Friday, August 19, 2016

De-Privatization of U.S. Federal Prisons


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

August 19, 2016


                Yesterday, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates posted a public notice:


Today, I sent a memo to the Acting Director of the Bureau of Prisons directing that, as each private prison contract reaches the end of its term, the bureau should either decline to renew that contract or substantially reduce its scope in a manner consistent with law and the overall decline of the bureau’s inmate population.  This is the first step in the process of reducing—and ultimately ending—our use of privately operated prisons.  While an unexpected need may arise in the future, the goal of the Justice Department is to ensure consistency in safety, security and rehabilitation services by operating its own prison facilities.

Today’s memo reflects important steps that the bureau has already taken to reduce our reliance on private prisons, including  a decision three weeks ago to end a private prison contract for approximately 1,200 beds.  Taken together, these steps will reduce the private prison population by more than half from its peak in 2013 and puts the Department of Justice on a path to ensure that all federal inmates are ultimately housed at bureau facilities (with link to memo at


            Of course, most US prisoners are detained and US Customs and Border Protection has declared that it will continue to house immigrant detainees privately.  Deputy Attorney General Yates announced that the federal order, and the recent decarceration of federally convicted drug offenders, is intended to set an example for state and local prison and jail authorities (

            Yesterday, the stock price of Corrections Corporation of America fell by 35%, and of the Geo Group by 40%, a fear that other prison, jail, and detention authorities at federal, state and local levels will follow suit (

            I have recently argued, once again, against for-profit privatization of services of public care and custody generally, as now also in private trusteeship of foster care and child support payments (“The Problem of Privatization Again:  Foster Care and Child Support,”, July 31).  Ms. Yates affirms that prisons become safer, better, even more efficiently managed when they are owned and managed by publicly accountable public servants.  I cannot help but believe that the Justice Department’s initiative is supported if not led by President Obama as a departing legacy.  Here’s hoping that the Justice Department’s de-privatization initiative sets a national political trend toward decarceration and de-privatization at all levels.  Love and peace, hal

Thursday, August 4, 2016

racism within a major urban police department


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

August 4, 2016


                I commend host Ann Fisher and her staff and guests for WOSU’s “All Sides” opening hour today, “Allegations of Racial Discrimination by Columbus [Ohio] Police,” podcast at, to anyone teaching, and for that matter anyone seeking to understand or document the institutional problem of racism within US police departments.  John Jay professor Delores Jones-Brown puts the situation in Columbus in national context throughout the hour.  Without naming the other participants in the first half hour of the program, they also include a longtime local reporter, a current (now committed school resource officer) and former black officer suing to enforce the state civil rights commission recommendations for redress with their attorney (and their testimony is specific).  The primary interviewee in the second part is the government affairs director for the state Fraternal Order of Police, which nominally represents the rights of police at all ranks, in lieu of having recourse to independent human resources personnel.  It is too bad he didn’t hear the earlier segment, because he simply refused to believe host Ann Fisher’s allegations that a white sergeant could possibly threaten not to watch a black officer’s back in the narcotics division, because “all officers watch each other’s back,” adding that both complainants and respondents were “independently” represented by FOP reps (and goes silent when she presses him on how the earlier cases got buried.  For her part, Professor Jones-Brown affirms that this is a national problem for officers of color.

                Perhaps not coincidentally, the two urban police departments I have cited as models of replacing “broken-windows” with “community” policing, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Richmond, California, have hired black and openly gay chiefs respectively, and the proportion of officers of color in their forces, and the proportion of people of color in Columbus, far exceed that in Columbus.

                For all the talk about police violence against “civilians” of color they encounter, this is the first recognition of racism within police forces I have seen in a long time.  It is a reminder on one hand that racial representation matters especially at higher levels, and on the other hand that the racism implicit throughout US, which suggests that people of color are more criminal and less trustworthy than white folks, victimizes police too.  I’m thinking, too, that in police departments like those in Cincinnati and Richmond, letting go of demonstrating success in law enforcement and getting to know people of color they police in many respects carries over how police come to know and respect one another, so including white supervisors of officers of color.  Ann Fisher and your staff, thank you for a most revealing program.  Love and peace, hal

