The September 9th Day of Peace and Solidarity is an opportunity for prisoners to commemorate the anniversary of the Attica uprising and draw attention to abuse of prisoners across the country. This event was initiated in 2012 by a prisoner organization and has been taken up as an annual United Front for Peace in Prisons (UFPP) event, with people participating in prisons across the country.
We can not effectively fight the oppressors if we don't have unity among the oppressed. And that unity behind bars needs to start with peace and solidarity. This is why activists spend the 24 hours on September 9 promoting peace and education. We call for a full halt on all hostilities and engagements, whether between lumpen organizations or individuals. All participants should use the day to educate and build peace. In some places prisoners will observe a 24-hour fast. In others there will be group classes to study and discuss political history and current events. Figure out what you will do and get started organizing people today.
We use September 9 to build on the UFPP principle of Peace: "WE organize to end the needless conflicts and violence within the U.$. prison environment. The oppressors use divide and conquer strategies so that we fight each other instead of them. We will stand together and defend ourselves from oppression." This is a critical step in building a united front among prisoner organizations and individuals committed to the anti-imperialist movement. We do not need to agree on every political question, but we must come together united around core principles to build and succeed together. For those who are engaging others to participate, the unity building starts well before September 9. It is a long process of education and organizing to build the anti-imperialist movement.
This 24 hour action will require a little sacrifice, but should incur no harm, and should lead to a reduction in violence as all prisoner-on-prisoner hostilities cease for the day. We can build greater awareness of the oppression against which we fight, and build the unity that is necessary for that battle, by organizing groups and individuals to participate. Comrades organizing around the solidarity demo are encouraged to send their plans or reports to Under Lock & Key. To be included in ULK 64, your reports must be in our mailbox by Monday September 17.
In this article we print letters from our imprisoned comrades across the country, which explain their recruiting methods. Our comrades do a great job of learning from their mistakes and turning what could be a negative challenge to our struggle (such as splitting up the study group) into something that makes us even stronger (spreading the fire). We have to expect repression from the pigs, and it will only get worse as we get stronger. We need to roll with it and turn it into an advantage for us.
We trust through your reading of the submissions below that you can pull out lessons for your own organizing. We were warned against sharing this info in ULK because our newsletter passes through the hands of the pigs. But most of the lessons below are about mindset and conversational approach, which the pigs can't touch.
Some comrades give examples of things that haven't worked, and we are sharing these as examples because surely other people are trying the same tactics and facing the same challenges. If it's not working, try something else.
We encourage readers to go through this issue of ULK for ideas, switch up what you're doing, and write in to MIM(Prisons) to tell us how it went.
A Nebraska prisoner: It is surely a challenge to get study groups started when they move us around in seg, but we have found it also helps to spread the spark of that fire that is a need for something better.
Over the years it's been easier to open dialogue with new people and show people the benefit and truth of communism/socialism, even anarchism. Different individuals seem to have different feelings about parties from their various background, and knowing the three are closely related helps find a common foothold when bringing individuals into the fold so to speak, and shine the light about the failure of capitalism.
Knowledge is power in any debate when you're trying to convince someone to reconsider the truths of their ideals, especially when they have failed to really dissect their own ideals and just have been going with the flow. It is interesting indeed.
A Michigan prisoner: An important lesson I've learned from politicking with brothers held captive here with me is that if you speak truth to them, you find that they come over to your side. Because, 9 times out of 10, their direct experiences usually match up with what it is that you're saying. So what I'm saying, what I'm speaking here, is the absolute truth. If organizers are looking for explanations for why their organizing techniques aren't working, they should look in the mirror. In our line of work it's what we do, or don't do, that is decisive. This is true for two reasons. First, we can't simply apply organizing techniques dogmatically to any situation without doing an analysis based in dialectical materialism to try and understand the dynamics of the situation and, therefore, try to employ our techniques in a way which is going to have the most likelihood of success. Second, organizers cannot expect lumpen who are not familiar with political work to automatically engage in struggle if we do not put forth the necessary effort to teach them how to struggle. Our job as organizers is to organize and educate the lumpen in the lessons of political struggle, as well as inspire them to take matters in their own hands and become agents of their own liberation.
