Throwing Away the Key
The world's leading jailer
by Joan Parkin
International Socialist Review, January / February
Over the past 20 years, politicians' hysterical tough-on-crime
rhetoric has fueled the perception that America's prisons are
luxurious country clubs for convicted felons. Right-wing crank
U.S. Senator Phil Gramm (RTexas) has sputtered confidently that
America needs to stop "building prisons like Holiday Inns."
In the 1996 Republican presidential primary race, he said, "I
want to take out the color TVs and the weight rooms."
So, what did Gramm advocate to replace the "good life"
inmates were living? Turn prisons into industrial parks:
I want them to make prisoners work 10 hours a day, six days
a week.... I want to enter into contracts with major manufacturers
so that we can produce component parts in prisons now being produced
in places like Mexico, China, Taiwan, and Korea.
The number of people in prison, in jail, on parole, and on
probation in the U.S. increased threefold between 1980 and 2000,
to more than 6 million, and the number of people in prison increased
from 319,598 to almost 2 million in the same period. This buildup
has targeted the poor, and especially Blacks. In 1999, though
Blacks were only 13 percent of the U.S. population, they were
half of all prison inmates. In 2000, one out of three young Black
men was either locked up, on probation, or on parole. The military-industrial
complex of the 1950s, with its Cold War communist bogeyman, has
been replaced by a prison-industrial complex, with young Black
"predators" serving as its justification.
This rush to incarcerate has brought with it an increased
insensitivity to those who are locked up. Record numbers of mentally
retarded, drug addicted, and youth offenders are being put behind
bars. The sentences are getting longer and the conditions worse.
Today, entire prisons called "control units" are devoted
to holding inmates in solitary confinement cells.
In contrast to the country club image of prisons portrayed
by officials, the experiences of wrongfully convicted Illinois
death row inmate Nathson Fields are more representative of life
in America's prisons. Fields, who sits in a remote cell in the
basement of Cook County Jail, is still recovering from a horrible
beating inflicted by more than a dozen guards who jumped him and
four other inmates in November 2000, in retaliation for filing
grievances. Beaten unconscious, the inmates were taken on stretchers
to a nearby hospital and treated collectively for broken bones;
a busted spleen; bruised ribs; and a broken eardrum, nose, and
jaw. Subsequently, they were abandoned in their cells with little
to no follow-up medical attention.
"Cruelty to detainees [particularly against Blacks and
other racial minorities] is becoming institutionalized across
the USA," declared Amnesty International in a statement urging
the United Nations Committee against Torture to condemn the U.S.
government. "From the use of long-term isolation in super-maximum
security units," to chemical sprays and electroshock weapons
routinely used by police and corrections officers, Amnesty International
found the U.S. in violation of the Convention against Torture,
ratified by the U.S. in 1994.
According to the World Prison Brief, the U.S. has both the
largest prison population and the highest rate of incarceration
in the world, including China and Russia. The U.S. incarcerates
people at a rate more than 15 times that of Japan, and its prison
population is more than eight times that of Italy, France, the
UK, Spain, and Australia combined.
The three-decade growth in the U.S. prison population represents
the largest prison expansion in modern history. According to one
construction trade magazine, 3,300 new prisons were built in the
U.S. in the 1990s at a cost of $27 billion, and another 268 are
in the pipeline. The annual cost of running America's prisons
now tops $45 billion. But some profited enormously from the prison
boom, namely, the growing private prison industry.
Lower crime rates have not resulted from this massive prison
boom. Between 1970 and today, the prison population expanded fourfold,
yet crime rates today are comparable to those of 1970, with some
fluctuation in between."
However, popular attitudes toward the law-and-order agenda
of politicians are beginning to shift. The stark increase in prison
abuses and questions about the fairness of the criminal justice
system have begun to make prime-time television. Protests against
high-profile police brutality and wrongful conviction death penalty
cases have helped to crack open the misrepresentations circulated
by the mainstream media. The practice of racial profiling by the
nation's police forces has become a national scandal. A small
but significant number of people are beginning to see that America's
prisons are not houses of rehabilitation, but chambers of horror
that do nothing to deter crime.