Sunday, July 31, 2016


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

July 31, 2016


                                Thursday’s broadcast of WOSU radio’s “All Sides” program highlighted another instance of the problem of for-profit privatization of state services, this time as guardians of the property of foster children, and of collection and enforcement of child support ( ).  Guests on the interview program were Daniel L. Hatcher, author of The Poverty Industry: The exploitation of America’s Most Vulnerable Citizens (NYU Press, 2016), and former Athens County, Ohio, family services director Jack Frech.  The focus of the program was Ohio, one of the states that has carried privatization furthest.  Here as in criminal justice, the state saves money on state personnel and services by private contracting to enterprises which supply spend less on services and pocket all child benefits (as from social security and for disabilities), independently of “services” they offer, for which of course they are not publicly accountable.  It is one thing for public services to be provided by not-for-profit organizations, but for businesses dedicated to growth and profit, as with criminal justice services, privatization of public services promotes irresponsibility and exploitation, against which there is practically no recourse or defense, out of public control.  May we in my state and country put public accountability back in social service.  Love and peace, hal

Friday, July 29, 2016

Hillary Clinton as a feminist leader


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

July 29, 2016


                Radical feminists have shown me basic distinction between two culturally political definitions of leadership: the ability to get others to follow one’s directions, historically associated with patriarchy; and the ability to hear and organize to the needs and wants of those in one’s care, historically associated with motherhood—leadership as partnership, rather than as hierarchy.  One kind of leader makes decisions for others, the other with others.

                Patriarchal leadership is measured by what the leader has personally achieved.  Indeed, it was Ms. Clinton’s jibe at Donald Trump by promising what he alone could accomplish.

Instead, presumably under her leadership, the closing night of the Democratic convention featured some five hours of personal testimony from those whose lives she had personally touched, to whom she had responded, addressing issues her proposed policies address, again as the result of a process of broad consultation.  They have been informed and moved by the socialist spirit and planks that have inspired supporters of Bernie Sanders.  Ms. Clinton acknowledges mistakes, as in having supported getting tough on crime during her husband’s governorship and presidency.  In sum, she listens and tries to learn from her own mistakes.  And she offers the electorate concrete plans for what she proposes to do now, if elected, making them available for continuing debate and discussion.   She continues to learn from those her decisions and commitments have affected.  In Riane Eisler’s terms, she seeks to lead by partnership; in Martha Ruddick’s terms, she thinks maternally.  It is an approach to leadership that focuses on connecting people, to hear and learn from one another to guide where one tries going next, and which shifts course when those who suffer are attended to.

It is interesting that Ms. Clinton has chosen a Jesuit-inspired Catholic, Tim Kaine, as her vice president.  I recall it being said long ago that Ms. Clinton felt a calling to service as a Methodist.

Earlier this week, a friend asked me to name a single thing Ms. Clinton had done.  I was at a loss for words.  In US media and political dialogue, we look for personal achievements of those who seek high office.  I come back to a lesson systems theorist Les Wilkins taught me: In the decisions we make, how we (re)make them matters more than thinking we know what is right or wrong regardless of the reactions we get.  It is not simply that Ms. Clinton is a woman.  Margaret Thatcher made herself known to be “the Iron Lady,” a woman who proved she could be as tough as a man’s man.  In Ms. Clinton I see someone who represents a feminist approach to governing that is rooted in, but not limited to, women’s experience.  It is an approach to wielding power not over others, but with others, most critically those whom power over others hurts most, for the sake of the welfare, safety and security of us all, among ourselves and with the planet on which our lives depend.  If as I expect she is elected over Mr. Trump, it will represent a cultural shift in the qualities we in the US seek in those we trust to lead us.  Love and peace, hal

Monday, July 11, 2016

Black Power as Cultural Transformation


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

July 11, 2016


                Today, as on WBUR’s “Here and Now” (, I hear many reminders of mass police violence against communities of color in the summer of 1967, and the ensuing Kerner Commission report on police violence as a product of institutional racism in 1968.  I might add that ensuing violence against often white and middle-class anti-war protesters as President Nixon took office helped make excessive police violence against people of color and political protesters give way, in many communities black and white, to what came to be called “community policing.”  Of course this recognition did not “solve” problems of police violence and its underlying racism.  But it did change police forces here and there across the country, while in political backlash, law-n-order “broken-windows” became institutionally, statistically, politically enshrined, with New York City’s CompStat system leading the way.

