Abolish Prison: Here’s How

photo of Jerome G. Miller by David Scull in New York Times, August 16, 2015, cropped by Rhona Mahony

In 1969, Jerome G. Miller became the commissioner of the state of Massachusetts’s prisons for boys. He noticed within two weeks that the “reformatory” guards caged boys in basements, beat the soles of their feet with wooden paddles, and forced some to drink from toilets. It cost $10,000 a year to keep each boy locked up. The New York Times today quotes his observation: that price tag was “enough to send a child to Harvard with a $100-a-week allowance, a summer vacation in Europe and once-a-week psychotherapy.” (New York Times, August 16, 2015)

So Miller took the boys out of the prisons. According to the New York Times, the kids went to “community drug treatment and job training programs, therapeutic group homes, military schools, the care of college student volunteers and full-time paid local residents, foster parents,” Outward Bound, and, in some cases, their own families.

What about the unionized guards and administrators? Surely they resisted the elimination of their livelihoods? What about their patrons in state government? Miller said, “You can have the institutions; we are taking the kids.” His agency didn’t fire the prison employees until several years after the prisons for children and teenagers were nearly empty. By then, it might have been hard for guards and administrators to argue for their continued employment. Sweet! First, empty the prison; then, close it.

Activists, lawyers, and supporters of the Movement for Black Lives are debating their next steps. How about: empty and shut down the prisons. Think of it as a medium-term goal. Start with the states. Think about alternatives to the concrete cell, begin with children’s and teenagers’ prisons in states with small populations, or approach state employees anywhere who have motive and opportunity. Many allies will help.

Hiking with high school students


I had a delightful hike yesterday with 14 students from Sequoia High School in Redwood City, California. Four teachers escorted them and four of us volunteers helped. The photo shows us enjoying a huge outcrop of tafoni sandstone in El Corte de Madera Open Space District, off of Skyline Boulevard in Woodside, California. Volunteer Patrick took more photos.

Thanks so much to the leaders of our Sierra Club San Jose program Inspiring Connections Outdoors and to the Sequoia teachers who organized our outing.

Our Sierra Club leader for this outing, Steve, is a certified naturalist. He taught us that Douglas Fir needles are tasty and full of Vitamin C. He taught us how to identify Poison Oak, Huckleberry, and Douglas Iris. He showed us pungent Bay Laurel leaves, a peculiar tall, pale, parasitic orchid, and Slender Salamanders hiding under a log. He told us that the bulky pale-green tufts of Old Man Beard (Usnea) lichen hanging from the tree limbs around us can grow only in exceptionally clean air. We all inhaled deeply!

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Take military gear away from police

Octopus whose legs list military weapons and point to different U.S. cities

A marcher passed me this picture on Tuesday, April 14, during the “Stop Murder by Police” demonstration in San Francisco. I admire how concisely and dramatically it teaches us about the crazy gear our neighborhood cops are now using against us. The only exaggeration for effect you’ll find in the picture is on the octopussy’s bottom legs. As far as I know, local police in the U.S. aren’t yet using Uzis or laser cannons. The U.S. Navy, though, is testing bow-mounted laser cannons. Act now, or see one soon in your town.

Your city or town police most likely roll their armored personnel carriers and grenade launchers only into poor, black neighborhoods. Usually, to serve a search warrant for contraband drugs. Often, marijuana. Most often, none found. Take a look at the ACLU’s 2014 report, “War Comes Home: The Excessive Militarization of American Policing”. Police training officers teach recruits to “steel their battlemind.” Recruits serve no-knock search warrants by tossing stun grenades into front rooms full of children. Baby Bou Bou suffers severe burns. Let’s take the weapons of war out of our neighborhoods. Let’s rediscover policing that really does serve and protect.

Note: Who drew the octopus? The back of the picture contains a photocopied letter to the editor of The Berkeley Voice, entitled “Basic needs must be met,” published on Friday, February 6, 2015. The author: Gene Bernardi, of Berkeley, a member of Berkeleyans Organizing for Liberty Defense. Those are my only clues. Thank you, Gene.