A number of states, citing recession-induced budgetary problems,
have begun to revise mandatory sentencing laws for nonviolent
drug offenders. This, among other factors, has begun to slow-and,
in several states, even reverse-the growth of the prison population.
The hysterical law-and-order climate created in the aftermath
of September 11, with politicians clamoring to pass new laws that
will put more people behind bars, may reverse these trends. But
the issues that have created a developing new mood against the
horrors of the U.S. criminal justice system will not go away.
Give us your poor, your weak, your huddled masses
The nearly 2 million people who fill America's prisons today
are, for the most part, nonviolent offenders whose main crime
was being born into poverty, or worse, being born poor and Black.
According to William J. Chambliss, author of Power, Politics,
Most of the 2 million people in prison and jail are not dangerous
criminals. They do not belong to a criminal subculture that preys
on innocent citizens. In fact, they do not have anything in common
with one another except that they are ( I ) overwhelmingly poor,
(2) uneducated, (3) predominately male, and (4) disproportionately
members of minority groups.
According to the Sentencing Project, in 1997, 68 percent of
state prison inmates had not completed high school, which helps
to explain the high rate of illiteracy among inmates Thirty-three
percent of jail inmates were unemployed in 1991 prior _ to arrest,
and another 32 percent were making less than $5,000 per year at
the time of their arrest. America's prisons are overflowing with
those who were left out of the "miracle economy." Class
and race plays a crucial role in who ends up in prison, from the
neighborhoods that police target to the decisions that police
and prosecutors make about suspects. This means that a well-to-do
white teenager caught dealing drugs in a wealthy suburb may not
even get to the point where he needs time.
Incarcerating the have-nots isn't a new trend. The penitentiary
was born not simply as a reform away from corporal punishment,
but as a means for the ruling class to control the emerging impoverished
working class that was growing up alongside the abundance of 19th-century
capitalism-as well as the Black population freed after the end
"There is no very great danger of a rich man going to
jail," said the progressive lawyer Clarence Darrow to a group
of Cook County Jail inmates in 1902. "First and last, people
are sent to jail because they are poor." Or, to paraphrase
early 20th-century socialist Eugene Debs, the criminal justice
net seems to catch the minnows and let the whales slip through.
In 1996, a prisoner who had read Darrow's speech argued that things
hadn't changed much since 1902:
The condition of 1996 are not too different from the conditions
of 1902. Only worst. My reasons for saying this is because hasn't
nothing changed in the way that the world is ran. The powerful
few controls 90 percent of the world's wealth.... For this reason
the criminal justice system is bursting at the seams with people
who has taken up the profession of crime as a way of survival.
My reason for saying that the conditions are worst is because...the
criminal justice system has expanded tenfold since 1902. Now in
1996, there are branches of law enforcement that were never even
dreamed of back then. Giving the privileged few who controls all
of the wealth far better means to protect their gains.
The politics of prison
Why, as America enters the 21st century, are we witnessing
a return to the dark ages of penology? In the period prior to
the 1970s, unemployment and war were the top polling issues, not
crime. Support for the death penalty reached its lowest point
(42 percent) in 1966. A 1968 Harris Poll found that 72 percent
of Americans believed that prisons should rehabilitate people.
Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater used "law
and order" as a centerpiece for his 1964 campaign against
Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson admired the strategy enough to pick
it up with his "war on crime." Nixon also used the law-and-order
theme as a way to distract people's attention away from other
issues, such as the rapidly deteriorating economy and the failing
war in Vietnam. Nixon appealed to voters' fears of social unrest,
especially on white fears of Black street crime. By the late 1970s,
nearly half of all Americans were afraid to walk home at night,
and 90 percent responded in surveys that the U.S. criminal justice
system wasn't harsh enough.
But it was Ronald Reagan who "became a master of linking
the law-and-order theme with covert, and sometimes not so covert,
racial messages," writes Phil Gasper. Reagan described the
Black ghetto rebellions of the 1960s as "riots of the law
breakers and the mad dogs against the people." On a radio
commercial in the same period Reagan warned:
Every day the jungle draws a little closer. Our city streets
are jungle paths after dark.... Man's determination to live under
the protection of the law has pushed back the jungle down through
the centuries.... With all our science and sophistication...the
jungle still is waiting to take over. The man with the badge holds
it back. 18
As politicians began to use crime as a political weapon, conservatives
seized on a 1971 report claiming that rehabilitation didn't work.
