MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 21

International Socialist Review, January–February 2002

Joan Parkin

Throwing away the Key:
The world’s leading jailer


From International Socialist Review, Issue 21, January–February 2002.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.


Joan Parkin is coauthor with Tonya McClary of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty pamphlet Justice for the Death Row 10: Victims of Police Torture and a member of the International Socialist Organization in Chicago.

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 (R-Texas) 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.”1

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.2

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.3 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.4 In 2000, one out of three young Black men was either locked up, on probation, or on parole.5 The military-industrial complex of the 1950s, with its Cold War communist bogeyman, has been replaced by a prison-industrial complex, with young Black “predators” serving as its justification.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.6

”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 supermaximum security units,” to chemical sprays and electro-shock 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 1994.7

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.8

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.9 The annual cost of running America’s prisons now tops $45 billion.10 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.11

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, and Crime:

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 (1) overwhelmingly poor, (2) uneducated, (3) predominately male, and (4) disproportionately members of minority groups.12

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.13 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 an expensive lawyer, whereas a poor Black (or even white) youth caught selling on a street corner will almost certainly do prison 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 of slavery.

”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.”14 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 worlds 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.15

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.16

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.17

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.19

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.20 In the Reagan and Bush years, spending on employment programs was slashed in half, while spending on corrections increased by 521 percent.21 In this same period, the chances of being arrested for a drug offense increased by 447 percent22–even though statistics showed a considerable decline in drug use.23

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.”24

These drug laws are the main cause of the massive increase in the U.S. prison population. Federal prosecutions for non-drug offenses increased by 4 percent from 1982 to 1988, but for drug offenses, federal prosecutions increased by 99 percent.25 Contrary to the bombardment of violent crime TV shows and news stories:

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.28

The drug laws affected Blacks disproportionately. According to the Sentencing Project, an independent source for data established in 1986, while African Americans constituted 13 percent of 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.29 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.30

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 15% 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.31

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.32 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 justice system.”33

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.”34

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.35

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 nonserious offenses.36 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.37

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 antipoverty 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.38

Imprisoning the 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.39

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.”40

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.41 According to Joel Dyer, studies conducted in 1999 found that 16 to 24 percent of all inmates are suffering from “extreme mental problems.”42

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 $100 million.43

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.”44 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.”45 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.46 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.47

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 cofounder 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 Alexander.

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.”48 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.49 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.50

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 down.”51

Between 1980 and 1994, the value of goods produced by prisoners rose from $392 million to $1.31 billion.52

“We are men, not beasts”

The movements against the Vietnam War and 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.53

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. 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 ... I 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, but the second he got his feet on the ground, they murdered him. We die too easily. We forgive and forget too easily.54

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 against globalization.

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.55

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.56 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 Laws.57

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.58 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.”59Politicians 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 shall continue.”

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 memory.

* * *


1 Quoted in Stephen G. Bloom, “Iowa: Setting the scene,” Mother Jones Web exclusive, available online at www.motherjones.com/election_96/iacauc.html.

2 Quoted in Ken Sullivan, “Gramm vows to renew prison reform efforts,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 9, 1996.

3 “Correctional populations, 1980–2000,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, available online at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/.

4 Ciro Scotti, “For Blacks, Bush vs. Gore is the evil of two lessers,” Business Week Online, October 20, 2000.

5 “Anger grows at U.S. jail population”, BBC News, February 15, 2000.

6 Two guards were suspended for the incident, and the captain who oversaw the beatings has been promoted to head of security in a new division. The inmates have a lawsuit pending. Fields has been the target of numerous attacks by guards because of his open criticism of the conditions in Illinois prisons. Incredibly, he was sentenced to death by Judge Thomas Maloney, who is now serving a 15-year sentence in a federal penitentiary for accepting bribes from Fields’ codefendant at trial. The FBI knew Maloney was corrupt, yet they allowed him to sentence Fields to death. Because of Maloney’s corruption and the fact that there was no physical evidence or positive eyewitness identification, Fields won a new trial. The state has pushed for delay after delay as they attempt to come up with a case against him. His supporters say, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

7 “UN Committee against Torture must condemn increasing institutionalized cruelty in USA,” Amnesty International, press release, September 5, 2000.

8 “World prison brief,” International Centre for Prison Studies, available on the King’s College London Web site at www.kcl.ac.uk (updated as new data becomes available).

9 Vince Beiser, “How we got to two million: How did the Land of the Free become the world’s leading jailer?” Debt to Society, Mother Jones special report, July 10, 2001, available online at www.motherjones.com.

