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.
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 $tates, and ultimately put an end to Amerikanism. Selling those struggles out to the interests of the Amerikan labor movement will not serve the interests of the First World lumpen.
The Western press often aims the disparaging term "labor camps" at Asia and the former socialist countries of the world. Yet, with the largest prison population in the world, it should not be surprising that it is the Amerikans who have more prisoners working for them than any other nation. And their labor subsidizes the cost for Amerikans to maintain a highly structured and institutionalized system of national oppression in this country.
While prisons do "cost" taxpayers money, Amerikans benefit directly, indirectly and psychologically from the criminal injustice system. There is a lot of money being made off the system, not by exploiting prisoner labor, but in the form of public employee salaries. In Pennsylvania, for instance, prison guards are among the state's highest paid employees.(1) And in many states these jobs are so important, the guard unions will successfully fight against any prison closures, even when there aren't enough prisoners to fill the cells. Meanwhile, prisoners are doing much of the maintenance work in these institutions, for little or no pay. In the vast majority of U.$. 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 so 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 $tates are close to the means of production. Therefore it is not the role of the prison movement to seize the means of production, as it is for the proletariat. It is our role to build independent institutions of the oppressed. And this has often meant seizing institutions like churches, schools and even prisons in the examples of Attica and Walpole. Ultimately, such acts must build support for larger movements for national liberation. Prisoners have an important role to play in these movements because they are one of the most oppressed segments of the internal semi-colonies. But they cannot achieve liberation alone.
U.$. 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 political 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 waste 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 cases.
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 - Blackwater River Correctional Facility
ULK 56 was rejected because "It otherwise presents a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the correctional system or the safety of any person."
Florida - New River Work Camp
ULK 59 was impounded because "It contains an advertisement promoting any of the following where the advertisement is the focus of, rather than being incidental to, the publication or the advertising is prominent or prevalent throughout the publication: (1) Three-way calling services; (2) Pen pal services; (3) The purchase of products or services with postage stamps; or (4) Conducting a business or profession while incarcerated.
"It otherwise presents a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the correctional system or the safety of any person.
"PG2: stamp program advertisement"
Illinois - Pontiac Correctional Center
The publication review officer sent a long response to our appeal of censorship which noted that no reasons were given for the censorship:
Per the Publication Review Administrative Directive and the associated Department of Corrections Publication Review Determination and Course of Action form (DOC0212), any publication may be disapproved based on a number of criteria. In this case, the issue in question contains various articles that violate the following criteria:
- Advocate or encourage violence, hatred, or group disruption or it poses an intolerable risk of violence or disruption.
Below are specific articles and excerpts from those articles that are provided as evidence to the appropriateness of this determination. All examples are pulled from the above mention September/October 2017 issue 58 of Under Lock & Key.
1. Page 8 Article DPRK: White Supremacy's Global Agenda
- "The United States and all major countries of European descent have done everything in their collective power to keep these (nuclear) weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of nations, governments and people of color or hue."
Encourage Racial Division
-"These global white supremacists have done everything they could to destabilize nation's governments that they could not control by creating borders on foreign continents, setting up puppet governments (often dictators like Saddam Hussein and Benjamin Netanyahu who use war as a distraction of their individual greed)..." Encourages Racial Division
-"Yet the media is far more dangerous than any of the ones before mentioned, due to its ability to influence the minds of those not fully conscious of the reality of being controlled by the designers of the Global White Supremacy Agenda." Encourage Racial Division
Page 10 Article Organizing Requires Organization: Proposed Structures for Success
- Political workers to inform and agitate within the state by promoting and organizing protest, phone calls and correspondence to state law makers, DOC commissioners and prison wardens and superintendents about complaints, proposed laws and policies to be adopted by the state officials."Promotes Unauthorized Protests
2. Page 11 Article: Arbitrary Group Punishment
- "MIM(Prisons) adds: In July 2013 prisoners at MDF staged a hunger strike from Ad-Seg. We support these comrades just demands, which ally with ongoing campaigns to end long-term isolation as well as to provide proper avenues for having grievances heard."Promotes Unauthorized Protests
3. Page 12 Article: Defend LGBTQ from CO Attacks
- "It's hard to get 10 comrades to stand together as a whole so when a member from the LGBTQ community got jumped on and 30 comrades refused to leave the classrooms I was shocked."