Right-wing academics like James Q. Wilson provided the "theory"
that underpinned the get-tough approach:
In my view, the reason that virtually every industrialized
nation in the world has dramatically higher crime rates today
than it did in the 1950s is because of the breakdown of social
control. The West after the Second World War suddenly became a
remarkably freer place. We could all do our own thing, and most
of us did very reasonable things, but other people took advantage
of these opportunities in the wrong way.
After California governor Jerry Brown signed into law a new
statute in 1976 abolishing parole-which read in part, "The
purpose of imprisonment is punishment"-a series of states
followed suit with similar laws, including some that lengthened
prison sentences. New York state passed stringent mandatory sentencing
laws, known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Thirty-six other states
enacted similar "reforms."
Race, Reagan, and the "war on drugs"
The tough-on-crime juggernaut picked up under President Reagan-accelerated
qualitatively by a new campaign against illegal drugs, in particular,
crack cocaine. Spending for the war on drugs skyrocketed. In 1980,
the federal budget for the war on drugs was $1 billion. Today,
it's more than $17 billion. In the Reagan and Bush years, spending
on employment programs was slashed in half, while spending on
corrections increased by 521 percent. In this same period, the
chances of being arrested for a drug offense increased by 447
percent - even though statistics showed a considerable decline
in drug use.
In 1984, Congress enacted the Sentencing Reform Act, eliminating
parole for all federal crimes committed after November 1, 1987,
and curtailing the discretion of judges to set sentences. Federal
mandatory minimum sentences for drugs came in 1986 and 1988, with
the Anti-Drug Abuse Act and the Anti-Drug Abuse Amendment Act
respectively. The 1986 act was passed by a vote of 378 to 16 by
a Democratic-controlled House. The act established mandatory six-
and ten-year prison terms for drug dealing, as well as the now-famous
100-to-1 crack-to-cocaine ratio, in which possession of 5 grams
of crack cocaine triggered the same prison sentence as possession
of 500 grams of powder cocaine. A life sentence now requires the
sale of just 3.3 pounds of crack. "By 1995...the average
federal prison term served for selling crack cocaine was nearly
eleven years. For homicide, by comparison, the national average
was barely six." These drug laws are the main cause of the
massive increase n the U.S. prison population. Federal prosecutions
for non-drug offenses increased by 4 percent from 1982 to 1988,
but r or drug offenses, federal prosecutions increased by 99 percent.
Contrary to the bombardment of violent crime TV shows and news
* 70 percent of those sentenced to state prisons in 1998 were
convicted of nonviolent crimes, including 31 percent for drug
offenses and 26 percent for property offenses.
* One in four jail inmates in 1996 was incarcerated for a
drug offense, compared to one in ten in 1983.
* Drug offenders constituted 21 percent of the 1999 state
prison population and 57 percent of the 1999 federal prison population.
Between 1985 and 1995, the number of drug offenders in prison
increased by 478 percent, whereas the rate of imprisonment for
all other offenses increased by "only" 119 percent.
These laws have created a situation where tens of thousands
of people are serving years of prison time for minor, first time,
nonviolent drug offenses. Horrific examples abound. For example,
a judge tearfully sentenced Richard Anderson, a crane operator
with no prior arrest history, to a mandatory 10 years in prison.
Anderson's crime was to accept $5 to drive an acquaintance to
a Burger King, where the acquaintance sold 100 grams of crack
to an undercover agent.
The drug laws affected Blacks disproportionately. According
:o the Sentencing Project, an independent source for data established
in 1986, while African Americans constituted 13 percent ~f all
monthly drug users in 1995, they represented 35 percent of arrests
for drug possession, 55 percent of convictions, and 74 percent
of prison sentences. In 1994, the incarceration rate of blacks
in all state prisons combined was 7.66 times that of whites, and
in some states that figure reached 10 times.
