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The U.S. Prison State

Marilyn Buck is a political prisoner serving an eighty-year sentence. She may be contacted at: Marilyn Buck, #00482-285, FCI Dublin Unit B, 5701 8th St. Camp Parks, Dublin, CA 94568.

Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, editors Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor (New York: Routledge, 2003), 256 pages, cloth $80.00, paper $19.95.

I sit in the day room/lobby waiting to be released for lunch. I read a novel in which one character, a Pole, comments to another that the Germans consider Poles to be untermenschen, subhuman. I look at the women around me: Latinas arguing among themselves in Spanish; a black woman making signals to someone I don’t see; two white women—one of whom is stringing beads—are murmuring together. Two of these women are here because they are undocumented workers; three are incarcerated for economic offenses; the other is falsely convicted; all of us are caught inside the nightmare of an oppressive state and an expanding empire. Instead of storm trooper boots and brown shirts, those who command wear Tony Lamas cowboy boots, expensive suits, and ties—men who see in the U.S. prison establishment ways to both intensify control of the population and squeeze more profits out of late-stage capitalism.

Prison has always been the final gate in the repressive apparatus of a state. It serves the purpose of social and political control, although it manifests itself differently in different nation-states and in different political periods. Nevertheless, the prisoner is, with few exceptions, always a scapegoat and considered a deviant. Prison is not only a class weapon; it is also an instrument to control “alien” populations. In the United States, these “alien” populations are formerly colonized peoples—former slaves, Native Americans, Latin Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders—and they have all too often been considered the internal enemy. They are the people most needing control and are therefore the majority of those locked down in U.S. prisons.

The United States is the world’s primary example of a country that deals with its social, economic, and cultural problems by incarceration. But this is its history. Prisons are the logical outcome of the country’s foundation on the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, and the “manifest destiny” of imperial settlerism—from sea to shining sea.

Prison Nation is a recently-released anthology of essays on both the state of U.S. prisons and the U.S. prison state. Most of the essays were written in the new century. One more century of American prisoners. The writers are prisoners, journalists, academics, and activists. Unfortunately, none of the writers are women prisoners or ex-prisoners.

Readers are probably familiar with abominable prison conditions—rape, torture, restraint chairs, gladiator fights—from newspaper and magazine accounts. Prison and human rights activists might even have read some of the book’s essays. But what marks this collection as a whole is the first-rate discussion of these brutal circumstances and how these are the logical and normative result of incarceration itself.

The essays in sections 5, “Malign Neglect: Prison Medicine,” and 6, “Rape, Racism, and Repression,” give ample evidence of the inhumanity and cruelty of the system: Death sentences result from nonexistent or malpracticed medical care. The mentally ill are warehoused and even healthy prisoners tend to fall prey to mental illness because of the insane and brutal conditions of prison’s bedlam (see “The New Bedlam” by Willie Wisely). Prisoner rape—both rape by guards mainly of female prisoners, and by predatory male prisoners of other male prisoners—is frequently given free reign by guards.

There are other essays which detail the more subtle elements of dehumanization, ones that those who have not experienced prison either as a prisoner or as a family member or friend of a prisoner might not ever consider—such as a prisoner being warehoused far from home and family. Nell Bernstein discusses the far-reaching repercussions of long distance visiting and the need of children for their parents in two essays: “Swept Away,” and “Relocation Blues.”

The psychological trauma and cruelty generated inside the prison system filters through into everything outside of it, deforming and undermining the whole of civil society. Prison society begins to serve as a model for other organizations. In his essay “Capital Crimes,” George Winslow concludes, “Corporate power currently allows companies to create serious social problems by legal and illegal means.”

The U.S. prison state has spread its tentacles into communities and classes, which are manipulated both by the law and the lure of economic development. In “An American Seduction,” Joelle Fraser draws a portrait of a prison town in need of more inhabitants and more work. Susanville, California expected economic well-being; what it got was a supermax prison, greater pressure on its social infrastructure, and a culture of violence unexpected even among its many ranchers, hunters, and fishers. Even the night has been affected. The author’s brother describes returning home to a brightly lit prison, which has destroyed the darkness of the countryside night. “It looked futuristic, unnatural, something out of a science fiction movie. Like some giant alien mother ship had landed.”

The central theme of Prison Nation is the economic dynamic and roles of prisons in U.S. capitalism, that is, the prison-industrial complex. This anthology does an excellent job of analyzing and describing how the prison-industrial complex works as an integral part of U.S. capitalism by generating large profits for corporations. Essays and case studies detail how the incorporation of prisons into the system of capital accumulation was accomplished, both through changes in the criminal code and business law and the manipulation of public perceptions and fears. In “The Politics of Prison Labor,” Gordon Lafer explains the interplay of political expediency, taxes, and budgets: “When the economy goes into a recession, the supply of decently paid jobs will shrink…some numbers of [the laid-off and fired] will engage in nonviolent crimes…[and end up incarcerated]….It is important to note that this cycle is not the result of a conscious conspiracy among public officials…it is, rather, the natural result of each party pursuing its own rational interests under current conditions.” (Italics in original.)

While the articles that explain how capital and the law work to create this expanding prison nation, there are few strategies suggested to organize to stop the abuses, to hold the socially-sanctioned criminals accountable, and to challenge more fundamentally the prison-industrial complex. A notable exception is detailed in “Campus Activism Defeats Multinational’s Profiteering” by Kevin Pranis. This is a report on campus activism in opposition to a foreign multinational that supplies both universities and prisons—Sodexho Alliance, which “…in 1994, entered into strategic alliance with the world’s largest prison company, Corrections Corporation of America [CCA].” The students forced Sodexho to get rid of its large stock interest in CCA. This essay is also valuable in showing the breadth of industrial capital’s involvement in prisons for profit. From razor blades to razor wire, some corporation is profiting from both public and private prisons.

