Unusually Cruel

Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism

Oxford University Press, July 2017    |    Buy on Amazon


Preface to Unusually Cruel


Little did I know at the time, but this book originated in the summer of 1985, when I was an adolescent sitting in a jail cell in London. On the last day of a week-long trip to England with my traveling soccer team from Long Island, our group of soon-to-be ninth-graders was let loose in the streets of London. For some reason, with all the logic and wisdom of our teenage brains, along with some mutual peer pressure to strengthen our backbones, a teammate and I sauntered into an HMV music store and decided to shoplift cassette tapes. It seemed particularly appropriate to swipe a copy of the Clash’s London Calling, which I intended to give to my father as a birthday present. We got away with it, which was such a thrill that we wanted to do it again. So we went to another HMV and stuffed some more cassettes into the various pockets of our baggy painter’s pants. This time we got caught.

We were interrogated for almost an hour by HMV security personnel, and it did not go well. When they found the tapes from the other HMV store in our backpacks, the lead interrogator referred to us as “bloody Americans who come over here to nick our things.” He called the police, who came and took us away in a police van to the station, where they placed us in a holding cell for several hours.

The British police were by no means lenient, and they were neither impressed nor amused by our youthful adventurism. They filed an arrest report, explained that we now had a criminal record that would be expunged when we turned 17, and told us that we were banned from HMV stores (the time period of the ban was unclear—but I have never entered one since that day). Although at first they insisted that we could not be released until a responsible adult picked us up, they eventually relented when we explained that we had no phone number to call (this was long before cell phones), and that the only way to contact our coaches was to show up at the prearranged meeting point in downtown London later that afternoon. They drove us there, leading to a humiliating exit from the police vehicle in front of our bewildered teammates and furious coaches.

I have rarely shared this story about an embarrassing stage in my life, when this was just one of many stupid choices. Although I made a decisive change about a year later, I have often reflected back to a time when my life trajectory could have gone in a different direction. I’ve realized that I did not embody my foolish actions, and I was extremely fortunate that they did not come to define me. I got a “second chance,” and I made the most of it.

Not everybody is so lucky—especially in the United States. Indeed, over the course of researching and writing this book, I’ve come to realize that countless Americans—and particularly those who don’t receive the “benefit of the doubt” and “privilege” of being white—were not afforded viable second chances. Far too many have been condemned to a life defined by a criminal record that started with stupid acts of adolescence and peer pressure like my own. I know, of course, that my actions—primarily shoplifting and sometimes drinking hard liquor before school—may be considered relatively tame and innocuous compared to more serious criminal acts. But for many other kids, that first arrest and the subsequent “record” it creates is the beginning of the end.

The U.S. arrests, prosecutes, and locks up far more people—both juveniles and adults—than any democratic country in the world. This occurs despite evidence showing that a person’s incarceration often leads to more—and bigger—criminality afterward, thus making society even less safe. Overall, as this book will show, when compared to the United Kingdom and to other democratic countries in the world, the U.S. is particularly harsh—or, in a slight twist on the words of the Eighth Amendment, “unusually cruel”—in terms of how severely it punishes crime and how ruthlessly and unforgivingly it treats those who are (or have been) incarcerated.

My journey from that London jail cell to this project was by no means straightforward or direct. On the contrary, after taking advantage of my post-London opportunity for a fresh start, and then devoting my time more constructively to both academic and athletic pursuits, I moved on through various stages of education and life—from high school to college to graduate school to becoming a political science professor to receiving tenure at Georgetown University. Along the way, I conducted research and wrote a book about civil society and democracy in post-communist Europe, and then another one about immigration and citizenship in the countries of the European Union, along with various academic articles dealing with democracy and authoritarianism. Ibecame well established in my field, and the logical path would have been to continue working and publishing in my areas of strength.

But during a time that should have been characterized by personal and professional satisfaction, I became plagued by a nagging issue that gradually grew into what some called my “obsession.” The starting point had occurred well over a decade earlier, on the first day of my senior year of high school, when a childhood friend and classmate, Marty Tankleff, was arrested for the murder of his parents. Despite the shocking accusations and headlines, the evidence suggested to me that Marty was likely innocent. Notwithstanding my naïve attempt to defend the presumption of innocence on the editorial page of our high school newspaper, The Purple Parrot, Marty stood little chance in the face of a corrupt homicide detective, overzealous prosecutors, and shameful coverage by the mainstream media. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years to life, to be served in an upstate New York maximumsecurity prison.

