There are two specific challenges we face with our comrades who get out of prison and want to stay politically active. First, the difficulties of balancing work, school, politics and general home life. Second, the overlap between friendship and politics. It is important that we address these challenges to help our comrades follow through on their pledges to serve the people after gaining their freedom.
So far we have been less than successful in this regard, and many comrades fall out of touch with us, only to re-emerge when they are locked back up months or years later. In a country with such a relatively low number of active, committed anti-imperialists, losing these comrades to the streets is a significant blow to our work. As we expand our Re-Lease on Life Program, we are working to address specific challenges with life on the streets in the belly of the beast.
Meeting Your Basic Needs
There are few resources for released prisoners, and without family or friends to provide support it's very difficult to find housing, get a job and provide for basic necessities. There are few studies of homelessness among released prisoners, but those that we've found suggest that at least 10% of parolees end up on the streets without housing after release.(1) The numbers are probably higher; sleeping on a friend's couch is not a long term solution but it won't get you counted as homeless in these studies.
Unfortunately MIM(Prisons) doesn't currently have the resources to provide much help in the area of basic needs for released prisoners. We do have some resource guides for some states, and we can help you think through the best plan for your circumstances. But our ability to help in this area is limited. The rest of this article focuses on people who are released and are able to meet their basic needs. If you have a release date coming up, let us know so we can help you make a plan for the streets.
Time Management on the Streets
Behind bars life is very regimented, with little room for any decisions about how to organize your day, except when you are locked in your cell. And even there, your options for how to spend your time are very limited. You don't have to keep a schedule because the prison keeps it for you. So one of the problems prisoners face when they hit the street is the vastness of opportunities and choices, and the lack of structure.
Many comrades will want to pursue some education, while also finding a job, and attempting to reconnect with family and friends. This means a lot of choices and opportunities, and structured days are necessary to make them fit together. The demands of family and friends can be especially difficult during the initial months post-release after so long with social interactions closely monitored and limited.
Friends, family, school and work are all institutions that are deeply ingrained in and supported by our culture. There is no support for doing revolutionary organizing. That is why Re-Lease on Life is so important. People have a hard enough time doing the normal things they need to do to get by as former prisoners, especially as felons. If you just go with the flow, you'll find your time just flies by and you don't put in any political work.
To participate in the Re-Lease on Life program you need to make a commitment to political work upon release. But most people will need to keep this commitment minimal at first, so that you can focus on getting established with a plan for meeting your long-term needs as an individual, while keeping a connection to the movement.
It's important to think about the future. If you get government assistance, or have a part-time hustle when you get out, how long can that last you? If you don't have job skills or a college degree you should consider school and look into scholarships. On the other hand, it may be worthwhile to focus initially on just making some money before you consider starting school.
Think about where you want to be in a year or two. If your political work is limited by time now, how can you free up more time in the future? One way is by getting into a career path where your income will grow with your experience. Another consideration when looking for jobs is, how can it support my bigger goals? If you work in food service, you save money by bringing home leftovers. If you work at a copy shop, you get discounts on fliers and literature. Getting a manual labor job might help you meet your physical fitness goals. If you work at a security job you get paid to do your political study, leaving your free time to do outreach work.
Whatever your plan is, you need to start thinking about your time as a budget. You have only so much each week, each day. Determine how much you really need for the necessities in life and then schedule that time.
A week has 168 hours in it. If you sleep 8 hours a night that leaves 112. If you need 2 hours a day to cook, eat and take care of persynal hygiene, you are down to 98 hours. Take at least 5 hours a week to deal with other persynal stuff like finances, cleaning, and organizing. You want to work out at least 4 hours per week, maybe more like 8. Now we have 85 left. If you work full time you've got 45, plus transit time, so make that 40. If you're going to school too, you could probably use up most of that 40. If you have regular appointments with your parole officer, doctor or counselor, that will take a few hours. In your best case scenario you might have 40 hours to spend on socializing, relaxing and doing political work. Realistically, finding 15 to 20 hours a week to do political work with a normal bourgeois life is an ambitious goal that requires discipline and good planning.
Keep in mind that even if you only have 5 hours a week free for political work, that is 5 hours of work getting done in the interests of the oppressed. Any time you can set aside for this work is good. And when you first hit the streets this will be easiest if you can set aside that time on your schedule so that it is always the same day/time. For instance, you could say that Tuesday and Thursday nights you will do political work from 5-8 p.m. Block it off on your calendar and tell your friends you have appointments or classes at those times (see below). Working this into your schedule as a regular thing will make it much easier to maintain your activism. If you give up and stop doing political work, chances are good that you will never take it up again. The revolution can't afford to lose good activists like you, so don't let that happen!
Money is Time
Just as challenging for many former prisoners as managing time is managing money, and the movement needs both. Don't fall into Amerikan consumerism. Imperialism has kept itself going by building a consumerist culture at home to keep capital circulating. What that means is that a typical Amerikan lifestyle involves far more consumption than is necessary (or even healthy). Having your own apartment, your own car, a cell phone plan, and others preparing your food for you are just some obvious examples of things considered to be "necessary" expenses justifying the so-called "high cost of living" in this country. Seek out others who you can share expenses and cost-saving tips with. Extravagant spending is often a social behavior. Many recreational things like cable television, alcohol and cigarettes become habitual expenses. Rest and recreation are important, but try things that are more healthy and cost less, and if you do want to splurge, make it a special reward, not a daily expense.
One of our strengths in this country is that Amerikans get paid extremely high wages. By keeping expenses low, you'll find that you can get by on a part-time job, leaving you with more time to do what is most important to you. Remember, even if you're making minimum wage you are in the top 13% income bracket in the world. Don't use poverty as an excuse, when your wealth and privilege are really what's holding you back from doing political work.