I come from, or should I say, I am a lumpen organization (LO) leader myself. That said, I have firsthand knowledge of LO politics and history and I use this knowledge to my advantage when politicking with other LO leaders. For example, most LOs are based on certain fundamental principles that are uplifting. Though not revolutionary by a long shot, some LOs began as a righteous cause. However, the leadership of LOs eventually corrupted and completely distorted the fundamental principles and began wielding their power and influence for destructive ends — thereby compounding the oppression that oppressed nations suffer under imperialist domination in the ghettos of Amerikkka. Usually, when I've pointed this out to other LO leaders and explained to them that, as leaders, they have a duty and responsibility to look out for not only the interests of those they command, but the community and "our people" as a whole, they tighten up somewhat.
As a result of politicking like this, they (LO members) can become more receptive to revolutionary teachings. In fact, some of the brothers I've instructed in Maoist principles are actually taking heed and developing a genuine interest in revolutionary theory. I am pushing them very hard, and they have become more radical. And, together, we are pushing hard to (1) organize our struggle, and (2) take the political position of the United Front for Peace in Prisons.
In Conclusion, dialectical materialism, when grasped firmly, is relatively simple. We study situations, set our tasks, aim for success, inevitably fall short, try to learn from our mistakes, and come back better prepared, more organized, and more determined than ever to win the next time around.
In addition, Maoism in particular teaches us that there are two ways of learning — direct knowledge and indirect knowledge. Direct knowledge involves firsthand experiences through the senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, whereas indirect knowledge involves looking at, listening to, or reading about someone else's experiences. In other words, we can learn from the experiences of others just as well as we can from our own experiences. So when we gain experience at a certain thing and develop techniques in the midst of struggle, we should share our experiences and techniques in the hope that they will explain, inform, or aid other comrades in their political work.
Above all, organizers should bear in mind that our main task when organizing is to unite all those that can be united. In all the world, whether inside or outside prison, oppressed people know that unity in action is a necessary precondition for waging successful struggle. If you aren't for the unity of action, you aren't for the struggle. However, for those of us who are really for the struggle, we must prove it in action (practice) — in a concrete way.
An Oregon prisoner: I thought I'd share a few thoughts on my own strategies & tactics. Firstly it must be noted that I was literally raised in the feds, and in that system, violence is a social construct propagated by all. As such, men were much more receptive to community-organizing/unity. I personally went from ignorance and tribal identity to New Afrikan. And what I've used as a tool to build consciousness are "group/tribe - specific" literature & exercise regiments.
The first is taking say, a book by & about "Kiwes and Damus" and using it to spark dialogue. What I've found is "most" tribe-aligned men are more receptive to older men they respect & who take interest in learning about them and their tribe! Forging common ground if you will.
The second is using a physical exercise program as a means to build men! Starting with instilling discipline and accompanying self esteem, that follow one's acquiring a fit body. Now, obviously within a prison environment, the "group exercise(s)" (i.e. machine) can be seen by the AmeriKlan guards as "gang related." So I caution men to do so in a proper & compartmentalized manner to negate the erroneous misconception(s)!
I am a fluent Ki Swahili speaker. I have been for over 20 years. Now! What I've also discovered is that even in this ideologically backwards state, many New Afrikans and Chicanos take to learning the language. Which, for the New Afrikan, opens up a dormant sense of long-lost cultural identity. For the Chicanos, it rebuilds bridge(s) to the past. The days of Caesar Chavez, the Party, Unity in Struggle. A time of Klass unity, and our shared socio-political agenda = Power to the People! Enough said!
Clenched fist salutations to all who stand firm on progressive ideals & work diligently to build amidst the reactionaries whom aid our oppressors!
A Nevada prisoner: Between this issue of ULK 60 and the pamphlet Fundamental Political Line of MIM(Prisons) I came up with what I believe to be the biggest problems we face. Many people shy away from revolutionary struggle like trying to convert a Christian to Islam. It's despised like conspiracy theories. So with that said, Problem #1 is appealing to and reaching those best positioned to make changes.
The situation of what prompted me to say this: I study mostly on the tier. Curious people come over to see the unique Fundamental Political Line pamphlet on the table. First thing they ask me is if I'm doing bible study. I smile, then turn to the first page explaining what it is. I truly believe it scares them off because it is intimidating, it's bold, but it's truth. This happened several times.
Noticing this, I tried to come up with a way to better explain what our struggle is about. I found what I will use in ULK 60 p. 7 by USW23. I will say "This is about how to better understand our situation and how to change our conditions."