Over the ensuing decade, although I occasionally mentioned to friends that I knew a convicted murderer whom I believed was innocent, I have to admit that the case—and Marty’s plight—became more and more distant. Our paths had diverged at age 18, as Marty went to jail and I went to Yale. But we reconnected in 2004, and what started with occasional letters grew to become an extraordinary collaboration and friendship that reshaped my life. I began to visit Marty in prison regularly, conducted research for him, sent him documents and materials, met with his legal team and public supporters, published an op-ed on his case and plight in the New York Times, wrote an amicus brief on behalf of our high school classmates that became part of his final appeal, and promised him that I would never give up fighting for his freedom or helping him after he would attain it. And I flew back from Paris to be present when Marty was finally exonerated and released on December 27, 2007—after over 17 years of wrongful incarceration—and joyfully celebrated with him, his family, and the rest of his “team.”

Although one might have thought such a “happy ending” would put to rest my obsession with criminal justice, Marty’s experience was just the beginning for me. In fact, what originated as my individual quest to support justice for my friend transformed into a much broader goal and a much bigger challenge. Simply put, what happened to Marty opened my eyes to the major and fundamental problems with the American criminal justice system. My personal and intellectual trajectory went through three stages: (1) it started with my concern for Marty as an individual and my friend; (2) my interests then expanded to the larger issue of wrongful convictions, as I met numerous other “Marties” who had served countless years and decades before being exonerated—while also learning about hundreds of others, and understanding that there are likely tens of thousands more that we will never even hear about; (3)  finally, my journey led me to realize that the problems with the American criminal justice system go far beyond the innocent people it has trapped and mistreated, and that at core it is astoundingly and unacceptably punitive, vindictive, and unforgiving, while also based on underlying racial discrimination. I didn’t arrive at this conclusion overnight, as it was a long and difficult learning process that required me to question—and ultimately reject—the facile platitudes that American children learn about having a justice system that “guarantees and protects the rights of the innocent,” is “the best in the world,” and treats people in a way that is “colorblind.”

While Marty was still incarcerated, and as the 18th of his 19 appeals was denied, my desire to correct the injustice of his situation—and perhaps to influence the plight of many others—led me to decide to enroll in law school. This was certainly considered an unusual step, given that the academic lifestyle of a tenured professor is often viewed as a life of leisure, and there is nothing leisurely about being a law student. But thanks to the inspiring courses by some of my teachers/colleagues at the Georgetown University Law Center— especially Stephen Bright, Rosa Brooks, Sharon Dolovich, Peter Edelman, Gregory Klass, John Mikhail, and Robin West—the seven semesters it took me to finish my J.D. went by surprisingly quickly. And I even took and passed the New York bar examination to officially mark the completion of my journey to becoming an attorney—albeit one who has not practiced law (yet?).

This book represents the next step in the development of my interest in and passion for criminal justice and prison reform. It brings together my background and training in the political science subfield of comparative politics with my study of prisons and punishment in the U.S. I came to this project over the course of my law studies, when I realized that even though there are numerous excellent works that focus on the problems of American criminal justice and prisons, very little of it is explicitly comparative. And my prior work has taught me that there is tremendous value to comparison—that one can better understand the features of a particular country by contrasting it to others that are different. I therefore wrote early drafts of several of the chapters in this book as seminar papers for my law classes.

The best research and writing are often combined with teaching, and indeed this project came together on both sides of the lectern. At Georgetown, where I have now taught six cohorts of my “Prisons and Punishment” class, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to broaden my knowledge while also refining my ideas in the company of some of the brightest and most passionate students imaginable. For a long time, my experiences inside prisons had been restricted to visiting rooms, tours of several facilities provided by wardens and administrative staff, and a memorable three hours of playing tennis and interacting with the San Quentin “Inside Tennis Team” (which I wrote about for Sports Illustrated). But starting in the Fall of 2014, my engagement has become much deeper, as I have had the opportunity to teach a weekly class to a dedicated group of students within the confines of the Jessup Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Maryland. I have taught a version of my “Fascism and Extremist Movements” class (which the Jessup officials asked me to rename “World History”), a comparative criminal justice class, and several semesters of an ongoing “World Politics” colloquium, where I have brought in guest speakers who have lectured and led discussions on their topics of expertise, while always leaving the prison feeling amazed and inspired by the intellectual curiosity and engagement they encountered—and many have referred to it as “the best teaching experience I’ve ever had.” In the Spring 2016 semester, I also taught an “inside-outside” class called “Prison Reform Project,” which brought together 15 of my best Georgetown students with 16 of my top Jessup students, and they all worked side by side on informative and engaging multimedia criminal justice and prison reform proposals that were presented to several hundred people (including family members of the incarcerated students) at a very emotional public event at Georgetown. [Note: This project was the subject of a Washington Post Magazine cover story by Dan Zak in September 2016.]

