On Will Steacy’s blog this week:


Silverstein pulled a nearly foot-long knife from his conspirator’s waistband.“This is between me and Clutts,” Silverstein hollered as he rushed toward him. One of the other guards screamed, “He’s got a shank!” But Clutts was already cornered, without a weapon. He raised his hands while Silverstein stabbed him in the stomach. “He was just sticking Officer Clutts with that knife,” another guard later recalled. “He was just sticking and sticking and sticking.” By the time Silverstein relinquished the knife—“The man disrespected me,” he told the guards. “I had to get him”— Clutts had been stabbed forty times. He died shortly afterward.”

David Grann. ‘The Brand’, The New Yorker, February 23rd, 2004

It may be helpful for my readership if I state that I am not a prison abolitionist.

It occurred to me that I may not have shared that with you. There is a legitimate need for prisons when incorrigible and dangerous men or women must be controlled for the safety of all.

Unfortunately, over the past three decades, prisons in America have been used to test the “incapacitation theory” – which as Ruth Gilmore posits in Golden Gulag is not much of a theory, in fact it is not really a theory because it doesn’t propose to do or enact much at all [I paraphrase].

Prisons are many things; the parts of an expensive social experiment, the dumping-grounds for citizens caught up in the war on drugs; the accidental and damaging substitutions for mental health institutions; and in very few (and just as real) circumstances the necessary lock-ups for extremely violent offenders.

One problem I have in communicating the need for real prison reform is created by the fact that violent offenders are those that seize the public’s attention. Violent criminals are a tiny fraction of America’s prison population yet they’re the ones that trigger fear instincts and sway public opinion. I understand why this is the case and why it takes a lot to get past that.

Men like Silverstein, who’s actions are described above, should be behind bars for a long, long time. But the vast majority of the 2.3 million prisoners of the US are not like Silverstein. This same vast majority would also want Silverstein behind bars … and they’d make good argument as to why they shouldn’t be there with him.