Why this ‘genius’ scholar is mapping out the world’s largest jail system

October 12, 2019
Posted in Blog
October 12, 2019 Editor

Why this ‘genius’ scholar is mapping out the world’s largest jail system

Please click on audio of post. NOTE: only main text read; no links, text markings, images, videos, footnotes, etc. read aloud.

photo above: Kelly Lytle Hernández, who received the MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, views prison abolition through the eyes of rebels

Sam Levin in Los Angeles

Fri 11 Oct 2019

by Sam Levin


In a revised forthcoming publication by Wipf and Stock Publishers, namely Volume One of Justice That Transforms, I write:

Longtime Restorative Justice promoter Howard Zehr once directly critiqued this author’s writings by telling me one does not attract bees with vinegar . . .

My longstanding commentary on the “bees” comment has been in accord with Ruth Morris’ watchword response to “Restorative Justice” as promulgated back then by Zehr and others of similar ilk: “Not Enough!” (See the essay by that title in Volume One on Amazon) Ruth’s vision was not at the time in line with Zehr’s, though he liked to imagine so: hers was far more trenchant and grand—and controversial!

Ruth would say, as do I, that a Restorative Justice out mainly to attract “bees” and primarily with honey—all sweetness and light— creates mainly a “B”-Grade Restorative Justice, one better than retributive justice to be sure, but seriously lacking in vigorous fulsome challenge to what Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day repeatedly dubbed “the dirty rotten system,” of which Western criminal justice was a key component. To further play with words, Zehr’s preference then for “B-Grade” was in fact to “D-Grade” the revolutionary potential of what Restorative Justice promised; a preference perhaps residual function of his Mennonite heritage that privileged being die Stillen im Lande—the Quiet in the Land.  Western systems of justice have always been infected with brutal Empire/colonization and control/“pacification” motifs. In my retirement years, I have devoted a website (waynenorthey.com) to the Gospel as Counter-Narrative to Empire—the Ultimate Dirty Rotten System. There is much on the site in support of such a thesis.

One should not therefore be so much out trying to attract “B(-Grade)s,” one should instead be creatively challenging the very “WASPS” that run brutal justice systems . . . to as it were (for starters) repent, apologize,[7] make amends, and “sin” no more!WASP” in Canada is in fact an acronym for the “White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant” Establishment—historically the very originators and guardians of such stingingly harmful systems throughout the colonized world. (Not that all working within such systems are necessarily directly caught up in their evil—though ineluctably tainted.)

What is needed, Amos (5:24), Dorothy Day, Ruth Morris, Martin Luther King Jr. and a host of prophetic saints thunderously call for, is rigorously radical transformation of that dirty rotten system! Zehr’s approach to Restorative Justice early on lacked the radical intellectual rigor the best of the Christian (and beyond—think Gandhi) prophetic tradition exhibits. What is wanted is for starters a “ . . . who-can-but-prophesy?—Amos” measured diatribe against the System, such as captured brilliantly in Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”: gotta kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.

I have been committed to prison abolitionism for most of my 45-year criminal justice career. While it can be and is sugar-coated by euphemisms of “peace officers” and “Corrections”, its underlay is sheer state terror. In Canada, upper echelons give workshops around the world on our enlightened, successful, and humane prison system. They even believe in it. But for anyone on the receiving end, or working for decades with those recipients, the reality is various shades of brutality. Not that all actors are necessarily inhumane. But the system is brutal, plain and simple. Or, as Karl Menninger wrote long ago in The Crime of Punishment, the dominant crimes encountered in the criminal justice system are its own against their keep. And Nils Christie in Crime Control As Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style echoed this in describing the very system of criminal justice to be the greatest danger to any liberal democracy. And writers such as Fyodo Dostoevsky, Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill claimed, the true measure of any civilization is its treatment of prisoners. By that measure, Western democracies are found to be woefully wanting.

Much of this understanding is captured in “For Abolition: Prisons and Police Are More Than Brutality, They’re State Terror, with some commentary by me.

This too is the burden of this brilliant researcher’s work, highlighted below.


Kelly Lytle Hernández grew up seeing the effects of the immigration and law enforcement system first-hand. Her upbringing has driven her groundbreaking work as a historian, documenting the creation and expansion of border patrol and how Los Angeles came to operate the largest jail system in the world. Her most innovative project, Million Dollar Hoods, has mapped the nearly $1bn cost of incarcerating 17,000 people in LA.

The 45-year-old University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), professor recently added “genius” to her résumé, as a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship award. She’s working on a new book about a group of Mexican intellectuals and workers who launched a revolution when they came to the United States in the early 20th century, driven out of Mexico by the dictator Porfirio Díaz.

The activist scholar talked to the Guardian about challenging the field of history and what prison abolition means to her. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You’ve talked about building a “rebel archive” to document the history of incarceration. What does that term mean to you?