My students have been a tremendous source of inspiration to my research and life. The Georgetown students have given me hope that the next generation of leaders will have a radically different approach to the punishment of crime. The Jessup students have helped to convince me that formal education and intelligence are not necessarily correlated, while inspiring me to appreciate the human potential that lies within all people when they are given a genuine opportunity to perform and to shine. And the occasions when I was able to combine Georgetown and Jessup students together in the same classroom have without question provided the most extraordinary and gratifying teaching moments of my career.

This book would not have been possible without the help of many people. I am grateful to my agent Will Lippincott, who saw the value in this project, and to my editor David McBride and his outstanding colleagues at Oxford University Press, for supporting it and bringing it to fruition. Moreover, I was fortunate to receive excellent research assistance with different aspects of this project from Jeremy Dang, Christina Dibartolo, Jolene Hansell, Julia Kerbs, Thijs Kleinpaste, Jenna Lefler, Michael Malinics, Lisa Rudolph, and Nicholas Zaremba. Thanks to support from a “book incubator” grant from Georgetown, I was able to host an event that provided me with extremely helpful feedback from Sharon Dolovich, Jennifer Hochschild, Mary Katzenstein, Marc Mauer, and Michael Tonry—all distinguished scholars and experts whose work has informed this project since its very inception. And by teaching a course at Jessup that was based on earlier versions of the chapters in this book, I was able to receive a different—but just as valuable— kind of “expert” feedback from a group of men who know American criminal justice and prisons from the “inside.” Although it was bittersweet for many of them to learn about the more humane, forgiving, and supportive practices that exist in other countries, the insights of my Jessup students—including Eddie Adamson, Thomas Anderson, Kenneth Bond, Thomas Davis, Ronald Epps, Clifton Fitzgerald, Darren Glenn, James Gorham, Hakim Gurley-Bey, William Horton, Leslie Humphrey, Warren Hynson, William Johnson, Arlando Jones, Denatian Kent, Delonte Kingsberry, Donald Knight, Marcus Lilly, Lewis Lucas, Zakaria Oweiss, Robert Pittman, Avion Rose, Harlow Sails, Virian Simms, DeWalt Stewart, Marcus Tunstall, D’Quinta Uzzle, Derrick Webb, and Michael White—helped advance this project immensely. My friend Vincent Greco, who served time with these men inside and helped to create and run the education programs at Jessup, has been an invaluable source of insight in the several years since his release. And I am very grateful to Joshua Miller and the Prison Scholars Program for giving me the opportunity to teach—and learn—about prisons from within prisons.

I am also very appreciative of the understanding and encouragement I’ve received from many of my Georgetown colleagues, who for years put up with my endless rants about Marty’s wrongful conviction, and who then withheld judgment (at least in my presence) when they learned that my indignation was leading me to go “back to school.” My department chairs—George Shambaugh, Michael Bailey, and now Charles King—have provided unwavering personal and institutional support and flexibility as I followed my passion and this new path. Over 45 colleagues—most from Georgetown, but many from other institutions as well—have come to give inspirational guest lectures at Jessup for my “World Politics” speaker series. And by supporting my proposal to launch the Prisons and Justice Initiative in the Spring of 2016, President John D. DeGioia and his university administration have demonstrated their genuine commitment to the Jesuit educational pursuit of cura personalis (care of the whole person). This core Georgetown mission encourages students to make connections to the world outside the classroom, to embrace ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity, and to maintain a commitment to social action. In just a very short time, the Prisons and Justice Initiative has already generated a tremendous amount of attention to, and enthusiasm for, this bipartisan cause—on the Georgetown campus and beyond.

Other friends, near and far, have also contributed to what became much more than a “research project,” as it turned into a “life project” that is really only just beginning. Many friends, too numerous to name individually—but they know who they are—have provided spurts of motivation and energy at times of self-doubt. Thank you all for encouraging, supporting, and pushing me to follow my passion, and to do what I feel is morally important and politically necessary.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the unwavering support of my family. My parents, Brigitte and Dick Howard, continue to provide me with intellectual nourishment and encouragement throughout my sometimes unpredictable twists and turns—even if they are not thrilled that I’ve chosen to recount my youthful indiscretions above. My wife, Lise Morjé Howard, not only tolerated but actually encouraged my “unusually cruel” plan of getting a J.D., and she has endured countless conversations about a topic that was far removed— though perhaps not as different as it might initially appear—from her own research and writing on civil wars, ethnic conflict, and peacekeeping. And our children, Zoe and Julien, know much more about prisons than just about any two teenagers could—and probably should. I’ve learned more from my conversations with them about this topic than they will ever realize.

I’ve chosen to dedicate this book to Martin Tankleff. Marty has been and continues to be an inspiration to me, as well as a close friend. His fortitude in the face of such extreme injustice and unusual cruelty, along with his boundless optimism and positive energy, have motivated my new calling and vocation. I can only hope that some of this passion will be felt by readers in the pages ahead.

(End of Preface) 

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