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Capitalism and Incarceration Revisited

Richard D. Vogel is an independent socialist writer. He is currently working on a history of the U.S. conquest and exploitation of the Mexican people.

“Capitalism and Incarceration,” written by the author and published in Monthly Review twenty years ago (March 1983), analyzed the relationship between the capitalist economy and the prison system in America and came to an indisputable conclusion:

The overall trends and year-by-year correspondence between economic conditions and imprisonment establish quite clearly the relationship between capitalism and incarceration—prisons under capitalism are, as Marx pointed out long ago, dumping grounds of the industrial reserve army. In very few respects are the social consequences of the un- and under-employment of people under capitalism as clear as they are in the fluctuations of the prison population (34).

The article ended on a note of speculation about the future of incarceration in America:

Where will it go from here? Between 1971 and 1981 the total prisoner population in America (including all state and federal institutions) increased from 197,838 to 369,009, an increase of more than 45 percent for the decade. In addition to this new all-time high, the last decade has also seen the highest rates and fastest increase in mass incarceration in the history of the country. These glaring facts, in conjunction with the current trends of the increasing concentration of national minority people in the prisons and the ever-increasing sensitivity of the prison system to the demands of monopoly capitalism, insure that the prison problem in America can only get worse (39–40).

This update on capitalism and incarceration confirms how much worse the prison problem has become in the last twenty years.

A History of Incarceration

The history of incarceration in the United States during the twentieth century can be represented graphically. Chart 1 depicts the number of sentenced inmates incarcerated under state and federal jurisdiction for the years 1925 through 2001. The numbers are reported as rates per 100,000 total national population to allow for meaningful comparisons across time. The trend for the fifty-year period from 1925 through 1974 indicates a series of ups and downs in prisoner populations with an average of 106 per 100,000. Since 1975, however, the rate of incarceration has soared, reaching a high of 478 per 100,000 in the year 2000—over 450 percent of the 1925–1974 average!

Chart 1. Incarceration Rates, United States, 1925-2001

A close look at chart 1 reveals a steady build-up of prisoner population during the decade of the Great Depression (1929–1939) to a high point of 137.1 per 100,000 in 1939, a rate that would not be surpassed until 1979 (137.3 per 100,000). Beginning in 1940, the incarceration rate decreased sharply until it reached a low point at the end of the Second World War. A gradual upward trend began in 1947 and, with a small drop during the Korean War, continued through 1961. A pronounced downward trend started in 1962 and continued throughout the war in Vietnam, reaching the lowest rate in post-depression America in 1968 at 94.3 per 100,000.

The most remarkable feature of chart 1 is the skyrocketing trend in incarceration that began at the end of the Vietnam War era and continued through the end of the millennium; not only does this trend far surpass incarceration during the Great Depression, but it reaches the highest rate of any country in modern history. On December 31, 2001 close to two million prisoners were being held in federal and state prisons and in local jails.

A Closer Look: Unemployment and Incarceration

A comparison of unemployment and incarceration rates provides a means to explore the relationship between the manpower demands of monopoly capitalism and prisoner populations in the United States. This relationship is represented graphically in chart 2, which compares the trends of unemployment and incarceration in the United States for most of the twentieth century. The unemployment rates represent the annual average proportion of the total labor force that is jobless but seeking employment. The incarceration rates in chart 2 are different than the total prisoner population rates reported in chart 1. Here the rates represent the number of persons per 100,000 estimated civilian population who were committed to all state institutions by the courts during the year.

Chart 2. Unemployment and New Prisoners Recieved, United States, 1926-1996

Chart 2 shows that fluctuations in the trend of committing people to prison correlate to the movements of the national economy. This graph reveals a high rate of incarceration accompanying the economic dislocations of the Great Depression when, in 1931, 52 persons per 100,000 civilian population were sent to prison. Correspondingly, the lowest rate of imprisonment occurred during the Second World War (28.4 per 100,000 in 1944) when unemployment dropped to 1.2 percent.

