Election Day in Prison


These last few weeks I’ve been thinking about Election Day. Not the next one, but the last. On that Tuesday last November, I was at a prison in upstate New York for my weekly class on law and politics since the New Deal. We devoted the first part of our three-hour class to a discussion about the complex interaction between politics and the Equal Protection Clause since the dawn of the Civil Rights Era. We talked about some of the many battles this interaction has birthed, from massive resistance against Brown v. Board and white flight to affirmative action and the Equal Rights Amendment.

When we reached a natural pause in the material, I shifted direction. “I heard a rumor there is something going on today that has a lot of people pretty worked up; perhaps you have heard something about it as well.” Several students chuckled and a few of them sat a bit straighter in their seats. “Oh yeah,” someone said. And so a new discussion began—what does Election Day mean in prison?

None of my students can vote. Some never have, and others never will. But this is not an essay about felon disenfranchisement or criminal justice reform. Those are the natural and obvious segues about a college class in prison, but precisely because they are natural and obvious, we can count on newspapers to use the occasion of such a class to repeat what everyone inclined to listen has already learned: We put too many people in prison, keep them there too long, and impose too many burdens on those we release.

This essay is about elections and fear in an age of tribalism.


If polls can be believed, Americans are more anxious and fearful about the fate of the country than they have ever been. It’s not that times are objectively dangerous. On the contrary, most Americans live “in the safest place at the safest time in human history.” So reports Barry Glassner, a sociologist and author of The Culture of Fear. What we have in great abundance is not risk, but fearmongering. “We are living in the most fearmongering time in human history,” says Glassner, who has studied fear and its cultivation for years.

For some Americans, the fear is a very particular sort. Mongered by a desperate man, they fear that history will leave them behind, if it hasn’t already. They cower and snarl at the imagined face of a changing world: the immigrant, the Muslim, the Jew, the black man, the independent woman. They stomp their feet and chant their slogans, and imprison themselves in the imagined security of their tribe in the hope that bigger walls and smaller doors will force a clock to tick backwards.

And sometimes, in that liminal space where fear becomes insensate, they lash out. Even as overall crime rates fall, hate crimes rise. The numbers have been climbing for years. Barely a week after the midterm elections, the FBI reported that the number of hate crimes in 2017 exceeded the prior year by 17%, and those exceeded the year before that. Nothing new here: In most of the largest cities, every year seems to bring a new record. “We are an extraordinarily fragmented society across inter-group lines,” says Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. “We’ve entered a new place.” And because thousands of law enforcement agencies either do not keep track of hate crimes or do not report their totals to the FBI, we don’t even know just how dark this new place really is. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the annual number of hate crimes in the country is closer to a quarter-million than the 7,175 reported by the FBI.

Like any sickness, hatred flourishes in fetid ghettos. Today it spreads unchecked through the backwaters of the internet, infecting more and more Americans every year. Anti-Semitism in particular is on the rise. In 2017, the FBI reported nearly 2,000 anti-Semitic incidents, including physical assaults, vandalism, and attacks on Jewish institutions. According to the Anti-Defamation League, this represents a 57% increase over the prior year, which is the greatest single-year rise since the ADL began tracking the data in 1979.

And this doesn’t count the spasm of online harassment and anti-Semitic vitriol since first we put this man in charge. Prior to Trump’s election, anti-Semitic attacks and harassment online were “rare and unexpected, even for Jewish Americans who were prominently situated in the public eye.” So conclude the authors of a recent, detailed study of online assaults targeting Jews. But since his victory, “anti-Semitism has become normalized and harassment is a daily occurrence.” As the authors rightly conclude, this trend “shows no signs of abating.”

Most of these online stalkers—like cowards in every age—shield their identity behind an electronic veil, the Klansman’s sheet of the Internet Age. But some emerge from their behind their virtual curtain; days after the ADL released its report, Robert Bowers stormed into a Pittsburgh synagogue and cried, “All Jews must die.” At his hand, 11 did, making it the deadliest attack in US history targeting American Jews.

Though Jews are the most frequent target, they find themselves in excellent company. Hatred is on the march: Women (“Make rape legal if done on private property”); Latinos (“White California Woman Calls Latino Man ‘Rapist and Animal’ Because He’s Mexican”); Muslims (“Assaults against Muslims in U.S. surpass 2001 level”); LGBTQ individuals (“In 2017, there was the equivalent of one homicide of an LGBTQ person in the US each week”); mosques (“The mosque … was covered with derogatory words and urine on the carpet”); Jewish cemeteries and community centers (“Police are searching for the vandals who damaged … nearly 500 headstones at a Jewish graveyard in Philadelphia. … Monday morning, more than a dozen Jewish Community Centers (JCC) in the US received telephone bomb threats”).