The Persynal vs. The Political
Related to the challenges you will face with managing your time on the streets is the social demands of family and friends. The overlap between friendship and politics is something that most people don't consider. In fact, in this country we are encouraged to think about politics as something we must share with family and friends. But MIM(Prisons) does not agree with that view.
We live in a country where most people have a very strong material interest in the status quo, and so they will oppose anti-imperialist politics. The chances of winning them over to the side of the revolution are very minimal, and there is generally no need to destroy relationships with family and friends in the name of this struggle when there are so many other people out there we can try to recruit. Also, because of security concerns in this country, exposing your politics to family and friends can put you at a real risk, especially if you are on parole. If there's one thing you should have learned being locked up, it's that snitches are everywhere.
There is nothing wrong with having friends who don't share your political convictions, you just need to avoid talking about politics with them or only talk about smaller points of politics, without raising suspicion. This doesn't mean you can't share your political views with friends and family who show that they are likely to be interested and agree, but be careful because once they know your views and the work you do, you can't take it back.
Basics About Security on the Streets
When you are locked up in prison the government has a lot of information about you and knows your every move. So behind bars you can only control your security to the extent that you keep your mouth shut on the yard and don't share information about the political work you are doing with people who might use it against you.
On the streets things are a little different. Although you might have to report in to a parole officer or allow the state to track you in some other way as a term of your release, you have a lot more freedom about what information you do and don't share with people and with the government. You are under no obligation to tell anyone about the political work you do, and in fact you should do your best to keep this private from people you know unless you have a reason to believe that they would be supportive. And of course you want to keep it a mystery from the state. This is NOT because we are doing anything illegal, but rather because the state does not like anti-imperialists and will use this as a reason to find or create an excuse to lock you back up. So don't make this easy for them.
The downloadable grievance petition for Arizona has been updated to include some more relevant addressees that were submitted by a comrade. Please download it here. Click the link below for more information on this campaign.
The downloadable grievance petition for Texas has been updated to consolidate the recipients to those who respond to prisoners, and to comply with current Texas policies and procedures. Please download it here. Click the link below for more information on this campaign.
Mail the petition to your loved ones and comrades inside who are experiencing issues with the grievance procedure, or mandatory polygraph testing. Send them extra copies to share! For more info on this campaign, click here.
Prisoners should send a copy of the signed petition to each of the addresses below. Supporters should send letters on behalf of prisoners.
Mr. Tom Clements, Executive Director Colorado Department of Corrections 2862 S. Circle Drive Colorado Springs, CO 80906
U.S. Department of Justice - Civil Rights Division Special Litigation Section 950 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, PHB Washington DC 20530
Office of Inspector General HOTLINE PO Box 9778 Arlington, VA 22219
And send MIM(Prisons) copies of any responses you receive!
MIM(Prisons), USW PO Box 40799 San Francisco, CA 94140
*Petition updated July 2012, October 2017, September 2018*
In this issue on release (ULK24), we are featuring United Playaz in San Francisco, California, to give our comrades inside an idea of what some formerly-imprisoned people are doing to contribute to the struggle for peace since they've been out. Many staff members and volunteers with United Playaz (UP) have spent time in the prison system. MIM(Prisons) got the opportunity to interview one such staff-persyn, Rico, who spent 25 years in the California prison system. Rico is a former-gangbanger-turned-peace-advocate; a lifestyle change that many readers of Under Lock & Key can relate to.
United Playaz provides services to youth, including after-school programs and tours inside prisons, in an attempt to pull them out of the school-to-prison pipeline and (the potential for) violent activity, helping them refocus on their education. UP's mission statement reads,
United Playaz is a violence prevention and youth leadership organization that works with San Francisco's hardest to reach youth through case management, street outreach, in-school services, recreational activities at community centers, and support to incarcerated youth. United Playaz is committed to improving the lives of young people surviving in vulnerable environments, [who] show high incidence of truancy and low academic performance, or have been involved in the juvenile justice system through direct service and community collaboration. United Playaz believes that "it takes the hood to save the hood".
Rico explains how he first got involved with United Playaz,
In 1994 I was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. And at the time Rudy [UP's Executive Director] was bringing a bunch of troubled youth and youth that are involved in the juvenile system and kind of just showed them a glimpse of what's the result of making a bad decision. And that's where I met Rudy. And Rudy saw me work with the kids, and then he found out that I lived in the neighborhood that he was serving the youth and he asked me, "When you get released I want you to check out our program and see if you want to work with United Playaz." So like in 2005 I finally got out after 25 years of incarceration and first I volunteered. And then once there was an opening, a job opening, Rudy hired me as a CRN, a community response network. It's a job that at night we go and do outreach, and drive around the city and just talk to the kids that are hanging out on the street.
MIM(Prisons) asked Rico about the importance of building a United Front for Peace in Prisons, and the challenges faced by such an endeavor.
Back in 1982 we formed a protest while I was in San Quentin. You know, prisoners used to have rights. We had the rights to see our family when they come see us. We had the right to get an education. We had a lot of rights. But slowly they took that away and now they have no rights. If you wanna get a visit, you have to work. If you don't work, you don't get a visit.
So anyway the Asian, Latino, the African American, the Caucasian, we all got together and say, "You know what? Let's all sit down. Nobody goes to work, nobody go to school, nothing." And prison really depends on prisoners. Cuz you have jobs there, that requires like maybe $35,000 a year job, they let the prisoner do that job and get paid like $18 a month. So they're saving a lot of money using prisoners to run the prison system, right? So when we sit down, when we shut down, man, they gave us what we want and everything like back to normal and everything smooth.