Immediately after the war, both incarceration rates and unemployment started on upward trends until 1961 with a minor break during the mobilization of the Korean War. Predictably, mobilization for Vietnam produced dramatic drops in both unemployment and the number of men being sent to prison. Joblessness bottomed out at 3.5 percent in 1969, and new prisoners received hit a low of 31.2 new prisoners per 100,000 in 1968. These rates are comparable to the low rates during Second World War.

The current and most dramatic trend of incarceration began with the military demobilization that followed the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Chart 2 indicates that the earlier relationship between unemployment and incarceration appears to have changed. We will return to this important development later.

The relationship between war mobilization and prison populations has never been a secret. During the Second World War, Thorsten Sellin, then America’s foremost authority on prisons, advised a convention of the American Prison Association about the postwar problems prison officials would have to face:

As a result of the war our prison population has been falling. One reason is that the age group in which there has always been the most crime has been drafted. Many of the prospective customers are in the armed forces. When the army is demobilized, if accompanied by considerable economic dislocation, our prisons will be full again. [Emphasis added.]

Sellin’s Second World War prediction proved accurate, and the same phenomenon accompanied the post-Vietnam demobilization. The incarceration rate shot up in 1974, leveled off until 1979, and then began the phenomenal upward course of the last twenty years.

While chart 2 depicts the overall correspondence between economic conditions and imprisonment, in the United States, it also indicates some striking deviations.

First, given the historical relationship between unemployment and incarceration, we would have expected both total prisoner populations (chart 1) and the rate of new prisoners received from the courts (chart 2) during the Great Depression to have been much higher than they actually were. And conversely, we would not have predicted the current high incarceration rates from the reported unemployment figures of the last twenty years. These two exceptional events call for analysis.

The decade of the Great Depression deserves special attention for two reasons. In addition to the fact that incarceration rates were below predictable levels, the 1930s witnessed the first attempt in U.S. history to alleviate the problems caused by mass unemployment through direct economic relief. These two events were closely interrelated.

Incarceration rates increased sharply until 1931, when significant relief expenditures were initiated, after which they decreased. From the year 1931 until the beginning of economic recovery and the decline of relief programs in 1940, the relationship between economic relief expenditures and incarceration rates was inverse—the more money that was spent on economic relief, the lower the rates of incarceration. This special relationship, like the overall relationship between unemployment and incarceration, underscores the economic basis of the prison problem in the United States. Current trends, however, suggest a fundamentally changed relationship between capitalism and incarceration.

The turning point in modern penal practice occurred in the early 1980s. Maximum utilization of the U.S. prison system as a weapon of class warfare was part of the neoconservative agenda initiated during the Reagan administration. As the keynote speaker to the 1981 convention of the American Correctional Association (formerly the American Prison Association—the same organization addressed by Thorsten Sellin during the Second World War), United States Associate Attorney General Rudolph Giuliani articulated the new policy in classical conservative terms. “In the beginning,” he said, “man formed government to protect against the danger of invaders from without as well as predators from within. National defense and domestic defense are, therefore, the two primal functions of any government. Our criminal justice system is charged with one of these two primal tasks.” No subsequent administration, including that of Democratic President Bill Clinton, has deviated from the prison policies established during the early 1980s.

Looking back at charts 1 and 2 reveals that the contemporary function of prisons in America is unprecedented, but there is much more to the story. The prison population, as high as it is, is only the tip of the iceberg. There are millions more who are under “correctional” control. The total adult population now under correctional control exceeds 6.6 million. A breakdown by each category of control is revealing. In 2001, the prison population accounted for only 20 percent of the total compared to 60 percent for probationary control, 11 percent for jails, and 9 percent for parole. All of the categories have increased sharply and proportionally throughout the 1980–2001 time period.

