] In so doing, they have done more to demonstrate empathy for their fellow human beings and a commitment to civic action than most of their better off fellow citizens, the ones who look down on them, have ever thought of.

So once again, is it really that these people are “threats to public safety?” Or is it that they are threats to an unjust socioeconomic system?

Correction, July 9, 2013: This post, originally published on July 8, has been modified to better reflect the nature of Fielding Dawson’s No Man’s Land.

  1. [1]King’s College London, “World Prison Population List (8th edition),” January 26, 2009,
  2. [2]see, for example, Adam Liptak, “U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations,” New York Times, April 23, 2008,
  3. [3]Paige St. John, “California unlikely to meet prison crowding reduction requirement,” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2012,; Sam Stanton and David Siders, “Judges reject state’s request for more time on prisoner release,” Sacramento Bee, July 4, 2013,; Sam Stanton, David Siders and Denny Walsh, “Legal war ahead on California bid to end federal prison controls,” Sacramento Bee, January 9, 2013,; Sam Stanton and Denny Walsh, “Judges order California to immediately release prisoners,” Sacramento Bee, June 21, 2013,; Don Thompson, “Governor seeks to delay freeing 10K Calif. inmates,” Sacramento Bee, June 28, 2013,; Denny Walsh, “Federal judges deny California bid to end prison oversight,” Sacramento Bee, April 12, 2013,; Denny Walsh, “Brown says more prison releases require Legislature to act,” Sacramento Bee, May 3, 2013,; Denny Walsh and Sam Stanton, “Halt in inmate releases sought,” Sacramento Bee, January 8, 2013,
  4. [4]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006).; Herbert J. Gans, “The Uses of Undeservingness,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94.; Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  5. [5]Fielding Dawson, No Man’s Land (Sebastopol, CA: Times Change, 2000).
  6. [6]Emily Hall, review of No Man’s Land, by Fielding Dawson, New York Times, December 24, 2000,
  7. [7]Michael Hrebeniak, “In Memoriam Fielding Dawson, 1930–2002,” Jacket 16 (March 2002),
  8. [8]Liptak, “U.S. prison population dwarfs that of other nations.”
  9. [9]Rania Khalek, “Why Are Cops Losing Their Jobs for Questioning the Drug War?” Alternet, December 6, 2011,; Katrina vanden Heuvel, “Time to end the war on drugs,” Washington Post, November 19, 2012,; Mike Spindell, “Obama and the War on Drugs: Hypocrisy in Action,” June 29, 2012,
  10. [10]Democracy Now!, “U.S. Faces Challenge to ‘Drug War’ as Latin American Countries Mull Decriminalization, Legalization,” March 9, 2012,; Democracy Now!, “Latin America v. Obama: U.S. Policy on Cuba, Drug War, Economy Under Fire at Colombian Summit,” April 16, 2012,; Tom Hayden, “Obama, Upset by Latin America Criticism, Replaces an Advisor,” Center for International Policy Americas Program, August 18, 2012,; Raúl Zibechi, “Uruguay rejects ‘the war on drugs’,” Center for International Policy Americas Program, October 21, 2012,
  11. [11]Paige St. John, “California prison officials say 30,000 inmates refuse meals,” Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2013,,0,3234974.story

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.