- "MIM(Prisons) responds: This is a great example of people coming together behind bars." Promotes Unauthorized Protests
4. Page 13 Article: September 9 - Day of Peace and Solidarity Initial Reports
- "9 September 2017 marked the sixth annual Day of Peace and Solidarity in prisons across the United States. On this day we commemorate the anniversary of the Attica uprising, drawing attention to abuse of prisoners across the country through peaceful protests, unity events, and educational work."
Article contains further examples from 5 prisons in Arkansas, Texas, California, Nevada, and Arizona where prisoners initiated hunger strikes and unauthorized protests. Promotes Unauthorized Protests
I believe the articles mentioned above provide enough evidence to show that Issue 58 of Under Lock & Key "contains various articles promoting racial division and unauthorized protest," and therefore met the criteria for being disapproved.
Additionally, after reviewing the issue a second time, I found this article:
Page 14 article: A Contribution to Thoughts on Unity and Alliance
- "MIM(Prisons) espouses a valid conviction that here and now is not the proper moment for a popular uprising (armed struggle."
- "How do we succeed in armed confrontation?"
- "MIM(Prisons) responds: Of course we know that ultimately to overthrow imperialism armed struggle is necessary." Promotes Violent Uprising
MIM(Prisons) provides on page 3 of Issue 58 that they believe in "Peace: We organize to end needless conflicts and violence within the U.$. prison environment." However, the implication of the page 14 article is that MIM(Prisons) believes that eventually an armed struggle must be initiated to overthrow what they perceive as the imperialist colonial government running the country and world. This is provided as evidence that MIM(Prisons) has an ulterior motive in promoting unrest and eventual violent protest within the prison system, which is another example as to why this issue was disapproved.
C/O David Meredith, Publication Review Officer
Washington - Clallam Bay Correctional Facility
MIM(prisons) was sent rejection notifications for two prisoners denying ULK 59 because it "Contains articles and information on drugs in prisons and the cost comparison of inside and outside of prison as well as movement of drugs."
Victory in Washington - Stafford Creek Corrections Center
In response to our protest of the prison's censorship of ULK 59 we received the following response from Roy Gonzalez, Correctional Manager:
I'm in receipt of your two correspondences appealing the rejection of the above two notices for inmates XXX and YYY dated January 21, 2018.
Per Washington State DOC policy 450.100 all publications rejected by any DOC correctional facility will be reviewed by the Publication Review Committee at DOC Headquarters. Mail Rejection Notice number 18346 was reviewed on January 8, 2018 and was overturned by the committee. The publication issue has since been forwarded to each offender. A copy of the final decision notice should be forthcoming to you from Stafford Creek Correctional Center (SCCC).
This issue of ULK is refocusing on an ongoing debate we've held in these pages of the role "sex offenders" can, or can't, play in our revolutionary organizing. Many of our subscribers see "sex offenders" as pariahs just by definition of their conviction, yet we also receive letters from "sex offenders" with plenty of interest in revolutionary organizing. How/can we reconcile this contradiction? This is what this issue of ULK explores.
As you read through subscribers' article submissions and our responses on this topic, you'll see some common themes, some of which have been summarized below. This article also is an attempt to provide a snapshot of where we are now on this question, and suggest some aspects of our organizing that need to be developed more deeply.
The "Sex Offender" Label
There are three groups that are discussed throughout this issue that need to be distinguished.
People who have committed crimes by proletarian standards, but have not been convicted of them (i.e. Donald Trump, people whose sexual assaults go unreported, prisoner bullies, etc.). These people are not called "sex offenders" according to the state's definition.
People convicted of being "sex offenders" who didn't commit a crime by proletarian standards (i.e. people labeled as "sex offenders" for pissing in public).
People who are convicted as "sex offenders" by the state, for behaviors that would also be considered crimes by proletarian standards (i.e. physical assault, pimping, etc.).
Throughout this issue the term "sex offender" is used to mean any one of those categories, or all three. It's muddled, and we should be more clear on our terminology moving forward. By the state's definition, the term does include some benign behaviors such as pissing in public (group 2); crimes which are convicted in a targeted manner disproportionately against members of oppressed nations. So we put the term "sex offender" in quotes because it is the official term that the state uses, and it includes people who have not committed anti-people (anti-proletarian) sex-crimes. Under a system of revolutionary justice, people in group 2 would need no more rehabilitation than your average persyn on the street.