There's always incident in the pen, like prisoners hurting each other, but that's a good example that when, how do you say - together we stand, divided we fall. So you know if we are united man a lot of violence in here will probably diminish tremendously, right? Cuz the people inside, they'll preach peace out here. And a lot of kids that are doing bad behavior out here, they're influenced by a lot of prisoners inside the pen. But right now there's no peace. There's no peace. ...
Well, there is [organizing for peace and unity inside prisons] but you have to do it on the under because one thing administration, prison administration don't want you to do is to organize and try to bring peace. In prison they want us to be divided. You know what I mean? So there's ways that we can organize but it has to be on the under.
It is ridiculous that prisoners have to discuss how to go about not killing each other in secret, so as to not upset the prison administrators' paychecks! But this is not the only anti-people development to come from the evolution of the criminal injustice system, which is designed solely to protect capitalism and its beloved profit motive. Rico explains some of the consequences of deciding who stays in and who gets out in a capitalist society,
The more you treat a prisoner like an animal, when they come out they act like animal out here. I mean one time I was in segregation unit, in the hole. This guy he was so violent that he can't be out in the mainline, right? Anyway it was time for him to go. So when they let him out, he was handcuffed out the building, across the yard, in a van, right? And they drop him off outside. When they drop him off they just uncuffed him, "You're free." How can we help someone like that, to be out here? If he's so violent inside that he needs to be segregated, how can they let someone out like that? So if he commit a crime out here, that's gonna look bad on a lot of prisoners. And they have more power to say, "See what happens when we release these guys out?"
But there's guys in there that are doing better than I do - that they can do better than what I do out here, and yet they still locked up in the pen, because of politics. There's a lot of em, a lot of em man. I know some of em personally that should have been out you know and giving back. And they can do a lot of contribution out here to bring peace. How can we get those guys out?
Our answer to Rico's question is that the only way to get all those guys out, for good, is to organize for socialism and then communism. Any reforms we make to the prison system as it is now may let some people out, but as long as capitalism exists people will be exploited and oppressed. This leads to resistance, both direct and indirect, and prison is for those who don't play by the rules. In socialism, everyone has a role to play in society and state oppression is only used against those who try to oppress others.
When the economic system changes to value people over profit, prisons will also change. In China under Mao, Allyn and Adele Rickett were two Amerikan spies in China who wrote a book titled "Prisoners of Liberation" about their experience as prisoners of the Communist Party of China. Their experience taught them that when prisoners have completed self-criticism and are ready to contribute to society, they will be released. On the other side, when prisoners are doing harm to society (such as organizing to reinstitute a capitalist economic system) they are not allowed to be released just because their term is up. Instead they are encouraged to study, read, discuss, and do self-criticism until they become productive members of society.
Anyone with a sympathetic bone in their body can tell what was going on in China under Mao is a much more useful mode of imprisonment than what we have at present. The difference between the liberal and MIM(Prisons) is we know the only way to get there is through socialist revolution so that the prison system is in the hands of those currently oppressed by it.
Another present day challenge we discussed with UP was its goal to be financially self-sufficient in the future. Rico explains the current limitations that come with getting state funding,
If it's up to us, we're gonna go hard, and really fight for peace. But because we're fund[ed] by DCYF [San Francisco's Department of Children, Youth, & Their Families], they limit our movement. We can't even participate, or like rally. If there's a Occupy rally right now, we can't go, cuz our organization are prevented from doing things like that. And I think that's important, that we're out there with the rest of the people that are trying to fight for change. Every year we do a Silence the Violence Peace March. That's okay, you know, Martin Luther King, marches like that, we're okay to do that. But when it's like budgets, and crime, and about prison, you know, rally to try to bring those those things down, we can't really participate. ...
What's going on outside the youth can affect them in the future if things don't change. And why wait til those kids get old and take em to expose them to march and fight for your rights? You know I love to take these young adults to a movement like that, cuz that gives em knowledge of life, that there's more than just hanging out on the street. But unfortunately we're not allowed to participate in that kind of movement.
We have learned from history that these limitations aren't unique to UP's financial situation. For the non-profit in the United $tates, similar to "aid" given to Third World countries, capitalists always ensure their money is working in favor of their interests. This is why one of the points of unity of the United Front for Peace in Prisons is "Independence." Money is too easy to come by in this country, while good revolutionaries are too hard to find. Liberation has always been powered by people. So we agree with Rico on the importance for striving for autonomy.
Until then, positive steps can certainly be made within these limitations. There are many levels to our movement and many roles to play in building peace and unity among the lumpen. And without groups like UP reaching the youth on the streets, efforts like the United Front for Peace in Prisons will be too one-sided to succeed.
To close, Rico shares these words with comrades preparing for release,
The only thing I can say is that as long as you're alive there's hope. And if they really want to go home, then do the right thing, regardless. And they gotta stand up for their rights man. And they have to just try to get along with each other and think about peace, because they are needed out here. The experience they have in the pen, they can save a lot of lives out here, with their younger brothers and sisters that look for real guidance from someone who's been there and done that. Good luck, I hope they get out and be out here and help our system change to a better place.
As a "free citizen" you have much greater freedom to organize on the outside compared to in prison, even on probation or parole. Your activism shouldn't end with your prison term!