There has been a corresponding upward trend in the cost of operating the criminal justice system in the United States. Between 1982 and 1997, expenditures on corrections increased a whopping 381 percent, police costs jumped 204 percent, and disbursements for judicial functions expanded 267 percent. Total direct spending on the criminal justice system in the United States for the period rose by 262 percent. The outlay for criminal justice in the United Stares approached $130 billion in 1997. How long these spending levels can continue to increase, or even be sustained, remains to be seen.

National Minorities in Prison

Any analysis of the American prison system that ignores the issue of national minority status and incarceration is superficial and obscures the workings of the system. A central issue in the analysis of incarceration in America is the fact that currently 65 percent of the inmate population consists of minority people, while those minorities compose less that 25 percent of the population at large.

Detailed statistics on black prisoners are available. There has been a steady upward trend in incarcerating black Americans throughout the second half of the twentieth century, beginning at 30 percent of the total prisoner population in 1940 and reaching 48 percent in 1995, an increase of 18 percent despite the fact that the black proportion of the nation has increased only 2.6 percent during the same period of time. A corresponding upward trend is apparent in local and county jails across the nation.

While jail incarceration rates for whites rose only slightly between 1984 and 1997, rates for blacks increased substantially. The 1997 jail incarceration rate for blacks was five times higher than the rate for whites. This jail trend clearly parallels the increasing prison incarceration rates for black Americans, illustrating the extent that racial disparity pervades the entire correctional system.

Detailed studies reported by Jan M. Chaiken, the Director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, further reveal the degree to which the criminal justice system targets minority males. Table 1 compares incarcerated Americans by race, ethnicity, and gender for the year 1996.

Table 1: Incarceration Rates by Race, Ethnicity,
& Gender, United States, 1996
Number of sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents of each group.
Men Women
Black 3,098 188
Hispanic 1,278 78
White 370 23

Source: Jan M. Chaiken, “Crunching Numbers: Crime and Incarceration at the End of the Millennium,” National Institute of Justice Journal (January 2000): 10–17. Available

Broken down by race and ethnicity, the incarceration rates reflect the bleak prospects faced by minority Americans. Black men were eight times more likely to be incarcerated in 1996 than white men, while Hispanic men were two and a half times more likely to be imprisoned. Table 1 also reveals that, although incarceration rates for women were significantly smaller than those for men, the same racial disparities prevailed.

The disproportion of incarceration rates for men in the age group 25–29 is especially dramatic. In this age group the racial disproportions are significantly higher than in the general prison population. Black men in this group are ten times more likely to be in prison than whites, while Hispanic men are three times more likely to be incarcerated.

In terms of correctional control, the percentage of black men under correctional supervision is four times higher than white men in every age category with highs approaching 30 percent for black men in their prime years of twenty to thirty compared to less than 8 percent for white men in the same age group. Buried in these aggregate statistics is the fact that when the adult probationary population in the United States is broken down by race, we find that currently only 35 percent of the probationers are black in contrast to prison populations where they make up almost 50 percent of all inmates. These statistics indicate that it is almost as difficult for white men to get into prison as it is for black men to stay out.

The lifetime likelihood of going to prison is high for minority males. In the process of “crunching numbers,” the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) developed a statistical model to predict the chances of Americans going to prison during their lifetime. Their model predicted that a young black man age sixteen in 1991 had a 28.5 percent chance of spending time in prison during his life. This prediction counts only felony convictions and does not include time spent in local or county jails. When social class differences within the black population are factored in, the prospect of poor black males being incarcerated is probably double this figure—closer to 60 percent. And, if we add the differential jail incarceration rates for blacks, a 75 percent likelihood of going to prison is not an unreasonable estimate.

