"Sakai on Lumpen in Revolution" was my favorite piece in ULK 64. I would have liked to see a more in-depth analysis of the subject of the role of lumpen following the review of Sakai's book. I believe the lumpen will play a principal role in revolution here in imperialist United States.
We live in a time very different from Marx's, when the battle was to be waged between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Marx wrote of the growing contradictions between bourgeoisie and proletariat, following from these contradictions, the proletariat revolution abolishing capitalism. This was apparently true then, but the terrain is very different now. After the imperialist wars I and II led to imperialist expansion and consolidation of global capitalism and the global market, new classes with their own contradictions (and inner-contradictions) have been created. And with the transformation of colonialism proper into neocolonialism, the roles of the different classes and the contradictions even among the oppressed classes themselves, has created many non-principal contradictions, clouding the principal ones.
In the imperialist countries, and especially here in the imperialist capital of the world, the U.S., imperialism and neo-colonialism is beneficial to the "proletariat." The working class population is effectively bought off with a better standard of living thanks to global value transfer from Third World nations. This "sharing of the (stolen) pie" gives the appearance that the proletariat and the bourgeoisie share a common interest in imperialism. Of course, the contradiction between the two classes continues to exist, but giving the proletariat some crumbs off of the table of the "all you can eat global buffet" alleviates the contradictions and pacifies revolutionary potential and the raising of working class consciousness.
With the proletariat in the imperialist countries there also exists blind patriotism and national chauvinism, and this is a major hindrance to uniting the proletariat in any truly revolutionary way. Much of the working class has been brainwashed with national pride without any good reason. Participating in bourgeois political games, buying into their effectiveness. Supporting various U.S. aggression toward Third World countries, and the so-called "war on terror."
These are just a few of the reasons why we should consider the possibility of the lumpen playing a principal role in revolution. Lumpen's very existence is much more precarious and unpredictable. They comprise millions of the U.S. population. They are the most cast-off population. People are accepting gays, lesbians, transgenders, etc. The women's movement is again taking off and enjoying widespread support. Racism continues to be addressed and shunned, as well as religious intolerance. But the lumpen population continues to be cast off, ignored, discriminated against for life, killed, and legally enslaved (see the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution).
Proletariats, with the sheer numbers, and the fact that they are the very foundation, the absolute precondition for the existence of capitalism, they hold the potential to abolish oppression. But for that to happen, the proletariat here would have to settle accounts with imperialism, and this may prove more difficult than transforming the lumpen mentality to a revolutionary mentality.
Lumpen have been in rebellion their entire lives against the exploitive system, even if unconsciously. The prestige of U.S. righteousness, justice, and equality, if it ever existed for the lumpen, is constantly being deconstructed. And the lumpen, with their lumpen organizations, are these not already guerrilla armies? Doing guerrilla warfare every day? We need only work to introduce revolutionary principles and raise their consciousness. Their material conditions of existence are more primed for revolutionary action than the proletariat in the U.S. today.
I would really like to see more dialogue on this subject. I hope that I have made some kind of valid point. I am no authority on revolutionary theory. I am only 24 and very new.
MIM(Prisons) responds: We have much unity with this analysis of classes in the United $tates. But where it is limited to an analysis of classes within U.$. borders, we think it's crucial to think more broadly about classes globally in this era of imperialism. As this comrade notes, the workers in the United $tates have been bought off with the spoils of imperialism. But this doesn't mean the proletariat on a global scale is bought off. We do look to the proletariat as the foundational class for revolution, but we don't find that proletariat within U.$. borders. Instead we find it in the Third World, where it is actively engaged in a battle for life and death with imperialism. There it is not a big leap for the proletariat to take up revolutionary struggle.
In First World countries like the United $tates, on the other hand, we see the lumpen playing a leading role in the revolutionary movement. This is in large part because the national contradiction is the principal contradiction within U.$. borders. And as this writer points out, the oppressed nation lumpen continue to receive the brunt of this oppression even while living in a country of great wealth and prosperity. The potential for lumpen organizations to become revolutionary organizations is of great interest to us as well. We work with many of these organizations to build peace and unity. But these organizations are generally structured to meet capitalist goals. In the book reviewed, Sakai, addresses the challenges faced in joining forces militarily with such organizations in other times and places. But in those contexts we are talking about a lumpen-proletariat, in proletarian populations. We talk about the First World lumpen, within the exploiter countries, and see even more barriers in wholesale moves to the revolutionary road.
With such a relatively small potentially revolutionary population in the imperialist countries, we don't expect to see revolution start from within the United $tates. At least not without a significant change in conditions. The most likely avenue for revolution comes from the Third World. This doesn't absolve us of responsibility within imperialist countries. We must organize the resistance, support revolutionary movements in the Third World, and build a movement capable of seizing the moment when it arrives.
I am approaching from a background of having been held captive in general prison population where I am aware that at least a few of us subscribe to The BayView and Under Lock & Key and agreed the latter's issue No. 62 is controversial in criticizing a certain labor union.
One reason for focusing on this outstanding view(s) is because some of us are unionized with this entity which is the only one of its class that waves membership dues for prisoners and is also actively involved in the prison abolition movement. Specifically you allude in your article to, "Those organizations don't want low paid prisoners to replace high paid petty bourgeois workers."
Further what I think was more shocking is you attributed to outside support low, selfish motive by claiming, "They would be happy to see prisoners rot in their cells... it's higher pay for their class that the labor aristocracy wants." Indisputably your position is informative and generally supported by historical patterns, including Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow which illustrated how Capitalists successfully divided White and New Afrikan working class through granting pay raises and white skin privileges who in turn collectively advocated us decaying in segregation.
I would like to remain on Under Lock & Key subscription list because by far, it's more advanced than a number of other non-mainstream publications, in that yours boldly challenges general thought trends. One case-in-point is an Elder had cautioned us to be vigilant on what Under Lock & Key also affirmed about those who share sentiments identified as "the mass base behind the prison craze." We see clear signs they are present, active and have self-centered agendas.
But in contrast to what you promoted, I don't think our struggle has yet nor is on the verge of being co-opted by selfish motives — though potentially via "Incarcerated Organizing Committees" — provided our focus don't prioritize amending the 13th Amendment over acquiring human rights and Independence, attacking deceptive parole mechanisms. In this regard, MIM(Prisons) provides a vital source exhorting the prison movement to re-evaluate the ramification of amending the 13th Amendment. Perhaps the pendulum will sway away from giving successive energy to the 13th Amendment when factoring that many prison systems already pay money of account for prisoner labor; but yet, both sides of the spectrum agree mass incarceration is the core problem.
In ULK 62, among other issue numbers, you criticize massive prison work strikes. The perspective MIM(Prisons) is herein asked to ponder upon is the impact of "sustained" general work strikes will have on the bottom lines of private sectors; namely, commissary stork, telephone companies, choicey livestock parts that never reaches our food supply, etc.
MIM(Prisons) responds: First, we must make a disclaimer related to this discussion. We've learned of a recent article in Turning the Tide by a couple of United Struggle from Within comrades that calls out IWOC, among other organizations, as "ghost organizations." This is NOT the position of MIM(Prisons) or ULK. We will likely address this in more detail soon. However, we hope our readers can distinguish our approach here in criticizing the political line of other organizations and the effects of that line, rather than disparaging them for not doing anything just because they aren't working with us. No one can deny that the IWOC has done a lot to successfully publicize recent prison struggles and actions.
Overall it seems we have a lot of agreement with the writer above, but areas of debate are well worth addressing. The main point raised here is whether labor unions are selfishly pushing their own agenda for higher wages for the Amerikan labor aristocracy, or if these labor unions can really be putting the interests of prisoners first in prison labor struggles.
As this writer notes, we have plenty of historical evidence of labor unions in the United $tates promoting the interests of the Amerikkkan nation at the expense of oppressed nations.(1) And this promotion of national oppression includes support for the expansion of prisons to lock up oppressed nations. In fact, those prisons provide well-paying jobs for many labor aristocracy workers. So the contradiction between prison employees and prisoners is amplified, as this incarceration is essential to their livelihood.
Many corporations can't take advantage of cheap prison labor because labor unions have put provisions in their contracts and state laws to force consultation with labor leaders before establishing a contract for prisoner labor. It is clear the cheaper labor available in prisons is a direct threat to the high wages paid to people outside of prisons for work that could be done by prisoners. Many labor unions are quite clear about their position on this point.
But the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is different from other labor unions in that it claims to be international and anti-capitalist. The IWW is the labor union offering free membership to prisoners and actively campaigning on behalf of prisoners. The IWW also actively campaigns for higher wages for Amerikan workers. So they are walking a fine line between progressive work supporting prisoners' struggles, and reactionary pro-labor-aristocracy politics. The history of the IWW includes some clear examples benefiting white workers at the expense of colonial labor, as is documented in J. Sakai's book Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat.(2)
This doesn't mean the IWW is always working against the interests of prisoners. In fact they have waged some progressive battles. But their goal of raising wages for Amerikan workers is still fundamentally reactionary. The Amerikan labor aristocracy is the mass base for fascism, not a base for revolutionary organizing. They continue to come down on the side of imperialism, and are well bought off with the spoils of conquest and exploitation of oppressed nations around the globe.
In all of our prison struggles we need to keep the contradiction between internal oppressed nations (locked up, killed by police, flooded with drugs, denied economic, educational, and work opportunities, etc.) and the oppressor nation at the forefront. Why do we have such a huge prison population in the United $tates? It comes back to national oppression.
Battles around prisoners getting access to education, or getting paid for their labor, can be progressive parts of the struggle against the criminal injustice system. As long as they are framed in the context of the battle for liberation of oppressed nations. Opportunistically tying the prison labor battle to the broader Amerikan labor union struggles will only drag us down into reactionary oppressor-nation politics which builds up the labor aristocracy at the expense of the world's oppressed.(3) The oppressed, around the world and within U.$. borders, are always the losers in Amerikan labor union wage struggles.
While reading a comrade's April 2017 SF Bay View, National Black Newspaper, I cam across an ad regarding the Texas prisoners' boycott of the prison commissary injustice.
This ad helped me realize that the unarmed robbery of the loved-ones of prisoners is not only a Florida atrocity, but a national occurrence. Prisoners in Texas and other states are being used as a means of robbing not only tax payers, but loved-ones of prisoners, who are constantly being punished for supporting prisoners financially and emotionally. The imperialist monopolizers are making hundreds of millions annually through the commissary system. I can't help but confirm and echo the main points of the Texas prisoners' ad:
Sub-par and poor quality food items.
Faulty electronics that regularly break (after short use).
Tennis shoes which tear up after a week of use.
Inflated prices and price gouging tactics.
Abuse and disrespect from employees of commissaries.
All of the above mentioned is nothing but the truth to which I would love to add more. In Florida, specifically Charlotte Correctional Institution, there exists a staff canteen menu and a prisoner canteen menu. The double standard and financial discrimination can't help but be realized once both menus are compared. Prisoners are paying twice as much as staff for the same food items. Some of the most popular food items are listed below for your own concluding.