We cannot trust the state to tell us what "crimes" someone has committed, and this is true for sex offenses as much as anything else. This country has a long history of locking up oppressed-nation men on the false accusation of raping white wimmin, generally to put these men "in their place." We have printed many letters from people locked up for "sex offenses" but who have not committed terrible acts against people.
Interestingly, most of our subscribers know there are many falsely-convicted prisoners in all other categories of crime, and they readily believe that many are innocent. But when the state labels someone a "sex offender" that persyn becomes a pariah without question. This is an important thing for us to challenge as it represents, to us, a patriarchal way of thinking in prison culture. Usually it is paired with rhetoric about the need to protect helpless wimmin and children and is just a different expression of patriarchal norms: in this case the non-"sex offender" playing protector-man by attacking anyone labeled "sex offender."
Why don't we see this with people with murder convictions? Isn't killing someone also a horrifying act that should not be tolerated? And why is sexual physical assault in prison allowed to proliferate? In the 1970s, Men Against Sexism was a group organizing in Washington state against prison rape, and they effectively ended prison rape in that state.(1) Statistics show that people "convicted of a sexual offense against a minor"(2) are more likely to be sexually assaulted in prison. Are the people who are "delivering justice" to these "sex offenders" then cast out as pariahs? Why is the state's label, and not people's actual behavior, given so much validity? These are questions United Struggle from Within comrades need to dig into much deeper.
Anti-people crimes include many different behaviors, from complacency with capitalism and imperialism, to extreme and deliberate acts of reactionary violence. Anti-people crimes include manufacturing and selling pornography, illegal drugs, and even alcohol and cigarettes, much of which is legal or at least permissible in our Liberal capitalist society. And it includes all sadistic physical assault, which would include all forms of sexual assault.
From our perspective, this discussion has raised more clearly for us the importance of not glorifying or fostering positive images of any types of anti-people violence among prisoners. Sometimes folks from lumpen organizations hold up their history of reactionary violence as a badge of honor and we need to criticize that, just like we need to be critical of any positive or even neutral discussion of sexual violence. But we still can't take the labels from the criminal injustice system as the reason for this criticism. Those locked up on protective custody yards for sexual assault convictions don't merit this criticism merely for their PC status. That gets into the realm of "no investigation, no right to speak" because we can't take the injustice system's labels as sufficient evidence.
Anti-people behavior of all kinds is unacceptable both within and around the revolutionary movement. Our challenge is in the fact that we are not currently in a position to investigate individuals' crimes. In truth the change needed from all of us is impossibly difficult without a revolutionary government and culture to back it up. As revolutionaries, we all do the best we can to fight external influences and keep our lives on a positive track so we can be contributing revolutionaries. But there is a difference between people with class/nation/gender backgrounds that will lead to counter-revolutionary thoughts and actions, and those who commit anti-people crimes. Where to draw the line between what we can deal with today and what we put off until after we have a revolutionary government in power is not a clear and easy question to answer.
In our current conditions, we have to ask ourselves, for instance, what about the persyn who commits violence as a part of eir job (say selling drugs) but then spends eir spare time building the revolutionary movement? There's a clear contradiction between these two practices. Do we dismiss eir revolutionary work entirely as a result, or do we consider em an ally while we struggle against eir reactionary violence? The answer to this will come from the masses, and not from abstract revolutionary principle.
In the real world, perhaps we don't need to make this comparison. If someone in a revolutionary organization engaged in some sort of non-sexual extreme anti-people violence the organization would need to address this directly. The intervention would at least include independent investigation and calls for self-criticism, and if an individual doesn't recognize their error and take serious steps to correct their line and practice they could be ejected from the organization. It could also include other interventions, based on the organization's needs, skills, and resources.
Any anti-people violence is going to harm the movement, and of course the people it is directed against, and so perpetrators of these actions should not be a part of our revolutionary organizations. We will still struggle with those who have class and/or national interests aligned with the revolutionary movement but who are acting out extreme anti-people violence. But until they understand why what they did/do is wrong and demonstrate change in their practice, they should not be admitted into revolutionary organizations.