Liberal critics are quick to lament racial discrimination in the criminal justice system but always steer clear of the basic structure of capitalism that accounts for the concentration of national minorities in prison. The heavy concentration of minority inmates, however, comes as no surprise in view of the economic dislocation and instability endured by national minorities in the United States. The unemployment rate for black males is consistently twice that of white males, a consistency which represents a basic fact about the economic life of national minorities compared to the white male population—by commonly accepted economic standards, white men have faced serious unemployment only during times of economic recession, while, in stark contrast, minority males have faced recession (and depression) level unemployment since the end of the Second World War with exceptions only during the economic mobilization periods of the Korean and Vietnam wars. These employment statistics reflect the fact that national minorities have historically served as the reserve army of wage laborers for American capitalism—a function that accounts for their overrepresentation in American prisons.

It must also be added that there is more than economics at work in the overrepresentation of minorities in jails and prisons. Without a doubt, the black revolt of the 1970s and the ruling class reaction against the black population, including the war on drugs, is an important issue. However, this is a matter that deserves separate, in-depth analysis, one which the author is currently undertaking.

The Politics of Imprisonment

The class contradictions that produce mass incarceration periodically break into open antagonism—three major waves and one ripple of prison disturbances in modern American history bear this out. The first wave occurred in 1929 and 1930, when there were eleven major prison uprisings across the nation. The second wave started in 1952 and ended in 1955. Riots in this period were more widespread and costly than those of the depression. During these four years, there were forty-seven major rebellions that resulted in considerable loss of life and property damage in excess of $10 million. The last major wave was from 1968 through 1971. During this period there were forty major disturbances, including the historic insurrection at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The ripple of prison disturbances that took place from 1986–1991 witnessed only eight significant events. Of these, only one, the 1987 Cuban immigrant riot at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, was serious. Placing these four surges of prison insurrections in historical perspective illuminates the politics of imprisonment in America.

The first three waves of prison insurrections all happened in times of economic recession immediately after periods of relative prosperity when both the rate of new prisoners received from the courts and total prisoner populations had been relatively low and stable. In all three periods the massive uprisings took place when the prisons of the nation were filling up again.

In each of these periods of massive influx, the prisoner population underwent significant qualitative as well as quantitative changes. Young men in the prime of life were being pushed into prison by the economic pressures of the stagnant economy, and they reacted against the injustice. The growing proportion of the minority inmate population heightened the conflict, especially in the 1960s and 1970s.

During the initial periods of build-up, the prisons were least prepared to handle the flood of new convicts. After extended periods of functioning as custodians for reduced populations of older and more tractable inmates, neither the prison personnel nor the physical facilities were up to the task. Within these critical periods the prison system had to operate on a peculiar variation of the law of supply and demand by first accommodating the overload and then justifying the need for more funds, guards, and buildings, by pointing to the overcrowded and substandard conditions of the system. It was in these acute periods, when the demands on the prison system surpassed its resources, that the widespread uprisings took place. In these three critical periods the politics of imprisonment in America became clear.

The mere ripple of disturbances that occurred during the extraordinary prison build-up of the last twenty years indicates that the state has learned its lessons from the first three waves of prison disturbances—especially from the openly antagonistic insurrections of the 1960s and 1970s.

Lessons of the 1960s and 1970s

Prison officials learned two important lessons from the insurrections of the 1960s and 1970s. The first lesson was the threat to the American prison system posed by politically unified inmates. Many prisoners of the time were conscious of the politics of imprisonment in America—they could see that national minorities were overrepresented behind bars and understood all too well that their position in society accounted for that disparity. African-American inmates across the country were organizing and rallying around figures like George Jackson, the black inmate in California who gave the ultimate insider’s voice to the politics of imprisonment in America in his powerful books: Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, which was published in October 1970 and circulated widely, and Blood in My Eye, published posthumously in February 1972. It was the killing of George Jackson inside California’s San Quentin State Prison on August 21, 1971 that set the stage for the most political and bloodiest prison uprising in American history.

