Originally published by Nightcrawlers in the early 1990s, but still relevant.
This is about prisons; who is in them, what are the factors that determine who goes in and for how long, and what function do prisons serve in our society.
Prisons are here to rehabilitate prisoners, protect society and serve as a deterrent, right? A study conducted by the National Institute of Justice in 1982 found that about 62.5% of prisoners released were rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within three years. These statistics are consistent with those dating back to the nineteenth century. The states that spend the most money on law enforcement still have the highest levels of crime. Not only can people in prison learn more about crime there, but prisons are violent institutions that breed violent behavior. Imprisonment isolates people ham their communities and families, and prisoners are very often forced to deal with brutality and dehumanization with no support.
Aside from being inhumane, prisons do not deal with the root cause of why people commit crimes, and thus cannot effectively deter crime. In 1899, Emma Goldman wrote in her essay, Prisons: a Social Crime and Failure, “With all our boasted reforms, our great social changes, and our far reaching discoveries, human beings continue to be sent to the worst of hells, wherein they are outraged, degraded, and tortured, so that society may be ‘protected’ from phantoms of its own making. Prison a social protection8 … Just as well say that health can be promoted by a widespread contagion.”
If prisons do not rehabilitate, do not protect, and do not serve as a deterrent, what is their use?
Prisons Yesterday and Today
Blacks in the pre-Civil War South were rarely put behind bars because they were too economically valuable for white society to lose, and there were other methods of racial control. The majority of Blacks in jail were either runaways, who were held until slave-owners came to retrieve them, or placed there at their owner’s requests.
In the first five years after the Civil War, the Black prison population exploded, with Black prisoners comprising one in three. Many were hired out to whites at less than slave wage,. Most of the “crimes” Black people committed were crimes with which white people were not charged. There were Black Codes passed by various states that regulated all aspects of Black life, and criminalized all kinds of behavior. For example, it was a crime for Blocks to own or rent land in most areas and hunting and fishing were criminalized. The Mississippi and South Carolina Black Codes required all Blacks to have written evidence of employment for the upcoming year. Blacks who left work prior to their contract expiration were subject to arrest by any white person, and were whipped, placed in a pillory (a wooden structure with holes for the head and hands), and sold for up to one year’s labor. In Texas and Louisiana, Codes forced wimmin back into the fields by passing laws that “shall embrace the labor of all members of the family able to work.”
Of course, none of the above laws, (and countless laws like them), were applicable to whites. In terms of race and its relationship to incarceration, many of the Black Codes are still institutionally in effect.
Nationwide, the rate of imprisonment for Blacks is 7.4 times that of whites. For Hispanics the rate is double that of whites. One out of two Black men will be arrested in his lifetime. One in four Black men are under some form of criminal justice control. The U.S. has the world’s highest rate of incarceration with 426 prisoners per 100,000 in population. South Africa has the second highest rate with 333 prisoners per 100,000 in population. Black men in the U.S. are incarcerated at a rate of four times that of Black men in South Africa, 3,109 per 100,000, compared to 729 per 100,000. Another element of this institutionalized racism is the length of prison terms. When time served is compared for similar offenses -including first time offenders -Blacks serve far longer time than whites. In the federal system, sentences for Blacks are 20% longer than for whites who committed similar crimes. If time served by Blacks were reduced to parity with whites, the federal system would require 3,000 fewer prison cells.
Warehouses for the Poor
Studies have shown that 90% of the adult population has committed offenses that are punishable by imprisonment. But, because of race and class politics (in terms of arrest and sentencing) you can’t predict the “time” according to the “crime”. Society’s economic losses from white collar crime far exceeds that of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, and auto thefts combined. But, only 26% of the high income/white collar criminals received prison sentences, whereas 53% of the low-income people received prison sentences. Most people behind bars have committed economic crimes. Nearly half of the prison population consists of people who were unemployed or working port time, at time of their arrest. Seventy-one percent earned less than $10,000 a year.
For wimmin, whose incarceration rate is rising at 15% annually (almost double that of men), virtually 75% are directly traceable to their economic circums~ances. The national profile shows that wimmin in prison tend to be under 30, have less than a high school education, and live in poverty. Most wimmin incarcerated are mothers and heads of households, and are wimmin of color. Property crimes, such as check forgery and illegal credit card use, are the most typical reason for imprisonment.
Prisons and Capitalism
With the nation’s prison population increasing at a rate of 800 prisoners per week, prison construction is booming. Well over 100 prisons are currently authorized or under construction -costing more than $70 billion dollars in construction costs alone (which is only six percent of the over all cost of planning, building, financing and maintaining a new prison).