Charlotte CI staff canteen menu prices and Prisoner Canteen menu prices:
.88 per sleeve
The above list does not mention hygiene items. However, prisoners are paying exorbitantly for hygiene items that are clearly not worth their price. For example, the $4 deodorant from prescription care and Oraline-Seccure (meant for indigent prisoners) leaves prisoners musty in just a matter of hours. The $2.85 prescription care lotion is so generic it dries the skin quick as it moistens it. And it's definitely not meant for Black people. The $1.12 prescription care shampoo does not lather up and causes more dried scalp and itching than the state soap. There is 99-cent soap claiming to be anti-bacterial and 50-cent soap, both made by Silk. Neither of these soaps are worth even being given away for free.
Prisoners do not want these canteen items. They complain amongst each other but are too cowardly to write grievances or stop buying from canteen. We all know that it is our loved ones who are being attacked by the state. We all know our families who support us are being extorted, but the needle is just too deep in our veins. Florida only has one canteen vendor (Trinity) leaving us without options or other places to shop. We are simply victims of a monopoly and we are contributing to our own victimization.
It is quite clear that the canteen profits only benefit Trinity and high-ranking members of the state prison system. It is clear that the profits are being used against prisoners rather than for their welfare and genuine rehabilitation programs.
Even in the visiting park, freeworld citizens visiting their loved-ones are forced to pay prisoner canteen prices. This price-gouging is a war against the innocent citizens who support prisoners. It also results in the isolation of prisoners from the outside world and leaves prisoners dependent and vulnerable against the state.
One is left with no choice but the question: where is all the profit from the unarmed robbery of prisoners' loved ones? What is being done with these millions of dollars in profit? This matter must be investigated and objectively challenged. We prisoners surely need to stop perpetuating our own victimization by the state of Florida DOC.
MIM(Prisons) responds: This writer exposes one of the many ways that companies and individuals are making money from the prison system in this country. While overall the prisons are run at a financial loss, subsidized for most of their costs by state and federal funds (i.e. taxpayer money), lots of people are still making money off the operation of prisons.
Obviously the prisons' employees (COs, administrators, etc.) are earning a good salary and have an interest in keeping the system going. In some prisons medical is contracted out, and then there are the many companies that sell prisons all the stuff they need to run: from clothing to food to furniture to security equipment. Most of this is funded by a subsidy from the government.
But canteen is a case of the costs falling on prisoners' families. And this is just one of many costs borne by families of prisoners. As we exposed in an article in ULK 60 "MIM(Prisons) on U.$. Prison Economy - 2018 Update," mass incarceration costs families and the community $400 billion per year.
Throughout the numerous issues of Under Lock & Key (ULK), we have read countless articles detailing the unjust and inhumyn conditions of imprisonment across U.$. prisons and jails. Many of these stories, and the compelling analyses they entail, help shape and develop our political consciousness. From the hunger strikes in California to the rampant humyn rights' violations in Texas on to the USW-led countrywide grievance campaign, through the pages of ULK, we have shared our organizing struggles, the successes and setbacks. As a result, our clarity regarding the illegitimacy of the U.$. criminal (in)justice system has sharpened tremendously.
And yet, there are some political and economic dimensions of our imprisonment that seem to evade our critical gaze. It is not enough that we become familiar with each others' stories behind the walls. At some point, we must move toward relating our collective organizing experiences in prison to much broader struggles beyond prison. To this end, the anti-prison movement(1) is but a necessary phase of national liberation struggles that has serious implications for anti-imperialism. And in order for the anti-prison movement to advance we must analyze all sides of the mass incarceration question.
Many of us already understand that prisons function as tools of social control. We also recognize that U.$. prisons are disproportionately packed with oppressed nation lumpen, ostensibly because these groups organized and led national liberation movements during the late-1960s to mid-70s. After these movements succumbed to repression from U.$. reactionary forces (COINTELPRO), the U.$. prison population rose dramatically and then exploded, resulting in what we know today as mass incarceration.(2) Thus, we see, in a very narrow way, the basis for why U.$. prisons serve in neutralizing the existential threat posed by oppressed nation lumpen.
But understanding the hystorical basis of mass incarceration is only one part of the question. The other part is determining how the systematic imprisonment of oppressed nation lumpen has developed over time, and exploring its impact throughout that process. Because while the question of mass incarceration may seem as formulaic as "national oppression makes necessary the institutions of social control," the reality is this question is a bit more involved than mere physical imprisonment.
The latter point in no way opposes the analysis that the primary purpose of mass incarceration is to deter oppressed nation lumpen from revolutionary organizing. In fact, the political and economic dimensions of mass incarceration described and analyzed later in this article function in the same capacity as prison bars — in some instances, the bonds of poverty and systemic marginalization, or the racist and white-supremacist ideology that criminalizes and stigmatizes oppressed nation lumpen are just as strong as the physical bonds of imprisonment. If oppressed nation communities, particularly lumpen communities, are kept in a perpetual state of destabilization, disorganization, and distraction, then these groups will find it that much harder to effectively organize against a status quo that oppresses them.
The point of this article is thus to widen the panorama of our understanding, to take in those political and economic dimensions of mass incarceration that too often go unnoticed and unexamined, but are nonetheless important in determining the line and strategy necessary to advance the anti-prison movement.
Partial Integration Set the Table for Mass Incarceration
As pointed out above, mass incarceration deters oppressed nation lumpen from revolutionary organizing. But what does this analysis really mean in today's context of the national question? How does the prevention of oppressed nation lumpen from organizing for national liberation impact the national contradiction; that is, the contradiction between the Euro-Amerikan oppressor nation-state and the U.$. internal oppressed nations and semi-colonies?
The lumpen-driven liberation movements of past were, in part, strong rebukes against the integrationist Civil Rights movement (which of course was led by the bourgeoisie/petty-bourgeoisie of oppressed nations). Thus we see the partial integration agenda as an alliance and compromise between the Euro-Amerikan oppressor nation-state (its ruling class) and the comprador bourgeoisie of oppressed nations. It is meant to answer the national question set forth by the earlier protest movements (revolutionary and progressive) of oppressed nations, on one hand, and to ease tensions inherent in the national contradiction, on the other hand.
In exchange for open access to political power and persynal wealth, the comprador bourgeoisie was tasked with keeping their lumpen communities in check. To this point, it was thought that if Black and Brown faces ruled over Black and Brown places, then much of the radical protest and unrest that characterized the period between the mid-60s to mid-70s would be quelled.
This is the very premise of identity politics, and, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor aptly notes: electing leaders of oppressed nations into political office does not change the dire material and socioeconomic circumstances of the communities they represent.(3) In eir book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Taylor goes on to describe the failure of partial integration (and identity politics) with respect to the New Afrikan nation,(4) contending:
"The pursuit of Black electoral power became one of the principal strategies that emerged from the Black Power era. Clearly it has been successful for some. But the continuing crises for Black people, from under-resourced schools to police murder, expose the extreme limitations of that strategy. The ascendance of Black electoral politics also dramatizes how class differences can lead to different political strategies in the fight for Black liberation. There have always been class differences among [New Afrikans], but this is the first time those class differences have been expressed in the form of a minority of Blacks wielding significant political power and authority over the majority of Black lives."(5)
Here we see Taylor describes the inability of partial integration to remedy the plight of the entire New Afrikan nation and its communities. Ey also articulates very precisely the internal class divisions of New Afrika brought to light by such an opportunistic agenda, which serves to enforce and maintain semi-colonialism. There is a reason why the Euro-Amerikan oppressor nation-state allied with the comprador bourgeoisie, as their interests were (and are) clearly more aligned than conflicting, given the circumstances. Where the bourgeois/petty-bourgeois integrationists wanted access to capitalist society, the lumpen and some sections of the working class of oppressed nations saw their future in their liberation from U.$. imperialist society – two very different "political strategies" reflective of somewhat contentious "class differences."
Furthermore, Taylor highlights the moral bankruptcy of partial integration (and identity politics) with the contemporary lesson of Freddie Gray's tragic murder and the Baltimore uprising that followed. Ey explains, "when a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle."(6) This "new period" that Taylor speaks of is nothing more than good-ole neo-colonialism.
To elaborate further, an understanding of the Baltimore uprising, for example, cannot be reduced down to a single incident of police murder. Let's be clear, New Afrikan lumpen (and youth) took to the streets of Baltimore in protest and frustration of conditions that had been festering for years — conditions that have only grown worse since the end of the "Black Power era." Obviously, the political strategy of identity politics (i.e. "the pursuit of Black electoral power") has not led to "Black liberation." Instead it has resulted in an intensification of class tensions internal to the U.$. oppressed nation (in this case, New Afrika), as well as increased state repression of oppressed nation lumpen.
This latter point is evidenced by the support of policies from the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) that target, disrupt, and imprison oppressed nation communities (lumpen communities).(7) At the same time that these communities struggled under the weight of economic divestment and merciless marginalization, conditions which in many respects worsened under the political leadership of the comprador bourgeoisie, the drug trade opened up, providing a precarious means of survival. Predictably, as "crime"(8) increased so too did the creation and implementation of criminal civil legislation that fueled mass incarceration. To really get a sense of the true interests of the comprador bourgeoisie of oppressed nations, we only need to look at the positions taken by the CBC, the so-called champions of freedom, equality, and justice, which "cosponsored conservative law-and-order politics out of not political weakness but entrenchment in Beltway politics."(9) It is clear that partial integration has been "successful for some," but it is equally apparent who the victims of this opportunistic agenda have been.
What is often missed in any serious and sober analysis of the CBC (or any other political org. representative of the comprador bourgeoisie) is the legitimacy it bestows upon the prison house of nations: U.$. imperialist society. This legitimacy isn't some figment of imagination, but a material reality expressed primarily in the class-nation alliance signified by the partial integration agenda. Dialectically, while the comprador bourgeoisie is granted the privileges of "whiteness," access to political and economic power, the lumpen and some sections of the working class of oppressed nations are deemed superfluous (not necessary) for the production and reproduction of U.$. imperialist society. Of course, the election of more members of oppressed nations into office goes a long way in maintaining the facade that the United $tates is a free and open society that respects and upholds the rights and liberties of its citizenry. However, identity politics will never obscure the sacrificial zones within U.$. society -– South and Westside Chicago, Eastside Baltimore, Compton and South Central and East Los Angeles, and many more deprived urban lumpen areas –- maintained and, in many cases, made worse by partial integration.
Unfortunately, this is where we find the oppressed nation lumpen today on the national question, held hostage by a set of identity politics complicit in its further marginalization and oppression.
Politics of Mass Incarceration
In discussing the failure of partial integration to effectively improve the material and socioeconomic life of the entire oppressed nation, we can better appreciate the extreme limitations of such an anemic political strategy that is identity politics. But if the legitimacy that partial integration (and identity politics) provides U.$. society can only go so far in actually pacifying oppressed nation lumpen, then by what other means and methods are these superfluous groups controlled? In the next two sections, we will explore and analyze this question.