At Attica prison in upstate New York over 800 inmates fasted in a silent memorial to Jackson on August 22, the day after his death. Attica officials, faced with an inmate population that was predominately minority and politically agitated, and alarmed by the degree of organization apparent in the demonstration of solidarity, tightened security, setting in motion a series of events that led to the uprising that began on September 9 and ended with a tactical strike on September 13.

Shortly after the initial rebellion at Attica, the inmates began to organize in D-yard of the prison. In the manifesto they prepared, it is evident they understood the politics of imprisonment—their recognition of the purpose of prisons in America and their demand to be taken to a non-imperialist nation make this clear. Unified by a political understanding of their situation, the inmates found the will to resist and transformed the Attica riot into a full-blown insurrection against the status quo. They issued their manifesto and tried to use the hostages they had taken to pressure the authorities into negotiations under the watchful eyes of the outside observers whom they had invited.

Oppression at Attica, however, proved to be non-negotiable. The insurrection was quelled on September 13 by a coordinated assault force of over two hundred state troopers. Tactical units, armed with shotguns and covered by teams of snipers equipped with high-powered rifles and stationed on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, advanced through a fog of tear gas and attacked the insurgents in D-yard of the prison.

Tom Wicker of the New York Times, one of the negotiators, documented the fury of state repression at Attica in his book, A Time to Die. A full accounting of the fire that rained down on the inmates and hostages that day was never made, however at least thirty-nine rounds of shotgun ammunition were discharged within D-yard, spraying the inmates with 390 buckshot pellets. The total number of high-powered rifle cartridges fired at the inmates was never determined. The final tally of the carnage at Attica was forty-three dead, including ten hostages. Three hostages, eighty-five inmates, and one state trooper were wounded.

The inmates at Attica experienced the full fury of state repression, which did not end when the firing ceased. Wicker recounted the brutal physical and mental reprisals committed against the inmates that day, as well as the onslaught of legal retaliation—in the three years following the insurrection, over 1,400 counts of criminal action were cited in indictments against sixty-one Attica inmates. The trials and punishment of the inmates continued for the remainder of the decade, and the political fallout from the assault continues today.

The negative political backlash and legal consequences that resulted from the use of lethal force against the unarmed inmates at Attica was the second lesson learned by prison and state officials. The retaking of Attica prison became a symbol of the excessive use of government force. In the aftermath of the violence, widespread criticism led to the establishment of a special state commission to investigate all aspects of the incident, including the actions of then Governor Nelson Rockefeller. In 1974, 1,200 of the inmates who claimed they were beaten and tortured by correctional officers at Attica filed a class action lawsuit and, after twenty-five years of litigation, won a sizable monetary settlement.

Current policies of incarceration reflect the lessons that were learned from the 1960s and 1970s and account for the minimal levels of prison disturbances in the face of the unprecedented incarceration rates of the last thirty years. These policies of incarceration include extensive building projects to increase prison capacity, widespread adoption of the latest in prison technology, and recruitment of a vast army of correctional personnel. Among the most draconian, and, at the same time, most effective of current policies is the adoption and expansion of supermax incarceration across the nation.

Supermax Prisons

“Supermax” is the correction community’s abbreviation for “super-maximum security” incarceration. Chase Riveland, the semi-official spokesman for U.S. Department of Justice, defines a supermax prison as:

…a highly restrictive, high-custody housing unit within a secure facility, or an entire secure facility, that isolates inmates from the general population and from each other due to the grievous crimes, repetitive assaultive or violent behavior, the threat of escape or actual escape from a high-custody facility(s), or inciting or threatening to incite disturbances in a correctional institution.

Widespread use of supermax incarceration is a recent development. Prison administrators have traditionally isolated troublesome inmates, but legal challenges to these “jails within prisons” during the 1970s and 1980s restricted their usefulness to prison officials. Supermax prisons, whether new or retrofitted facilities, are designed and built “with the express purpose of incarcerating inmates under highly isolated conditions with severely limited access to programs, exercise, staff, or other inmates.” Supermax prisons effectively subvert legal restraints on the practice of segregation and, since all the inmates in these facilities are essentially in solitary confinement, maximize the power of the institutions to control individuals.