Nowhere is the racial disparity in arrest and sentencing more
obvious than in the treatment by Congress of those convicted of
crack versus those convicted of cocaine offenses. According to
the Sentencing Project:
Approximately two-thirds of crack users are white or Hispanic,
yet the vast majority of persons convicted of possession in federal
courts in 1994 were African American, according to the USSC [United
States Sentencing Commission]. Defendants convicted of crack possession
in 1994 were 84.5% black, 10.3% white, and 5.2% Hispanic. Trafficking
offenders were 4.1% white, 88.3% black, and 7.1% Hispanic. Powder
cocaine offenders were more racially mixed. Defendants convicted
of simple possession of cocaine powder were 58% white, 26.7% black,
and l 5% Hispanic. The powder trafficking offenders were 32% white,
27.4% black, and 39.3% Hispanic. The result of the combined difference
in sentencing laws and racial disparity is that black men and
women are serving longer prison sentences than white men and women.
African American women are the fastest-growing segment of
the prison population. Their numbers in jails and prisons have
tripled since 1985, due to mandatory minimum and other new sentencing
rules that have made "criminals" of first time, nonviolent
female offenders. But the racial disparity in sentencing goes
beyond the more obvious case of drug arrests and convictions.
Though there are only small differences in the reported rates
of violent crime in poor white and poor Black neighborhoods, "Black
illegal behavior is more likely to lead to attention by the criminal
Anyone who thought that a Democratic politician would reverse
the law-and-order trend was sorely disappointed after Bill Clinton's
1992 election. After Bush defeated Michael Dukakis by playing
the crime/race card in the 1988 election, Clinton and his advisers
concluded that his message should shift rightward to avoid being
outflanked from the right. As a result, Clinton committed himself
to his predecessor's tough-on-crime policies. "The most important
accomplishment in every district is the passage of 'three strikes
and you're out,"' White House pollster Stanley Greenberg
told Democratic candidates in August 1994. He concluded, "Indeed,
crime is an opportunity for Democrats."
The reinvigoration of the tough-on-crime climate in the early
1990s-highlighted by California's 1994 "three strikes"
laws-was fueled by a massive increase in crime reporting in the
news. The Center for Media and Public Affairs released a study
concluding that between 1992 and 1993, television coverage of
crime doubled, and television coverage of murders tripled.
Clinton signed a $30 billion crime bill in 1994 that emphasized
crime control and incarceration. Fully $8 billion went toward
new prison construction. The impact of three strikes was disastrous.
Three strikes laws were adopted in 23 states, though not all applied
them as vigorously. Approximately 2,700 "third strikers"
received sentences of at least 25 years to life for nonviolent
and non-serious offenses. A few cases from California reveal what
this has meant. Rene Landa was sentenced to 27 years to life for
his third burglary offense: stealing a spare tire in 1995. Thomas
Williams was sentenced to 25 years to life for possessing a stolen
bicycle. With two prior burglary convictions, Luciano Orozco was
sentenced to 25 years to life for possession of .05 grams of heroin.
George Anderson was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for
filling out a false application for the Department of Motor Vehicles.
And the list goes on.
Clinton's expansion of the criminal justice system is illustrative
of the real role of prisons and police. Hand in hand with prison
growth over the past 30 years came a steady decline in wages (even
with a rise in the past few years, real wages are below 1973 levels),
a vast growth in the gap between wealth and poverty, and a sharp
erosion of the social safety net. As Elliot Currie, author of
Crime and Punishment in America, writes:
While we were busily jamming our prisons to the rafters with
young, poor men, we were simultaneously generating the fastest
rise in income inequality in recent history.... At the same time,
successive administrations cut many of the public supports-from
income benefits to child protective services- that could have
cushioned the impact of worsening economic deprivation and community
fragmentation.... We were, in effect, using the prisons to contain
a growing social crisis concentrated in the bottom quarter of
our population. The prisons became, in a very real sense, a substitute
for more constructive social policies.... A growing prison system
was what we had instead of antipoverry policy, instead of an employment
policy, instead of a comprehensive drug-treatment or mental health
policy. Or, to put it more starkly, the prison became our employment
policy, our drug policy, our mental health policy.
