As the Georgia inmate strike enters it’s third consecutive day, I figured I would throw together some of my thoughts on prison and the prison system. The opportunity to post these came up when I wrote the following reply to a comment made on my Facebook profile (with some minor edits).
Most of my thinking around this has been inspired by writings on the War on Drugs by Noam Chomsky, publications from Critical Resistance (including their reprint of a 1970s prisoner solidarity guide called Instead of Prisons).
“Prisons are not about accepting responsibility, they’re mostly about keeping troublesome sectors of the population out of the way. The prison population is disproportionately made up of poor people and people of color. The “War on Drugs” reflects this tendency of the state to target these communities. The War on Drugs was declared by the Reagan administration after at least two decades of automation and outsourcing, as well as a vicious campaign of repression against organized labor and community organizations that served as a source of pride and solidarity for these communities, decimated the industrial base that sustained the urban working-class. Rather than addressing the growing poverty of the urban centers across the country, the US government, under the Reagan administration, escalated repression of the poor urban center. Subsequent administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have further escalated or at least legitimized the war. The result of this War has been an increase from around 300 – 400,000 prisoners in the 1970s, to over 2,500,000 today (despite a sharp drop in violent crime since the early 1990s; this number is almost a quarter of the entire world’s prisoner population, vastly greater than any other country on the planet including China and India). Likewise, the share of African Americans in the prison population has also risen as a result, making up almost 40% of the total prison population. African Americans are between 5 – 6 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated.
This kind of repression is typical of any state in response to a poor, unemployed population that no longer serves the purpose of generating profit. These populations pose a grave threat to the status-quo. Realizing that the system no longer works for them, these communities see an incentive in organizing to change it, or at least in shaking things up for society’s elites. Where some governments would just kill off this population, a country like the United States with a reputation for being “democratic,” could never get away with that, especially after the 1960s civil rights movement. So instead they chalk up the campaign of repression as “War on Drugs.”
Since the 1980s and the declaration of the War on Drugs, there has been a virtual gold rush to profit from the drastic rise in the US prison population, and the desire to keep public spending as low as possible. Politicians and corporations alike have teamed up to promote the privatization of US prisons. These for-profit prisons are a terrifying trend for obvious reasons (that they have an actual stake and are essentially legally obligated to imprison as many people as possible). Perhaps most disturbing is that these prisons often contract out the labor of the prisoners to private bidders, with little to absolutely no remuneration for the inmate laborers themselves. The Georgia prisoners, but many before them also, have claimed that this is the modern legacy of slavery.
Corporations which currently or have used unpaid prison labor include Victoria’s Secret, IBM, Boeing, Microsoft, Texas Instruments, Nordstrom, Dell, Nike, and Chevron, but this is only a fraction of the companies who’ve used and profited from this practice.
Social scientists have long known that prisons aren’t able to serve any real “rehabilitative” or “corrective” purposes, but they’re in fact just schools of crime. Critics have long called out the high level of recidivism in American prisons, and in prisons in general. Prisons aim at punishing the individual, when the root of the problem are clearly systemic and social (not isolated to an individuals behavior), i.e., concentrated poverty and unemployment for example. Rather than addressing the kind of conditions which breed anti-social behavior like violence, theft, etc., (which would necessitate the “shaking up” of things for elites) prisons isolate, stigmatize and subject inmates to violent degrading abuse, which largely prevent inmates from adjusting back into society, and largely ruin future attempts at leading a “normal” life. Instead, they often fall deeper into a life of violence and crime, and wind right back up in prison later on.
A real solution would require that the fundamental roots of anti-social behavior be treated; securing economic justice and democracy, which could encourage community, eliminating poverty and so on. Most of the time prisons aren’t necessary, but what is necessary is that people are provided with the kind of opportunities that are social programs that ensure that people have access to the things they need (a livable income, housing, and other means of subsistence, community, etc.). In other cases, which are largely exceptional, people need mental health and psychological treatment.”