Against oppressive Amerikan prisons? Don't vote: Build RAIL! Build MIM!
This article was written before the November 1998 gubernatorial elections, and was originally published in MIM Notes 173.
In recent months MIM and RAIL members have run into activists in California who are encouraging all people who oppose CA's repressive "Three Strikes" law to spend all of their time registering people to vote for the Democratic candidate for governor, Grey Davis. They argue that Davis has a softer position on Three Strikes and, because he is a Democrat, will be more open to the reform efforts of a Democratic state senator, John Vasconcellos.
MIM consistently argues that the systems of imperialist national oppression and capitalist exploitation - that is, the systems which create the need for oppressive institutions like the California Department of Corrections - must be overthrown in order to change the Amerikan prison system. Because of this, MIM (and MIM-led groups like RAIL and the newly formed prisoners’ anti-imperialist mass organization) focus their work on building public opinion against the current prison system and building institutions of and for prisoners, such as the Free Books for Prisoners program or the prisoners' Self-help Legal Clinic.
PEPSI OR COKE? DAVIS OR LUNDGREN? BIG MAC OR WHOPPER?
Democrat Grey Davis supports Three Strikes, and milks that for all its worth while campaigning. He just supports a weaker version of the law, which would only count violent felonies as a third strike. (Currently, any third felony conviction carries a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life - which is why you hear stories of people getting 25 year sentences for stealing a piece of pizza.) In fact, Davis is trying so hard to cloak himself with the reactionary "anti-crime," anti-prisoner mantle that Lundgren has to run ads saying that Davis is not really pro-Three Strikes.
It is true that Vasconcellos recently helped to launch a new state investigation into brutality at Corcoran State Prison and is also pushing a bill that would study the impact of Three Strikes, as part of an effort to reform it. But the many government investigations into Corcoran have resulted in either nothing, or in individual scapegoating. In order to save face after the abuses at Corcoran became public, the Republican Lundgren recently announced the indictment of several prison guards.
Any electoral strategy for prison reform will have to deal with the fact that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is the second largest campaign contributor in California. The prison guards' union has been instrumental in stopping any investigation into systematic abuse in California prisons, and has also promoted the growth of California prisons - and that union backs Davis in the election.
One supporter of the voter drive said that if Davis is not elected, "we are dead here for 4 years." A RAIL activists countered that it will be the organized masses - especially the organized prisoners - who will change the prisons system. If Davis loses, the masses will still be here. And if Davis wins, it will take pressure from the masses to force him to stick to his word.
BASHING COMMIES AND OPPRESSED NATIONS GETS YOU VOTES
A vocal supporter of Davis recently red- and brown-baited any Californian prison activists not working to elect the Democrat Grey Davis. This individual, who goes by the name "B. Cayenne Byrd" on-line and maintains a mailing list related to prisoner issues, recently wrote that "[w]e will lose all the real fighters to the Communists if you don't get in gear on contacting individuals and groups out there who are going the wrong direction. The Mexican Communists are in full swing and what we are living under right now is just as bad as Communism. That direction is not a solution." S/he also wrote, "The Mexican Revol. Communists have heavily infiltrated our efforts." Byrd argues that self-identified communists should check their ideology at the door when working on prisoner issues, because the mainstream press will red-bait the movement - of course s/he hself red-baits more than any of the mainstream media.
Reformist electoral struggles in the u.$. often include crowd pleasing anti-Communism and Amerikan chauvinism. Byrd certainly does not deviate from this rule. Ironically, Byrd, who prides hself on placing prisoners first (while licking Grey Davis' boots), will find hself alienated from many of the prisoners themselves because of this. As anybody reading Under Lock and Key will notice, many prisoners are communist sympathizers themselves, and many others respect the work communists undertake. Certainly Amerikan chauvinism does nothing to help the position of the majority of u.$. prisoners, who are from oppressed nations.
And many prisoners are dissatisfied with electoral prison reform. As one ex-prisoner said at the recent Critical Resistance conference, "You ask any inmate at Angola prison about prison reform, and they'll say 'prison what?' It doesn't exist."
REFORM AND REVOLUTION
Single-issue work around prison brutality is important work. For people who are not convinced of the need for revolution, working to change repressive laws like the "Three Strikes" is good work. MIM and RAIL often work together with such groups. But we will not tolerate anti-communism and chauvinism.
The two ring electoral circus, grand juries, internal investigations, and congressional inquiries - the system's attempts to fix itself - all fail to address the real problems. As long as the fundamental role of Amerikan prisons - control of oppressed groups - remains unchanged, there will be violence in Amerikan prisons. Prisons are on the front lines of Amerika's war against its internal colonies, where men and wimmin are confined against their will - more and more often for crimes which their white counterparts get away with. Only by solving the broader problems of national oppression can the problem of brutality in Amerikan prisons be solved.
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