Addiction to Punishment: Challenging America’s Incarceration Industry

By Ethan Vesely-Flad
Originally published in The Witness magazine, January 2002
Tuesday, January 1, 2002

Ethan Vesely-Flad: Before you began PoliceWatch I believe that you were working with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. What drew you to civil rights work? And then what drew you more specifically into founding PoliceWatch and eventually the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights?

Van Jones: Well, I graduated from Yale Law School in 1993 and then came out to California to work with the Lawyers’ Committee. I worked there about three years. One of the things that I saw happening repeatedly was that we would be working on an issue — whether it was environmental racism up in Richmond, Calif.or public housing in San Francisco — and we would hear reports from parents of tremendous police brutality. We would be in meetings and people would say, “Are you guys lawyers?” And we’d say “Yeah, we’re lawyers.” “Hey, well, can the police just come in my house and, like, just go through everything and throw all my clothes on the floor and dump everything out of the cabinets?” And, “Hey, if the police are going to do an anal cavity search on my child, they can’t just pull his pants down in front of everybody, right? They have to like take him around the building or something, right?” We would hear these horrible stories from these parents trying to figure out how to navigate life with young black and Latino and Asian kids and the main problem they were having was with the police. I felt as a young lawyer that somebody should do something about it.

There is a project down in Los Angeles called Los Angeles PoliceWatch which is a lawyer referral service, and I thought, “Gee, we should have one in northern California!” So I worked with the National Lawyers’ Guild and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and the ACLU and a few other community groups to create the Bay Area PoliceWatch, which ultimately became a state bar association-certified lawyer referral service. It just took off. At first we would get two or three phone calls a week, then it became two or three phone calls a day. Now we get from between 12 and 20 phone calls a day. We opened an office in New York City in 1998.

We took steps in 1996 to create the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights — named after an unsung civil rights heroine — to use as a platform to create other projects. The idea was, where are the challenges to human rights coming from inside the U.S.? We kept coming back to police issues, so we started working on that. Well, after we had gotten the hotline set up and were getting phone calls, we realized that there was going to have to be some more pro-active organizing. There was a rash of police killings, very suspicious and controversial police killings of unarmed civilians here in San Francisco, so we focused on one of those cases, the case of Officer Mark Andaya, who helped to beat and pepper-spray to death Aaron Williams, an unarmed African American young man over in the Western Addition neighborhood.We worked on that case for quite a while and ultimately prevailed and got the officer fired in the summer of 1997.

We’ve now grown to the level of not just focusing on the police abuse and police harassment. Slowly but surely we’ve wound up taking on tougher and and more systemic problems within the criminal justice system such as cases of prosecutorial misconduct and abuses by immigration police. We also got calls and complaints from inside the San Francisco County Jail and helped some organizing efforts there.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: I heard you at a report-back event in San Francisco the week following the Seattle WTO protests. It was a great panel. One exciting aspect was that five of the seven panelists were younger than you and I, who are in our 30s. There was one older fellow from the Rainforest Action Network, and he made a negative comment about religion. You chose to respond to that, which I found very intriguing, because within the context of Bay Area activism — or west coast activism in general — mainstream religion is not seen in a positive light.

Van Jones: My grandfather was a minister. He actually wound up being the senior bishop in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (C.M.E.), Bishop Chester Arthur Kirkendoll. I went with him in the summertimes to church conferences and church gatherings, listening to a lot of preaching and singing and stuff. That had a big influence on my development. When I got to college I stumbled upon black liberation theology, and that really struck a chord with me in terms of where I was politically at that time — being really concerned about racism and the African-American experience here. So whereas a lot of people, when they go away to college take a big step away from their faith, I was still engaging even as I was getting more politically active and radical. Then I went to law school on the east coast, and came out here to work on an internship. At that time the Religious Right was really huge. It just basically shamed the faith as far as I’m concerned. When I first came out here the word “Christian” was synonymous with the word “bigot” or “idiot.” I really felt that people needed to see another face of Christian faith in activist politics.

I’ve always thought it was important to complicate the view of the left on some of these questions around faith and spirituality. Certainly the Christian church as it exists now is basically a state religion that is a part of the functioning of the government and the economy. It’s certainly not an oppositional force as an institutionalized entity. The same is true, frankly, of labor unions, at this point, and non-profits, NGOs and foundations and any number of social institutions. Over time they tend to accommodate themselves to the prevailing order, or they don’t survive. That having been said, the faith of Jesus as a historical mystic and social actor can be distinguished from the institutional church. And it’s the faith of Jesus that I think is very instructive for people who are oppressed and trying to liberate themselves.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: So it informs you still in a personal context, but you don’t see it in terms of institutional connections?