Imprisoning mentally ill and the young
The increased incarceration of the mentally ill is the most
disgusting example of the system's willingness to lock up society's
most vulnerable. One in four inmates is mentally ill at any given
time. Mentally ill prisoners are less able to defend themselves
from the cruelties of prison life. A prison advocate describes
the story of Aaron Lee George, a mentally ill man who was wrongfully
convicted in Texas of the murder of his child:
Once in the prison system, Aaron experiences what the United
Nations announces to be torture. He was beaten and gang raped
repeatedly. He had a hit on him from gang members for turning
in their names for rape. Aaron refused to come out of his cell
for fear of being murdered by gang members. Administration and
psychiatrists stop feeding Aaron calling it "positive behavior
modification." The doctor said, "We are treating Aaron
like an animal...it's a crude way to put it but we feel like when
he gets hungry enough he'll come out of his cell." Aaron
starves for weeks.
There are now more mentally ill people in prison than in state
mental institutions. "Los Angeles county jail system,"
writes Elliot Currie, "is now said to be the largest mental
institution in the United States."
The problem of warehousing the mentally ill is becoming even
more pervasive among juveniles. A federally financed group appointed
by the nation's governors estimates that 50 to 75 percent of teenagers
in the juvenile justice system nationwide have a diagnosable mental
disorder. Fifteen to 20 percent of juvenile inmates may suffer
from a severe mental illness such as manic depression or schizophrenia.
According to Joel Dyer, studies conducted in 1999 found that 16
to 24 percent of all inmates are suffering from "extreme
Today America incarcerates more youths than any other country.
In the last 20 years, more than 150 children have been sentenced
to death in the United States, and each year nearly 1 million
juvenile delinquency cases go before judges in the United States.
Tens of thousands of these children are tried as adults. Every
state has laws for prosecuting teenagers as adults. Christopher
Kellerman, in an article entitled "Children behind bars,"
tells of one 17-year-old boy in an Idaho jail who was tortured
and murdered by adult prisoners and of another 17-year-old who
was murdered in an adult jail in Ohio. He finds that children
in adult institutions are five times more likely to be sexually
assaulted, twice as likely to be beaten by staff, and 50 percent
more likely to be attacked by a weapon than children in juvenile
facilities. Kellerman also notes that the cost of punishing juvenile
offenders is $450 million to $500 million per year, while funds
for proposed prevention programs would only cost $50 million to
Who says crime doesn't pay?
Prisons have become big business, disproving the old adage
that crime doesn't pay. Corporations now involved in dispensing
justice "operate in the best interest of their share holders
and the prison population grows naturally as a result of this
pursuit." The trick to maintaining profitability, as one
Prudential Securities report on Corrections Corporation of America
(CCA) warned, is to keep prisons full: "Low occupancy is
a drag on profits." Thus the private prison boom added fuel
to the race to incarcerate.
Most of the prison boom of the 1990s was carried out by states
rather than corporations. Nevertheless, by June 2000, private
prisons housed 76,000 of the nation's 1.9 million inmates. Today,
there are 150 private prisons in 28 states holding approximately
116,000 inmates. In 1987, there were only five privately operated
prisons housing 2,000 inmates in the entire country.
CCA is the largest of the private prison companies. Founded
in 1983 by the main investors in Kentucky Fried Chicken, CCA makes
up the sixth-largest prison system in the country and, with 76
percent of the total private prison market, operates as a near
monopoly. Its estimated revenues in 1998 were $695.6 million.
In the late 1990s, CCA moved to aggressively expand its operations
internationally to Puerto Rico, Australia, and England. CCA co-founder
Thomas Beasley was able to build CCA through his highly placed
political contacts. As the former chairman of the Tennessee state
Republican Party, Beasley was a good friend of then-governor Lamar
But like the rest of Corporate America, the private prison
industry has begun to hit hard times. After peaking at $44 per
share in early 1998, CCA's stock plummeted to 18 cents per share
in December 2000. "Gone are the heady days of the mid-1990s,"
wrote the Washington Post, "when private prisons were portrayed
as inexpensive panacea that would provide economical beds for
state governments and deliver fat profits to investors. Stock
prices have plummeted as criticism and problems have mounted."
Now there is an "overproduction" of prison beds.
Prison companies like CCA won crony contracts from states,
which granted them $628 million in tax-free bonds, low-cost construction
financing, property tax abatements, and infrastructure subsidies.
This isn't surprising, since the purpose of private prisons, like
all corporate ventures, is not to save money, but to make money.