                Two generations after the Kerner report, cell phone transmissions of overtly problematic police violence against black people, including shooting deaths, readily make (inter)national news, alongside coverage of the mass shooting of police officers in Dallas, ironically a model of community policing, which ordinarily would be reported all by itself.  It is true of all elements of cultural transformation of politically organized violence (down to adult violence against children) that they are less visible, virtually silent as compared to the alarm that violence sounds in our individual and collective consciousness.  Counter-intuitively, the fact that we recognize and circulate news of police violence against people of color signifies that culturally, we white folks especially are awakening to the racism implicit in profiling and distinguishing “at-risk offenders” from ourselves, and implicit in the notion that the first duty of police is to control criminals.  And wouldn’t you know it: I hear that a Pew poll shows that while most whites report feeling race relation are worse than ever, a majority of black respondents believe that the nation as a whole has made progress in recognizing and dealing with racism.  Today, President Obama is reported to have said the same.

                The cultural bottom line is that as a whole, whites included, we recognize the racism inherent in policing as “law enforcement” much more readily than we did as I entered the graduate study of criminology in 1968.  Cultural transformation of political institutions of power over others into power sharing rests on political awakening to the violence done especially by us—notably established white men as it becomes noticeable in mass news media.  That includes criminologists in my sixties/early seventies generation who to some degree are institutionalized as “critical,” who have proliferated as college and university teachers who have been teaching about the racism, sexism and ageism underlying “criminal justice” as we know it, for fifty years too.  As someone who seeks cultural transformation of the violence inherent in imbalances of political/legal power over others, I see today’s alarm over police/black violence as increased recognition that racism is our problem, an awareness that so far as I can see has underlain cultural transformations that have been undertaken here and there by police chiefs, which are also being noticed, as in Dallas, Cincinnati, and Richmond, California.  May the force be with us.  Love and peace, hal

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Abolitionist Prosecution: a tribute to Christian Champagne


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at

June 29, 2016


                Last night my son-in-law, Christian Champagne, was elected District Attorney of the 3rd Judicial District of a three-county area in the southwest corner of Colorado.  He defeated a local tribal prosecutor with over 20 years of prosecution experience at state and federal levels, who accused Christian of being soft on crime, 66-34%.

                Christian (and Jill’s and my daughter Katy) moved to Durango in 2005, when Christian took his first job out of law school at a state public defender.  Three years later, Todd Risberg was elected as a reform district attorney (and re-elected to the second of a two-term limit) and appointed Christian to be his first assistant.  On one hand in his trial work, he has earned support that includes family members of victims of child sexual assault by getting convictions and substantial prison sentences for what ICOPA (International Conference on Penal Abolition) co-founder Ruth Morris called “the dangerous few.”  On the other hand, he has taken the lead in establishing options to incarceration such as pre-trial release screening, restorative justice/mediation programs in courts and in schools, drug courts, and youth programs coordinated by La Plata County Youth Services, now directed by Jill’s and my daughter Katy—all of which serve to keep families together and economically integrated into the community.  As I could see among Christian’s ardent supporters, the prevailing sentiment throughout the judicial district is that people do feel both protected and safer thanks to Todd and Christian’s leadership.

                I am always concerned that diversionary program’s like those in Christian’s district will, in Stan Cohen’s words, ultimately “widen the net” of incarceration, as diversion programs grow to include those who otherwise would not have been prosecuted at all, some of whom “fail” and acquire prior records that subject them to special scrutiny, and so become “recidivists.”  In La Plata County (Durango is the county seat), Todd Risberg’s coming to office coincided with jail monitoring by the county criminal justice coordinating committee, which had tried unsuccessfully to block the building of a new county jail.  Katy tells me that the committee abandoned monitoring the jail population several years ago, shifting priorities to community program development because the new jail had become, as it remains, largely empty, with closed cell blocks.

                Christian’s take on prosecution—that community safety including victim support and protection is his paramount responsibility—brings to mind something of a divide among penal abolition, as reflected in ICOPA 16 just held in Quito, Ecuador:

Political activists for abolishing the inherently racist, classist, ageist state structure called the criminal justice system, including prisoners, are central to all of us in ICOPA.  To me, to borrow Karl Marx’s, their voice and collective power is a vital step toward emancipation from human exploitation, at its worst in mass incarceration.  Political structures both reflect and affect how we define and respond to human differences, to conflict, to violence.  To those whose unwavering focus is on political change, on abolishing the state, to work in or with the system is to be co-opted, and in a case like mine personally, a product of white privilege (as it may well be).