A Michigan prisoner: As for organizing different conversations. Yes, they do seem to get nowhere unless we're talking about gangs or some other subject that interests them. Very few people want to hear about doing something productive, as in educating their minds or developing some new skill or improving their community when they are released. A lot of these inmates want to continue selling drugs or becoming a rapper, or "what's the new clothing line or style," new phones, things like that — instead of empowering the youth.
Yes, I do struggle with people telling them or asking to write grievances because they don't want to snitch but when it's against these pigs they don't see that unless more complaints or grievances are seen or written, changes will not be made. They would rather deal with it than change it. I understand that if grievances are written on these pigs then in most cases they will be targeted, but as I mentioned, if nothing is said nothing will change! I am not sure what else I can say or do. You can help those whom do want to be helped. I show people the issues and I mention to them that they can be part of the change and movement to write to MIM and start there.
USW27 writes: As a member of the council of USW, September 9 Day of Peace and Solidarity is a blessing to us behind enemy lines who are committed to struggle against injustice. This gives us a chance to reflect and learn from history of our struggle from the lumpen viewpoint. And a chance to connect the dots of imperialism and capitalism and the characteristic of every stage of capitalism.
One of my strategies I've been using is talking to one Askari at a time to revolutionize the mind. Trying to change the reactionary into revolutionary. Reactionaries look at situations as war for influence, an ideological struggle to manipulate the situation for their gang. As we push for peace and solidarity there are some reactionary forces that see you as a threat because those same forces are benefiting just the way it is. They see you as a force of change. The question is, do you see yourself as a force of change? As a member of USW, you are an example on the front line. Your characteristic, the way you talk and the way you handle situations, and your attributes and commitment to the struggle. These young dada are looking for role models.
A Texas prisoner: I place one-page legal decisions on the wall to help anyone that may happen to need this information. Besides this information are two other items: a football schedule and the food menu.
My bunk-living area is in the dorm day-room. So, I look and can see directly these three papers. How prisoners act or react by looking at each, is what I call "falling in love with incarceration," or "falling in love with TDCJ."
Why do I say this? Just as a person knows when a person looks at them, from across a room, it is easy to see a person look at — or read — some item. I see them review breakfast, lunch, and dinner; even the next day's breakfast. They go into a long talk: "I ain't gonna to to breakfas' tomorah - it is jess pancakes." Another looks at the menu, then at the football schedule. "Yep! I know Minnesota will be in their own stadium — they can't lose the Super Bowl!" Others, their eyes glance at "Four Tips on Your Habeas Corpus Application." Their eyes, in a moment, move to the menu. "Hey, they got beek sketty tonite. You gonna go? I is."
Rarely have I witnessed, day or night, anyone taking time to look at and review how to get out of prison. I have several precedental case-laws from 1992 until 2016. Yet, all say, "he doesn't know what he's doin."
MIM(Prisons) adds: Finally, the comrade below shows us what recruiting looks like from the other side. The details are different for everyone, but just in case we forgot the small moments that led us into organizing, we are including it as an example here. Even if our one conversation or posting of a document on the wall falls flat in the moment, we are facilitating the repeated exposure of people to political organizing. These "retriggers" are what lead to eventual independent interest.
A West Virginia prisoner: I always knew I was anti-government because the oppression of the government towards my people was clear. Majority of the time my people committed crimes against willing participants in the streets, so I didn't understand why the government was kidnapping my brothers and abusing my sisters. It shocked me to see the police come in the projects and cold killers take off and run. Something I'm not really into no more.
Once I was in prison I was introduced to the Black Guerilla Family by a dude straight outta the District of Columbia. He told me that I'm a revolutionary. I laughed at the word and told him to say it again because it resonated with me, but I didn't know what it meant, so he told me look it up.
It just so happened he led me astray and the next thing I knew we were in a war with the folks. I was sent to a maximum security facility in West Virginia, quality of life program, better known as administrative segregation, locked down 23 hours a day. I decided to get the book Blood in my Eye by George L. Jackson and learned the history of the movement. It opened my eyes!
This issue of Under Lock & Key is devoted to exploring tactics in organizing behind bars. We often hear how hard it is to get people interested in politics, how so many are just doing their time, or worse, getting high, collaborating with the COs, or promoting division among prisoners. But we also hear from comrades about organizing successes. We can all learn from our own failures and successes and also from other people's failures and successes.