CCA therefore reportedly cuts costs at its prisons (but not the
cost passed on to taxpayers to house inmates) by skimping on employees,
employee benefits, food quality for the prisoners, health care,
and recreation facilities. A string of scandals involving abuse
and beatings of prisoners by poorly trained guards and the denial
of medical care to inmates has emerged.
All of these problems clearly exist also at public prisons-
since the purpose of prison is to warehouse people in cages as
cheaply as possible. Nevertheless, there is something chilling
about the way in which the profit motive has created an economic
incentive to put as many people behind bars as possible for as
cheaply as possible so that a handful of millionaires can profit.
Through the 1990s, the private prison industry became one
of the fastest-growing markets in the United States. At its peak
in the late 1990s, it generated $1.5 billion to $2 billion per
year-up from $45 million in 1995. Today's prisoners don't just
make license plates. They make everything from the logos on Lexus
automobiles to false teeth, and operate phones as telemarketers.
Companies such as AT&T, TWA, and Microsoft bid for large lucrative
contracts in order to use prison labor. At wages of $.20 to $1.20
per hour, we now see some companies replacing entire workforces
with prison labor.
Oregon's state inmates work under a program called Inside
Oregon Enterprises, certified by a federal program called Prison
Industry Enhancement (PIE). It operates like a temporary employment
agency, leasing out prison labor to interested companies. Firms
do not have to pay for vacations, retirement, health benefits,
Social Security, workers' compensation, or Medicare-or worry about
slowdowns or strikes. Wages for inmates in the program are $6.25
an hour. But the inmates see little of even this paltry wage,
since under PIE, workers are only legally entitled to as little
as 20 percent. "What [PIE] does is just flood the...market
at the bottom end," remarked Mark Smith, president of the
Iowa Federation of Labor. "It's a way, when you've got relatively
low employment, to discipline the labor market, to pull wages
Between 1980 and 1994, the value of goods produced by prisoners
rose from $392 million to $1.31 billion.
"We are men, not beasts"
The movements against the Vietnam War arid for social justice
inspired a whole generation to criticize authority. Most of those
arrested during the 1960s and 1970s brought their philosophies
with them into the prisons. Likewise, most had outside solidarity
committees, so this influx of political prisoners linked the struggle
behind the walls with the struggles on the outside. Prisoners
stepped up their struggle for political, African, Islamic, and
academic studies; for access to political literature; community
access to prisons; and an end to arbitrary punishments. They fought
for access to attorneys; adequate law libraries; relevant vocational
training; contact visits; better food, health care, and housing;
and a myriad of other things. The forms of prison struggle ranged
from negotiations to mass petitioning, letter-writing and call-in
campaigns, outside demonstrations, class action lawsuits, hunger
strikes, work strikes, rebellions, and even more drastic actions.
Overall, the struggle served to roll back draconian prison policies
that had stood for centuries.
One person who perhaps best encapsulated the emerging revolutionary
consciousness inside the prisons was George Jackson. In 1960,
at the age of 18, Jackson was accused of stealing $70. Acting
on his court-appointed lawyer's advice, he pleaded guilty in exchange
for a lighter sentence in county jail. Instead, he received an
indeterminate sentence in California's Soledad Prison. While in
prison, he became acquainted with members of the Black Panther
Party who taught him that his situation was part of a larger economic
picture, where poor Black and working-class people were mostly
wage slaves under capitalism. He became acquainted with leaders
like Angela Davis, who had been a political prisoner but was later
released because of an international protest movement. z Prison
officials cracked down on Jackson, forcing him to serve more than
seven-and-a-half years in solitary confinement. But his will was
unbreakable. In isolation, he exercised daily and refused all
extras (books, TV, cigarettes).
In 1969, Jackson and two other inmates were accused of murdering
a guard who had shot and killed three inmates. The Soledad Brothers
case became internationally famous. A book of Jackson's prison
letters, Soledad Brother, became instantly famous. On June 4,
1970, in a letter to Angela Davis, it's clear how far he had come
and the risks he was willing to take to free himself and his people
from the chains of America's gulag:
One thing about this bothers me a great deal. Do you know
(of course you do) the secret police (CIA, etc.) go to great lengths
to murder and consequently silence every effective black person
the moment he attempts to explain to the ghetto that our problems
are historically and strategically tied to the problems of all
colonial people. This means that they are watching you closely.