10 Beiser, “How we got to two million.”

11 Beiser, “How we got to two million.”

12 William J. Chambliss, “Misperceptions of Crime,” introduction, Power, Politics, and Crime (Colorado: Westview Press, 1999), p. 7.

13 “Facts about prisons and prisoners,” briefing, Sentencing Project, available online at www.sentencingproject.org.

14 Clarence Darrow, Crime And Criminals: Address to the Prisoners in the Cook County Jail & Other Writings on Crime & Punishment (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2000), pp. 15, 16.

15 Darrow, pp. 29–30.

16 Marc Mauer (The Sentencing Project), Race to Incarcerate (New York: The New Press, 1999), pp. 43, 44.

17 Manning Marable, “Racism, prisons, and the future of Black America,” ZNet daily commentaries, August 31, 2000, at www.zmag.org.

18 Phil Gasper, “Cruel and unusual punishment: Politics of crime in the U.S.,” International Socialism, Spring 1995, p. 65.

19 Quoted in Elliot Currie, Crime and Punishment in America: Why the Solutions to America’s Most Stubborn Social Crisis Have Not Worked–And What Will (New York: Owl Books, 1998), p. 115.

20 Chambliss, p. 29.

21 Mauer, p. 68.

22 Mauer, p. 151.

23 Mauer, p. 145.

24 Joseph T. Hallinan, Going up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation (New York: Random House, 2001), p. 40.

25 Mauer, p. 61.

26 “Facts about prisons and prisoners,” briefing, Sentencing Project, available online at www.sentencingproject.org.

27 Mauer, p. 152.

28 Hallinan, p. 52.

29 Marc Mauer and Tracy Huling (the Sentencing Project), “Young Black men and the criminal justice system: Five years later,” 1995 policy report, summary available online at www.sentencingproject.org.

30 Marc Mauer (the Sentencing Project), “Intended and unintended consequences: State racial disparities in imprisonment,” 1997 policy report, summary available online at www.sentencingproject.org.

31 “Crack cocaine sentencing policy: Unjustified and unreasonable,” briefing, Sentencing Project, available online at www.sentencingproject.org.

32 Earl Ofari Hutchinson, “Black women say they are race profiling targets too,” The Hutchinson Report, feature story, July 2, 2001, available on their Web site at www.thehutchinsonreport.com.

33 Mauer, p. 165.

34 Quoted in Mauer, p. 68.

35 Mauer, p. 72.

36 Jenny Murphy, “Are three-strikes laws fair and effective?” SpeakOut.com, Monday, June 12, 2000.

37 Stories provided by Families to Amend California’s Three-Strikes, available online at www.facts1.com.

38 Currie, pp. 31–32.

39 “A man ... a measure ... a truth,” available on the Texas Prison Abuse page of the Texas Positive Living Advocacy Network Web site at http://users2.ev1.net/~jdbry/.

40 Currie, pp. 33–34.

41 Fox Butterfield, “Concern rising over use of juvenile prisons to ‘warehouse’ the mentally ill,” New York Times, December 5, 2000.

42 Joel Dyer, The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), p. 182.

43 Kellerman’s article, published December 1, 1998, is available online at www.come-over.to/fasstar/juvcrime1.htm.

44 Dyer, p. 182.

45 Ken Silverstein, “America’s private gulags,” Prison Legal News, June 1, 1997.

46 U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Nation’s state prison population growth slows–lowest annual rate increase since 1971,” press release, March 25, 2001.

47 Silverstein, “America’s private gulags.”

48 Peter Slevin, “Prison firms seek inmates and profits,” Washington Post, February 18, 2001.

49 Good Jobs First, “Jail breaks: Economic development subsidies given to private prisons,” The Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, October 22, 2001, available online at www.goodjobsfirst.org.

50 Dyer, pp. 17–19.

51 Hallinan, p. 149.

52 Silverstein, “America’s private gulags.”

53 Sundiata Acoli, “A brief history of the new Afrikan prison struggle,” February 29, 1992, available online at www.globalafrica.com/Sundiata.htm.

54 George Jackson, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1994), pp. 309–10.

55 Many of the stories mentioned here are covered in Ray Luc Levasseur and Daniel Burton-Rose, The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1998).

56 Jane Handley, “A unified call to end war on drugs,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 13, 2001.

57 Butterfield, “States easing stringent laws on prison time,” New York Times, September 2, 2001.

58 Slevin, “Total state prison population dropped for 6 months last year,” Washington Post, August 13, 2001.

59 The Sentencing Project, “Perspective: Our mission in a time of war and anxiety,” available online at www.sentencingproject.org.

Last updated on 9 August 2022