Sex-Crimes vs. Other Crimes
One argument for why sexual violence should be distinguished from non-sexual violence could be that gender is the principal contradiction within any revolutionary movement that admits people of all genders, and we need to deal with it differently within our organizations. For example, we have contemplated the value of separate-gender organizations because of this contradiction, though to date we have not advocated this solution.
Another argument could be that victims of sexual violence in imperialist countries are more likely to take up revolutionary politics, fueled by their experience of gender oppression. And because of the pervasiveness of sexual assault in imperialist countries, we will end up with a lot of
revolutionaries, mostly bio-females, who have experienced sexual violence.
This could again raise gender to a principal contradiction within imperialist-country movements because of the traumatic background of so many members. It becomes a contradiction the movement has to deal with (when any patriarchal violence arises within the movement), and one of the greatest propellants forward on gender questions.
Neither of these principal contradiction arguments make a case for a significant distinction between sexual and non-sexual anti-people violence in the abstract. Rather they are relevant in terms of of how our organizations need to deal with the problems. And in both cases it has to do with the people within the movement's perception of these types of violence.
Applying this same concept to organizing in the hyper-masculine prison environment, it may make sense to exclude "sex offenders" from our projects because of the pervasive anti-"sex offender" attitude among prisoners. However, we already discussed above that we're not using the state's definitions of crime. If revolutionary prisoners determine a need to exclude people who have specifically committed sexually violent anti-people crimes from their organization, to maintain organizational strength, they should do this. But of course this is different from excluding "sex offenders." (group 2)
In dealing with sex-crimes accusations, the primary difference between organizing people on the streets and organizing in prisons is the presence of an accuser. With prisoners, we don’t generally interact with an accuser, we just have a label from the criminal injustice system. Though certainly prison-based organizations will have to deal with accusers in the case of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults. This prison-based situation is more similar to the situation in organizations on the streets where a member brings up an accusation against another member.
And in the case of prisoners, like the Central Park 5, some "sex offenders" did not even have an accuser on the street. The survivor of the assault had no recollection of the event. The state picked out these 5 young New Afrikan men to target, to set an example and vilify New Afrikans in the media. They were later all acquitted.
Whereas on the streets, or when organizing inside with non-"sex offender" prisoners who have survived sexual violence, we are almost always going to be directly interfacing with the survivors.
While we are here minimizing the state's definition of "sex offender," we in no way mean to minimize the accusations of victims of sexual violence. In general society, false accusations are statistically rare, and the best practice is to put substantial weight on the validity of accusations of sex-crimes.(3)
Anecdotally, we've seen a high prevalence of sexual violence survivors attracted to revolutionary work. It's easy to see why people who have experienced the ugliest gender oppression in our society would be drawn to revolutionary organizing. Suffering often breeds resistance.
Within revolutionary movements, the rate of false accusations is in all likelihood more common than in the general population. This is because the state will use any method imaginable to tear us down, especially from the inside out. Many comrades have been taken down from false sex-crime accusations from the state or agent provocateurs. We need to build structures in to our organizations that protect against state attacks, and simultaneously hold the claims of victims in high regard, not just of sex-crimes but of any anti-people behavior that could come up internally. This process will vary organization-to-organization, but our internal strength comes in preparation. Not only by creating a process to follow in case something does come up, but also in creating a culture, and even including membership policies, that prevent it from even happening in the first place.
These principles and processes need development and input from organizations that already have them in place and have used them. This is definitely not a new concept to revolutionary organizations and radical circles, and even with all that practice under our belt there are still many unanswered questions. Some basic practices might include: un-muddling the relationships between comrades (i.e. no dating within the org) and establishing and practicing communication methods and skills to create cultural norms for preventing chauvinistic behaviors and addressing these behaviors when they do arise.
How we handle this process now in our cell structure will be different if a cell has 2 members versus 2,000 members. The process will need to be adapted for different stages of the struggle as well, such as when we have dual power, and then again when the Joint Dictatorship of the Proletariat of the Oppressed Nations has power. And on and on, adapting our methods into a stateless communism.
Even with policies in place, we have limited means of combating chauvinism, assault allegations and other unforeseen organizational problems endemic to the left. Rather than wave off these contradictions, or put them out of sight (or cover them up, like so many First World-based parties and organizations have done), we need to build institutions that protect those who are oppressed by gender violence.