From a political point of view, I myself have continually hypothesized that creating so-called diversion programs to keep people out of jail and prison is potentially counter-productive—that such programs expand further feed the incarceration monster.  I am also an empiricist who allows experience to disconfirm my beliefs, as mass decarceration the district attorney’s office has helped achieve under Todd and Christian’s leadership.

Marx saw political emancipation as a step toward human emancipation from exploitation and violence of us all toward others—emancipation from depending on some of us being entitled to punish or exploit others more than they are entitled to punish or exploit us for our social sins—as a historical step from political to transformation of the culture of power over others into power sharing.  I see political and cultural transformation as interdependent, as in Norway, where sustained mass decarceration in the 19th century followed sustained demilitarization as the Napoleonic War ended and Norway became independent from Denmark, six centuries after Viking colonization had reached its peak.

I think Marx (Chairman Mao in China too, for that matter) was wrong in supposing that political and cultural transformation of oppression and violence are necessarily, historically sequential.  In Norway, for example, low rates of incarceration coincide with democratization of adult-child relations at home and in school (including a ban on corporal punishment by anyone, anywhere).  I postulate that changes in the ways we respond to conflict and violence in any social setting can become well learned and fruitful enough to generalize to any and all of our relations.  So it is that in formally cooperative structures, decision-making can be hierarchical and discipline punitive, while in formally hierarchical organizations, decision-making can be cooperative and discipline restorative.  This is so because in reality there is considerable diversity among us in how we respond to problems we have with each other, although in a political culture as hierarchical and punitive as the US, it is the formally cooperative or democratic structures that are most likely to be corrupted by the drive to establish order of some over others.  Indeed in a political culture where domination and punishment prevail over power-sharing, power corrupts, and in my country, prosecutors are notoriously “tough on crime.”

I am devoted to identifying and celebrating cultural transformation—defiance of political expectations—where I come upon it.  It happens that in US common-law based criminal justice systems, prosecutors occupy the structurally most central, most powerful discretion over whether incarceration grows or declines.  The substantial, continuing mass reduction of incarceration in Colorado’s 3rd Judicial District demonstrates the potential prosecutors have to transform the entire system of incarceration.  It shows that when prosecutors pursue that vision, their constituents become energized to support them, and to become party to making incarceration unnecessary, as they become safer together.  Lo and behold, the kind of prosecution I call peacemaking works.  Prosecutors take note: I can also make you pretty popular in a community that working together, makes you all become safer and more secure.

From the time I became a student public defender in law school until Christian became one, I never imagined I could feel professionally close to and admiring of a prosecutor’s work, one whose professional relations mirror the relations he and Katy have with their children.  What a wonderful surprise.  May the peacemaking path that Todd, Christian and the staff of the district attorney’s office here in southwest Colorado have taken, and the community support they have received, inspire prosecutors elsewhere to do likewise if they have not, and inspire us of the general public to recognize and appreciate those who have.  In prosecution as in everyday relations, peacemaking works, and where it prevails, we decarcerate…and it works for all of us.  Thank you Christian.  Love and peace, hal

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Sixteenth International Conference on Penal Abolition


Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito, Ecuador, June 16-18, 2016


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at



                A major gift I have received at every ICOPA in which I have participated[i] is for local activists to present the rest of us with the primary problems of violence and punishment generally and state violence and incarceration particularly which they face, and seek to transform.

                The most profound knowledge I bring home to the US from ICOPA 16 comes from the testimony of mothers trapped into serving as mules or couriers for drug cartels, alongside testimony from their families, activists and human rights lawyers, as ultimate victims of warriors trained, sponsored and corrupted by US wars on drugs.  The mothers initially agree to carry a drug shipment, most commonly to Europe, out of a desperate need to feed their families.  They represent an ethnic rainbow of those who live in poverty, but are primarily indigenous.  They are forced to continue serving as couriers by cartels who threaten otherwise to kill their families.  As in all wars, women and children are the ultimate victims of drug wars—fought by police, (para-)military forces and judges trained and funded by the School of the Americas and its successors in the US, often in US-based privatized prisons, stirred on by US drug enforcement agents (with some exceptions, as in Bolivia where President Evo Morales expelled them).