This scientific process of learning from practice, and using those lessons to improve our practice, is key to moving our organizing work forward. Marxism is based in this science that we call dialectics. Often people talk about it in the context of deep political line. But political line is only useful if it can direct a successful political practice. And so, as we spread revolutionary ideas and organize against the criminal injustice system, we need to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, both for us and for others. And then apply these lessons to improving our own work. Without dialectics the revolutionary movement will stagnate; with dialectics we will continue to learn and grow.
In a few articles in this issue we highlight the work of a psychologist, Angela Duckworth, who has conducted and compiled studies of how to engage and inspire people in work and how to build expertise. Although ey writes about this subject from the perspective of mastering bourgeois work or hobbies, we find some of the techniques and information presented to be directly applicable to revolutionary organizing. We learn from scientific studies like those presented by Duckworth, along with our own practice, to grow and improve our work.
Duckworth is an interesting psychologist because eir work focuses on measuring what ey calls "personal qualities" or traits, but eir work also demonstrates that these traits of a persyn can and do change over time. And individuals and society can have an impact on developing desired qualities. We agree with Duckworth on this assessment of the ability of people to change and grow through both their own work and external forces. In eir more recent works, Duckworth clearly agrees with us that these "traits" are more a product of education and training than inherent in one's persynality. Duckworth's writing is instructive as we look for ways to improve our own dedication and effectiveness, and ways to better inspire others.
MIM(Prisons), like MIM before it, has long maintained that the field of psychology under imperialism is generally used to help people adjust to their oppression and adapt to the horrible culture of imperialist patriarchy. It is a counter-revolutionary weapon when used in this way. Further, bourgeois psychology often attributes behaviors to inherent traits instead of material circumstances and conditions, suggesting that humyns can't change. We don't have the ability to run truly scientific experiments on humyn nature, but we have a lot of evidence from revolutionary societies like the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and Communist China under Mao to suggest that humyns have a tremendous capacity to learn and grow and overcome selfish individualism.
Instead of seeing the selfishness and individualism in capitalist culture as reasons that humynity will "always" have oppression and suffering, we see it as evidence of the importance of a Cultural Revolution under socialism. This concept was executed on a mass scale in China under Mao. The Cultural Revolution recognizes the need for the people to vigilently fight against reactionary culture and capitalist ideas, even after the proletariat controls the government, because capitalist culture and individualism will not disappear overnight.
Of course in the end individualism and self-interest won out in those countries when capitalism was restored. But this doesn't negate the very real changes that so many people made in revolutionary societies. We look to these examples as hopeful evidence, while studying them for improvements needed for better success in the future.
There are people in the fields of psychiatry (medical doctors) and psychology (not medical doctors) who have taken their study of humyns in a revolutionary direction, contributing to the anti-imperialist movement. Frantz Fanon is an excellent example of a revolutionary psychiatrist. Among eir revolutionary work, Fanon's scientific studies contributed greatly to our understanding of the effects of colonial subjugation on the oppressed, and a broader study of the lumpen. Duckworth is not revolutionary, or anti-capitalist, or anti-Amerikan, and ey is still mired in some of the pitfalls of the field of capitalist psychology. But eir research presents some useful concepts and techniques for revolutionary organizing work. In this spirit of scientific learning we touch on Duckworth's work in this issue of ULK.
U.$. imperialist leaders and their labor aristocracy supporters like to criticize other countries for their tight control of the media and other avenues of speech. For instance, many have heard the myths about communist China forcing everyone to think and speak alike. In reality, these stories are a form of censorship of the truth in the United $tates. In China under Mao the government encouraged people to put up posters debating every aspect of life, to criticize their leaders, and to engage in debate at work and at home. This was an important part of the Cultural Revolution in China. There are a number of books available that give a truthful account, but far more money is put into anti-communist propaganda. Here, free speech is reserved for those with money and power.
In prisons in particular we see so much censorship, especially targeting those who are politically conscious and fighting for their rights. Fighting for our First Amendment right to free speech is a battle that MIM(Prisons) and many of our subscribers spend a lot of time and money on. For us this is perhaps the most fundamental of requirements for our organizing work. There are prisoners, and some entire facilities (and sometimes entire states) that are denied all mail from MIM(Prisons). This means we can't send in our newsletter, or study materials, or even a guide to fighting censorship. Many prisons regularly censor ULK claiming that the news and information printed within is a "threat to security." For them, printing the truth about what goes on behind bars is dangerous. But if we had the resources to take these cases to court we believe we could win in many instances.