Potential for Punishment
We do not yet have the means at our disposal to deal with crimes against the people as thoroughly as we would like. To do that, we would indeed need institutions tantamount to state power. If found guilty, the most we can do is issue expulsions, orders of isolation, and disseminate warnings privately to anyone in the movement who might be endangered by the offender. The principle of these measures is the isolation and (hopefully) separation from the anti-imperialist movement of personalities that not only put comrades in physical danger, but through their violent and narcissistic habits (seeking validation, circumventing investigations, denying rectification) leave the movement open to plants and pigs who have never passed up the opportunity to use such unstable personalities as entry points. The individuals we are most interested in excluding are those who have not only committed anti-people acts, but who continue to pose active physical risks to the movement and individual comrades. In all cases which can be addressed without expulsion, we certainly encourage thorough and continual self-criticism and rectification.
Regardless of the crime though, there is almost no way MIM(Prisons) could investigate any of the crimes committed by people behind bars. We have had subscribers write to us to tell us another of our subscribers is a rat or sexual predator, and we've had people write to us who do say their conviction is true. One could make an argument that we need to ask prisoners to make a self-criticism that demonstrates that they now understand what they did was wrong, and we should do more to encourage this. But if someone doesn't admit to the crime ey is accused of, then we are at a loss.
In organizing through the mail, the most we can do is note an accusation as something to potentially be aware of for the future. If we saw this manifest in the accused subscriber's actions interacting with MIM(Prisons), or other prisoners, then we would consider cutting off contact or taking other measures to exclude em from our organizing work. The amount of resources required, and the risk of state meddling, to conduct an investigation on guilt and enforce punishment, brings us back to our line that practice must be principal in our recruiting. Comrades demonstrate in practice their commitment to the movement and their political line, and that is the best thing we have to judge them on from the outside.
Potential for Rehabilitation
How should we handle people who have committed sex-crimes by proletarian standards when they do want to continue to participate in revolutionary organizing? Should they be banned from organizing with us (which is basically how "sex offenders" are treated in prisons now)? Or relegated to the role of "supporter" only, and not member? Should we avoid organizing with them altogether, or can we work with them in united front work? Or are people who have committed sex-crimes an exception to our work building a United Front for Peace in Prisons?
Defining what we need to trust people to do (or not do) is a decent starting point. Assessing whether these tasks can be trusted to someone with a particular behavioral history is then possible. This would be true of any crime. For example, if someone had laundered money from a people's support organization in the past, it would be difficult to trust em as the treasurer of a revolutionary org. Many checks would need to be built into place in order for this persyn to be trusted to do bookkeeping, and probably it's a better use of our limited time and resources to just not have them doing the bookkeeping at all.
Whether we can actually build in these checks and balances for any crime will depend a lot on the crime itself. For example, we organize with a lot of former-gangbangers, who have a history of committing sexual violence in the context of their lumpen-criminal activities. If this was the only context in which someone engaged in sexual violence, and they have very thoroughly engaged in a self-criticism process about eir time banging, then it's reasonable to expect that if ey's not banging that ey is most likely not committing sexual violence. On the other hand, if someone committed sexual violence in the context of molesting people simply because they are weaker than em, for sadistic pleasure or eir twisted perspective of "love", we may not have resources or expertise at this time to reform these people before we destroy our current patriarchal capitalist society.
In discussing rehabilitation of people who have committed anti-people sex-crimes, we also find it useful to examine the social causes of why people commit sex-crimes in the first place. MIM(Prisons)'s analysis is that people commit these horrible acts because they are raised in our horrible patriarchal, militaristic, power-hungry, individualistic, capitalist society. Part of our challenge is we can't remove people from this society without first destroying the society. So can we expect someone who is so deeply affected by our fucked up society to also deeply heal to the point where we can trust em with whatever is needed for our struggle? Any sadistic anti-people activity will require extreme rehabilitation, which we may just not be in a position to assist with at this time. We can and should encourage self-criticism for past errors from those serious about revolution. But from a distance (through mail) our ability to help and foster this self-criticism is greatly limited.
On 15 March 2018, MIM(Prisons) received dozens of emails from corrlinks.com, a website used by some U.$. prison systems to provide email access to prisoners. All were from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and read in part:
"This message informs you that you have been blocked from communicating with the above-named federal prisoner because the Bureau has determined that such communication is detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the facility, or might facilitate criminal activity."