Supermax incarceration directly addresses the lessons learned by prison officials from the 1960s and 1970s. The threat to the prison system posed by politicized inmates has been drastically reduced. A common policy during those earlier times was the practice of “dispersion”—problem inmates, once identified, were spread around the system, housed in other states, or transferred to a federal facility in order to prevent them from uniting. Of course, the result in many cases was that politicized inmates resumed recruiting and organizing at their new destinations. Supermax incarceration solves this threat by housing all agitators and other “troublemakers” together in high security institutions. A collateral benefit of isolating “troublemakers” under supermax security is to prevent their contact with undesirable outside influences, like the power that George Jackson wielded during the 1960s and 1970s. At the same time, supermax incarceration addresses the second lesson learned from the political insurrections of the radical period—the use of lethal force against organized inmates and consequent political fallout has been minimized during the last twenty-five years.

Life in supermax is austere. Inmates typically spend twenty-three hours a day alone in their cells with little or no human contact. Cell, unit, and shower doors are operated remotely from a control center. In some units, even periodic trips to the showers are eliminated by pre-programmed in-cell shower facilities. Medical, religious, and counseling services are limited to cell-front visits or provided through closed-circuit television. Meals and laundry are passed through security ports that also allow access for guards to safely secure or remove restraints or to use gas and/or firearms to subdue combative or resistive inmates. The isolation of supermax, however, does not provide privacy—inmates are continuously monitored through cameras or listening devices and communicated to through intercoms.

In-cell activity is limited by tight restrictions on property, and out-of-cell activity is rare. Inmates are moved in restraints and escorted by at least two guards. They may be allowed to exercise for three to seven hours a week alone in a contained space and may be allowed one or more non-contact visits per month by approved visitors. Communication with the outside world varies by institution but is limited and closely monitored.

Few rehabilitation programs are available to supermax inmates. There are no meaningful work programs and educational opportunities are limited and available only through television or correspondence. Staff chaplains, or approved clergy or volunteers may provide religious services through cell-front visits, but few, if any, religious articles are allowed.

Use of institutional violence is an ever-present threat in supermax units. Force used to restrain and move inmates in and out of cells is considered “routine.” Other uses of force anticipated by prison officials include executing cell extractions, intervening in self-destructive behavior, and subduing combative or resistive inmates.

Among the worst features of supermax incarceration is the fact that assignment of prisoners to isolation is arbitrary. Unlike traditional prisons where segregation must be justified and administered according to due process, the authority for placing inmates in and removing them from a supermax facility is totally bureaucratic and therefore discretionary.

Little consideration is given to the immediate and long-term impact of supermax incarceration on inmates. Riveland’s position on the issue is evasive, “Little is known about the impact of locking an inmate in an isolated cell for an average of twenty-three hours per day with limited human interaction, little constructive activity, and an environment that assures maximum control over individuals.” In view of the facts that the psychopathological effects of solitary confinement have been known for over 150 years, and that the United States Supreme Court condemned solitary confinement on psychiatric grounds in 1890, Riveland’s position on the impact of solitary confinement is more than evasion—it is blatant disinformation.

If we really want to know what isolation does to men, we can listen to the loud and clear voices of the inmates themselves. George Jackson, who spent eight and a half of his eleven years in prison in solitary confinement, offered an explicit description of the effects of punitive segregation at Soledad prison’s notorious O Wing, Max Row:

It destroys the logical processes of the mind, a man’s thoughts become completely disorganized. The noise, madness streaming from every throat, frustrated sounds from the bars, metallic sounds from the walls, the steel trays, the beds bolted to the walls, the hollow sounds from a cast iron sink or toilet.