VAN JONES: You know, I attend church regularly.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: Are you still in the C.M.E.?

VAN JONES: No, recently I’ve been attending the East Bay Church of Religious Science, which seems to be an offshoot from mainstream Christianity. They have this African great-grandmother who is a minister and they focus a lot on the power of forgiveness, positive thinking, the possibility of healing. I think the mainstream, institutional church is still trying to beat people up to convince them that they’re sinners. The harder thing is to convince people that they are actually good! And that they have the spirit of the Divine Creator within them that they should be trying to act from and in alignment with.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: It seems like there are some connections to the criminal justice system and prison system.

Van Jones: Yeah, the whole punishment/ punitive thing. I’m spiritually engaged in trying to deal with a society that’s addicted to punishment and allergic to preventing the root causes of crime. The huge expansion of the incarceration industry is a concentration of a number of crises in this society — not the least of which is the failure of policy-makers, decision-makers, and the public as a whole to embrace the humanity of all of the people who live here, to see the divine within the other and to try to relate from that basis.

Van Jones

That is a very difficult thing to do anyway, but very little in our society supports that. Our social discourse and our social practice is very much about creating an “other” that can be scapegoated and punished. And that goes all the way back down to the initial genocide against Native Americans to the enslavement of African Americans, combined with a lot of Puritanical stuff. So I see the struggle against the mass incarceration of young people of color and poor people in this society as an extension of other struggles to rehumanize populations that have been dehumanized.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: This week I read William Upski White’s No More Prisons. There was one passage that I think especially connects to what you were talking about. He talks about our nation’s love of prisons, but also uses prisons as a metaphor for this country’s love of dividing, creating bars, putting up walls. . .

Van Jones: At the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights we think that the prison walls are a reflection of the fact of the social walls between communities. And so at the center we have every color of the Skittles bag, all working together, you know, lots of different projects. It’s not just a black project or a women’s project, it’s a project where all kinds of people who suffer from discrimination and oppression work together to solve problems. It makes us a much more powerful organization because we can go and talk to transgendered sex workers in the Tenderloin neighborhood one day, and then be over in Oakland talking to young hip-hoppers the next day, and then be back over in Chinatown the next day. We are very consistent about trying to pull down those social walls. As more and more come down, it becomes much more difficult for people to stand by when people they experience to be their human neighbors are thrown in jail.

There are these wake-up calls along your own road in life. I had the experience of going to Yale Law School and I knew people who were 18, 19 years old who had drug problems, who were involved in drug sales, who were undergraduates at Yale. And I also knew people who were similarly afflicted who lived three or four blocks away from me at public housing projects. The kids at Yale who ran afoul of the law were given treatment, counseling, their papers were put on hold, their final exams were put on hold, sometimes they went to Europe for a year and came back and were able to get their lives back on track. Those people are now doctors and lawyers.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: Or presidents.

Van Jones: People with similar problems who lived three blocks away went to jail.That taught me something. There is no lack of understanding of what it takes to turn a kid around if a kid runs into problems. If we see that kid fully as a human being with great potential, we will bring a tremendous amount of monetary resources to get them turned around. If we have dehumanized them, we will spend a tremendous amount of monetary resources to segregate, isolate, and punish them. When we get to a place where the kid with a drug problem in public housing three blocks from Yale has the same opportunity as the kid with a drug problem on campus, then we have a just society.

I take a lot of comfort and direction from Isaiah. One of the things that God orders him to do is to go and open the prison house door. And so for me, my spiritual journey and my political journey are coming closer together.