A “rebel archive” includes the voices and the acts of the people who fought the rise of mass incarceration, the rebels themselves.

We are training a new generation of black, brown, indigenous, first-generation students in the field

The Million Dollar Hoods team. Photograph: Courtesy UCLA

What do you want people to take away from these maps and what have you  uncovered so far?

In some communities in Los Angeles, we’re spending over a million dollars per year locking up local residents and that is money we are throwing away. The vast majority of charges are drug possession and DUI. Those are public health crises. So when you see those neighborhoods light up in red, you know that is a community that needs to have a significant shift in how public resources are spent – away from policing, incarceration and into social and family support services.

It’s also the set of records that evaded police destruction across centuries. The LAPD and LA sheriff’s department run the jails of LA and have destroyed the vast majority of their records. I had to go and find whatever record did survive – in newspaper articles, legal battles, in songs that had been written by migrants about their experiences with incarceration, in photographs, in pamphlets, all these different places. The point was to look beyond traditional places, to hear the voices, to incorporate the lives of people who have been rebellious and marginalized.

What’s it going to take to have that shift on a large scale?

I think about this over the long arc of time – understanding that mass incarceration comes out of the colonization of the American west, the occupation of indigenous land, the end of enslavement. These are core problems around belonging and race in the United States.

There is no singular policy solution to the problem of mass incarceration, mass deportation, the carceral state. We need to have an extensive process of truth, reparation and reconciliation where the world of possibilities is opened anew for us. Right now, I don’t think we have the capacity to imagine the solution to the extraordinary problems. We need a mass public education campaign about the harms that have been done, the assets that have been stripped, the families and communities that have been strategically damaged and ripped apart across the arc of the American story.

What do you think are the biggest stories about the carceral system that the media is missing or that the public doesn’t understand?

We’ve done a wonderful job of bringing more attention to the crisis at the US-Mexico border and the children and families who are being locked up and impacted and locked out. I hope that we can also use this moment to talk about the children of the imprisoned, and the trauma that the loss of a parent can involve. I hope that we can build from this to consider all of these communities that have been so deeply impacted by the carceral state.

I also think it would be fantastic if every person in the United States would know whose land they are on, and the history of occupation, war, of relocation, of treaties, of broken treaties. If every person in the United States could have a sensibility of the history of the land that they occupy, I hope that would open up new opportunities for our conversation about racial justice.

What does it mean for the MacArthur Foundation to honor someone like you who is an “activist historian” or “movement-driven scholar”?

The academy has taken great strides in acknowledging and valuing socially engaged, movement-driven work. But there’s a lot more work to be done to actually seed and sustain this kind of work, which is rigorous and scholarly, deeply archival, grounded in the literature – and is also responsive to concerns and demands of contemporary social movements.

When I wrote my first book, Migra! A History of the US Border Patrol, many scholars doubted me and questioned why I wrote this as a story of race in America. Growing up on the US-Mexico border, it never dawned on me there was another way to tell this story. But the academy wasn’t there yet, they were stuck on questions of immigrant incorporation and Americanization. But my own experience was telling me something different.

What I’m trying to emphasize is that we should be accountable to the questions that are happening in the public, not just within our peer-reviewed journals. In my work, we are accountable to the communities that are most impacted by mass incarceration and mass deportation, period.