The human smells, the human waste thrown at us, unwashed bodies, the rotten food. When a white con leaves here he’s ruined for life. No black leaves Max Row walking. Either he leaves on the meat wagon or he leaves licking at the pig’s feet.

It is remarkable how accurately George Jackson’s description illustrates the findings of a later psychiatric study conducted by Dr. Stuart Grassian that documented the psychopathological effects of solitary confinement. One symptom of psychopathology is perceptual change. Grassian quotes one prisoner on sounds and smells in solitary confinement:

You get sensitive to noise—the plumbing system. Someone in the tier above me pushes the button on the faucet, the water rushes through the pipes—it’s too loud, gets on your nerves. I can’t stand it—I start to holler. Are they doing it on purpose? After a while you can’t stand it. Meals—I used to eat everything they served. Now I can’t stand the smells—the meat—the only thing I can stand to eat is the bread…Difficult to breathe, stale, awful smell from the toilets—the stench starts to feel unbearable.

Grassian reports that the inmates only experienced these symptoms while they were in solitary. He goes on to document other symptoms, including: affective disturbances, difficulties with thinking, concentration, and memory; disturbances of thought content; and problems with impulse control. It is important to note that Grassian’s study was done on the effects of short-term solitary confinement—the median duration of segregation in his study was two months with a range of eleven days to ten months, and prisoners were, by law, given at least twenty-four hours of relief from isolation every fifteen days. Length of stay in supermax, in contrast, is indeterminate with some inmates serving their entire sentence in solitary confinement.

And what happens to these inmates if or when they get out of prison—what is the long-term impact of isolation? Again, Riveland is evasive: “Are potential negative effects greater after an individual has been in such a facility for three months, one year, three years, five years, or more? Do extended isolation, absence of normal stimuli, and a controlling environment result in damage to an inmate’s psyche? Research in this area is sparse.”

Unfortunately, Grassian offers no answer to the question because his study was limited to the effect on men currently incarcerated. But, again, we can turn to George Jackson, who offered a keen insider’s follow-up study of the survivors of O Wing, Max Row. They end up, he said, as either political activists or broken men. He elaborated:

The broken men are so damaged that they will never again be suitable members of any sort of social unit. Everything that was still good in them when they entered the joint, anything that may have escaped the ruinous effects of black colonial experience, anything that may have been redeemable when they first entered the joint—is gone when they leave it.

This camp brings out the very best in brothers or destroys them entirely. But none are unaffected. None who leave here are normal.

Prison officials know very well what solitary confinement can do to men. Riveland recognizes the resistance to supermax practices: “…a faction made up of corrections officials, inmates, and inmate advocates has raised concerns about or even condemned them. They suggest they are ‘cruel and inhumane,’ susceptible to abuses, and damaging to the inmates housed in them.” In the final analysis, however, he reports that many corrections officials defend the use of supermax units as “beneficial.” In other words, supermax incarceration serves their need to control inmates and prison officials are going to keep on using it regardless of any short or long-term damage to inmates.

Despite the harm to inmates and the fact that the constitutionality of supermax incarceration is unclear and prison officials anticipate legal challenges, the practice is widespread and growing. As of 1997, there were at least fifty-seven supermax facilities in operation nationwide (including sixteen in Texas alone) and a minimum of ten additional prison systems developing supermax programs and facilities.

State and prison officials have learned their lessons well—the current level of oppression maintained in American prisons has prevented any large-scale prison disturbances like those of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Prison Problem Now

Despite the widespread practice of supermax incarceration, the development of what have been called “roboprisons,” and the enthusiastic adoption of “technocorrections” by probation and parole officials, the prison problem in America is rapidly reaching crisis proportions. The forces causing the crisis are both economic and political.