Racism and white supremacy are constant ideological threads woven throughout the founding and development of U.$. society. In each era, be it slavery, segregation, or mass incarceration today, the primary function of this political ideology is to rationalize and legitimate the oppression and/or exploitation of colonized peoples, which throughout these different eras invariably involved employing particular methods of social control against these peoples or specific groups thereof.
Now, of course, we cannot compare the fundamental nature of slavery with that of mass incarceration. And to be clear, this is not the point of this particular section. It should be obvious to the casual ULK reader that where the slave performed an essential economic role and was therein exploited and oppressed, oppressed nation lumpen have no role within the current socioeconomic order of U.$. society, as it is systematically denied access to it. The point, however, is to show how the ideological forces of racism and white supremacy, while they have assumed different forms depending on the historical era, are mobilized in service of the status quo. It is in this sense that political motivations underpin the system of mass incarceration. And as we will see in this section, these motivations are hystorically tied to the oppression and/or exploitation of U.$. internal oppressed nations and semi-colonies.
To be sure, the need to control oppressed nations has always been a paramount concern of the oppressor (settler) nation since settler-colonialism. During the era of slavery, slave codes were implemented to ensure that slaves were held in check, while slave patrols were formed to enforce these measures. We see here the emergence of the modern U.$. criminal (in)justice system in its nascent form, with its proto-police and proto-criminal laws. But it wasn't until after the abolition of slavery that we find express political motivations to criminalize oppressed nations. For Angela Y. Davis,
"Race [nation] has always played a central role in constructing presumptions of criminality ... former slave states passed new legislation revising the slave codes in order to regulate the behavior of free blacks in ways similar to those that had existed during slavery. The new Black Codes proscribed a range of actions ... that were criminalized only when the person charged was black."(10)
While the Black Codes were created in large part to control New Afrikan labor for continued exploitation, we are able to see the formation of policies and policing designed for the specific purpose of repressing oppressed nations. As a side note, irony doesn't begin to describe the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment, meant to abolish slavery, to disestablish one system of oppression only to provide for the legal and political basis for another system of oppression -– convict lease labor.
Furthermore, Davis observes that, "The racialization of crime – the tendency to 'impute crime to color' ... did not wither away as the country became increasingly removed from slavery. Proof that crime continues to be imputed to color resides in the many evocations of 'racial profiling' in our time."(11) In this sense, oppressed nation lumpen criminality under conditions of mass incarceration is analogous to Afrikan "inferiority" or First Nation "savagery" under conditions of settler-colonialism. In both instances, there are narratives, informed by racism and white supremacy, which serve the continued functioning of the status quo.
Given that the criminalization of oppressed nations is not some modern phenomenon, but one that originated in the hystorical oppression and exploitation of oppressed nations, we now have a different angle from which to view mass incarceration. Part of this view involves recognizing that the criminal (in)justice system, law enforcement, and legislators are not neutral arbiters of justice or "law and order." These people and institutions are infected by racism and white supremacy and thus function to carry out ideological and political aims.
Therefore, it is important that we remain diligent in uncovering the many guises under which racism and white supremacy lurk and hide. This is no less significant today as it is in the cultural arena where reactionary ideas and ideologies are propagated and traded. To be more clear, when trying to rationalize why oppressed nation lumpen are imprisoned at disproportionate rates relative to similarly-situated Euro-Amerikans, arguments about lack of responsibility and no work ethic are tossed around as explanations. Mainstream media go even further by portraying and projecting stereotypes about oppressed nation lumpen (and youth), that is to say, stereotyping the dress, talk, and actions, which is really a subtle but sophisticated way of stigmatizing. Of course, this stigmatization goes on to construct a criminal archetype, which many of us see today in nearly every facet of U.$. media life.
All of these factors, taken into consideration together, shape the public conscience on "crime" and criminality, laying the groundwork for rationalizing the great disparities characteristic of the current criminal (in)justice system. Unsurprisingly, this propaganda has worked so effectively that even oppressed nation members find it hard to ignore. So where there should be unity on issues/incidences of national oppression, none exists, because the oppressed nation is divided, usually along class lines. Taylor strikes at the heart of the matter:
"Blaming Black culture not only deflects investigation into the systemic causes of Black inequality but has also been widely absorbed by [New Afrikans] as well. Their acceptance of the dominant narrative that blames Blacks for their own oppression is one explanation for the delay in the development of a new Black movement."(12)
This is certainly the plan of partial integration, to divide the oppressed nation against itself and thereby legitimize the marginalization and oppression of oppressed nation lumpen in the process. Naturally, this paralyzes the oppressed nation from acting on its right to self-determination, from pursuing liberation.
To frame this point another way, take a [email protected] business owner. This persyn has a business in a predominantly [email protected] lumpen community, despite residing in the suburbs. This business owner sees [email protected] youth hang out and skip school. Ey sees them engaged in questionable, possibly criminal activity. Add in the scenario that local media frames crime as a virtue of [email protected] lumpen youth on a nightly basis. And then say one day one of those [email protected] kids is killed by the police. How will the [email protected] business owner respond?
Before the era of mass incarceration, the overwhelming majority of the oppressed nation would have viewed this scenario for what it was: a police murder. Today, we cannot be so sure.
To sum up, the current criminal (in)justice system, law enforcements, etc. are unfair and unjust not because these institutions are biased against oppressed nations, but because the fundamental nature of society, the basis upon which these institutions are built and set in motion, is founded on the oppression of non-white peoples. We must remember that slavery was legal and segregation was held up as permissible by the highest courts in this stolen land. For us to view mass incarceration solely from the social control perspective undermines any appreciation for the urgency of anti-imperialism, for the need for a reinvigoration of U.$. national liberation struggles. We need to be more nuanced in our analysis because the system is nuanced in its marginalization and oppression of oppressed nation lumpen.
Economics of Mass Incarceration
This nuance mentioned above is primarily played out on an economic plane. And there are many economic dimensions and impacts of mass incarceration that maintain a strangle hold on oppressed nation lumpen and communities.
We can explore how contact with the criminal (in)justice system can leave an oppressed nation member and eir family destitute, through fees, fines, and other forms of financial obligations. We can look at the impact of prisons located in rural communities, providing employment opportunities and economic stimulus. We could even investigate prison industries and how prisoner labor is utilized to offset the costs of incarceration. However, the point here is that there are many things to analyze, all of which, taken as a whole, disadvantage oppressed nation lumpen and their communities.
The most consequential impact of mass incarceration is how it feeds the cycle of poverty and marginalization characteristic of lumpen communities. Basically, the criminalization / stigmatization of lumpen reinforces its material deprivation, which in turn nurtures conditions of criminal activity as a means of survival, further unleashing the repressive forces of the criminal (in)justice system, which proves or validates the criminalization / stigmatization of oppressed nation lumpen in the first place. Thus, oppressed nation lumpen are inarguably subjected doubly to the poverty and marginalization, on one hand, and to the relentless blows of national oppression, on the other hand.
Todd Clear, provost of Rutgers University – Newark, who specializes in the study of criminal justice, draws a stark picture of this cycle of crime and poverty that lumpen are subjected to:
"A number of the men are gone at any time; they're locked up. And then the men that are there are not able to produce income, to support families, to support children, to buy goods, to make the neighborhood have economic activity, to support businesses ... the net effect of rates of incarceration is that the neighborhood has trouble adjusting. Neighborhoods where there's limited economic activity around the legitimate market are neighborhoods where you have a ripeness to grow illegitimate markets."(13)
What Clear is depicting is not so much the fact that crimes take place in lumpen communities. Clear is emphasizing that criminogenic factors (factors that strongly tend to lead to criminal activity/inclination) are really a reflection of the lack of socioeconomic opportunities to social upward mobility. This is the essence that fuels the dynamic relationship between crime and poverty. What Clear fails to mention is that there are Euro-Amerikans who are in similarly-situated circumstances as oppressed nation lumpen but are more likely to escape them where oppressed nation lumpen are trapped. This is so for reasons already mentioned in the above sections.
Furthermore, not everyone in lumpen communities are imprisoned; in fact, most likely never see the inside of a jail or prison. But enough people do go away and stay away for a considerable period of time that the community is destabilized, and familial bonds are ruptured. When free, the imprisoned persyn from the lumpen community represented some sort of income, and not a liability weighing down a family, financially, morally, etc, already struggling to make ends meet. Enough of these families are part of the lumpen community that the cycle mentioned above seems to be unbreakable. Kids growing up in broken homes, forced to assume adult roles, only to make kid mistakes that come with adult consequences; and the cycle continues.
To be sure, this cycle has been in force with respect to oppressed nations since the end of slavery. It has just become necessary over time to enact laws and policies that now target and disrupt these communities. Both the politics and economics of mass incarceration work to keep lumpen communities from organizing for national liberation as was done during the late-60s.
Part of any strategy related to our anti-prison movement is first recognizing these dimensions of mass incarceration, and taking into account that we live in enemy society where enemy consciousness prevails, even amongst much of the oppressed nations. We have to also recognize that the interests of oppressed nation lumpen are not the same as the other classes of the oppressed nation. There are some members of the oppressed nations who have bought the bill of goods sold by partial integration. They are fully immersed in the delusions of identity politics, subtly sacrificing their true identity for the trinkets of "whiteness."
Understanding and recognizing these points means we can focus our organizing efforts on building public opinion and independent institutions, on a concrete class/nation analysis and not because someone is Black or Brown. We need to be patient with lumpen communities as they are in that day-to-day grind of survival and may not (or cannot) see the merit in our movement. Ultimately, we need to step up and be those leaders of the movement, so when we do touch we hit the ground running.
While many euro-Amerikans languish and suffer in U.$. prisons, it is those whose land the Amerikans seized and occupy, and those the Amerikans enslaved and exploited, who disproportionately rot here. The First World lumpen are an excess population, that imperialism has limited use for.
One solution to this problem has been using the lumpen to distribute and consume narcotics. Narcotics, and the drug game itself pacify the lowest classes of the internal semi-colonies, by providing income and distracting drama, while circulating capital.(1) Of course, rich Amerikans play a much larger role in propping up drug sales.
Another solution to the excess population has been mass incarceration. Prisons serve as a tool of social control; a place to put the rebellious populations that once spawned organizations like the Black Panther Party and Young Lords Party. Meanwhile, imprisonment serves to drain the resources of the internal semi-colonies in numerous ways.(2) This reinforces their colonial states in relation to the Amerikan empire. As an institution, mass incarceration serves as an outlet at home for the racist ideology that imperialism requires from its populace for operations abroad. The criminal injustice system sanitizes national oppression under the banner of "law and order," reducing the more open manifestations of the national contradiction within the metropole that brought about the recognition of the need for national liberation in the 1960s and 1970s.(3)
The following are excerpts from a Minnesota comrade's response to "MIM(Prisons) on U.$. Prison Economy", originally published in ULK 8 currently available in the "13th Amendment Study Pack"(updated 8/10/2017).
"In as much as I agree with MIM's positions in this study pack, I find it beyond the pale of relevance in arguing over whether the conditions We now exist under are in fact slavery or exploitation or rather oppression that revolves around laws devised to ensure that the first class's social, political and economic control is maintained. Mass incarceration might be all of those above or none at all, to those of Us in the struggle. What we all can agree on is that mass incarceration is a machine being used to exterminate, as the imperialists see us, the undesirable sub-underclass.