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander 2010, The New Press, New York
As a whole, this is a very useful book for anyone interested in understanding the criminal injustice system. It is an excellent aggregation of facts about every aspect of the system - incarceration, policing, the drug war, the courts - making a scientific case that this is really a system for social control of oppressed nations within U.$. borders. Where Alexander falls short is in her analysis of how this fits into society in the broader context. She doesn't actually name national oppression, though certainly this book is clear evidence for the existence of something more than just an attitude of racism. She doesn't take on the question of why Amerikan capitalism would want such an extensive system of prison social control. As a result, her solutions are reformist at best.
Prisons as a Tool of National Oppression
Starting with the history of Amerikan prisons, Alexander explains how the relatively low and stable incarceration rate in this country changed after the civil rights movement which the government labeled criminal and used as an excuse to "get tough on crime" and increase incarceration.(p. 41) It was actually the revolutionary nationalist movements of the 60s and 70s, most notably the Black Panther Party, which terrified the Amerikan government and led to mass incarceration, murder, brutality and infiltration to try to destroy these revolutionary groups. Alexander's failure to mention these movements is symptomatic of a missing piece throughout the book - an understanding of the importance of revolutionary nationalism.
This book does an excellent job exposing the war on drugs as a farce that is only really concerned with social control. Although studies show that the majority of drug users are white, 3/4 of people locked up for drug crimes are Black or Latino.(p. 96) Further, statistics show that violent crime rates are unrelated to imprisonment rates.(p. 99) So when people say they are locking up "criminals" what they mean is they are locking up people who Amerikan society has decided are "criminals" just because of their nation of birth.
To her credit, Alexander does call out Nixon and his cronies for their appeal to the white working class in the name of racism, under the guise of law and order, because this group felt their privileges were threatened.(p. 45) And she recognizes this underlying current of white support for the criminal injustice system for a variety of reasons related to what we call national privilege. But this book doesn't spend much time on the historical relations between the privileged white nation and the oppressed nations. J. Sakai's book Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat does a much better job of that.
Alexander argues that Amerikans, for the most part, oppose overt racial bias. But instead we have developed a culture of covert bias that substitutes words like "criminal" for "Black" and then discriminates freely. This bias is what fuels the unequal policing, sentencing rates, prison treatment, and life after release for Blacks and Latinos in Amerika. Studies have shown that Amerikans (both Black and white) when asked to identify or imagine a drug criminal overwhelmingly picture a Black person.(p. 104) So although this is statistically inaccurate (they should be picturing a white youth), this is the culture Amerika condones. Even this thin veil over outright racism is a relatively new development in Amerika's long history as a pioneer in the ideology of racism. (see Labor Aristocracy, Mass Base of Social Democracy by H.W. Edwards)
"More African American adults are under correctional control today - in prison or jail, on probation or parole - than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began."(p. 175) It is this national oppression that leads Alexander to draw the parallel that is the source of the book's title: prisons are the new Jim Crow. She recognizes that prisons are not slavery, but that instead prisons are a legal way to systematically oppress whole groups of people. While she focuses on Blacks in this book she does note that the same conditions apply to Latinos in this country.
The Role of the Police
Alexander addresses each aspect of the criminal injustice system, demonstrating how it has developed into a tool to lock up Black and Brown people. Starting with the police system she notes that the courts have virtually eliminated Fourth Amendment protections against random police searches, which has led to scatter shot searches. By sheer volume yield some arrests.(p. 67) These searches are done at the discretion of the police, who are free to discriminate in the neighborhoods they choose to terrorize. This discretion has led to systematic searches of people living in ghettos but no harassment of frat parties or suburban homes and schools where statistics show the cops would actually have an even better chance of finding drugs. In reality, when drug arrests increase it is not a sign of increased drug activity, just an increase in police activity.(p. 76)
Law enforcement agencies were encouraged to participate in the drug war with huge financial incentives from the federal government as well as equipment and training. This led to the militarization of the police in the 1990s.(p. 74) Federal funding is directly linked to the number of drug arrests that are made, and police were granted the right to keep cash and assets seized in the drug war.(p. 77) These two factors strongly rewarded police departments for their participation.
Asset seizure laws emphasize the lack of interest by the government and police in imprisoning drug dealers or kingpins, despite drug war propaganda claims to the contrary. Those with assets are allowed to buy their freedom while small time users with few assets to trade are subjected to lengthy prison terms. Alexander cites examples of payments of $50k cutting an average of 6.3 years from a sentence in Massachusetts.(p. 78)
Bias in the Courts
Taking on the court system, Alexander points out that most people are not represented by adequate legal council, if they have a lawyer at all, since the war on drugs has focused on poor people. And as a result, most people end up pleading out rather than going to trial. The prosecution is granted broad authority to charge people with whatever crimes they like, and so they can make the list of charges appear to carry a long sentence suggesting that someone would do well to accept a "lesser" plea bargained deal, even if the likelihood of getting a conviction on some of the charges is very low.
"The critical point is that thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. The police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs on streets and freeways based on nothing more than a hunch. Homes may be searched for drugs based on a tip from an unreliable, confidential informant who is trading the information for money or to escape prison time. And once swept inside the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threat of unbelievably harsh sentences - sentences for minor drug crimes that are higher than many countries impose on convicted murderers."(p. 88)
After allowing discretion in areas that ensure biased arrests, trials and sentences, the courts shut off any ability for people to challenge inherent racial bias in the system. The Supreme Court ruled that there must be overt statements by the prosecutor or jury to consider racial bias under the constitution. But prosecutorial discretion leads to disproportionate treatment of cases by race.