While the benefits of prisons to society, and certainly to prisoners are questionable, the corporate interests are vast. To the $51 billion spent for state and local criminal justice systems, we can add the amount spent for federal criminal justice agencies ($5.7 billion in 1985), and private security systems ($21.7 billion in 1980). The annual total is in the neighborhood of $80 billion. It’s probably substantially more in 1994.
From architects to academics (who study prisoners and the prison system), from food service vendors to health care firms, from corrections bureaucrats to psychologists there is a lot of money to be made from the proliferation of prisons. By contrast, the combined losses to individuals, households, banks and other business due to crime is about $10 billion a year. Which means that for every dollar directly lost by victims of crime, we spend about $8 to apprehend and punish the perpetrators.
The Profitability of Prison Labor
The other aspect of prisons and their relationship to capitalism is the profit from the labor of prisoners. The private sector and the state are increasingly taking advantage of the fact that prisoners enjoy none of the rights Free workers have. They cannot unionize. They do not have to be covered by Worker’s Compensation. The Fair Labor Standards Act does not cover them. They do not voice grievances, except at the risk of incurring the arbitrary discipline of prison authorities. They can be hired and fired at will, and do not have to be paid minimum wage. Prison labor is perfect for seasonal labor and, late night or weekend shifts. And, of course, businesses can receive tax breaks for hiring prisoners.
“Prisoners are commodities, and a profit must be realized from commodities. A lot of ‘good guys’ make an easy living off us ‘bad guys.’”
Norman Nusser, serving 20 40 years in PA for burglaries
Tools of Repression
There are well over 150 political prisoners and prisoners of war in the US. The government recognizes none of them and only Amnesty International recognizes three. They have received very little support in this country while the prison system has been developing methods and technologies to torture and suppress them. We cannot allow this to continue.
Political prisoners, as well as jailhouse lawyers, people who have filed lawsuits against prisons, and many others who are arbitrarily chosen for whatever reason, are placed in “control units”. The first control unit, Marion Prison in Illinois, was built 20 years ago, as a part of a wave of repression carried out by the government against the upsurge of revolutionary and progressive movements in that period. Marion has been in a state of permanent “lockdown” since 1983. Prisoners are locked-down in their cells 23 hours a day, and all standard vocational, educational and recreational activities are nonexistent. Prisoners are forced to sleep, eat, and defecate in their cells, which are 8′x 10′. They are forbidden to socialize with each other or to participate in group religious services. Those who “misbehave” may be tied spread-eagle and naked on their concrete slab beds. According to a past warden of Marian, “The purpose of the Marion control unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and society at large.” Many male political prisoners in federal prison have been placed in Marion for some time. Scads of political prisoners are placed in one of the 36 control units throughout the country, where the conditions are comparable to those of Marion.
Control unit prisons are proliferating. Not only have already existing prisons been Marionized, in federal, state and even county detention centers, but there are plans to build larger, higher security, more technologically advanced torture chambers such as the one currently being built in Florence, Colorado.
Conclusion: Smash the State
It’s clear that the criminal justice system is not only racist, classist and totalitarian, but it also serves as an expanding market. Prisons are necessary to assert direct control over the poor/people of color and those among them who are struggling for their liberation.
Prisons keep people divided. Not just prisoners from their communities or mothers from their children. It perpetuates racist myths. It keeps people in a fearful and reactionary attitude towards the poor/people of color. It increases homophobia towards lesbians, who are portrayed as being “like men” and needing to be punished for their deviancy. It maintains an overall attitude of blaming the victim. In essence, it’s an integral part of capitalism. People are so busy fighting with each other in aspects of everyday life, along these very same lines, that they can’t unify against their oppressors, and smash them. Hierarchy is about who has power over whom. To successfully be rid of societies based on violence, coercion and exploitation, we need to recognize the complex web of oppression that exists, and counter it with revolutionary, anti-authoritarian alternatives that effect peoples every day lives. Prisons effect the everyday lives of those who are most oppressed in our society. We must go beyond simply supporting prisoners, and organize a movement that will smash prisons and all authoritarian ways of life..
The research was gathered from these valuable sources: Ward Churchill, Cages of Steel, Maisonneuve Press, 1992, PO Box 2980 Washington D.C. 200132980. Committee to End the Marion Lockdown, The proposed Prison in Florence, Colorado, A “New and Improved” Marion, Phone:(31 2)235-0070. Alexander C. Lichtenstein The Fortress Economy: The Economic role of the U.S. Prison System, Available through the American Friends Service Committee, Phone:(201)643-31 92. Bruce White, Block Robes White Justice, Carol Publishing Group, 1990, available in most bookstores. Sundiata Acoli, A Brief History of the New Afrikan Prison Struggle, The Sundiata Acoli Freedom Campaign, PO Box 5538, Manhattanville Station, Harlem NY 10027. Clinton Cox, Something Criminal About The Criminal Justice System, The City Sun, March 25-31, 1902 pages 5 and 36.