In the essays on rape, the organization Stop Prisoner Rape is mentioned as a source of information on prisoner rape, but there is no article about its history and struggles inside the prisons, which have led to some victories. Its strategic view and social practice would have been valuable to prison activists.

The inclusion of more activist essays would have taken this anthology forward to stimulate further creativity and strategy in a movement to confront corporate/military/state power. It is not enough to shake our heads at a capitalism which has now shed all but a few shreds of its democratic facade. This struggle continues to be critically important as the United States expands its police state and concentration camp empire from Pelican Bay and Florence to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to the detention camps at Guantanamo—the military supermax concentration camp.

Mark Dow’s essay, “Secrecy, Power, Indefinite Detention,” on the detention and treatment of immigrants, illuminates the role of incarceration as part of foreign and domestic social control policies. In 2002, 115,000 immigrants were deported. Currently, 21,000 immigrants are being detained. Convicted legal residents, even if they have no homeland, are being deported to other countries, or they remain in long-term detention, with little hope of release.

Security and intimidation are the sidearms of an immigration policy that leads to exploitation of both workers and undocumented workers. This is a two-pronged attack: one on the immigrant, both those who are legal and those who are undocumented, and another on the U.S.-born black, Native American, Latino, and Asian and Pacific Islander populations. Both of these attacks are based primarily on skin color.

Noam Chomsky, in “Drug Policy as Social Control,” observes that in the typical third world society, where there is a great disparity between the wealthy few and the impoverished many, the solution is “to get rid of the superfluous people, and…to control those who are suffering.” He posits that the drug war is the “U.S. counterpart to ‘social cleansing’” because a so-called democracy has to rely more on techniques of social control than straightforward murder and genocide. This noted, what this anthology lacks is sufficient analysis of the historic role of prisons as an integral part of imperialism and white supremacy.

Several articles discuss racism. The disproportionate number of black men in prison is noted, but overall national and colonial status is diffused into “the poor.” There is little analysis of why there is such a racial disproportionality. Mumia Abu Jamal, the noted journalist and political prisoner long held on death row, states in one of his two essays, “Anatomy of a Whitewash,” “if the status quo is an oppressive one, with white supremacy as the guiding principle, to preserve such a regime is wrong indeed.” He also discusses the role of white supremacy. And, in an excellent article, “Color Bind: Prisons and the New American Racism,” Paul Street explores the role of incarceration in the suppression and destruction of the black community. He notes that prison becomes, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics Director Jan Chaiken, “almost a normative life experience” in black urban communities. He delineates some of the ways in which the imprisonment of an increasingly large part of black communities is destroying the ability of those communities to develop. The black community is used to generating economic activity that does not benefit but rather injures the community through loss of potential earnings and savings. Even more important is the loss of human and social capital and therefore social development.

Finally, Street points out that “mass incarceration is hardly an inevitable product of capitalism.” In Europe mass incarceration is not part of the capitalist system. In the United States, however, it is an integral part of capitalist and imperialist development. The Trail of Tears and the Middle Passage are journeys to the first of the concentration camps—Indian reservations and plantations—and the beginnings of the U.S. strategy to work the captured and colonized to death.

The absence of analysis about this role of the prison nation is conspicuous, precisely because of the detailed description and analysis of the prison nation as a class issue. However, to talk about class without understanding that white supremacy is one of the ideological bases of imperialism and therefore informs all of its strategies, domestic and international, leaves one less clear about the historical role of the descendants of slaves, Native Americans, colonized Mexicans, and imported Asians as the backbone of the “American” working class. This leads to repeating the past. It would be wise to heed W. E. B. Du Bois when he pointed out in Black Reconstruction that the lack of support for black slave workers by the white working class set back the international class struggle a hundred years—or more, as we now witness.

Ultimately, there is no “humane” way to detain, incarcerate, or isolate the criminalized elements of a society. It is likely that even in a more ideal society, prisons will still tend toward dehumanization and degradation. That is the nature of institutions where human beings are held involuntarily, whether it be a boarding or military school, a mental hospital, or a prison.

George Winslow concludes that “[u]ntil there is a political movement to address these problems by creating a more just society, there is little hope of achieving justice in our prisons and courts.” I would add that any struggle to change the society must include changing the nature and purpose, if not dismantling, the repressive apparatus and the prison system that helps to define it. Mumia Abu Jamal cites Thoreau in his attack on slavery, Civil Disobedience, “the law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free” and, says Mumia, “…the law protects white class interests above all else.”

The women I see in the day room fall asleep each night dreaming of more effective or semi-miraculous paths to their freedom—a way home to their children and families. Each of us, as well as our families, friends, and communities, are caught up in both a personal and social tragedy—we all pay a price for the absence of prisoners from the world. If all who know and love even one prisoner, or who simply detest the dehumanization, degradation, and racism of the U.S. prison apparatus, were to join in some facet of the struggle to bring this insane system under control and, perhaps, to change it, even abolish it, change could occur. Millions of people across the United States are connected to prisoners and former prisoners. They have the power to act in the struggle to overturn the prison nation.

2004, Volume 55, Issue 09 (February)
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