It has long been established that it is legal for staff to open and read mail sent into prisons, and to not allow such mail that might pose a threat to safety like communicating information on plans to hurt someone or commit a crime. Quite frequently, publications and even letters from MIM(Prisons) are censored by prison staff for being a threat to security. Legally, this must be based on the content of that mail or publication containing information that poses a direct threat. In practice it often is not, and sometimes we can fight those battles and win.
What the Federal Bureau of Prisons is trying to say here is that members of MIM(Prisons) are not allowed to communicate or associate with prisoners they hold captive, regardless of the content of those communications. This is of course a violation of U.$. law and founding principles. (for more background on related laws and court rulings see our censorship guide)
Such blanket bans have been attempted in the past. Sometimes openly like this one, or like the ban in California, which ended after an out-of-court settlement with Prison Legal News because, well, the CDCR knew what they were doing was illegal. MIM(Prisons) is submitting appeals to this and will update our readers. In the meantime our comrades in federal prisons should continue to contact us via postal mail and keep us updated on censorship on their end.
There have been some recent discussions around the use of electronic communications and devices within U.$. prisons and how comrades should approach them. While CorrLinks has been around for some time, more recently prisoners in many prisons can purchase tablet computers for persynal use. Just as we warn people in general about how they use these technologies, those warnings apply even more to prisoners. While the internet provides opportunities for anonymity and free flow of information, this is not really true for the services provided by the state to prisoners. So there is little benefit, and much risk in terms of surveillance and control over a persyn's communications from within prison when using these tools. Thanks to profiteering, we are not even aware of any email services for prisoners that don't charge ridiculous rates.
In general, technology does offer solutions, that are at times better than what we can achieve in real life interactions in terms of both security and thinking more scientifically. To look at some principles of communication that we can apply both online and off, we will look at Briar (briarproject.org). Briar is still in Alpha, and only currently available for Android OS, but has received promising security reviews so far. Briar is an interesting example, because it addresses decentralization, cryptography and anonymity.
One of the biggest problems with the internet today is the centralization that a handful of multinational corporations have made of the traffic on the internet by locking people into certain services. When it comes to email, prisoners have little choice but to use the CorrLinks, centralized service, and face potential bans like this one. On the internet, centralization of activity on certain platforms allows the corporations on those platforms to decide what a majority of the population is seeing, who they are communicating with and when they are no longer allowed to communicate. With Briar, in contrast, one does not even need an internet connection to set up a network of communication with your associates. And even with the internet, each client serves as a node on a decentralized network, so that there is no one powerful persyn who can decide to shut it down. This same principle is applied in real world organizing, where an organization is decentralized to avoid being paralyzed if an individual is removed or repressed.
On the internet, we also have a problem of information being available everywhere to almost anyone. It is only recently, with many hacks and data breeches, that people are beginning to realize that encryption is necessary to protect even peoples' basic information. Such information has been used to falsely imprison people, to steal identities, and to just target and harass people. In the real world, people know to talk quietly about certain things, or talk about plans for building peace when that C.O. who is always instigating fights isn't around, etc. On the internet there is the potential for all information to be available for an indefinite period of time, to potentially anyone. So suddenly everything needs to be said in a whisper, or in encrypted form as Briar and other software does.
Related to encryption is anonymity. Whenever one goes online, one must have an IP Address that tells the other machines on the network where you are so they can send you responses. This IP address (typically) is linked to a real world location and often to a specific machine. Previously we have talked about The Onion Router(Tor), which works to hide your IP Address. When on the internet, Briar operates through Tor, when connecting to others on the network. This provides for anonymity. Anonymity does not have as strong parallels in the real world, but might be like putting up fliers in the middle of the night or marching in a protest with a mask on. This is an advantage of the internet. If done properly, we can spread information anonymously, and without fear of reprisal. In addition, anonymity on the internet allows us to share information without the biases that we come across in real world interactions. The internet can be a tool for people to think more scientifically and judge ideas for their merit and not for who is saying them.
