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Yael Marans / The Daily Princetonian

By Yael Marans


Alec Karakatsanis is the founder and executive director of the Civil Rights Corps. He works to combat human caging, surveillance, the death penalty, immigration laws, war, and inequality. He gave a lecture through the Wilson School on Wednesday, titled “The Bureaucracy of Human Caging.”

On Thursday, he spoke with The Daily Princetonian about his work.

DP: Could you tell me a little bit about your path and what led you to founding the Civil Rights Corps?

AK: I wanted to do the work that I was doing more broadly, across the country, and not just in D.C. I wanted to challenge the criminal justice bureaucracy in all of its ugliness. Secondly, I didn’t like having a boss. I wanted to be my own boss and do my own thing and not have people tell me that what I wanted to do was too radical. Third, I wanted to be a lawyer in service of a broader movement, and not just doing legal stuff, but also having the freedom and ability to incorporate all other kinds of work and work with communities who are directly impacted, and to work with journalists, artists, incarcerated people and their families, and be part of a more holistic social movement to change the way that we think about human caging, rather than just bringing a few discrete legal cases.

So that’s what led me to start Civil Rights Corps and to be a civil rights lawyer. Over the last five years since I’ve been doing this kind of work, I’ve been focusing on how lawyers can bring innovative and rigorous civil rights cases, but how they’re also part of and situated in a movement to change the way our society thinks about human caging. Now we are up to 23 staff members, so it’s a much different operation than when I was working in my bedroom.

DP: What was it like to start the organization?

AK: The first organization I started was called Equal Justice Under Law, but then, for a variety of reasons, the lawyers from that organization and I ended up splitting off and starting Civil Rights Corps. When we started Civil Rights Corps in 2016, there were actually seven of us. We were all in two little rooms, we were all in the same group text thread, and it was a very intense, almost family-like, environment that fostered a lot of deep relationships. We were all doing so many things. We didn’t really have any administrative staff at the time, and so it was like a start-up culture. Then slowly we built up the staff. We hired more lawyers, more investigators, more administrative staff, more people in leadership positions. We hired a Director of Litigation. We hired a CEO. We ended up building a really strong, vibrant organization. 

DP: What is different about your current work from your previous work experience?   

AK: You have a very different role when you’re a public defender. Your job is to represent your client and do what’s in your client’s interests. One of the facts that’s often not discussed about the criminal punishment bureaucracy is, because of the sheer volume of the cases that it has to process in its mass assembly line, it pits the interests of arrested and incarcerated people against each other because it couldn’t possibly process all of those cases, it couldn’t take all those cases to trial, and it couldn’t have enough lawyers for all those cases. It forces you as a public defender to take plea deals and advise your clients to take plea deals that you think are morally wrong. If everybody collectively acted to reject the plea deals, it would be better for everybody, but it’s in any one person’s given interest in a particular case to take the deal, so it’s actually very difficult to think in any systemic change kind of way. You’re very focused on the human being in front of you and the legal system is designed that way to keep criminal defendants and their representatives from organizing together for big system change. That’s a significant limitation of that kind of  work. 

So your job isn’t really to think about radical changes to the system. Your job is to think about the human beings that are right in front of you, and that of course is incredibly powerful and has changed my life, having those relationships and being in those situations, but it also has a number of limitations if you’re interested in really taking apart these systems and the oppression that they represent in any kind of more systemic way.  

DP: What are your proudest accomplishments?

AK: I don’t think I have just one that sticks out to me as a particularly proud accomplishment. One moment that’s on my mind a lot these days is the case that we won for Mr. Kenneth Humphrey in California, in which we struck down, in his case, the way that the California money bail system functions. I have been thinking about that a lot because the case is currently on appeal in the California Supreme Court, and we are waiting for the court to send us our argument date. If we win that case, it could affect the way that hundreds of thousands of arrestees are treated in California every single year and have an enormous effect on the cash bail system nationwide. 

I’ve also been thinking a lot about how just a few days ago we implemented the reforms that we won as a result of our lawsuit in Harris County, Texas, which is the Houston Metropolitan area. In that case, there will probably be about 19,000 people every year who are released from jail as a result of those reforms, fundamentally altering the way that the cash bail system has worked. 

Another case that sticks out a lot to me is the challenge that we’ve filed to the privatized probation system in Rutherford County, Tennessee, where we got a $14.3 million settlement on behalf of about 25,000 people who have been jailed and threatened with jail and had money extorted from them by this private company who had signed a contract to become the probation department for this town in Tennessee and had been using that position, along with the county, to extort money from people to fund the company’s profits and the local criminal system.

We’ve brought cases like all of those all around the country, so no case in particular sticks out as any more or less important than the others. But those are ones that have been on my mind the last few days as I have been working on them.

DP: What are the greatest challenges to your work?