And because hatred favors the stupid, many others also find themselves at risk, though their only sin is to seem different in just the wrong way. “I didn’t have time to realize what was happening before the attacker reached through my car window, opened the door, and started beating me across my face and head, pushing my turban off.” Who they are and what they believe matters far less than the group to which they seem to belong.

This brings us to a perfectly serviceable definition of tribalism. It is the belief that once we have identified a person’s tribe, we know enough to demand action against them. It is this second part that distinguishes a tribalism from either a heuristic (“never take a cross-town bus”) or a stereotype (“blondes have more fun”). The first is a mental shortcut adopted after trial and error. It may be right and it may be wrong, but we settle on it to spare ourselves the burden of puzzling out the answer to the same question over and over again. The second is a gift we bestow on the intellectually indolent, a cocktail of myth and lore just as apt to be wrong as right.

But tribalism begins where heuristic and stereotype leave off. A tribalism is the belief that someone poses a threat merely because he is not of the right group. His membership in the wrong tribe is by itself enough to make him a menace. Tribalism might begin with a heuristic (“what’s with all the old white men committing mass shootings?”), and it might rely on a stereotype (“evangelical Christians are fanatics”), but it punctuates them with a judgment (“they are a threat to us”) and a plan (“so we must rise against them”). An Irishman likes a good whiskey—a stereotype; the Mexicans are invading so we need to build a wall—a tribalism.


I thought about all this as I headed to prison on Election Day. Nearly every state in the country has at least one college-in-prison program. These programs used to be more common, but in 1994, Congress ended the use of Pell Grants for incarcerated students. There’s chatter about restoring the funding, but so far, college education in prison is provided mostly by a small group of faculty from about 200 different colleges and universities around the country, who volunteer their time. Cornell has one of the most well-established programs; CU faculty teach at four different prisons within an hour or so of campus.

My class of 17 is pretty nearly the perfect size for a seminar, and as in all things, diversity makes it better. Nine of my students are white, five are black, two Latino, and one Native American. They hail from downstate boroughs and tiny upstate towns, and range in age from the late 20s to the late 50s. Some have been inside for decades, others far less. One man has remarked several times that he grew up in prison. A second man was sentenced to spend at least 25 years in prison for a crime he committed when he was 16, and another was sentenced as a “career” offender after his third conviction for a non-violent offense.

But in one critical respect, they are all the same. They have all made the turn. Over the course of a long career as a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer, I have spent a great deal of time in a great many state, federal, and military prisons in the United States and her colonial outposts in Guantanamo and Iraq. I have met hundreds of men who have put their past behind them and become someone else.

For some, the transformation is still fragile, and they look forward to the day when recently acquired patterns of thought have settled into familiar habits of mind. For others, the change has long since taken hold, and they look back on their past with a mix of revulsion and astonishment, increasingly unable to recognize the man whose angry visage fades away in the rearview mental mirror.

A couple years ago I met a man in a Colorado prison whose story has stayed with me. Born and raised in Compton, California, he spent his childhood in thrall to the Corner Pocket Crips. His mother was a Crip, as were his uncles, brothers, and cousins. His father was in prison. “By the time I was 10, 11, that was my life,” he told me. “By the time I was 12, I was holding a gun, selling drugs.” By his fifteenth birthday, he estimates he had been to one funeral for every year of his life. I once asked him to describe a typical day growing up. “Just smokin’ weed all day and lookin’ for violence,” he answered.

When he was 18, he took part in a gruesome triple homicide. The state sought his death; the jury gave him life. In prison, he made the turn. When I met him, he lived in an incentive unit at a Colorado prison, counseling younger men who were struggling to give up the gang life. “They don’t have the courage to be who they truly want to be,” he told me. He knows better than most that change is hard, so he tries to give them that courage, and that has given his life a purpose. “It makes me feel good in the way I’m giving back.”

In many states, he would not only have been sentenced to die but likely would have already been executed. When I met him, he was free to go almost anywhere on the prison grounds, unescorted and unrestrained. I once asked him about his former life. “Now, lookin’ back on it,” he said, “to know you were part of so much destruction, it’s insane. It’s embarrassing. And to think it’s ok. You kind of know it’s wrong—that’s why you suppress it with weed and alcohol. But it’s the only life you know.” He has been in prison for 20 years. The odds are good he will die there.