                 I came to ICOPA 16 well aware of the racist depictions of Chinese and Latin American immigrants that led heroin, cocaine and marijuana to become the basic targets of US drug enforcement.  I had known in theory that underclass young people of color pay by far the largest price for inherently counterproductive drug wars.  I owe it to the organizers of ICOPA 16 to know for real and personally that once again, as in all patriarchal, militarized worlds, it is the mothers who are enslaved into trafficking and their children whom our US-sponsored drug warriors supply to fill beds in US-built and operated prisons.

                At one of the conference sessions featuring the plight of mothers in prison, on “prison and drug use,” I asked the panelists whether they shared a vision of legalizing heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.  I mentioned several examples: heroin maintenance first introduced in Switzerland in 1994 after methadone “treatment” had failed, cocaine use as when I chewed coca leaves in Bolivia to climb hills without getting winded, or as extracted from the leaves (which are sent to Coca Cola to be blended with caffeine, and still, extract of the kola nut which has never been criminalized) for dental and medical use in the US, or marijuana as now legalized in several US states.  Ecuadoran human rights attorney Ernesto Pazmiño responded that an effort was being made to legalize marijuana possession and growth for personal use.  I had lunch with a family member and an activist from the region who were quite interested in how various West European countries had decriminalized and legalized drug use and possession.

                Throughout the world, the largest single contributor to incarceration is the detention of underclass people of color for drug possession and trafficking.   As drug wars have expanded, in the US as now I see in Latin America, young mothers of color have become those whose incarceration rate has climbed fastest, have become the leading bounty of our drug wars.  It is so obviously, uncontrovertibly the leading product of all our drug wars as to legally constitute the intended, primary product of our drug wars, to constitute the war crime of racially, primarily, targeting innocent underclass children and their de facto enslaved mothers, to fill prison beds in wars where failure to control drugs justifies escalation.  You might well say that this is drug warriors’ primary accomplishment.

                Because drug wars are the single greatest contributor to incarceration, understanding the history of drug wars and the effects of drug use have been a primary interest of mine since I entered criminology.  In our article on “Controlling Drug Use” (Criminal Justice Policy Review 13, no. 1, 21-31, March 2002; pdf available on request), I join Kevin Whiteacre in taking a public health or “peacemaking” approach to drug control, where drug users become one another’s primary source of information on good and ill effects of ways drugs are used, alongside information “authoritative sources” have to offer, where treatment for ill effects is available—all in all, efforts at harm reduction instead of prohibition.  Opiates including heroin, coca(ine) and marijuana and its derivatives are not inherently good or bad. As with all substances we eat, drink and inhale, it is the preparation, amount and administration of these drugs that makes the difference.  Unlike many pharmaceuticals and other things we consume, heroin and marijuana are not even inherently toxic; it is only when they are contaminated for illicit distribution that they may become poisonous—another argument for legalization.

                As a US citizen, a criminologist, and an educator, I feel a special responsibility to offer Latin Americans whatever testimony, consultation or assistance I might in drug cases, in political discussions, and in educational settings, regarding the neo-colonial history, politics and counterproductivity of drug prohibition, and positive ways to prevent and treat adverse effects of drug use as public health policy; just as I have long felt a special obligation to raise awareness in the violence and human destruction of the drug wars we launch and sponsor, which fall most heavily on economically desperate mothers and children of color everywhere.  I am especially grateful to the organizers and Latin American participants at ICOPA 16 for featuring this as the most egregious problem of “criminal justice” they face, for which we of the US are primarily responsible.  The first political step to making peace with drug use is noticing and recognizing the harm done by US-led wars on drugs; the challenge is to change course.  Criminologists are fond of ranking the seriousness of crime and violence.  As far as I’m concerned, the violence done to women in Latin America for drug trafficking, and their children, is as serious as organized violence and crime can get.  Special thanks to ICOPA 16 organizers and participants for making this reality so plain and personal.  Love and peace, hal


[i] I have participated in every prior ICOPA from ICOPA 3 in 1987 to ICOPA 14, missing ICOPA 15 in Ottawa due to family obligations.  I organized ICOPA 5 in Bloomington, Indiana, USA, in 1991, where the conference program was grounded in the healing traditions, and experience particularly of incarceration, of indigenous peoples of North America.