"...Prisons are being used to remove black and brown males at their prime ages of producing children, going to college, and gaining meaningful vocational training. This loss of virulent males in Our communities does more than weaken them. It removes from the female an eligible male and acts no different than sterilization. Instead of incinerators or gas chambers, We are being nurtured, domesticated, doped, and fed carcinogens. Moreover, prisons have provided us with disease-ridden environments, and poor diets, minimum ambulatory exercise, poor air and water. Lastly, the removal of cognitive social stimuli necessary for the maturation of social skills has created an underdeveloped antisocial human being lacking in compassion and individuality.
"...the reason that the slavery or exploitation argument doesn't resonate for those of Us who are on the front line, I think, is because it's muted by the point that incarceration is an institution created by the oppressor. It will have vestiges of slavery, exploitation, and social control within it. To what degree? is arguable."
So far we have no disagreements with this comrade. And while we have long upheld this point to be important for our understanding of mass incarceration in the United $tates and how to fight it, we do recognize that the slavery analogy will resonate with the masses on an emotional level. The comrade later goes on to reinforce our position:
"Eradication is where slavery and mass incarceration split. Although slaves were punished and victims of social control, they had value and were not eradicated."
A crass example of this was exposed last month when Kern County pigs turned on one of their own and released a video of Chief Pig Donny Youngblood stating that it's cheaper to kill someone being held by the state than to wound them. These are state bureaucracies, with pressure to cut budgets. While keeping prison beds full is in the interest of the unions, it is not in the immediate financial interest to the state overall.
Whereas we agree with this comrade when ey discusses the role of convict leasing in funding southern economies shortly after the creation of the 13th Amendment, we disagree with the analogy to funding rural white communities today.
"The slave, instead of producing crops and performing other trades on the plantation is now a source of work... So to insist states aren't benefactors of mass incarceration is incredulous. Labor aristocrats and the imperialist first class, who are majority Caucasian males, have disproportionately benefited."
The difference is a key point in Marxism, and understanding the imperialist economy today. That the existence of millions of prisoners in the United $tates creates jobs for labor aristocrats is very different from being a slave, whose labor is exploited. And the difference is that the wealth to pay the white (or otherwise) prison staff is coming from the exploitation of the Third World proletariat. And the economy around incarceration is just one way that the state moves those superprofits around and into the pockets of the everyday Amerikan. The "prisoner-as-slave" narrative risks erasing the important role of this imperialist exploitation.
Another reason why we must be precise in our explanation is the history of white labor unions in this country in undermining the liberation struggles of the internal semi-colonies. Hitching the struggle of prisoners to that of the Amerikan labor movement is not a way to boost the cause. It is a way to subordinate it to an enemy cause — that of Amerikan labor.
There is a cabal of Amerikan labor organizers on the outside that are pushing their agenda to the forefront of the prison movement. Their involvement in this issue goes back well over a century and their position has not changed. It is a battle between the Amerikan labor aristocracy and the Amerikan bourgeoisie over super-profits extracted from the Third World. In this case the labor aristocracy sees that prisoners working for little to no wages could cut into the jobs available to their class that offer the benefit of surplus value extraction from other nations. Generally the labor aristocracy position has won out, keeping the opportunities for real profiteering from prison labor very limited in this country. But that is not to say that exploitation of prison labor could not arise, particularly in a severe economic crisis as Third World countries delink from the empire forcing it to look inward to keep profits cycling.
While our previous attempt to tackle this subject may have come across as academic Marxist analysis, we hope to do better moving forward to push the line that the prison movement needs to be tied to the anti-colonial, national liberation struggles both inside and outside the United $tates. And that these struggles aim to liberate whole nations from the United $tates, and ultimately put an end to Amerikanism. Selling those struggles out to the interests of the Amerikan labor movement will not serve the interests of the First World lumpen.
Mientras muchos euro-americanos se desmoronan y sufren en las prisiones E$tado Uniden$e$, son aquellos cuyas tierras los amerikanos tomaron y ocuparon, y aquellos a quienes esclavizaron y explotaron, que desproporcionadamente se pudren aquí. Los lumpen del primer mundo son un exceso de población, para los que el imperialismo tiene uso limitado.
Una solución a este problema ha sido utilizar a personas de la sub-subclase para distribuir y consumir narcóticos. Los narcóticos y el juego de la droga en sí tranquilizan a los de las clases más bajas de las semi-colonias internas, proporcionando ingresos y drama que distrae, mientras circula capital.(1) Por supuesto, amerikanos ricos desempeñan un papel mucho más importante en la promoción de las ventas de drogas.
Otra solución para el exceso de población ha sido el encarcelamiento masivo. Las prisiones sirven como una herramienta de control social; un lugar para poner a las poblaciones rebeldes que una vez engendraron organizaciones como la Black Panther Party y Young Lords Party (El Partido de Pantera Negra –BPP y El Partido Joven de Reyes). Mientras tanto, el encarcelamiento sirve para drenar los recursos de las semicolonias internas de muchas maneras (2) refuerza sus estados coloniales en relación con el imperio amerikano. Como una institución, la encarcelación masiva sirve como una salida en el hogar para la ideología racista que el imperialismo requiere de su población para operaciones en el extranjero. El sistema de injusticia criminal depura las opresiones nacionales bajo el lema de "ley y orden", reduciendo las manifestaciones más abiertas de la contradicción nacional dentro de la metrópoli que provocó el reconocimiento de la necesidad de la liberación
nacional en el 1960 y 1970.(3)
Lo siguiente son extractos de la respuesta de un camarada de Minnesota a Maoist Internationalist Ministry of Prisons (Ministerio Internacionalista de Prisiones Maoísta-MIM(Prisons)) sobre la economía de prisiones E$tado Uniden$e$", publicado originalmente en ULK 8, actualmente disponible en el "13th Amendment Study Pack (Paquete de estudio de la 13ª Enmienda)"
(actualizado el 8/10/2017).
"A pesar de que concuerdo bastante con las posiciones de MIM (Ministerio Internacionalista de Prisiones Maoísta) sobre este conjunto de estudio, es que lo encuentro más allá de la relevancia en la discusión sobre si las condiciones bajo las que ahora vivimos son de hecho esclavitud o explotación o más bien una opresión que gira en torno a leyes diseñadas para garantizar que el control social, político y económico de primera clase se mantenga. El encarcelamiento puede ser todos los anteriores o ninguno en absoluto, para aquellos de nosotros en la lucha. En lo que todos podemos estar de acuerdo es en que la encarcelación masiva es una máquina que se usa para exterminar, como nos ven los imperialistas, la sub-subclase indeseable.
"... Las cárceles se están utilizando para eliminar a los hombres negros y morenos en sus mejores años para producir hijos, ir a la universidad y ganar formación profesional significativa. Esta pérdida de hombres virulentos en Nuestras comunidades hace más que únicamente debilitarlas. Le quita a la mujer un varón adecuado y actúa igual que la esterilización. En lugar de incineradores o cámaras de gas, estamos siendo nutridos, domesticados, dopado y alimentados con carcinógenos. Además, las prisiones nos han proporcionado ambientes plagados de enfermedades y dietas deficientes, mínimo ejercicio ambulatorio, escaso aire y agua. Por último, la eliminación de las cognitivas sociales estimula lo necesario para la maduración de las habilidades sociales ha creado un ser humano antisocial subdesarrollado carente de compasión e individualidad.
"... La razón por la cual el argumento de esclavitud o explotación no resuena para aquellos de nosotros que están en primera línea, creo, es porque está silenciado por el hecho de que el encarcelamiento es una institución creada por el opresor. Tendrá vestigios de esclavitud, explotación y control social dentro de ella. ¿Hasta qué punto? es
Hasta el momento no tenemos desacuerdos con este camarada. Y aunque
hemos mantenido este punto que es importante para nuestra comprensión
del encarcelamiento masivo en los Estado$ Unido$ y cómo luchar contra
él, sí reconocemos que la analogía de la esclavitud resonará con las masas
a un nivel emocional. El camarada luego refuerza nuestra posición: "La erradicación es donde la esclavitud y el encarcelamiento masivo
se dividen. A pesar de que los esclavos fueron castigados y víctimas del
control social, tenían valor y no fueron erradicados."
Un tosco ejemplo de esto estuvo expuesto el mes pasado cuando los cerdos del Condado de Kern traicionaron a uno de los suyos y lanzaron un video del Cerdo en Jefe Donny Youngblood, que afirmaba que es más barato matar a alguien retenido por el estado que herirlos. Estas son burocracias estatales, con presión para recortar presupuestos. Si bien
mantener las camas de prisión llenas es de interés de los sindicatos, no tiene un interés financiero inmediato para el estado en general.
Mientras que estamos de acuerdo con este camarada cuando ellos discuten el papel del mantenimiento de un prisionero en la financiación de las economías del sur poco después de la creación de la 13ª Enmienda, no estamos de acuerdo con la analogía de financiar las comunidades rurales blancas de hoy en día.
"El esclavo, en lugar de producir cultivos y realizar otros oficios en la plantación es ahora una fuente de trabajo ... Entonces, insistir en que los estados no son benefactores de la encarcelación masiva es algo incrédulo. Los aristócratas laboristas y la primera clase imperialista, que en su mayoría son varones caucásicos, se han visto beneficiados de forma desproporcional. "
La diferencia es un punto clave en el marxismo, y entender la economía imperialista actual. Entender que la existencia de millones de prisioneros en los Estado$ Unido$ crea puestos de trabajo para los aristócratas trabajadores es muy diferente a ser un esclavo, cuyo trabajo es explotado. Y la diferencia es que la riqueza para pagar al personal de prisión blanco (o de otro tipo) proviene de la explotación del proletariado del Tercer Mundo. Y la economía en torno al encarcelamiento es solo una de las formas en que el estado mueve esas súper ganancias hacia los bolsillos del Amerikano ordinario. La narrativa del "prisionero como esclavo" corre el riesgo de borrar el papel importante de esta explotación imperialista.
Otra razón por la que debemos ser precisos en nuestra explicación es la historia de los sindicatos blancos en este país en socavar las luchas de liberación de las semicolonias internas. Enganchando la lucha de prisioneros a la del movimiento laboral de E$tado$ Unido$ no es una forma de impulsar la causa. Es una manera de subordinarlo a una causa enemiga - la de Trabajo Amerikano.
Hay un grupo de organizadores del trabajo Amerikano en el exterior que están empujando su agenda a la vanguardia del movimiento penitenciario. Su participación en este tema se remonta a más de un siglo atrás y su posición no ha cambiado. Es una batalla entre la aristocracia laboral amerikana y la burguesía amerikana por las súper ganancias extraídas del Tercer Mundo. En este caso, la aristocracia laboral ve que los presos que trabajan por poco o ningún salario podrían entrar en los trabajos disponibles para su clase que ofrecen el beneficio de la extracción de plusvalías de otras naciones. Generalmente, ha ganado la posición de la aristocracia laboral, manteniendo muy limitadas las oportunidades para obtener beneficios reales del trabajo en prisión en este país. Pero eso no quiere decir que no pueda surgir la explotación del trabajo penitenciario, especialmente en crisis económicas graves a medida que los países del tercer mundo se separan del imperio, forzándolo a mirar hacia adentro para mantener las ganancias a flote.