Further discretion in dismissing jurors, selective policing, and sentencing all lead to systematically different treatment for Blacks and Latinos relative to whites. This can be demonstrated easily enough with a look at the numbers. Sophisticated studies controlling for all other possible variables consistently show this bias. But a 2001 Supreme Court ruling determined that racial profiling cases can only be initiated by the government. "The legal rules adopted by the Supreme Court guarantee that those who find themselves locked up and permanently locked out due to the drug war are overwhelmingly black and brown."(p. 136)
Release from Prison but a Lifetime of Oppression
This book goes beyond the system of incarceration to look at the impact on prisoners who are released as well as on their families and communities. Alexander paints a picture that is fundamentally devastating to the Black community.
She outlines how housing discrimination against former felons prevents them from getting Section 8 housing when this is a group most likely to be in need of housing assistance. Public housing can reject applicants based on arrests even if there was no conviction. This lack of subsidized or publicly funded housing is compounded by the unavailability of jobs to people convicted of crimes, as a common question on job applications is used to reject these folks. "Nearly one-third of young black men in the United States today are out of work. The jobless rate for young black male dropouts, including those incarcerated, is a staggering 65 percent."(p. 149)
"Nationwide, nearly seven out of eight people living in high-poverty urban areas are members of a minority group."(p. 191) A standard condition of parole is a promise not to associate with felons, a virtual impossibility when released back into a community that is riddled with former felons.
"Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living 'free' in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow. Those released from prison on parole can be stopped and searched by the police for any reason - or no reason at all - and returned to prison for the most minor of infractions, such as failing to attend a meeting with a parole officer. Even when released from the system's formal control, the stigma of criminality lingers. Police supervision, monitoring, and harassment are facts of life not only for those labeled criminals, but for all those who 'look like' criminals. Lynch mobs may be long gone, but the threat of police violence is ever present...The 'whites only' signs may be gone, but new signs have gone up - notices placed in job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, forms for welfare benefits, school applications, and petitions for licenses, informing the general public that 'felons' are not wanted here. A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind - discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. Those labeled criminals can even be denied the right to vote."(p. 138)
Alexander devotes a number of pages to the issue of voting and the prohibition in all but two states on prisoners voting while incarcerated for a felony offense, and the further denial of the vote to prisoners released on parole. Some states even take away prisoners' right to vote for life. She is right that this is a fundamental point of disenfranchisement, but Alexander suggests that "a large number of close elections would have come out differently if felons had been allowed to vote..."(p. 156) This may be true, but those differences would not have had a significant impact on the politics in Amerika. This is because elections in an imperialist country are just an exercise in choosing between figureheads. The supposedly more liberal Democrats like Clinton and Obama were the ones who expanded the criminal injustice system the most. So a different imperialist winning an election would not change the system.
Oppressed Nation Culture
On the Amerikan culture and treatment of oppressed peoples Alexander asks: "...are we wiling to demonize a population, declare a war against them, and then stand back and heap shame and contempt upon them for failing to behave like model citizens while under attack?"(p. 165) She argues that the culture of the oppressed is an inevitable result of the conditions faced by the oppressed. And in fact the creation of lumpen organizations for support is a reasonable outcome.
"So herein lies the paradox and predicament of young black men labeled criminals. A war has been declared on them, and they have been rounded up for engaging in precisely the same crimes that go largely ignored in middle and upper class white communities - possession and sale of illegal drugs. For those residing in ghetto communities, employment is scarce - often nonexistent. Schools located in ghetto communities more closely resemble prisons than places of learning, creativity, or moral development. ...many fathers are in prison, and those who are 'free' bear the prison label. They are often unable to provide for, or meaningfully contribute to, a family. And we wonder, then, that many youth embrace their stigmatized identity as a means of survival in this new caste system? Should we be shocked when they turn to gangs or fellow inmates for support when no viable family support structure exists? After all, in many respects, they are simply doing what black people did during the Jim Crow era - they are turning to each other for support and solace in a society that despises them.
"Yet when these young people do what all severely stigmatized groups do - try to cope by turning to each other and embracing their stigma in a desperate effort to regain some measure of self esteem - we, as a society, heap more shame and contempt upon them. We tell them their friends are 'no good', that they will 'amount to nothing,' that they are 'wasting their lives,' and that 'they're nothing but criminals.' We condemn their baggy pants (a fashion trend that mimics prison-issue pants) and the music that glorifies a life many feel they cannot avoid. When we are done shaming them, we throw up our hands and then turn out backs as they are carted off to jail."(p167)
Alexander would do well to consider the difference between racism, an attitude, and national oppression, a system inherent to imperialist economics. Essentially she is describing national oppression when she talks about systematic racism. But by missing this key concept, Alexander is able to sidestep a discussion about national liberation from imperialism.
"When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color - people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prisons, and when released they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination. Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits - and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt - the people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families. They were chastised for succumbing to depression and anger, and blamed for landing back in prison. Historians will likely wonder how we could describe the new caste system as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to imagine a system better designed to create - rather than prevent - crime."(p. 170)
Alexander does an excellent job describing the system of national oppression in the United $tates. She notes "One way of understanding our current system of mass incarceration is to think of it as a birdcage with a locked door. It is a set of structural arrangements that locks a racially distinct group into a subordinate political, social and economic position, effectively creating a second-class citizenship. Those trapped within the system are not merely disadvantaged, in the sense that they are competing on an unequal playing field or face additional hurdles to political or economic success; rather, the system itself is structured to lock them into a subordinate position."(p. 180)
The book explains that the arrest and lock up of a few whites is just part of the latest system of national oppression or "the New Jim Crow": "[T]he inclusion of some whites in the system of control is essential to preserving the image of a colorblind criminal justice system and maintaining our self-image as fair and unbiased people."(p. 199)
One interesting conclusion by Alexander is the potential for mass genocide inherent in the Amerikan prison system. There really is no need for the poor Black workers in factories in this country any longer so this population has truly become disposable and can be locked away en masse without any negative impact to the capitalists (in fact there are some positive impacts to these government subsidized industries).(p. 208) It's not a big leap from here to genocide.