AK: I think this work is just so hard because there are a lot of entrenched interests in our society that want to see the current criminal punishment system stay the way that it is. It’s serving very important interests in our society who benefit from the use of the criminal punishment system to keep poor people and people of color under government control, and can make money off of their caging and surveillance. These forces are extraordinarily powerful and they find new ways of reproducing the same injustices. As soon as you think that you’ve won some victory against them, they find another way of basically reproducing that same injustice. They’re relentless in their attempts to use the criminal punishment system to oppress people. That’s been a huge challenge, and it will continue to be a huge challenge. 

DP: On the Civil Rights Corps website, and also in the way you talk about these issues, I have noticed some key terms being repeated. Can you speak to the role of terminology in your work? 

AK: How we use language is incredibly important because it’s connected to how we think. It’s no accident that if you read a police report, or the report of a probation or parole officer, it has certain characteristics. It’s designed to minimize the humanity of the people they’re talking about. Police reports are very different from poems, for example. The language of a police state, the language of fascists, is very different from the language of humanity. It’s only by erasing people’s humanity that we’re able to cage them under such grotesque circumstances, that we’re able to treat their bodies in the way that we’ve been treating them. For us, part of our work consists in resensitizing the people who work in the legal system and the public at large to the brutality of what we’re doing every single day, and it’s very important to use language in that way. 

For example, there’s a reason that the federal government calls its prosecution agency the Department of Justice. It’s trying to convey something very Orwellian. It’s a marketing slogan. It’s trying to communicate that what it’s doing, or what it’s trying to do, is justice. That’s the same reason they changed the name of the Department of War to the Department of Defense. These are all very intentional decisions on behalf of elite power structures to tell a certain story about what they’re doing and why. At the same time, it’s very important for us to tell our own story about what these systems are doing and why. 

DP: The talk you gave yesterday through the Woodrow Wilson School was called the Bureaucracy of Human Caging. Can you unpack that title?

AK: I think if nothing else is true about the criminal system, in order to accomplish such an unprecedented level of human caging, a level that no country in the recorded history of the modern world has even attempted — 12 million times every single year handcuffs are put on people’s bodies and they’re arrested, there’s 2.3 million human beings in cages right now as you and I are doing this interview — you have to create a mammoth bureaucracy. 

You have to have people who arrest people, people who make the handcuffs, the sirens, and make the bullet-proof vests, and the police cars. You have to have people processing those arrests, and you have to have people as their lawyers, clerks, prosecutors, and judges. Then you have to have probation officers, jail guards, and correction officers. Then you have to have people serving the food in all of those facilities and making all the products that are used in those facilities, and pretty soon you have millions of people who depend for their livelihood on the perpetuation and metastasization [sic] of this bureaucracy. 

Like any large government or other bureaucracy, there’s a lot of inertia to changing it, eliminating it, and dismantling it. It’s very important that people understand that what we’re dealing with is a giant government and corporate bureaucracy much like other bureaucracies in our society. Those types of systems have their own logic and their own way of functioning, and it’s often antithetical to our values in terms of human liberty. It’s a pretty incredible achievement for that bureaucracy, though, to transfer so many bodies from their homes, families, schools, churches, jobs, and communities into cages. We can’t forget how efficient that bureaucracy is and how so many of its aspects are designed for it to be evermore efficient. 

DP: Do you have any advice for students who might be interested in getting involved in your line of work?

AK: I think the first piece of advice is to expose yourself to as many different kinds of people and experiences as you can in the system and listen to the people who have directly experienced the system because more than anyone else, they understand the harm that it causes. Get involved in any way that you can with working with people who are directly impacted. 

Secondly, I think you have to understand that this system was created to serve certain very powerful interests in our society. So in order to change that system, it’s not enough to identify the problems that are resulting from it in the same way that it’s not enough to identify that there are problems with climate change. We very much know that there are problems with the criminal punishment system like there’s a problem with climate change. But it’s a question of power. Our ability to do anything about it is fundamentally going to come down to whether we organize enough people to come together and demand something different. So, like any big social problem, it’s going to require ordinary people, led by the people who are most directly affected by these systems, to organize together and to fight against it. I would encourage people to get involved locally with people in their communities who are organizing against these systems. 

Third, we should be focused on changes to the system that shrink the size of the bureaucracy and that reinvest money that we have been spending on policing, incarceration, prosecution, and investing in communities that need resources and investing in them in ways that build power through things like worker-owned co-ops where formerly incarcerated people can own the businesses that they are working in, through things like community land trusts,  where communities can have control over their land and their property, and we can democratize control over both the workplaces and neighborhoods, that, in both realms, a lot of mass incarceration is being driven by inequality, and by a lack of power that goes along with not having economic resources, and the way in which control over capital and land has furthered white supremacy. 

I think it’s very important for students getting involved in these issues to think on that kind of macro-scale about how these systems all function together. The criminal punishment system is not some silo. The injustices in that system are deeply connected to the injustices in the way that our neighborhoods look, and the way that ownership of capital and land looks in our society, and the healthcare system, and the way that our schools look. All these systems are connected to each other. You need to develop a really coherent political framework for understanding how each of these systems is connected to each other. 

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