Si bien, nuestro intento anterior para abordar este tema puede haber dado la impresión de un análisis académico marxista, esperamos que nos vaya mejor al seguir adelante en empujar los límites de que el movimiento en prisiones necesita estar ligado a las luchas de liberación nacional y anticolonial, tanto dentro como fuera de los E$tado$ Unido$. Y que estas luchas apunten a liberar a naciones enteras de los E$tado$ Unido$, y finalmente poner un fin al Amerikanismo. El vender esas luchas a los intereses del movimiento laboral Amerikano no servirá a los intereses del lumpen del Primer Mundo.
The Western press often aims the diparaging term "labor camps" at Asia and the former socialist countries of the world. Yet, with the largest prison population in the world, it should not be surprising that it is the Amerikans who have more prisoners working for them than any other nation. And their labor subsidizes the cost for Amerikans to maintain a highly structured and institutionalized system of national oppression in this country.
While prisons do "cost" taxpayers money, Amerikans benefit directly, indirectly and psychologically from the criminal injustice system. There is a lot of money being made off the system, not by exploiting prisoner labor, but in the form of public employee salaries. In Pennsylvania, for instance, prison guards are among the state's highest paid employees.(1) And in many states these jobs are so important, the guard unions will successfully fight against any prison closures, even when there aren't enough prisoners to fill the cells. Meanwhile, prisoners are doing much of the maintenance work in these institutions, for little or no pay. In the vast majority of U.$. prisons, the state would need to hire more people if they couldn't use prisoners to help with prison operations.
In this article we will look at the relationship between prisoner labor and the cost of running prisons. Our goal is to understand what work prisoners are doing, what they are being paid, what the impact of that work is, and how battles around prisoner labor can be a progressive part of the fight against the imperialist criminal injustice system.
This winter MIM(Prisons) conducted a survey of ULK readers regarding prison labor, in part in response to many organizations' recent focus on this topic. The results are what we believe to be the most comprehensive dataset on prison labor in the United $tates.
In our 2009 issue on this topic, we reported on prison labor in 11 states and the Federal system, representing over half the country's prison population. In 2018, we received reports from 20 state systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This survey far exceeds our 2009 survey in content and consistency. This article will present our preliminary results, with the full report to come in a later, more in-depth publication on the economics of the U.$. prison system.
How many prisoners have jobs?
Overall, 44% of prisoners have a job assignment, which includes school and other programming in some states. This varied greatly between prisons, from less than 1% to a maximum of 100% where working is mandatory. Of those who do work, most are engaged in work related to maintaining the prison itself.
What do prisoners do?
The chart below shows results from our survey showing at least 63% of prisoners engaged in prison maintenance. There is a significant "Other" category that may or may not fall into prison maintenance. While our survey results so far show 25% of prisoners working in agriculture or industry, this does not correspond with other information available. UNICOR, the state-run industries for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), accounts for less than 7% of those held by the BOP. Yet UNICOR is the biggest user of prisoners in the country, with half the revenue of all other state-run industries combined.
While our results confirmed a majority working in maintenance of prisons, we believe this to be greatly underestimated and will work to refine our figures. Meanwhile the three biggest prison states only use 2-6% of their prison population in their state-run industries.
How much are prisoners paid?
Working prisoners mostly fall into two categories: prison maintenance and state-owned industries. The latter generally offers higher wages. Below are averages for all U.$. prisons from a Prison Policy Initiative survey of state agencies(2):
Our statistical analysis of low and high wages by state matched up quite closely with the Prison Policy Initiative survey, with many states being right on. This helped us confirm the numbers reported by our readers, and substantiates the Prison Policy Initiative data set, which covers every state and comes from state sources.
From our data we can say that almost half of prisoners who work in the United $tates make $0.00. Generally in lieu of pay, 43% of jobs in our survey offer credits of some sort (usually promising time off their sentence). Though states like Texas are notorious for these credits being meaningless or not applied. About 11% of prisoners who work do so for neither pay nor even the promise of credits, according to our preliminary results.
Who do prisoners work for?
The portion of prisoners working for private industries is very small. We've long been frustrated with the outdated, self-referential, or complete lack of citations used by most when writing about private companies using prison labor.(3) Our initial results only returned 4.3% of prison jobs being attributed to a private company, and of those who produce a product, 1.8% being sold to private companies. While we will continue to tally and interpret our results, these are in the ball park of what we can infer from a literature search of what is going on in prisons across the United $tates.
As John Pfaff pointed out in eir book Locked
In, “Public revenue and public-sector union lobbying are far more important [financial and political engines behind prison growth].” These state prison industries are becoming sources of revenue for state budgets. This could be worse than private corporations lobbying for more imprisonment. It's the very state that decides policy that is directly benefiting financially.
A U.$. Proletariat?
Of all the so-called "workers" in the United $tates, prisoners, along with non-citizen migrants, are some of the only people who face working conditions comparable to the Third World. OSHA has no real ability to enforce in prisons, and in some cases prisoners do hazardous jobs like recycling electronics or the tough field work, that many migrants perform. A recent expose of a "Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery (CAAIR)" program in Oklahoma documented that prisoners were promised drug treatment but when they joined the program were forced to work in chicken processing plants. The prisoners suffered gnarled hands, acid burns, injuries from machines and serious bacterial infections.(4) While this is only a tiny minority of prisoners, the fact that they are susceptible to such conditions does speak to the closeness this class of people is to the Third World proletariat.
While at first glance the pay rates above clearly put U.$. prisoners with full time jobs in the exploited classes, we must consider that by default prisoners' material needs are covered by the state. However, there are still some basic needs that are not covered in many prisons. Many prisoners face conditions with insufficient food, exorbitant co-pays for medical care, and a requirement to purchase hygiene items, educational materials and other basic necessities. And for the lumpen who don't have money in the bank or families who can cover these needs, pay for work in prison is essential.
Labor Subsidizes State Budgets
But even where prisoners are expected to pay for these basic necessities and are not paid enough to cover the costs, we don't find net profit for the state. In spite of prisoners' work, facilities are still run at a huge financial loss to the state, and profits from prisoner labor are going to subsize the state budget. Sure lots of individual guards and other prison staff are making good money, and corporations are also cashing in by selling products to the prison and to prisoners. But none of this is coming from prisoner labor. Prisoner labor is just helping to cut the costs a bit for the state. Below we lay out our calculations on this question.
Ultimately, we're talking about a criminal injustice system that costs $80 billion a year. There are profits from the 4.3% of prisoners who work for private industries. But most of the revenue comes from state-run prison industries. These state-run industries bring in a revenue of $1.5 billion a year.(5) At a generous profit rate of 10%, that would be $150 million in net gain, or 0.2% of costs. Because some many prisoners aren't paid or are paid very low wages we could even double that profit rate and still have a very small gain relative to the cost of prisons.
Another way to look at this calculation is to consider the costs to house one prisoner compared to the potential revenue they generate when working full time. It costs about $29k/yr to house a Federal prisoner. If these prisoners are leased out to private companies for $10/hr and the state keeps all the money, the state only makes about $20k, still losing money on the deal. Obviously, when the state undercharges for labor, private companies can make a profit. But that profit is subsidized by the state, which has to pay for prisoners housing and food, with the greatest expense being in how to actually keep people locked inside.
We can also calculate savings to the state from prisoner labor using our survey numbers. We chose $10 per hour below as a rough compromise between the Federal minimum wage, and a typical CO's hourly wage. In reality, no U.$. citizen would work maintaining prisons for minimum wage. And a negligible number of COs would bring themselves to do something "for" prisoners, such as cleaning their showers. If non-prisoners were needed to maintain prison facilities, we suspect only migrant workers would be up for this task.
Another consideration is that jobs in prison are mostly used to keep people busy (i.e. keep people not reading, and not organizing). If paying "freeworld" people to do these jobs, they would certainly hire many fewer employees than they have prisoners doing the same tasks.
These calculations are primarily to demonstrate magnitude, not actual budget projections.
62% of 800 thousand prisoners (percentage with state-run jobs) = 496 thousand prisoner workers
150 hours/mo work on average * 12 months of work = 1,800 hours of work
So we estimate that hiring non-prisoners to do the work that prisoners do would cost about $8.9 billion, which adds up to an additional 10% of the overall costs of running prisons. That's a sizeable increase in costs, but prisons are still far from profitable. We can add the two numbers above together to estimate the total earnings + savings to the state from using prisoner labor. That total is still less than $10 billion. Bottom line: the state is still losing $80 billion a year, they're just saving at most $9 billion by having prisoners work and earning back another $150 million or so of that $80 billion, through exploitation.
Those arguing that a massive prison labor strike will shut down the prisons may be correct in the short term, to the extent that some prisons which rely heavily on prison labor will not be able to immediately respond. But that certainly doesn't mean prisoners being released. More likely it means a complete lockdown and round the clock johnnies. And historically states have been quite willing to pour money into the criminal injustice system, so a 10% increase in costs is not that far-fetched. On the other hand, states are even more willing to cut services to prisoners to save money. So the requirement to hire outside staff instead of using prisoner labor could just as likely lead to even further cuts in services to prisoners.
History of Prison Labor in U.$.
In 1880, more than 10,000 New Afrikans worked in mines, fields and work camps as part of the convict lease system in the South. This was shortly after the creation of the 13th Amendment, and eased the transition for many industries which made use of this prison labor. In the North prison industries were experimented with around this time, but imprisonment costs prevented them from being profitable. And in response labor unions began opposing the use of prison labor more and more. By the Great Depression, opposition was stronger and the government banned the use of prison labor for public works projects.(5)
In 1934, the Federal Prison Industries, or UNICOR, was formed as a way to utilize prison labor for rehabilitation and state interests without competing with private industry. This protection for private industry was ensured with strict restrictions on UNICOR including limiting them to selling only to the states. This has maintained the primary form of what might be considered productive labor in U.$. prisons. UNICOR does function as a corporation aiming to increase profits, despite its tight relationship to the state. While state agencies used to have to buy from UNICOR, this is no longer the case, making it fit better into Marx's definition of productive labor. Those running the prisons for the state, whether public employees or prisoners preparing meals, would not fall into what Marx called productive labor because neither are employed by capital.
Starting in the 1970s, there has been legislation to loosen restrictions on prison labor use by private industry.(5) (see Alaska House Bill 171 this year) However, we could not find in our research or our survey any substantiation to claims of a vast, or growing, private employment of prisoners in the United $tates.