Economics for Blacks have worsened even as they improved for whites. "As unemployment rates sank to historically low levels in the late 1990s for the general population, joblessness rates among non-college black men in their twenties rose to their highest levels ever, propelled by skyrocketing incarceration rates."(p. 216) She points out poverty and unemployment stats do not include people in prison. This could underestimate the true jobless rate by as much as 24% for less-educated black men.(p. 216)
Unfortunately, in her discussion of what she calls "structural racism" Alexander falls short. She recognizes white privilege and the reactionary attitudes of the white nation, acknowledging that "working class" whites support both current and past racism, but she does not investigate why this is so. Attempting to explain the systematic racism in Amerikan society Alexander ignores national oppression and ends up with a less than clear picture of the history and material basis of white nation privilege and oppressed nation oppression within U.$. borders. National oppression is the reason why these oppressive institutions of slavery, Jim Crow, and imprisonment keep coming back in different forms in the U.$., and national liberation is the only solution.
How to Change the System
Alexander highlights the economic consequences of cutting prisons which show the strong financial investment that Amerikans have overall in this system: "If four out of five people were released from prison, far more than a million people could lose their jobs."(p. 218) This estimation doesn't include the private sector: private prisons, manufacturers of police and guard weapons, etc.
To her credit, Alexander understands that small reformist attacks on the criminal injustice system won't put an end to the systematic oppression: "A civil war had to be waged to end slavery; a mass movement was necessary to bring a formal end to Jim Crow. Those who imagine that far less is required to dismantle mass incarceration and build a new, egalitarian racial consensus reflecting a compassionate rather than punitive impulse towards poor people of color fail to appreciate the distance between Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream and the ongoing racial nightmare for those locked up and locked out of American society."(p. 223)
The problem with this analysis is that it fails to extrapolate what's really necessary to make change sufficient to create an egalitarian society. In fact, these very examples demonstrate the ability of the Amerikan imperialists to adapt and change their approach to national oppression: slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration. Alexander seems to see this when she talks about what will happen if the movement to end mass incarceration doesn't address race: "Inevitably a new system of racialized social control will emerge - one that we cannot foresee, just as the current system of mass incarceration was not predicted by anyone thirty years ago."(p. 245) But she stops short of offering any useful solutions to "address race" in this fight.
Alexander argues that affirmative action and the token advancement of a few Blacks has served as a racial bribe rather than progress, getting them to abandon more radical change.(p. 232) She concludes that the Black middle class is a product of affirmative action and would disappear without it.(p. 234) "Whereas black success stories undermined the logic of Jim Crow, they actually reinforce the system of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration depends for its legitimacy on the widespread belief that all those who appear trapped at the bottom actually chose their fate."(p. 235)
This is a good point: successful reformism often ends with a few token bribes in an attempt to stop a movement from making greater demands. And this is not really success. But short of revolution, there is no way to successfully end national oppression. And so Alexander's book concludes on a weak note as she tries to effect a bold and radical tone and suggest drastic steps are needed but offers no concrete suggestions about what these steps should be. She ends up criticizing everything from affirmative action to Obama but then pulling back and apologizing for these same institutions and individuals. This is the hole that reformists are stuck in once they see the mess that is the imperialist Amerikan system.
It's not impossible to imagine circumstances under which the Amerikan imperialists would want to integrate the oppressed nations within U.$. borders into white nation privilege. This could be advantageous to keep the home country population entirely pacified and allow the imperialists to focus on plunder and terrorism in the Third World. But we would not consider this a success for the oppressed peoples of the world.
A progressive movement against national oppression within U.$. borders must fight alongside the oppressed nations of the world who face even worse conditions at the hands of Amerikan imperialism. These Third World peoples may not face mass incarceration, but they suffer from short lifespans due to hunger and preventable diseases as well as the ever-present threat of death at the hands of Amerikan militarism making the world safe for capitalist plunder.
Set in the year 2161, In Time is a science fiction film portraying a world where people stop aging when they hit 25 years old. At that point they have one year of life in their bank, and living time has become the currency instead of money. When a person's time runs out they die instantly, and so rich people have lots of time, while poor people live in ghettos, living day to day, barely earning enough to survive another 24 hours. Poor people literally have to rush around to earn enough time to survive, eat and pay their bills, while rich people can waste time relaxing or doing nothing, without fear of death.
This movie has a solid proletarian premise with the few rich bourgeois people living at the expense of the poor masses. "For a few immortals to live many people must die." The movie's hero, Will Salas, learns that there is plenty of time for everyone from a wealthy man who is ready to die and transfers all his remaining time to Will in order to commit suicide. Will decides to use this time to seek revenge and end the brutal rule of the time rich.
When Will buys his way into New Greenwich where the rich live entirely separate from the poor masses, he meets a young woman, Sylvia, who suggests that rich people don't really live because they spend all their time trying to avoid accidental death. This is not a bad point to make: capitalism's culture is bad for everyone, including the bourgeoisie. But the case of Sylvia is a pretty good example of what happens in real life: only a very few of the bourgeoisie will commit class suicide and join the proletarian cause and the youth are the most likely to do this.
