The dark side of zero tolerance

One of most enduring political slogans of recent times is that something as simple as grafitti can lead to murder. It ascribes itself to a “quality of life” or “broken windows” theory of policing, whereby grafitti, or spitting on the street, or littering, is the first link in a criminal chain that eventually ends up in murder. One of the most public pioneers of this theory has been Rudolph Guiliani, former mayor of New York, who ruled over a police force that has been copied and recopied by political administrations all over the United States, to differing degrees of success. 

The police force that eventually brought about a huge change in the whole atmosphere of New York got a lot of high-profile praise -- much of it well deserved. Yet the same police force was also responsible for a number of abuses of power – including sodomising an innocent prisoner with a toilet plunger, shooting at unarmed victims 41 times, and beating the homeless as they moved them out of the city's subway tunnels. It was the Iron Fist law, zero tolerance.  

New York became a safer place to live – especially if you were white and middle-class. While so many New Yorkers (myself included) became innured to what was happening to a large part of the city's population, Guiliani managed to pursue his own small war against those who were predominantly helpless.  

The mayor you get is the city you get.  

A lot of people on the receiving end of the “broken windows” singsong were junkies and dealers and beggars. But there were plenty of others – young working mothers, children, teenagers -- who suffered under a buraucratic system that was distinctly off-key, where justice seemed just to be another word for revenge.   

Go down any weekday morning to drop-off points in Queens and the Bronx and you can watch hundreds of prisoners as they they step off the buses under the bridges and highways. They are men and women who have been released from the New York prison system, some of them for the pettiest of crimes. They are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

It is fascinating to watch their first moment of freedom. One might expect to see their lungs swell. A tiny skip in their steps. Arms open to a loved one. But they look rigid mostly, like they've forgotten how it is to move in this space. Their hands go down deep into their pockets and they pull out old packets of cigarettes. It looks as if there is fire springing from their hands. The smoke seems to loosen them. They look around. A bodega. A pawn shop. A bare café. The thrum of early-morning traffic. They watch the starlings fly out from under the metal trestles of the bridges.  

This is it: life on the outside again, freedom after years behind bars, but it's not exactly a walk-off part into the confederacy of hope.     

And they are not alone. At any one time, there are two million Americans behind bars. This is almost twice the number from 10 years ago. Nationally, of every 10 black men in their 20s, one is in a jail cell. To make matters worse, the average state parolee is 35 years old, generally has a substance-abuse problem, no high-school diploma, has been inside for three or four years, and will be back in prison within three years. Most often they are locked away for petty crimes and not given any chance at education or rehabilitation.  

They are left to languish or, if they haven't committed a felony, go down to the nearby Army Recruiting Office, where they can join a force that brings zero tolerance to other parts of the world.  

Guiliani has, of course, now emerged as a front-runner for the Republican nomination for the American presidency, and he is currently touring the country comparing President Bush's escalation of the work in Iraq to his own jackboot approach in New York.

Guiliani wants even more troops to go to Iraq and recently announced plans to further bolster the American military by another 35,000 troops. Make no doubt -- many of these new troops will be those who have suffered at the hands of Guiliani's zero tolerance. It is an ironic extension of his Iron Fist Law, and in the end it suggests only doom.  

Increasingly under the Bush regime, and the Guiliani dream machine, there has been a dismantling of enlightened social legislation. The dependence on the simplistic notion that you can lock away your evils shows a distinct lack of moral acuity. The fantasy of Guiliani's America is that you can hide what you don't like. For a man who talks a lot about “freedom”, it's strange how little of it he actually believes in.   

After all, the president you get is the country you get, and the larger world has already enough moral zero tolerance to last us an awful long time.  

New York is a shining city and I often sing of it, my adopted home. The presumption here is that everyone's life has a meaning. It's a literary idea, as if there's a possible continuity of promise. But every now and then we all must reacquaint ourselves with the darker sides of things. The crack houses.

The homeless in the subway tunnels. The prisoners stepping off the buses, looking around, wondering just what they've come back into, especially on a cold morning when their hearts must feel frozen to the walls of their chests.  

I watch them descend the buses, then follow them into the the bodega. I stand by the rack of cheap cakes and listen. A young man, Charlie, has just come downstate from the prison in Gowanda. Another, Leroy, calls out that he knew  his cellmate there. A man with a teardrop tattoo passes Leroy a number for a job as a Happy Trails bus driver. The loops of their conversations mesh and collide. Leroy introduces Charlie to Bernard. Bernard just did a spell in Riker's. He knows Charlie's brother, who's doing hard time in Attica. Teardrop Tattoo goes on a riff about the painted cells in Dannemora. Leroy says that the warden's wife in Dannemora was known to walk around with a runner in the back of her tights. They laugh, said they heard the story, that she can suck a golf ball through a 50-foot house.

The men all fall silent when another ex-prisoner comes in from a different bus. But within moments they have made a link – and it strikes me that they, and by small extension, I, am part of a prison nation. For them, the jail cell is the norm. It's like a visit to the dentist, a sort of long-term root canal.   

I can't helping thinking, as the shop empties out, that there's a sense that there's an inner Guantanamo going on as well as the larger public one
Patrick Kavanagh once said that there are two types of simplicity – the simplicity of going and the simplicity of return, the latter being the ultimate in sophistication. And yet watching the prisoners return on these cold winter mornings, it's hard to think that they're returning to what, for others, is a city of absolute promise. One can only hope that the Happy Trails bus might actually live up to its name.