I spent a long time doing a lot of protests and rallies and trying to figure out how to be involved in all sorts of politics of confrontation and outrage, and I got really burned out. About a year and a half ago I had to take a step back from the pace and the approach and the frenzy that I was using. I just couldn’t do it any more. I went through a real personal crisis. I went to the Windcall Retreat Center for about two weeks. I just slept and wept and tried to get my head together. I started going to church more and got into counseling — you know, everything I could think of just to try to figure some stuff out. And one of the things that I’ve come to is the real need for progressive people to know what it is that we’re saying “yes” to. Julia Butterfly Hill says we’ve gotten so good at defining what we’re against that what we’re against is beginning to define us! I agree with that and so now I’m really wanting to do my politics from a place of having a more positive and holistic view of where we’re trying to go. That requires time for reflection, which activists often don’t give ourselves time for. We go from meeting to protest and from meeting to protest. It requires some real personal healing. I think we get involved in political protest work for mixed reasons — some personal anger as well as some political concern. But at a certain point I believe you have to address those political concerns from a clear-eyed and wise place. You have to deal with that personal anger. A movement that can help address some of the material concerns that people have and some of the environmental concerns that people have, but that also addresses some of the spiritual hunger that people feel, will be welcome and powerful and have a chance to change society in a really fundamental way.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: A very good friend of mine did political prisoner and police brutality work in New York City, yet two of her immediate family members are police officers, and she is close to them — it’s not “I’m doing this to spite you.” As your work evolves, from PoliceWatch to the Ella Baker Center, is there now more of an engagement with police? Or is it still an oppositional politics proposition?

Van Jones: Well, first of all, my favorite uncle is a police officer! And I have a cousin who is a prison guard out here for whom I have affection and fondness. But I’ll paraphrase Phil Graham on this one and say if the lion and the lamb are going to lie down together, I want to make sure my community is a lion. I don’t think that we have enough counterweight power with the law enforcement establishment yet to be involved in a politics of collaboration. I think we’re still at a place where there’s a need to build up a real counterweight to the power of the police officers’ unions and the prison guards’ unions which so overwhelmingly mis-shape public policy. We need human rights organizations on the other side that are also big and to some extent belligerent and obnoxious in their defense of the other constituencies that stand to lose out as the police and the prison guards eat up more and more of the public budget and command more and more of the public dialogue.

Do you get to a tipping point where you can move from confrontation to some other politics? I’m open to that being a possibility, but progressives have yet to transform our relationships with each other! A lot of activists, especially in the Bay Area, have often said, “I feel like I’m coming off a football field where I got tackled a whole bunch of times, but everybody that tackled me had on my jersey!” Just based on all the internal fighting. It’s not all government spies manipulating people against each other. My observation about this in-your-face direct action politics that I’ve come out of, and am still a part of, is that it tends to shape people’s approach to problem-solving in a way that is highly adversarial — such that when you do have problems among your own folks things get real adversarial real fast. Coalitions fall apart, organizations fall apart, you get some poor soul that tries to show some leadership eaten alive by the piranha politics of the self-martializing left. Those kinds of politics won’t change society.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: What is it about criminal justice activism work that draws in young people so much?

Van Jones: Well, it’s a combination of things. One is that the massive frustration of two million (and growing) people imprisoned in the U.S. mostly for non-violent offenses is a stench in the nostrils of God! It is just a howling human rights problem that anybody who hears about it in its full dimension is horrified — left, right or center. The reality is that young people are capable of more outrage than two people once they’ve got two jobs and 3.5 kids and a bunch of other problems. Another thing is the work dovetails neatly with a certain kind of anti-authoritarian rebellion that adolescents go through anyway! Through shifting demographics there are many more young people in the country. And many more of those young people being people of color means that you have a generation that is more under the gun of police violence and harassment.

Now some of that seems to be changing, at least in New York City as the N.Y.P.D. decides not to harass black, Latino and Asian youth as much. It has now focused a lot more of its harassment on people who appear to be Middle Eastern or Muslim. You’re starting to see black and Latino kids walking around with N.Y.P.D. baseball caps and all kinds of weird stuff! So this new “War on Terrorism” context, if it really fully supplants the “War on Drugs” context — and we have a different racist war – then that may reshuffle the deck here a little bit. But one thing we have to be very clear about among people of color is that the secret war against a secret enemy with brown skin, an enemy that’s both within the country and outside of the country, a war with no clear objectives and no timeline — that’s the “War on Drugs.” That framework was used to oppress black and Latino folks primarily, both in the U.S. and in the Caribbean and in Central and South America. The War on Terrorism has the same basic characteristics. And so for Africa and Asia this kind of open-ended secret war against the secret enemy is called the War on Terrorism.

Mass incarceration here inside the U.S. is supposedly to reduce the use of drugs, even though the use of drugs is continuing to go up. If reducing drug use is what the policy was trying to do, they would try something different. This mass incarceration agenda is clearly about more than curtailing drug use. It seems to be about social control, it seems to be about profiteering. Similarly, although there is certainly a need to deal with the fact that there are terrorist movements in other countries, I believe this War on Terrorism also probably has something to do with oil and geo-politics, and that’s not being talked about as much.