Sylvia and Will set out to steal time from Sylvia's father's companies and redistribute the wealth to the poor people. They plan to distribute time in such large quantities so as to bring the entire system down. This is where the politics of the movie fall apart. Capitalism will not be ended with a quick massive redistribution of wealth liberated from the banks by a few focoist fighters.
The In Time world includes police who enforce the system. The Timekeepers work for the wealthy to ensure the poor never escape their oppression. But the Timekeepers seem to have very limited resources and staff so it's not so difficult for two people to out run and out smart them. And except for one key Timekeeper, the others are happy enough to just give up and stop defending the rich. Under capitalism the ruling class understands the importance of militarism to maintain their position and they won't trust enforcement to just a few cops.
In another interesting parallel, In Time includes a few characters who play the part of the lumpen, stealing time from the poor. At one point, the leader of this lumpen group explains that the Timekeepers leave them alone because they don't try to steal from the rich.
History has plenty of examples of a few focoists setting out to take back wealth to help the people and ending up in prison or dead, often bringing more repression down on themselves and the masses. A quick action to liberate money from banks will not put an end to the system of imperialist repression. True and lasting liberation will only come from a protracted struggle organizing the oppressed masses to fight and overthrow the imperialist system.
The other major political flaw of In Time is the complete lack of any parallel to the national oppression that inevitably exists under imperialism. In the movie the oppressed and the wealthy are mostly white. There are a few Blacks and people who might be other nationalities among the oppressed, but they all are oppressed equally. National distinctions have disappeared and class oppression is all that exists. While this is a fine science fiction premise, we fear that the Amerikan petty bourgeois audience will see in this movie false parallels to life in the U.$. where workers actually have more in common with the time rich people than the poor in the movie. The reason for this, found in imperialism and the superexploitation of colonial people, doesn't exist anywhere in this movie. And with an audience that likes to consider itself part of the 99% oppressed, this movie is going to reinforce this mistake of ignoring the global context of imperialism.
Helping Prison Activists Stay Active on the Streets
MIM(Prisons) has spent years trying to build the Re-Lease on Life program for prisoners coming back to the streets. Our goal is to help prisoner activists stay politically active when they are no longer incarcerated. An important component of this is helping our comrades to set up stable life situations that won't lead them back to prison. As most of our readers know, this is very challenging, demonstrated by the recidivism rate of 43% within the first 3 years post-release in Amerika.(1)
While in prison, people have a unique opportunity of having much time on their hands to study and engage in political organizing. While prison oppression certainly interferes with daily life, the structure of prison and this same oppression enables and in fact encourages political activism. When prisoners are released they face the difficulties of meeting their basic necessities, and dealing with people in random and complex settings, often after years of isolation. And with discrimination against people with a prison record, things like housing and a job can be very difficult to find. Consumed with day to day life issues, it becomes much more difficult for former prisoners to stay active on the streets.
As hard as those challenges are, the primary barrier to reaching our goal is preparing people mentally to deal with these challenges and prioritize serving the people. Even those with a stable home and support on the streets struggle to stay politically active. They are often pulled back into street life with their LO. Other times, their free time is taken up by friends and family who have an expectation of consuming free time with destructive behavior like alcohol, drugs, or just wasted time watching TV.
Part of MIM(Prisons)'s Re-Lease Program involves reaching out to prisoners well before they are expected to hit the streets, and working with them to build a study program and a release plan. If you hope to stay out of prison and support the struggle after you get released, having a strong political education is a vital piece for staying on track.
It is never too early to start preparing for continued activism outside the walls. We've seen too many solid politically active comrades disappear once they get out and are faced with the realities of getting by on the streets.
MIM(Prisons) has very limited resources and we cannot offer the kind of release support that is needed in the United $tates. Instead, we focus on working with our comrades who are active behind bars and who show a commitment to stay politically active when they hit the streets. This means we want to work with you now, both to satisfy some general study requirements, and put together a release plan that will help ease the transition to the streets. If you want our support, we need yours.
Requirements for participating in MIM(Prisons)'s Re-Lease on Life Program include:
Creating a realistic post-release plan for both practical living needs and political involvement
Participating in required study programs behind bars
Undertaking political work while in prison
Planning for both contact and political work once on the streets
Prisoners who do these things are offered our resources and support to help stay politically active and focused on the streets. Keep in mind that we can't offer housing or a job, but we can provide support, help finding resources, and most importantly a strong tie to maintain political sanity and activism.
We work with our comrades to develop a plan for what sorts of political work can be done after release. On the outside there is a lot more freedom to do political organizing, but it's also harder in some ways. There is no longer all the free time there was in prison, and there is not the same level of political interest among the people on the streets. And we know it's hard to walk away from the temptations or difficulties of street life.
This program needs help to expand. We need people who are expecting release in the next few years to get in touch with us to work on a release plan. And we are collecting stories from our comrades who have been out and back in about the challenges they faced trying to stay politically active on the streets. This will be the focus of an upcoming issue of Under Lock & Key, so send us your submissions soon!
This report addressed the dramatic growth of "supermax" confinement facilities in the United $tates over the past three decades and highlights the conditions of torture and violations of domestic and international law. As an introduction to long-term isolation in U.$. prisons, and an overview of relevant laws and cases, this report is an excellent resource.
The report cites estimates that 80,000 prisoners "...endure conditions of extreme sensory deprivation for months or years on end, an excruciating experience in which the prisoner remains isolated from any meaningful human contact." Articles in Under Lock & Key regularly testify to this torture that prisoners face in long-term isolation. The authors point out that estimates are widely varying and total numbers of people in supermax is not known. MIM(Prisons) has conducted our own survey to collect statistics on prisoners in control units and we estimate there are close to 110,000 prisoners currently in long-term isolation.