I worry. If something happened to you I just wouldn't understand.
It's no coincidence that Malcolm X and M.L. King died when
they did. Malcolm X had just put it together.... l seriously believe,
they knew all along but were holding out and presenting the truth
in such a way that it would affect the most people situationally-without
getting them damaged by gunfire. You remember what was on his
lips when he died. Vietnam and economics, political economy. The
professional killers could have murdered him long before they
did. They let Malcolm rage on muslim nationalism for a number
of years because they knew it was an empty ideal, bur the second
he got his feet on the ground, they murdered him. We die too easily.
We forgive and forget too easily.
A year later-two days before the opening of his trial- George
Jackson was killed by a guard while running from a control unit
toward the San Quentin prison wall. Jackson's murder provoked
one of the most famous prison riots in history, the Attica Prison
uprising in New York. Before Attica, a wave of smaller prison
protests occurred, as prisoners stood up against widespread abuses
and human rights violations. At Attica, Black, Latino, and white
prisoners occupied one-quarter of the grounds, a full cell block,
in protest of inhumane conditions such as regular beatings, horrible
food, bad medical care, and indeterminate sentencing, as laid
out in their "Manifesto of Demands."
On September 13, 1971, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller,
who had refused to negotiate with the inmates, brought in state
troopers and the National Guard, who massacred 39 people-29 prisoners
and 10 guards-to retake the prison. Afterward, it was impossible
for officials to blame prisoners for the massacre, although it
took 28 years of litigation to get New York to pay $8 million
to the victims of this state-sponsored murder and abuse (they
had originally asked for $ 100 million).
The living and the dead of the Attica uprising became heroes
in the struggle to end abuse in America's prisons. Their dictum
lives with us today: "We are men, not beasts, and will not
be driven as such." The Attica Brothers, as they became known
to the world, made possible widespread improvement in conditions
and the implementation of key social programs.
These reforms benefited everyone. Recidivism rates plummeted
as inmates gained access to education in prison and to jobs when
they were released.
A renewed activism
The last decade has been marked by a complete rollback of
prison reforms, coupled with the buildup of the most extensive
prison system in the world. Yet the last few years have been a
time of renewed struggle- from the anti-death penalty moratorium
movement that began after Illinois suspended executions, to protests
against the Confederate flag in South Carolina, to the fights
to save affirmative action, to the growing international movement
In the past five years, we have seen renewed signs of struggle
both within and outside the prisons. When Clinton refused to end
the federal crack versus cocaine sentencing laws, riots broke
out in prisons across the country. In Memphis, a building was
set on fire during a riot involving 150 inmates. More recently,
in February 2000, at the maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison,
three guards opened fire on unarmed inmates during a riot, leaving
one prisoner dead. In Texas, one prisoner was also killed by guards
during a riot at Preston E. Smith Unit in Lamesa, Texas. There
were also hunger strikes at State Correctional Institution Greene
in Pennsylvania over prison conditions and at Tamms Correctional
Facility, a control-unit prison located in southern Illinois.
Prisoners there were protesting the use of dogs for routine medical
visits. The prisoners also wanted an end to the gassing of inmates,
an end to "gang renunciation" policies as the only way
out of Tamms, and the right to an annual meaningful hearing to
discuss possible transfer.
The fight against the death penalty has opened the door for
a new look at the state of U.S. prisons. People are starting not
only to ask why there are innocent people on death row, but why
there are so many young Blacks in prison. With George W. Bush,
the "Texecutioner," in the White House, there is the
real potential to use the widening call for a national moratorium
on executions to bring prison issues to the fore.
In Illinois, death row inmates who call themselves the Death
Row 10 were tortured under the direction of a former Chicago police
commander who was later fired for conducting "systematic
and planned torture" on poor Black men from Chicago's South
Side in order to get them to confess. For years, these men have
been victimized by the system and, until recently, had little
hope of winning appeals. Their campaign began in 1998, but when
Governor George Ryan responded to public pressure and declared
a moratorium on executions in Illinois, their hard efforts were
finally rewarded. Today, Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., among others,
supports their fight, and many now see in them the human face
of resistance to the barbaric and racist criminal justice system.
