Behind Bars

What Fake Reform of the Prison State Looks Like

By Bruce A. Dixon

On Tuesday, June 7, this reporter attended the first meeting of Georgia’s Commission on Criminal Justice Reform. Over the last several weeks Governor Nathan Deal appointed its 13 members, named the Pew Charitable Trust and Applied Reseach Services as its principal consultants and directed the commission to present its findings and recommendations to the state legislature by November 1.

The Pew and ARA consultants ran the seventy or eighty minute session, stating near the beginning that their guiding philosophy would be in keeping with Right On Crime, a web site that describes itself as “...the one-stop source for conservative ideas on criminal justice... committed to limited government, free markets, private property rights, individual liberty and personal responsibility.” Right On Crime’s peculiar notions of “criminal justice reform” were endorsed, they gushed, by luminaries like Newt Gingrich. The ARA consultant boasted about his firm’s previous collaborations with “partners and stakeholders” like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a notorious right wing corporate front group that wrote legislation to detain and jail tens-of-thousands of immigrants in Arizona and Georgia, at the behest of the private for-profit prison industry. ALEC has also written bills for introduction into all 50 state legislatures on behalf of its corporate sponsors in the tobacco, pharmaceutical, energy, insurance, banking and telecom industries.

In keeping with the race-blind pretenses of modern conservatives, the consultants unleashed torrents of state and national statistics, but managed to omit any present or historical racial data on arrests, convictions, sentencing or any other aspect of the prison state. One would never know, listening to these experts, that while an eighth of the U.S. is Black, more than forty percent of her prisoners are, and that the nation’s Latino one-eighth are closing fast on another thirty percent of the locked down. The meeting’s only reference to the U.S. prison state’s ferocious racial selectivity was when the Pew consultant observed that “different demographic groups in the state’s population are affected differently.” Clearly, criminal justice reform, with reformers like these in charge, will neither acknowledge nor address the obvious racism that guides, underlies and infuses almost every aspect of the nation’s vast crime control apparatus.

The ARA consultant explicitly endorsed Right On Crime’s view that prisons are just “another government spending program that ought to be cut.” The statistic that really mattered, the consultants said, was that a single day in prison currently cost as much as 23 days of supervised probation. The commission’s charge, they agreed, was to save the state money by substantially reducing Georgia’s prison population while not increasing crime, and that their goal was to guide the commission and stakeholders in achieving bipartisan near-unanimity. They bragged about having accomplished exactly that in Arkansas and Texas. One of them was particularly proud of having raised the fees paid by people on probation in Arkansas, the increased revenue going to support re-entry programs of some kind.

Relevant stakeholders, they declared, included organizations of judges, district attorneys, sheriffs and law enforcement officers, along with some of those involved in probation services and re-entry programs. In Arkansas they had included associations of public defenders and the Chambers of Commerce. No mention was made of any possible public meetings around the state. The idea of hearing and examining the myriad complaints of Georgia’s brutalized prison inmates, or their devastated families and distressed communities was as far from the first floor room in Georgia’s capitol building as the surface of the moon.

Initial reaction to the path taken by the governor’s criminal justice reform commission on the part of local activists was sharply critical.

“A commission aimed at choosing which ten, fifteen, twenty thousand Georgia inmates it can funnel into new versions of drug or mental illness courts or so-called non-prison alternatives ignores the real crises in their lives,” Kennesaw State University scholar Denise Woodall told Black Agenda Report.

“They still can’t get jobs, or housing, or healthcare because they have permanent criminal records. As long as there is no simple, transparent path to expunge criminal conviction records, re-entry is a joke. Their sentences and those of their families in fact never end.

“Conditions in the ‘re-entry’ and ‘community corrections’ programs are typically arbitrary, harsh, and further destructive of jobs and family stability. Jobless and sporadically employed former prisoners have to pay for drug tests, back child support, steep probation fees, interest and fines. Fall behind? You go back to jail. People are going back to jail because they fail drug tests, not for doing drugs, but for having drunk a glass of water too many. Expanding programs like these is no solution.”

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, founder of The Ordinary Peoples Society and the National Association of Formerly Incarcerated Persons agreed that the governor’s commission was on the wrong track.

“After the prison strike last December we went into Smith and Macon State prisons and talked to inmates. Why isn’t the commission doing that? What about the lack of educational and training opportunities behind the walls? What about transparency in the fines and punishments Georgia levies on inmates in their custody? What about the sweetheart deals Georgia’s correctional authorities have cut with Global Tel-Link, Bank of America and J-Pay that let these companies prey on the families of prisoners? What about the lack of decent medical care for thousands of Georgia inmates?

“We’ve worked every day of the last ten years with the families of current and former prisoners, helping them put their lives and communities back together. These are the people the commission ought to be talking to, and the questions they ought to be asking.”

Hugh Esco, secretary of the Georgia Green Party concurred.

“First, who gets policed and how closely, which defendants are charged with what crimes, and how long they serve is intimately tied to race everywhere in the U.S., and especially in Georgia. The evidence on this is incontrovertible. Nobody has ever cured race-based disparities by ignoring the fact of racism.

“Second, the process outlined by the governor’s consultants is elitist and anti-democratic. With 60,000 in the state’s prisons, many more in its jails and one in thirteen under court control, probation, bail or correctional supervision the shadow of prison is everywhere we look in many Georgia communities, especially black, brown and poor communities. The commission and its consultants have a twisted and limited idea of who the stakeholders in this matter are. The real stakeholders aren’t just judges, district attorneys, legislators and re-entry program contractors and corporate campaign donors. The real stakeholders are tens-of-thousands of Georgia families in cities, towns and rural areas across the state. Any commission that fails to solicit and take seriously the voices of current and former inmates, families and the communities they come from isn’t serious about reforming anything.”

“The governor’s commission needs reforming itself,” declared longtime human rights activist Rev. Zack Lyde of Brunswick GA.

“It’s too narrow, it’s too shallow, it’s too corporate. They need to come out of that room with the consultants, the D.A.s, the contractors and the insiders. They need to hold hearings in Savannah and Valdosta, in Macon and Columbus, in Albany, Augusta and Atlanta, and one or two hearings inside the prisons themselves. A commission that did that would get a glimmer of what real reform might look like. Our state’s obsession with prisons, jails, profit and punishment does not serve justice and does not make us safer, It’s like an unhealthy attachment to Pharaoh, and it’s time for us to let it go.”

As the meeting broke up, this reporter asked commission members and the consultant from Pew whether there were any plans for public meetings around the state. The consultant said that was a decision for the commissioners. The commissioners I talked to, including the chief justice of the state supreme court said that some kind public meetings were possible, even likely. But given everything else said in that room, it would be a stretch to expect more than one or two public hearings unless they felt themselves really pressured, and then only after the commission had adopted pretty much the plan it intends to anyway.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report. He can be contacted at

Black Agenda Report, June 8, 2011