Current mass incarceration in America is a result of the deindustrialization of the nation during the past twenty-five years and the consequent social and economic dislocations that disproportionately impact minority Americans. The direct relationship between unemployment and incarceration that existed from the 1930s to the 1980s has been changed—the prison system now holds enough of the reserve army of wage laborers for extended periods to actually keep the official unemployment rate down—a development unforeseen by prison observers of the past. When I made the prediction in 1983, that “…the prison problem in America can only get worse,” I did not anticipate the latest refinements in the machinery of oppression.

The prison crisis has already begun. Current indicators suggest that the chronic economic recession that was avoided during the last twenty years is upon us. This recession, like the economic contractions of capitalism in the past, will produce a flood of new prisoners that will have to be accommodated in a system that is presently at, or near, capacity. The economic costs of mass incarceration and correctional control in America are already staggering and cannot be maintained. Despite the savings provided by technology in prison construction, maintenance, and administration, the economic costs are still excessive, a fact that even the government number crunchers recognize. As the economy contracts and tax revenues dwindle, federal and state governments are slipping deeper into deficit. Prisons are already being targeted for budget cuts, and the political crisis of the system, deferred by the expansive and expensive prison policies of the last twenty years is pending—the prison problem is becoming a political issue again.

Ironically, supermax prisons might be the first to go—the cost of keeping masses of men in concentrated solitary confinement has proven to be much greater than even regular maximum-security incarceration. The closing down of supermax facilities alone could spark widespread prison insurrections because it would put the “troublemakers” back among the general prison population. Once that happens, protest and resistance would follow, and the voice of American prisoners, silenced for so long, would be heard again—it would echo the “sound before the fury of those who are oppressed” proclaimed at Attica in 1971.

What Can Be Done Now?

During their confrontation with the state, the inmates at Attica called upon the conscientious citizens of America for assistance—a call made over thirty years ago but still critical today. There is much to be done to help inmates.

Prison reform is an important political issue. Revolutionaries must establish links with prisoners whenever possible. It is essential for inmates to understand why they are behind bars and know that they have outside support. Breaking the isolation of supermax prisoners will require concerted legal action. We must support the ongoing legal challenges to supermax incarceration and initiate action against states that practice supermax housing and have not yet been challenged. Termination of supermax isolation will not only relieve individual prisoners of exceedingly oppressive conditions, but will directly challenge the prison system.

Prison projects can be established to organize and raise the money needed to fund the legal campaign against “supermax” and other challenges to the system. These prison projects should include representatives from the communities most impacted by incarceration, especially blacks and Latinos, and can aid in the rehabilitation of prisoners, a task that has been all but abandoned by the state. Local prison projects can network and form working coalitions with state, regional, and national prison reform groups. A search of the Internet reveals that much is already being done. Sharing experience and coordinating efforts strengthen the movement.

But prison reform must always be revolutionary—within the prison movement we must emphasize the relationship between capitalism and incarceration in America and its devastating impact on the working class, especially national minorities. Revolutionary consciousness is the only real hope for those oppressed by the system. George Jackson’s testimony to this essential fact is important to recall—in his autobiography, he confessed his early criminal mentality and recounted how he got into trouble with the law and was offered a light jail sentence in a plea bargain agreement. At sentencing, however, he was sent to a penitentiary with a term of one year to life. Jackson explains:

That was in 1960. I was eighteen years old. I’ve been here ever since. I met Marx, Engels, Trotsky, and Mao when I entered prison and they redeemed me. For the first four years I studied nothing but economics and military ideas. I met black guerrillas, George “Big Jake” Lewis, and James Carr, W. L. Nolen, Bill Christmas, Tony Gibson, and many, many others. We attempted to transform the black criminal mentality into a black revolutionary mentality.

George Jackson concluded his autobiography with the following lines sent to him in a note from an inmate who had previously resisted the revolutionary view of the prison problem:

Without the cold and desolation of winter there
could not be the warmth and splendor of spring!
Calamity has hardened my mind, and turned it to steel!
Power to the People!

2003, Volume 55, Issue 04 (September)
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