What we have to be very, very careful about as we move into this new century will be a lot more government-sponsored violence, whether it’s inside the U.S. borders with more police and National Guard in the airports, or at the U.S. border with more militarization, or beyond the U.S. border with covert and other military operations. Civil society has to speak back to that and try to keep it in check and keep it honest and try to pull problem-solving away from the punitive and the violent over to the political, the social, the economic, the spiritual — where the solutions actually solve problems before creating new ones.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: You recently won a battle against the prison system in Oakland. How do you think that fits into the challenges of what lies ahead?

Van Jones: Well, Alameda was on track to build one of the biggest per capita juvenile halls in the country — we called it the Super Jail for Kids — and we decided to oppose that. They wanted to build a 520-bed juvenile hall for Alameda County, which has 1.5 million people. To give you a comparison, Chicago has 498 beds total and 5 million people! We got the state Board of Corrections to withdraw 2.3 million dollars of funding for this thing and got the county administrators to reduce the size of it from 540 to 420 — which is still way too big. And so we’re still fighting them to bring the size way down.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: Who is the “we”?

Van Jones: The “Books not Bars” campaign, which is a campaign that the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights houses. It’s working in close partnership with the Youth Force Coalition. This Super Jail was signed, sealed, delivered — all but approved — and these young folks jumped in last spring and have protested and disrupted meetings and done sit-ins and everything imaginable.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: I loved the piece that was in the Oakland Tribune — it was like council members were running, fleeing kids.

Van Jones: It’s a youth-led movement against the punishment industry. Its core is potentially very powerful because it’s about rehumanizing people that society wanted to throw away and that people are making money off of. When we were talking about how having a different kind of spiritual lens changes the politics of this movement — well, rather than polarizing it and saying, “It’s people of color against the world,” and, “Those racist white people want to see us all in jail,” a different lens lets you say, “Wait a minute. The number one economic development strategy for California for rural white depressed areas is to site prisons there and then raise up little mini-industries around the prison.”

I mean, think about it. The state government is creating a situation in which my black kid is going to spend all day in jail as a prisoner and your white kid is going to spend all day in jail as a prison guard. This is a positive solution for my problems or for your problems? This is a non-solution! Why don’t we join hands — rural whites and urban people of color — and say to the state government, “We want you to be investing millions of dollars into job creation that helps both and doesn’t hurt both.” There is the opportunity for real leadership and the opportunity for real change. Especially if you add onto that an environmental lens. Shouldn’t California be investing billions of dollars into a green economy and not a Gulag economy? Well, the money to create a green economy is going into the Gulag account and so the environmentalists, the white working class, people of color in inner cities – we have a common interest.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: What is the role of the religious community in supporting this work?

Van Jones: I certainly think all faith-based institutions should review their investment portfolios and divest from companies that profiteer off prisons.

Ethan Vesely-Flad: Is there such a list?

Van Jones: We’re working to develop a list. We want to do the punishment industry what was done to the tobacco industry. We want to put it on trial and create a consciousness so that people don’t want their money in the incarceration industry.

Beyond that, certainly people who are Christians — this whole thing around redemption, this whole idea that God is going to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” — that’s heavy stuff! And that whole thing about loving your neighbor — that’s serious stuff. I mean, it’s just a few little words and you can run right over them, but that’s the challenge of being a Christian — a real Christian, not a Bible-thumping hypocrite. Walking in the world in a Christian way and walking our personal lives in a Christian way in the new century full of fear and conflict is a real challenge. It’s very easy to point the finger at other people; it’s very easy just to run and hide; it’s very easy just to sort of watch it all on TV and hope it doesn’t come and getcha. It’s a lot harder to be engaged in the world and engaged in your faith and to have those two things inform each other such that things change for the better in society. That’s what Jesus did. So that’s what it’s supposed to be about. And Jesus, you know, clearly wasn’t in with the Romans, clearly didn’t run around with Caesar. . .

Ethan Vesely-Flad: That wasn’t his clique. . .

Van Jones: Jesus was with the prostitutes. And Moses, he was trying to get away from Pharaoh, he wasn’t trying to snuggle up to Pharaoh. I don’t see any examples of the faith-walk that snuggles you up to the existing order. I think a real faith-walk sometimes takes you away from the institutional leaders of your faith and your government. But that’s what the prophetic call is: to seek the truth within, to seek the truth in dialogue with God, and to seek the truth in society. And to stand in the truth. That’s needed now more than ever.

Ethan Vesely-Flad is editor of The Witness, and is based in New York City. He may be reached by email at [email protected]