The Future of Prison Labor
The key to all of these battles is keeping a focus on the national liberation struggles that must be at the forefront of any revolutionary movement today. There are Amerikan labor organizers who would like to use the prisoner labor movement to demand even higher wages for the labor aristocracy. These organizers don't want low-paid prisoners to replace high-paid petty bourgeois workers. This might seem like a great opportunity for an alliance, but the interests of the labor aristocracy is very much counter to national liberation. They are the mass base behind the prison craze. They would be happy to see prisoners rot in their cells. It's not higher pay for prisoners that they want, it's higher pay for their class that the labor aristocracy wants. On the other hand, the prison movement is intricately tied up in the anti-colonial battle, by the very nature of prisons. And to move the needle towards real progress for humynity, we must reinforce this tie in all of our work. This means we can't allow the labor aristocracy to co-opt battles for prisoner workers' rights and wages.
While U.$. caselaw does not recognize prisoners as employees, there continue to be new lawsuits and arguments being made to challenge prison labor in various ways.(6) We see these challenges to certain aspects of the law on unpaid labor as reformist battles, unlikely to have much bearing on the future of the prison movement. It is unlikely the courts will see prison maintenance as labor requiring minimum wage protection. So if changes are made in the law, we expect them to be very marginal in scope, or to actually encourage more private employment. In contrast, the mass mobilizations that have focused on pay, among other issues, are advancing the struggle for prisoner humyn rights by organizing the masses in collective action.(7)
While half of prisoners work in some form, about half of them aren't paid. And this is because an income from work is not a condition of survival when food, clothes and shelter are provided by the state. However, we have noticed a trend (at least anecdotally) towards charging people for different aspects of their own incarceration. The narrowly-focused movement to amend the 13th Amendment could have the consequence of expanding such charges, and actually making it affordable for the state to imprison more people because they are paying for their own needs. While we concluded in ULK 60 that there has not been a strong decrease in imprisonment in response to the 2008 financial crisis, the rates have certainly stagnated, indicating that we may be bumping up against financial limitations.(8) A scenario like the above could undermine these financial limitations, unless they are accompanied by laws prohibiting the garnishing of prisoner wages.
The delinking of Third World countries from the U.$. empire will create more economic crisis as wealth flow from those countries to this one will decrease. This would create more incentive for forced labor in prisons that is productive, providing value for the rest of Amerikans. This is what occurred in Nazi Germany, and could occur in a future fascist scenario here. While we can definitively say the last prison surge was not driven by profits, that doesn't mean it couldn't happen. And if it did, it would be a very dangerous thing. On that we agree with the mass sentiment opposed to prison labor. But to date, in this country, it's been more expedient to exploit value from elsewhere. Even the convict leasing of the late 1800s was the vestiges of an out-dated system of exploitation that was eventually abandoned.
Very few prisoners in the United $tates are close to the means of production. Therefore it is not the role of the prison movement to seize the means of production, as it is for the proletariat. It is our role to build independent institutions of the oppressed. And this has often meant seizing institutions like churches, schools and even prisons in the examples of Attica and Walpole. Ultimately, such acts must build support for larger movements for national liberation. Prisoners have an important role to play in these movements because they are one of the most oppressed segments of the internal semi-colonies. But they cannot achieve liberation alone.
05/05/2017 — I don't know what prisons people are talking about when they say that they don't make a profit, because here the furniture factory is almost all profit. The wood is donated from the free world on a tax write off, they buy glue, paint, nails, etc. And the state pays the guards. The electricity is paid on a scale. They pay a set price no matter how much they use because they couldn't afford to pay for all that they use.
The bus shop where they rebuild buses in the free world is almost all profit because the freeworld people pay $5 to bring it in to get fixed. They pay only for materials and the prison furnishes free labor.
We have thousands of acres of land where we grow our own food plus prisons ship stuff back and forth to other prisons. We have hogs, chickens, cows and slaughter houses so our prisons in Texas are pretty self-sufficient in food. So cost is the guards, the rest is profit here in Texas. The little things like fuel, tractors and such is cost which they are all paid for.
Here's some more examples from Prison Legal News:
"Rep Alan Powell of Georgia says the state gets better results out of a prisoner in 12 months hard labor than sitting in a cell. If the tax payers pay to build roads or pick up trash, they let the prisoners do it. In keeping with that philosophy, Georgia's Department of Transportation is using parole violators to clean up trash on highways statewide. It costs the department millions of dollars every year to pick up litter along Georgia's 20,000 miles of state and federal roads. ...
"In October 2011, Camden County, Georgia considered a proposal to place two prisoners in each of the county’s three firehouses. The prisoners would respond to calls alongside firefighters, who would be responsible for supervising them. It was hoped that using prisoners convicted of non-violent offenses rather than hiring more firemen would save the county $500,000 annually. The prisoners would not receive any pay but would be eligible to be hired as firefighters five years after their release...."
"In Washington, with a $1.5 billion apple crop at risk, state officials ordered prisoners into the orchards in November 2011."
I've been to prison 7 times in 4 states and I have 20 years done. I'm on this side where you can actually see this kind of stuff happening from day to day. They do illegal stuff all the time to cover up stuff, and freeworld people never hear this because they try to keep it all on this side of the fence.
"Colorado has used prison labor on private farms since 2005, when the state enacted stricter immigration laws. Around 100 female prisoners from La Vista Correctional Facility are employed weeding, picking and packing onions and pumpkins under the supervision of prison guards. The prisoners receive $9.60 an hour, of which about $5.60 goes to the state. At least 10 Colorado farmers use prison labor....
"In Arizona, Wilcox-based Eurofresh Farms employs around 400 prisoners through an Arizona Corrections Industries program. The prisoners are paid close to minimum wage. ...
"Florida is another state that has put its prisoners to work on farms, including a program that began in 2009 which uses work crews from the Berrydale Forestry Camp on a 650-acre publicly-funded farm at the University of Florida’s West Florida Research and Education Center. The prisoners grow collards, cabbage and turnips in the winter, while the spring crop yields snap peas, corn and tomatoes.
"The arrangement provides the University with agricultural research and supplies vegetables for prisoners’ meals. In 2010 the farm program resulted in $192,000 in food cost savings at the prison and saved the University $75,000 money that otherwise would have been spent on paid staff."
MIM(Prisons) responds: This letter is interesting in that it provides an array of examples of what prisoners are doing in their jobs. Just looking at agriculture, the examples from Texas and Florida involve prisoners producing of the food they eat. This is not economic exploitation. But what are the conditions that they have to work under? We would support prisoners fighting for proper sun protection and water breaks at such a job, but do not see a good economic reason to oppose working to produce food for one's own population.
In the other scenarios, the prisoners are producing food for private companies, who are profiting off the sale of their product. In the Colorado example prisoners are being "paid" $9.60, which is well over the U.$. minimum wage, and well over the global average value of labor.(2) So if the prisoner actually received all that money, ey would be participating in the exploitation of the Third World proletariat, receiving superwages. This becomes more true when you consider that the prisoner has food and housing provided.
In reality, the Colorado prisoners receive less than half of the wage, which is less than minimum wage. Arizona prisoners also receive minimum wage. This puts them near the average value of labor. If they were paid, say, $2 per hour, then we could say they are clearly making less than the average value of their labor and being economically exploited.
By virtue of being in the heart of empire, we are all benefiting from the economic system of imperialism. Even to some extent most U.$. prisoners are better off, compared to life in the Third World. It is this reality that makes battles over wages and labor organizing in general rarely a progressive battle in this country. It is only when talking about populations who do not enjoy full citizenship rights, such as prisoners and migrants, that we can even consider progressive wage battles.
by Soso of MIM(Prisons) March 2018 permalinkLocked In: the true causes of mass incarceration - and how to achieve real reform
by John F. Pfaff
2017 Basic Books
With over 2 million people behind bars, Amerikkka locks up more people per capita than any other nation in the world. But within this system of mass imprisonment there is an even more striking story of national oppression: New Afrikans locked up at 5 times the rate of whites, and [email protected] and First Nations also locked up at disproportionately high rates. We might hope that a book about the true causes of mass incarceration (and how to achieve real reform!) would address this discrepancy. But Pfaff, like all good bourgeois scholars, is focused on how to make capitalism work better. And so ey sweeps this whole issue under the rug in a book that offers some really good science and statistics on imprisonment. Here we will pull out the useful facts and frame them in a revolutionary context.
Overall Locked In does a good job of exposing some important facts and statistics often ignored by prison researchers. Pfaff attacks what ey calls the "Standard Story." This is the name ey gives to the common arguments anti-prison activists make, which ey believes are counter-productive to their (and eir own) goals of prison reform. Ey claims these arguments either over simplify, or are straight up wrong, about why we have so many prisoners in the United $tates, and as a result target the wrong solutions.
The big picture
Pfaff sometimes gets lost in the details and fails to look at the big picture. For instance, ey argues that "we are a nation of either 50 or 3,144 distinct criminal justice systems" talking about the big differences in how each state and even each county deals with prosecution, sentencing and prisons.(p. 16) While it is true there are significant differences, this thinking evades the importance of looking at the big picture that it's no coincidence that so many distinct counties/states have such high rates of imprisonment in this country. It's a good idea to examine state and county level differences, and learn lessons from this. But using this information in the interests of the oppressed requires an understanding of the underlying role of the Amerikkkan criminal injustice system in social control and national oppression, the topic Pfaff studiously avoids.
In one of eir rare references to the role that nation plays in the criminal injustice system in the United $tates, Pfaff bemoans that "Obviously, effecting 'cultural change' is a very difficult task."(p. 228) Ey entirely misses the fundamental national oppression going on in this country. To him it's just about attitudes and cultural change.
Pfaff does raise some good big picture questions that scientific capitalists and communists alike need to consider. Discussing the importance of balancing the cost of crime against the costs of enforcement Pfaff asks "what the optimal level of crime should be." "Why is crime control inherently more important than education or medical research or public health?" "What if a reduction in prison populations would allow 100,000 children with at least one parent in prison to now have both parents at home, but at a cost of a 5 percent rise in aggravated assaults (or even some number of additional murders) – is this a fair tradeoff, even assuming no other criminal justice benefits (like lower future offending rates among these children)?" But Pfaff notes that politicians in the United $tates are not able to talk about these things. Even Bernie Sanders's discussion of investing more in schools and less in prisons was in the context of reducing crime more efficiently. It's just not okay to say education should be prioritized over crime control.(p. 119) And so Pfaff concludes that we must work on reforms that can be implemented within this severely restricted political system. We see this as evidence that the system will never allow significant change.
Another place where Pfaff frames the larger context in useful and scientific ways is around the question of why people commit crimes. While ey dances around the social causes of crime, Pfaff offers some good analysis about how people age out of crime. And this analysis leads to eir position that we shouldn't be calling people "violent offenders" but instead just saying they have committed violent crimes. Data shows that most people commit crimes when young, and as they age they are far less likely to do so again.
Crime rates and imprisonment rates
Pfaff is a professor of law at Fordham University, and like people working within the capitalist system ey accepts the capitalist definitions of crime. This means ey ignores the biggest criminals: those conducting wars of aggression and plunder against other nations in the interests of profit. For the purposes of this review we will use the term crime as Pfaff does in eir book, to refer to bourgeois-defined crime.