Please click on: ‘Genius’ Scholar


  1. [2]Please see my "Call For a Church Apology Vis À Vis Crime and Punishment." It continued:
    ‘For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public,’ the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians. ‘Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers,’ The Blade said. ‘Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.”   The New York Times confirmed the claimed accuracy of the stories by contacting several of those interviewed.  It reported: “But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing. “Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops… ‘Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,’ [one veteran] said in a recent telephone interview. ‘It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’ Current likely Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was also quoted giving evidence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.  He reported that American soldiers in Vietnam had “raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country. Nicholas Turse [later author of: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam], a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities. ''I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported,'' Mr. Turse said by telephone. ''I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds.'' Yet there were few prosecutions.
  2. [1]Please look at several articles as well on American/Western will to world domination by clicking on "Selected Articles: Western Aggression Backed by Western Media”. The series of articles is introduced thus:
    The Western allies never run dry of resources to support their global war of terror and aggression, ostensibly an integral part of their foreign policy. They dynamically legislate laws lest the people awaken. They have the unbending support of the corporate media, which skilfully distorts reality. When will they ever back down from their destructive quest for colonies? Read our selection below.
  3. [3]Historian John Coatsworth in The Cambridge History of the Cold War noted:
    Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin's gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries [under direct sway of US Empire] ("The Cold War in Central America", pp. 216 - 221).
    What was true for Latin America was true for around the world: massive human rights abuses, assassinations, regime changes of democratically elected governments, etc., etc., etc. orchestrated by US Empire. Yet Americans invariably have wanted it both ways: to be seen as the exemplary "City on A Hill" that upholds universal human rights and democracy, while operating a brutal Empire directly contrary to all such elevated values, and a concomitant rapacious Empire market economy that takes no prisoners. This began of course even before the founding of the United States of America and continued apace, in its mass slaughter and dispossession of indigenous peoples, in its brutal system of slavery on which its obscene wealth in the textile industry in the first place was built. "The Land of the Free" conceit was a sustained con job on the part of America's leaders. It was also apotheosis of hypocrisy. American exceptionalism was/is true in one respect only: it was brutal like no other Empire in its eventual global reach.
  4. [5]
  5. [4] The highlighted article about renowned whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg points to again what is utterly chilling, horror-filled, exponentially beyond immoral, American (hence the world's) reality: "Daniel Ellsberg: U.S. Military Planned First Strike On Every City In Russia and China … and Gave Many Low-Level Field Commanders the Power to Push the Button". [5]He has since written The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Of it we read:
    Shortlisted for the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist for the California Book Award in Nonfiction The San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2017 List In These Times “Best Books of 2017” Huffington Post's Ten Excellent December Books List LitHub's “Five Books Making News This Week” From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the dangers of America's Top Secret, seventy-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day. Here, for the first time, former high-level defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg reveals his shocking firsthand account of America's nuclear program in the 1960s. From the remotest air bases in the Pacific Command, where he discovered that the authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons was widely delegated, to the secret plans for general nuclear war under Eisenhower, which, if executed, would cause the near-extinction of humanity, Ellsberg shows that the legacy of this most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization--and its proposed renewal under the Trump administration--threatens our very survival. No other insider with high-level access has written so candidly of the nuclear strategy of the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, and nothing has fundamentally changed since that era.
  6. [6]A classic instance of this aligning with "just war" is the United States' "war on drugs" as subset of "war on crime", while at the same time the CIA was a major worldwide drug dealer in league with other drug cartels -- all done to enhance American Empire during the Cold War -- and continues to the present. The four-part series mentioned below connects American Empire drug dealing to the current War on Terror, in particular in Afghanistan. This of course is colossal hypocrisy as well. Worse: the series posits American federal government administrations over many decades as the Ultimate Drug Cartel, with Blacks, Latinos, and generally the poor directly being knowingly poisoned en masse. Then they have been primary targets of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and thereby become victims of America's too often savage prison system that oppresses and brutalizes them all over again... See: "The War on Drugs Is a Failure, So [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions Is All for It". A citation from the article reads:
    In June [2017], the History Channel aired a four-part documentary series called America’s War on Drugs.” The series asserts that the war on drugs was actually a war of drugs—and that the CIA was essentially a partner in spreading drugs and drug use. The series follows how the U.S. intelligence agency, in an obsession with fighting communism, allied itself with U.S. organized crime and foreign drug traffickers and includes firsthand accounts from many involved. In an interview with Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar on her radio program “Rising Up With Sonali,” the series’ executive producer, Anthony Lappé, explains why the CIA got involved:
    It’s actually a pretty mind-blowing story when you look at the extent to which the CIA was involved with drug traffickers and drug trafficking throughout the Cold War. … If you look at Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, we were locked in a global battle for supremacy, where we have lots of proxy wars going on. … We needed to team up with local allies, and often the local allies we were teaming up with were people who had access to guns, who had access to underground networks, to help us fight the perceived threat of communism. There are actually a lot of similarities between what drug traffickers do and what the CIA does.
    Lappé elaborates by saying the hypocrisy of the war on drugs has been evident from the start: Secret CIA experiments with LSD helped fuel the counterculture movement, leading to President Richard Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of the war on drugs. The series also explores the CIA’s role in the rise of crack cocaine in poor black communities and a secret island “cocaine base.” In addition the documentary makes the connection between the war on drugs, the war on terror and the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco state and contends that American intervention in Mexico helped give clout to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the super cartels, making it easier to send drugs across American borders. Watch Kolhatkar’s full interview with Lappé by clicking here. Please also see the now classic: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by noted American historian Alfred McCoy. Of it we read:
    The first book to prove CIA and U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking, The Politics of Heroin includes meticulous documentation of dishonesty and dirty dealings at the highest levels from the Cold War until today. Maintaining a global perspective, this groundbreaking study details the mechanics of drug trafficking in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America. New chapters detail U.S. involvement in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, and how U.S. drug policy in Central America and Colombia has increased the global supply of illicit drugs.
    To be noted as well is Johann Hari's Chasing The Scream, which tells the tragic tale of America's long-standing offensive against drugs, and the way to end such a war worldwide -- that several nations are successfully embracing.
  7. [7]Please see my “Call For a Church Apology Vis À Vis Crime and Punishment.”


Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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