The fight to save Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose death sentence was
recently overturned, is the most outstanding example of how struggle
is key to winning anything from the state. For years, he has refused
to be silenced in his criticism of police brutality and prison
abuses. Prison officials have locked him in a control unit with
little outside contact, but this has only fueled the rage of his
supporters, who have marched in the tens-of-thousands internationally
to win his release.
There has also been some rethinking of prisons at the top
Citing primarily the costs of the drug war, a group of mainstream
health and legal institutions in Washington state-including the
Washington State Bar Association and the Washington State Medical
Association-issued a report in mid-December 2001 that called for
an end to arrests for drug possession. In response to jail overcrowding
and the high costs of imprisonment, California and Arizona recently
passed initiatives that eliminate jail sentences for most drug
possession cases S6 Louisiana, Connecticut, Indiana, and North
Dakota all quietly passed new laws recently that drop mandatory
sentences for certain crimes and reinstate parole. Mississippi
passed a law last May that allows first-time offenders to obtain
parole after serving only 25 percent of their sentences (a change
from the required 85 percent enforced since 1994, which helped
to almost double the state's prison population). Before September
11, even New York's conservative governor George Pataki made noises
about softening the state's notoriously harsh Rockefeller Drug
Though prisons continue to fill, the growth of the prison
population has slowed in the last year, and prison populations
have even begun to decline in several states, including New York
and Texas. With budget crises emerging from the economic recession,
states across the country are looking for ways to cut spending
on the prison system.
For a time, though, the so-called war on terror will help
to refuel "get tough" policies. September 11 has produced,
in the words of the Sentencing Project, "a flurry of government
actions the consequences of which are that more people are going
to be incarcerated." Politicians and pundits have freshly
rehabilitated racial profiling- now directed at people from the
Middle East and South Asia. New laws have been passed that allow
the indefinite detention of immigrants and suspects, and for people
to be tried in military tribunals with secret evidence.
But the growing outrage over the continued release of innocent
people from death row, DNA tests that prove the innocence of people
who have spent years in prison, and the economic inequality inherent
in the prison system and in society as a whole-not to mention
the growing costs of incarceration in the midst of a recession-ensure
that these issues will not go away, but rather will intensify.
As more people feel dissatisfied with a system in which it
is more profitable to build jails than schools and public hospitals,
the struggle to change the system will grow. As Americans become
more enraged by the logic that it is more profitable to warehouse,
torture, and degrade prisoners than it is to rehabilitate them,
and that it is more profitable to put the bottom line ahead of
human need, struggle will intensify-and, with it will come the
potential for new George Jacksons to emerge.
We should be inspired by the Soledad and Attica Brothers of
today. We need to derive inspiration from political prisoners
such as Leonard Peltier, who was framed for killing an FBI agent
and now fights inside prison as part of the Native American movement.
Mumia Abu-Jamal, framed for killing a police officer, has inspired
tens of thousands around the world to fight for his freedom and
against the death penalty. We need to look to prisoners like Nathson
Fields, one of the Death Row 10, who despite his extreme isolation
has proven that the fights for a moratorium on executions and
for criminal justice reform are interrelated. Fields and many
others are willing to take risks to stand up against the racist
criminal justice system and against the degradation and torture
inside America's prisons. As Fields told the International Socialist
Review, "Although it's a miracle, Allah's will, that we're
still alive, these brutal prison officials must know that they
will never break my will and never break our spirit. Our protest
In the end, we have to look beyond questions of guilt or innocence
and toward a world free of such racist institutions. Any real
notion of guilt or innocence is completely obscured when you have
hundreds of thousands sentenced to prison for the crime of being
poor. Prisons have nothing to do with stopping crime, but are
a tool of the rich to keep the poor at bay.
The degree of economic polarization is at an all-time high.
Jails are used to keep the poor in check and to help to perpetuate
a racist ideology that points a finger at the victims rather than
at the real perpetrators of crime-people like Kenneth Lay, who
as chief of Enron made millions of dollars cashing in on company
stock while his employees, barred from cashing in, saw their retirement
accounts dwindle to nothing as the company crashed and burned.
It is therefore essential to build a movement not only to reform
the prisons, but also to work toward a just society, where social
and economic equality make prisons obsolete and oppression a dim