Denying prisoners mail is condemning some people to no contact with the outside world. To highlight this, and the ridiculous and illegal reasons that prisons use to justify this censorship, we will periodically print a summary of some recent censorship incidents in ULK.
We hope that lawyers, paralegals, and those with some legal knowledge will be inspired to get involved and help with these censorship battles, both behind bars and on the streets. For the full list of censorship incidents, along with copies of appeals and letters from the prison, check out our censorship reporting webpage.
Florida State Prison
On March 30, censored an invitation to the MIM(Prisons) mail-based study group because it "Contains prominent or prevalent advertising for three-way calling services, pen pal services, or the purchase of products or services with postage stamps." This is most definitely not true.
Michigan — Macomb Correctional Facility
ULK 61 was censored because it is "mail with stamps, stickers, labels, or anything affixed to the paper with an adhesive".
Wisconsin - New Lisbon Correctional Facility
Censored ULK 61 because "item contains contraband".
The PA DOC sent MIM(Prisons) a letter regarding ULK 61 that read: "This is to notify you that the publicaiton in issue advocates and encourages prison solidarity. As such, it violates Department policy for the reason previously stated."
Pennsylvania - SCI Benner
We heard from a prisoner at SCI Benner "My Under lock & Key No.61 March/April 2018 was banned/taken stating DC-ADM 803 Incoming Mail and Incoming Publications. My Jan/Feb issue got to me no problem. Studying the Inmate Handbook it's unclear as to the specific penological interest this publication violates?
Pennsylvania - SCI Pine Grove
A prisoner forwarded us a copy of the Notice of Incoming Publication Denial for ULK 60. The reason given was "Bondage of little girl, Depicts female officers in negative manner." Clearly the PA DOC didn't like our article criticizing an advertisement using an image of a little girl in bondage (not shown), or our criticism of gender oppression in prison.
Virginia - Middle River Regional Jail
ULK 60 and 61 were both denied with the reason given "DOC disapproved Under Lock & Key".
Illinois - Stateville Correctional Center
A prisoner wrote: "I have received notice from the repressors here, on more than one occasion that you sent me a copy of your pub Under Lock & Key, and each time that you did, i was told that this pub is on the 'censored' list and any other literature from 'MIM Distributors' because it promotes: leadership and organizing of inmates against the prison staff - administration, and that this is a threat to the safety and security of the prison, therefore inmates are not allowed to have any of your pubs."
MIM(Prisons) received a notification of censorship of ULK 61 sent to this same persyn in Stateville. The reasons given: "Promotes leadership & organization, instructs offenders to organize. content may be detrimental to the safety & security of the institution."
Indiana - Pendleton Correctional Facility
A prisoner had eir ULK 61 confiscated and the response to eir grievance was "the newspaper is not allowed in the facility due to offender to offender correspondence."
We received a notification from the AZ DOC notifying us:
The Arizona Department of Corrections has determined that your publication described below contains unauthorized content as defined in Department Order 914.07 and, as a result, may be released in part or excluded in whole for the specific reason(s) given below.
DO 914.07 - 1.1 Detrimental to the Safe, Secure, and Orderly Operation of the Facility
DO 914.07 - 1.2.12 Methods of Escape and/or Eluding Capture
DO 914.07 - 1.2.20 Safe, Secure, and Orderly Operation of the Institution
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 $tates, and ultimately put an end to Amerikanism. Selling those struggles out to the interests of the Amerikan labor movement will not serve the interests of the First World lumpen.
The Western press often aims the diparaging term "labor camps" at Asia and the former socialist countries of the world. Yet, with the largest prison population in the world, it should not be surprising that it is the Amerikans who have more prisoners working for them than any other nation. And their labor subsidizes the cost for Amerikans to maintain a highly structured and institutionalized system of national oppression in this country.
While prisons do "cost" taxpayers money, Amerikans benefit directly, indirectly and psychologically from the criminal injustice system. There is a lot of money being made off the system, not by exploiting prisoner labor, but in the form of public employee salaries. In Pennsylvania, for instance, prison guards are among the state's highest paid employees.(1) And in many states these jobs are so important, the guard unions will successfully fight against any prison closures, even when there aren't enough prisoners to fill the cells. Meanwhile, prisoners are doing much of the maintenance work in these institutions, for little or no pay. In the vast majority of U.$. 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.