I have never met a man who has made the turn and still pines for his former life. The tattoos on the thick forearms of one man in my class attest to a very particular set of beliefs. He describes himself as “a former white supremacist.” I asked him why he left that life behind. “Because I’m not good at lying to myself,” he said. “White supremacist ideology is built on this confusion. On the one hand, they tell themselves the white race is superior to everyone else in all respects, but on the other hand, they say they’re disappearing. Well, if they’re so superior, what happened? The ideology depends on feeling constantly under siege, regardless of the facts.”

Another man had belonged to the Bloods. I put the same question to him. “I joined the Bloods as a kid, and at the time, they sold it to me as a kind of black solidarity thing. Help black people against whites and Latino gangs, that sort of thing. And there was some of that, but mostly it was about hurting other black people. I never profited one bit from being in the gang. Not at all.”

Another student, a heavyset white man who looks like Santa Claus without the beard, is serving 20 to life. He has learned to identify and avoid the other white prisoners who still traffic in the drug world he left behind. “You sort’a can tell,” he said in class one day. “It’s the white guys.” He has been in custody 18 years and is coming up for his first parole hearing. He wants to go back to his hometown in upstate New York, where first methamphetamines and now opioids hit with particular ferocity. “Half my town is in prison.” He wants to be a drug and alcohol counselor.

One of the most articulate students in the class is a middle-aged black man, who sounds for all the world like Clarence Thomas when he rails against affirmative action. “My daughter is in college and wants to be a geneticist,” he announced to the class. He credits his daughter with convincing him to turn his life around. “I want her to get the best job as a geneticist that she can because she’s brilliant, not because she’s black. And I don’t want people to think she only got that job because she’s a black woman.”

Yet an off-the-rack, one-size-fits-all label like conservative doesn’t suit him at all. He is an educated and thoughtful black man in an American prison, and keenly aware of the racial stratification lacing through society. His father was a sharecropper who worked the rice fields near Twist, Arkansas, and whose personal philosophy was a mix of racial solidarity and do-it-yourself independence. “He used to say, ‘What would you rather trust to climb a wall, a ladder you built yourself, or a rope dangled over the side by someone of another race who could drop it at any time?’” He adds, as an aside, that his father “didn’t like white people.”

(Blues fans will recognize Twist as the site of a club that burned to the ground when two men got into a fight over a woman and upended a kerosene barrel that quickly set the wood-frame building ablaze. The guitarist playing that night raced for the exit but ran back inside to rescue his guitar, which he later named after the woman whose affections figured so prominently in the brawl. From that night in Twist, B.B. King would name all his guitars Lucille.)


On Election Day, the conversation turned to the tribal fears that so many feel on the outside, and I asked my students about fear in prison. We got to talking about tribes in prison. The conversation was still going strong when the corrections officer knocked on the glass and my students filed out. The next week, a student told me the conversation got him thinking. He wrote an essay about fear in prison. “Fear permeates prison,” he wrote, but it’s not the way they portrayed it in Hollywood. “Admittedly, rapes and murders happen, [but] they occur in a much smaller percentage than they do in society. They are not the focus of fear in prison.”

Instead, “prisoners are afraid of not being accepted.” They fear isolation, which “motivates them to seek out others of their own kind.” Factions take shape as groups cleave along the lines of race, religion, and sexual orientation. “These lines become the walls that divide,” he wrote. The “fear of being dominated causes the groups to increase power.” Fear thus becomes “the basic building block of the prison culture.”

Faction upon faction is its molecular structure. Convicts further isolate themselves in prison. Trapped in groups of their own making—prisons within prisons—inmates are fooled by the fear they attempt to avoid. The appearance of safety is no more than the snowball effect of fear. Created by fear, these factions cause more fear. … Prison is the epitome of fear. Fear is the epitome of prison.

Yet some of the men, he wrote, do not “succumb” to this fear. Or perhaps better, they overcome it. They have abandoned their inherited or acquired factions and “cross divisions.” “Their character is tested. They are called ‘soft’ because they refuse to yield to the pressure of fear.” They have made the turn, and will not turn back.

And because they have made the turn, because they have painfully unshackled themselves from the companions who did them no favors and the life lessons that led them astray, they have acquired the wisdom that much of the country seems to have forgotten. Sometimes, what looks and feels like the secure comfort of tribal membership is just another windowless prison, and the prisoner with an open mind spends his days much closer to freedom than the free man with a closed mind.

Frederick Douglass urged education for those in chains. “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” Today, my students have learned a different lesson, better adapted to an age of tribalism and fear. To think for oneself is to be free; to follow in fear is to be in bondage.

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