The authors correctly conclude about these torturous conditions: "The policy of supermax confinement, on the scale which it is currently being implemented in the United States, violates basic human rights." Though MIM(Prisons) would question how this policy would be ok if the scale was smaller. This "scale" caveat is possible because the authors fail to address the system that determines who gets locked up in isolation and why they are put there.
As a part of an overview of relevant legal cases and laws, the report notes that the courts have failed to address this torture, which the authors consider a violation of the Eighth Amendment: "As long as a prisoner receives adequate food and shelter, the extreme sensory deprivation that characterizes supermax confinement will, under current case law, almost always be considered within the bounds of permissible treatment." They demonstrate some of the legal difficulties in proving an Eighth Amendment violation, including the added legal burden of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) which requires prisoners to show physical injury before bringing an action for injury suffered in custody.
The authors describe how supermax confinement violates international law based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture, among others. They note that international law has not been a factor for U.$. courts in these cases and call for change in this regard.
The report concludes with the following recommendations:
1. The provision in the PLRA providing that inmate plaintiffs may not recover damages "without a prior showing of physical injury" should be repealed; 2. Prisoners with serious mental illness should never be subjected to supermax confinement; 3. Conditions of extreme isolation and restriction should be imposed only when an extremely serious threat to prison safety has been established, and even in such circumstances supermax confinement should be for the shortest time possible and inmates should be afforded due process, and an opportunity to contest the confinement and appeal; 4. Any form of segregated housing should provide meaningful forms of mental, physical and social stimulation; and 5. A national task force should be established to promptly report on the numbers of inmates being held in supermax confinement in state and federal prisons and their conditions of confinement, and to propose further legislative and administrative reforms.
As humynists, we say long-term isolation is torture and it should be abolished immediately. And as we've discussed elsewhere, we disagree with point 2 as a campaign in that it justifies the use of torture against the strongest resisters while misconstruing the real relationship between long-term isolation and mental illness.
If implemented, the Committee's recommendations would certainly reduce the number of prisoners suffering in long-term isolation, and are therefore progressive recommendations for a Bar Association that works within the injustice system that uses supermax confinement as a tool of social control. But this very system, which they point out has demonstrated its willingness to ignore the law and act outside of standards of common decency set out by the Eighth Amendment, certainly cannot be trusted to determine "when an extremely serious threat to prison safety has been established."
The authors ignore the broader context of supermax confinement and its use in the United $tates. As we report in an article on the history of control units: "The truth behind the reasons these control units are needed is they are a means of political, economic and social control of a whole class of oppressed and disenfranchised people. These include especially African, Latino and indigenous people who are a disproportionate part of control unit populations." Prisons in the United $tates are a breeding ground for resistance to the system that unjustly locks up segments of its population, and supermax units are required to further control the inevitable education and organizing that takes place among those who come face to face with the criminal injustice system.
While this report is useful for both the legal citations and the study of the harms caused by long-term isolation, it is important that we put it in the broader context of the criminal injustice system and understand that supermax torture cannot be reformed away within this system. We hope to make some significant improvements which will have a particular impact on the lives of our politically active comrades behind bars who are targeted for lockup in these isolation cells. And in that battle we unite with the NY Bar Association and many others who clearly see the injustice and inhumanity of supermax isolation.
Prisoners interested in a copy of this report should contact the New York City Bar Association at 42 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036.
Recent demonstrations in U.$. cities have claimed to represent "the 99%" opposed to the greed of the richest 1%. MIM(Prisons) supports a more equitable distribution of the world's resources. What most Amerikans don't realize is that a true redistribution of wealth would mean less for them as they are all part of the richest 13%.
In 1970 an action similar in form to Occupy Wall Street! (OWS!) occurred in response to the assassination of students at Kent State University. In response, a local union rampaged through the street beating the students and attacking state offices. Reflecting on this event, a radio host implied OWS! was evidence of progress, measured by the union support it has received.
The material conditions of the U.$. invasion of Vietnam forced Amerikan youth at that time to take a more progressive position than today, leading them to come at odds with white nationalist unions. The OWS! actions are even more within the realm of white nationalism than the so-called "Battle in Seattle" in 1999 where anarchists and environmentalists linked arms with unions to oppose the World Trade Organization. Only the likes of MIM and J. Sakai recognized the reactionary white nationalism that anti-WTO sentiments were being focused into within the Amerikan context. Yet, at least the anarchists had a healthy dose of internationalism motivating them back then.
With OWS! the principal cry is "defend the Amerikan middle class." While anarchists are attracted to the form (spokes councils and consensus open to "the people") the content is hopelessly white nationalist. It is the exact type of rhetoric that the social democrats of post-depression Europe spit that led to the rise of fascism in many countries.(1) When the privileged nations of the world feel their privilege is threatened they become uncharacteristically politicized in their demands for more. They attack the ultra-rich in order to create the illusion that they are poor in comparison. But facts are stubborn things, and the interests of Amerikans lead them to cry for the ultra-rich to defend Amerikan jobs and back the massive lines of credit they have taken out. Both demands are incompatible with the struggle for migrant rights, which has been in vogue among the white nationalist left in recent years.
MIM always said if real economic hard times hit the imperialist countries, we would see a rise of fascism more than an interest in Maoism. We say this not to instill fear and arouse emotions but to promote a realistic assessment of conditions. Amerikan youth are the ones who put their bodies on the line in Seattle and now in New York and elsewhere. Because of the decades of life they have ahead of them, young people have more interest than their parents in transforming this world to a more equitable one. But to do so they must see things for what they are and get behind the real forces for progressive change.