Crime rates in the U.$. grew in the 1970s and early 1980s. Pfaff believes that "rising incarceration helped stem the rise in crime."(p. 10) Disappointingly ey doesn't put much work in to proving this thesis. But at least ey concedes that locking up more people may not have been the best response to rising crime.(p. 10) And ey goes on to note that crime rates continued to fall while prison populations also fell in later years: "Between 2010 and 2014, state prison populations dropped by 4 percent while crime rates declined by 10 percent – with crime falling in almost every state that scaled back incarceration."(p. 12) So even if locking up people in the 70s and 80s did curtail some crime, clearly there isn't a direct correlation between imprisonment rates and crime rates.
There was a drop in the number of prisoners in the United $tates between 2010 and 2014 (4%), but this was driven by California which made up 62% of the national decline. Outside of California, total prison populations fell by 1.9% during this same period. But at the same time total admissions rose by 1.1%. Pfaff cites this statistic in particular to point out a failure of prison reform efforts using the metric of total prison population. If the goal is to reduce the prison population overall, looking at the drop in people locked up will miss the fact that the total number of prisoners is actually rising!(p. 69) This is an important point as we know that prison has lasting effects on all who are locked up, as well as on their community, even if they are only serving short sentences.
War on Drugs is not driving prison growth
Disagreeing with the common argument that locking up low-level drug offenders is driving up the prison population, Pfaff points out that "only about 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges — and very few of them, perhaps only around 5 or 6 percent of that group, are both low level and nonviolent. At the same time, more than half of all people in state prisons have been convicted of a violent crime."(p. 5) So ey argues that targeting non-violent drug offenders is focusing on too small a population to make a significant impact.
Pfaff offers extensive data analysis to demonstrate that the number of people serving time for drug convictions just aren't enough to be a major driver of state prison growth. Ey does concede that "the single biggest driver of the decline in prison populations since 2010 has been the decrease in the number of people in prison for drug crimes. But focusing on drugs will only work in the short run. That it is working now is certainly something to celebrate. But even setting every drug offender free would cut our prison population by only 16 percent."(p. 35)
From this analysis Pfaff concludes that it is essential that prison reformers not avoid talking about violent crime. "From 1990 to 2009... about 60 percent of all additional inmates had been convicted of a violent offense."(p. 187) "[T]here are almost as many people in prison today just for murder and manslaughter as the total state prison population in 1974: about 188,000 for murder or manslaughter today, versus a total of 196,000 prisoners overall in 1974."(p. 185) And due to length of sentence, "Violent offenders take up a majority of all prison beds, even if they do not represent a majority of all admissions."(p. 188) So those serious about cutting back prisons will need to cut back on locking people up for violent crimes.
Length of sentence
Pfaff concludes that longer sentences are not the cause of rising imprisonment rates. This is the opposite of the common anti-prison activist position: "despite the nearly automatic assumption by so many that prison growth is due to ever-longer sentences, the main driver of growth, at least recently, has been steadily rising admissions for fairly short terms."(p. 74) "[M]ost people serve short stints in prison, on the order of one to three years, and there's not a lot of evidence that the amount of time spent in prison has changed that much — not just over the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, but quite possibly over almost the entire prison boom."(p. 6)
Pfaff does concede that official sentences, per statutes, have gotten longer, but ey claims time served has changed much less. At most average time served in state prisons increased by 36% between 1990 and 2009, which ey calls a small increase that can’t explain most of the prison growth over that time. (p. 58) Ey argues that tough sentencing laws are all about politics and legislator image, trying to look tough on crime. But they count on prosecutors not actually imposing the maximum punishments.
Private prisons vs public employees
We agree with Pfaff that private prisons don't play a very large role in the current Amerikan criminal injustice system. "Private spending and private lobbying ... are not the real financial and political engines behind prison growth. Public revenue and public-sector union lobbying are far more important."(p. 7) And ey correctly identifies "the real political powers behind prison growth are the public officials who benefit from large prisons: the politicians in districts with prisons, along with the prison guards who staff them and the public-sector unions who represent the guards."(p. 7)
Pfaff makes a compelling point: public prisons will act the same way private prisons act when facing the same contractual incentives. Ey goes on to argue that it might actually be better to expand private prisons but give them incentives for better performance, such as rewarding lack of recidivism.
It is public prison employees who are the strongest opponents of private prisons. This was seen in Florida where an attempt to privatize 27 prisons was killed after the public employees' union got a bunch of congresspeople to vote against the bill.(p. 87)
This strength of public prisons lobbying is also behind the fact that closing public prisons doesn't necessarily result in much savings because the unions will aggressively oppose any lost jobs. In Pennsylvania, the state closed two prisons in 2013 and laid off only three guards. In New York the prison population dropped by 25% since 1999 but they have not closed any prisons.(p. 88)
Pfaff concludes: "In other words, reformers should not really be concerned with the privateness of the PIC. They should worry that as prisons grow, the supporting bureaucracies — private and public alike — will grow as well, and they will fight against anything that jeopardizes their power and pay."(p. 91)
Pfaff is correct that private prisons are not driving incarceration rates. Actually, public employee wages are playing a much larger role. However, there are valid reasons to oppose privatization for reformers, or anyone who subscribes to a sense of humynism. In our bourgeois democracy, the law does provide for greater accountability of public institutions. Therefore, public prisons will generally allow less unnecessary suffering than private ones. Of course, neither privatization, nor the public sector can eliminate the oppression of the capitalist state that is meted out by the police and prisons. Yet, privatization of the state-sanctioned use of force only creates more problems for those working for progressive change.
Pfaff disagrees with the argument that a big driver behind the prison population is recidivism, specifically that lots of people are being sent back to prison for technical violations or small issues. Ey does find that in most states the number of parole conditions has gone up, from an average of 11 in 1982 to an average of 18 in 2008.(p. 62) But digging into recidivism more deeply, Pfaff cites a study that found that only about a third of people admitted to prison end up returning. And ey correctly notes that if the commonly cited Bureau of Justice Statistics claim of a 50% recidivism rate is wrong, this just means that even more people are ending up in prisons at some time in their lives. This is perhaps an even scarier story than the high recidivism rate because it means that even more lives are being ruined by prison.
States vs counties
Pfaff points out that the $50 billion that states spend on prisons is only about 3% of state spending. And as has been seen in examples above, the savings from decarceration are not that great if states can't actually close prisons or lay off guards. Also, releasing individual prisoners doesn't result in much savings because prisons work on an economy of scale. While we can calculate the average cost of incarceration per persyn, we can't translate that directly into savings when one persyn is released, because the entire infrastructure is still in place.(p. 99)
New York City actually did cut its prison population recently, along with a few other urban counties in New York. However, rural counties sent more people to prison so the overall impact was growth, not decreasing numbers of prisoners in New York.(p. 76) Similarly, higher crime rate areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco in California send relatively fewer people to prison compared to more rural counties which tend to be more conservative.(p. 77)
We touched on this urban vs. rural discrepancy in imprisonment rates in a recent article on national oppression in prison, suggesting that this could be the primary driver behind the (temporary?) drop in the discrepancy between incarceration rates of oppressed nations and whites. Since more whites are in the rural counties, statistically that's who is getting locked up if those counties are locking people up at a higher rate. Pfaff's data backs up our theory.
Prosecutors driving imprisonment
Pfaff argues compellingly that the primary driver behind the boom in prisoners in the past few decades is prosecutorial toughness: prosecutors are charging more people with more serious crimes. Prosecutors have a tremendous amount of latitude. They can determine the charges brought against people, which in turn drives the level of seriousness of the crime and potential sentences. They can also decide when to take a plea and what to offer in the plea.
To prove the impact of prosecutors, Pfaff cites data between 1991 and 2014 when crime rates were falling. During this period the arrest rates by police matched crime rates, which means that as violent and property crimes fell so did arrests for those offenses. In states Pfaff examined, arrests fell 10% between 1994 and 2008. But at the same time the number of felony cases rose steeply. Fewer people were entering the criminal injustice system but more were facing felony charges. Pfaff calculated a 40% increase in felony cases. Ey found this was the only thing that changed; felony charges resulted in imprisonment at the same rate as before. So Pfaff concludes: "In short, between 1994 and 2008, the number of people admitted to prison rose by about 40 percent, from 360,000 to 505,000, and almost all of that increase was due to prosecutors bringing more and more felony cases against a diminishing pool of arrestees."(p. 72) The probability that a prosecutor would file felony charges against an arrestee basically doubled during this time period.
Pfaff attributes this prosecutorial aggression to a few things. First, the number of prosecutors trying cases has increased significantly over the past forty years, unrelated to crime rates. Prosecutor discretion is not new, but they seem to be using it more and more aggressively in recent years. And it is the prosecutors who have complete control over which cases get filed and which get dismissed. Prosecutors also have a huge advantage over public defenders, whose budget is significantly less than prosecutors and who don't benefit from free investigative services from law enforcement.(p. 137)
Overall Pfaff finds very little data available on prosecutors and so finds it impossible to come to firm conclusions about why they are so aggressively increasing prosecution rates. Ey spends a lot of the book talking about potential prosecutoral reforms but also concludes that mandatory data collection around prosecution is essential to get a better handle on what's going on.
While this data on the role of prosecutors in driving imprisonment rates in recent years is interesting, revolutionaries have to ask how important this is to our understanding of the system. Whether it's more cops on the streets driving more arrests, or more aggressive prosecutors driving more sentences, the net result is the same. If we're looking to reform the system, Pfaff's data is critical to effectively targeting the most important part of the system. But for revolutionaries this information is most useful in exposing the injustice behind the curtain of the system. We want to know how it works but ultimately we know we need to dismantle the whole system to effect real and lasting change.
Even within eir general belief that prisons are necessary to stop crime, Pfaff makes some good points: "To argue that prison growth contributed to 25 percent of the drop in crime does not mean that it was an efficient use of resources: perhaps we could have achieved an equally large decline in a way that was less fiscally and socially costly."(p. 116) And ey goes on to note that studies suggest rehabilitation programs outside of prison do a much better job reducing crime.
Some of Pfaff's solutions are things we can get behind, like adequately funding public defenders. And most of them, if effective, would result in fewer prisoners and better programs to help prisoners both while locked up and once on the streets. But still these solutions are about relatively small reforms: giving prosecutors more guidance, expanding political oversight, expanding parole and providing more scientific structure to parole decisions, appointing prosecutors rather than electing them, setting up better contracts with private prisons paying based on how prisoners performed upon release.
All of these reforms make sense if you believe the Amerikan prison system has a primary goal of keeping society safe and reforming criminals. This is where we deviate from Pfaff because we can see that prisons are just a tool of a fundamentally corrupt system. And so reforms will only be implemented with sufficient belief from those in charge that the fundamental system won't be threatened. And certainly the Amerikan imperialists aren't looking to "improve" or reform the system; they will only react to significant social pressure, and only as much as they need to to take pressure off.
The United $tates government, and society in general, spend an enormous amount of money on the criminal injustice system. The primary reason behind this expenditure, from the perspective of the government, is social control of oppressed nations within the United $tates.(see Politics of Mass Incarceration article) But there are other beneficiaries, and losers, in this expensive criminal injustice system. In this article we will look at where the money comes from; who is benefiting and who is paying; and how these economic interests play into our strategy to organize against the criminal injustice system.
This is a follow-up to "MIM(Prisons) on U.S. Prison Economy" written in 2009. By periodically looking at these economic facts and trends we can gain insights into how the imperialist system operates and what strategies and tactics will be most effective in our struggle against imperialism.
Direct costs of prisons
Total spending on prisons and jails more than quadrupled over the twenty years between 1980 and 2010, from approximately $17 billion in 1980 to more than $80 billion in 2010. When including expenditures for police, judicial and legal services, the direct costs reached $261 billion.(1)
For comparison, in 2015 the United $tates "defense" budget was $637 billion, up from $379 billion in 1980, a 68% increase.(2,3) In that same period, total government spending on K-12 education more than doubled, going from $271 billion to over $621 billion.(3) So we can see the growth in criminal injustice system spending was dramatically faster than the growth in other government spending.
Hidden costs of prisons
Direct expenditures on prisons are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the economic impact of prisons. One study, conducted in 2016, estimated the total aggregate burden of imprisonment at $1 trillion, with an additional $10 in social costs for every $1 spent on corrections. This means that most of that $1 trillion is being borne by families, community members, and prisoners themselves.(4)
Being locked up in prison comes with a lot of negative consequences beyond the obvious loss of years of one's life spent behind bars. Economically these costs include lost wages, reduced earnings once on the streets, injuries sustained behind bars (from guards and other prisoners), and for some the ultimate price of death from fatal injuries while in prison, or a shorter life expectancy for prisoners. This totals up to annual costs of just under $400 billion dollars per year.
Estimated Costs borne by prisoners:(4)
Lost wages while imprisoned ($70.5 billion)
Reduced lifetime earnings ($230.0 billion)
Nonfatal injuries sustained in prison ($28.0 billion)
Higher mortality rates of former prisoners ($62.6 billion)
Fatal injuries to prisoners ($1.7 billion)
Beyond the direct costs to prisoners, family members and society in general carry an even larger financial burden. This includes direct costs like traveling for visitation of loved ones and moving costs when families can no longer afford their homes. But also less obvious costs like the impact prison has on family members which has been demonstrated to worsen the health and educational achievement of prisoners' children, leaving some homeless, lead to higher rates of divorce and also reduce the marriage rate in the community. Further there are costs to society from homelessness of released prisoners, and reentry programs and others serving prisoners.
Estimates of Costs Borne by Families, Children, and Communities:(4)
Visitation costs ($0.8 billion)
Adverse health effects ($10.2 billion)
Infant mortality ($1.2 billion)
Children's education level and subsequent wages as an adult ($30.0 billion)
Children rendered homeless by parental imprisonment ($0.9 billion)
Homelessness of former prisoners ($2.2 billion)
Decreased property values ($11.0 billion)
Divorce ($17.7 billion)
Reduced marriage ($9.0 billion)
Child welfare ($5.3 billion)
These expenses disproportionately impact oppressed nation communities as the primary target of the criminal injustice system. A majority of prisoners are New Afrikan and [email protected], and this is a form of economic oppression against those nations. Unlike government expenditures which create jobs and fund industries, most of these expenses do not directly financially benefit anyone. This is just economic punishment piled on top of the punishment. The massive United $tates prison system is not just a tool of repression, it is actively worsening the economic conditions of oppressed nations, keeping significant sectors of these nations trapped in precarious conditions.
Prisons Create Jobs
While prisons have a devastating impact on oppressed nation communities in the United $tates, they play a different role for the disproportionately white employees of the criminal injustice system and the mostly rural communities in which these prisons operate.
Of the direct expenditures on prisons and jails, a lot of money goes to jobs for guards and other correctional employees. In 2016 there were 431,600 guards in prisons and jails, earning on average $46,750 per year or $22.48 per hour.(5)
We can see striking examples in states like New York and California where prisons are clustered in rural white communities (upstate New York and in the central valley of California), but they are imprisoning mostly oppressed nation people from urban communities.
In 2012 (the latest data available from the U.$. Bureau of Justice) the total number of criminal injustice system employees across federal, state and local governments was 2,425,011 of which 749,418 were prison staff.(6) About half of the total corrections budget goes to pay salaries for prison staff, which is two orders of magnitude than the $400 million in profits of private prison companies.(17)
There are other jobs generated more indirectly by prison spending: construction jobs building and maintaining prisons, and jobs in all of the industries that supply the prisons with food, bedding, clothing, and other basics required to support the prison population. While some of these costs are recovered through prisoner labor (we will address this topic in more detail in ULK 62), the vast majority is still paid for by the government. Vendors also make a lot of money through commissary, phone bills, and other costs to prisoners. There are clearly a lot of individuals and corporations with an economic interest in the criminal injustice system.
Most prisons are in rural areas, often in poorer parts of states. Some prison towns are entirely centered around employment at the prison, or support services like hotels for visiting families. Others may have a more diversified economy but the prisons still provide a significant number of jobs for residents. These jobs give workers, and the community their jobs are supporting, a strong interest in seeing prisons stay full or grow bigger.
In reality, many jobs in newly-built prisons go to people from outside of the community where it was built. People with experience are brought in to fill these jobs. Many of these workers commute to the prison rather than relocate to a rural town. And there is some evidence that in the long run prisons are bad for the economy of rural communities. But this is definitely not a popular opinion as many communities lobby aggressively for prison construction. Once a prison is in place in a community, even if it's not working out so well, it's not easy to reverse course and change the economy. As a result some towns end up lobbying for building more prisons to help bolster their economy once they have one in place.(7)
Given the size of the criminal injustice system, and the many people employed in and around it, this is a big incentive to maintain Amerika's crazy high imprisonment rates. It's like a huge public works program where the government gives money to create jobs and subsidize corporations working in and around prisons.
State vs. Federal Funding
Most prison spending is at the state level. In 2010 state governments paid 57% of the direct cash costs, while 10% came from the federal government and 33% from local governments.(1) It's all government money, but this fact is interesting because it means state economic interest is likely more important than federal economic interest in determining criminal injustice system spending.
Looking closer at state spending on prisons we find that imprisonment rates vary dramatically by state (8). Top states by imprisonment rate per 100,000 adults:
All other states have rates under 1000 with a few states down in the 300s.
Prison populations are still growing in a few states, but in the top imprisonment rate states listed above only Arizona's population grew between 2014 and 2015 (1.6%). Most of the states with an increase in imprisonment rate between 2014 and 2015 were very small states with smaller prison populations overall.(9)
There is a skewing towards high imprisonment rates in southern states. These are typically poorer states with fewer economic resources. It's possible these states feel a stronger drive to build prisons as an economic growth tool, in spite of the evidence mentioned above now suggesting this isn't necessarily the best path for towns to take. It's an interesting "investment" decision by these poorer southern states that suggests there is more than just economics in play since it is a money-losing operation for already financially strapped states.
Just as the decrease in country-wide imprisonment rates coincided with the peak of the recession in 2008, it's inevitable that economic interests by the states, and by the many employees of the criminal injustice system, are also influencing prison growth and prison shrinkage. In some cases it is a battle between the interests of the prison workers, who want prisons to grow, and the states that want to stop bleeding so much money into the prisons. In each state different conditions will determine who wins.
Economic Crisis and State Responses
In 2009, MIM(Prisons) looked at the potential of the economic crisis to motivate a reduction in prison populations to address state budget shortages. We cited a few examples painting that as an unlikely scenario. The statistics do show that the total imprisoned population has dipped since then. Here we revisit some of the big prison states to see how things have shaken out since 2008.
If anything, overcrowding continues to be a bigger issue in many states than funding issues. Though overcrowding may reflect a reluctance to build new facilities, which is related to budgets. Ohio just celebrated a modest decrease in their prison population at the end of 2017.(10) At 49,420, the population was a few thousands smaller than projected four years earlier when things weren't looking so good.(11) But overall the numbers have just hovered around 50,000 since before the 2008 economic crisis.
Ohio was looking to the court-ordered prison population reduction in California as an example of what might happen there if they didn't get their numbers under control. The California reduction (or "realignment") was to address overcrowding in response to a lawsuit about conditions, and not budget problems. It was significant, with a reduction of almost 30,000 prisoners in the year following the "realignment." Numbers are even lower today. However, county populations have increased as a result, with an estimated increase of 1 county prisoner for every 3 reduced in the state system. In other words, the county population was up over 10,000 people following the realignment.(12) Still California accounted for a majority of the decrease in prisoners in the United $tates since 2010.
Former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn canceled plans to close Pontiac Correctional Center back in 2009. But current Governor Bruce Rauner has a plan to reduce the population by 25% over the next decade, already having reduced it by thousands over a couple years.(13) The Illinois state system also remains over capacity at this time. However, Governor Rauner primarily cites fiscal concerns as eir motivation for the reforms.(14) Texas also recently reduced its population by 5,000, closing one prison. Both Texas and Illinois did this by putting more money into treatment programs and release resources.(14)
Pennsylvania has also implemented reforms in sentencing and preventing recidivism.(15) After the passing of the 2012 Justice Reinvestment Act, population numbers began to level off and even decrease by hundreds each year. Like Ohio, Pennsylvania's population has been hovering around 50,000, and like many other states these numbers remain over capacity for the state (which is closer to 43,000).(16)
Overall we're still talking about fairly marginal numbers here, and not a systematic transformation. We peaked at 2.3 million prisoners in the United $tates, and now we're closer to 2.1 million. Still by far the highest imprisonment rate in the world. Ultimately, the economic crisis of 2008 did not have a huge impact on Amerikans because of the ability of imperialism to push crisis off on the periphery. But we can conclude from this experience that a serious economic crises is not enough to significantly change the course of the massive Amerikkkan injustice system.
Prisoners, their family and the community pay a heavy price for imprisonment, and this includes a significant financial cost. The impact on oppressed nation communities plays into the ongoing national oppression that is part of imperialism. So we shouldn't be surprised by an imperialist society tolerating and even perpetuating these costs.
But prisons also cost the government a lot of money. And clearly these costs have not deterred the United $tates government from maintaining the highest imprisonment rate in the world. It's a very expensive public works program, if all this money is being spent just to supply jobs to the many workers in and around the criminal injustice system. Although these jobs do provide significant political incentive to sustain prisons at their current level, Amerikan capitalist history provides us with plenty of examples of cheaper and more socially productive programs that create jobs for groups currently employed by the criminal injustice system. It's clearly a political choice to continue with this expenditure and pour money into a costly system of social control.
Some anti-prison activists try to use the high costs of prison to their advantage, organizing around slogans that emphasize that this money could be better spent elsewhere, like on education. The 10-year aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis demonstrates the weakness of this approach. The social forces of change are not coming from state bureaucracy budget offices. The social force for change are the oppressed nations that are still being targeted by the out-of-control injustice system, and the lumpen organizations that come up as a means of self-defense from this oppression.