As the above example shows, we cannot trust the U.$. government to just obey its own laws and not repress people for their political beliefs. We must continue to stand up to such political repression, while building independent institutions of the oppressed that allow us to continue to organize for a better tomorrow.
by Soso of MIM(Prisons) March 2018 permalinkLocked In: the true causes of mass incarceration - and how to achieve real reform
by John F. Pfaff
2017 Basic Books
With over 2 million people behind bars, Amerikkka locks up more people per capita than any other nation in the world. But within this system of mass imprisonment there is an even more striking story of national oppression: New Afrikans locked up at 5 times the rate of whites, and [email protected] and First Nations also locked up at disproportionately high rates. We might hope that a book about the true causes of mass incarceration (and how to achieve real reform!) would address this discrepancy. But Pfaff, like all good bourgeois scholars, is focused on how to make capitalism work better. And so ey sweeps this whole issue under the rug in a book that offers some really good science and statistics on imprisonment. Here we will pull out the useful facts and frame them in a revolutionary context.
Overall Locked In does a good job of exposing some important facts and statistics often ignored by prison researchers. Pfaff attacks what ey calls the "Standard Story." This is the name ey gives to the common arguments anti-prison activists make, which ey believes are counter-productive to their (and eir own) goals of prison reform. Ey claims these arguments either over simplify, or are straight up wrong, about why we have so many prisoners in the United $tates, and as a result target the wrong solutions.
The big picture
Pfaff sometimes gets lost in the details and fails to look at the big picture. For instance, ey argues that "we are a nation of either 50 or 3,144 distinct criminal justice systems" talking about the big differences in how each state and even each county deals with prosecution, sentencing and prisons.(p. 16) While it is true there are significant differences, this thinking evades the importance of looking at the big picture that it's no coincidence that so many distinct counties/states have such high rates of imprisonment in this country. It's a good idea to examine state and county level differences, and learn lessons from this. But using this information in the interests of the oppressed requires an understanding of the underlying role of the Amerikkkan criminal injustice system in social control and national oppression, the topic Pfaff studiously avoids.
In one of eir rare references to the role that nation plays in the criminal injustice system in the United $tates, Pfaff bemoans that "Obviously, effecting 'cultural change' is a very difficult task."(p. 228) Ey entirely misses the fundamental national oppression going on in this country. To him it's just about attitudes and cultural change.
Pfaff does raise some good big picture questions that scientific capitalists and communists alike need to consider. Discussing the importance of balancing the cost of crime against the costs of enforcement Pfaff asks "what the optimal level of crime should be." "Why is crime control inherently more important than education or medical research or public health?" "What if a reduction in prison populations would allow 100,000 children with at least one parent in prison to now have both parents at home, but at a cost of a 5 percent rise in aggravated assaults (or even some number of additional murders) – is this a fair tradeoff, even assuming no other criminal justice benefits (like lower future offending rates among these children)?" But Pfaff notes that politicians in the United $tates are not able to talk about these things. Even Bernie Sanders's discussion of investing more in schools and less in prisons was in the context of reducing crime more efficiently. It's just not okay to say education should be prioritized over crime control.(p. 119) And so Pfaff concludes that we must work on reforms that can be implemented within this severely restricted political system. We see this as evidence that the system will never allow significant change.
Another place where Pfaff frames the larger context in useful and scientific ways is around the question of why people commit crimes. While ey dances around the social causes of crime, Pfaff offers some good analysis about how people age out of crime. And this analysis leads to eir position that we shouldn't be calling people "violent offenders" but instead just saying they have committed violent crimes. Data shows that most people commit crimes when young, and as they age they are far less likely to do so again.
Crime rates and imprisonment rates
Pfaff is a professor of law at Fordham University, and like people working within the capitalist system ey accepts the capitalist definitions of crime. This means ey ignores the biggest criminals: those conducting wars of aggression and plunder against other nations in the interests of profit. For the purposes of this review we will use the term crime as Pfaff does in eir book, to refer to bourgeois-defined crime.
Crime rates in the U.$. grew in the 1970s and early 1980s. Pfaff believes that "rising incarceration helped stem the rise in crime."(p. 10) Disappointingly ey doesn't put much work in to proving this thesis. But at least ey concedes that locking up more people may not have been the best response to rising crime.(p. 10) And ey goes on to note that crime rates continued to fall while prison populations also fell in later years: "Between 2010 and 2014, state prison populations dropped by 4 percent while crime rates declined by 10 percent – with crime falling in almost every state that scaled back incarceration."(p. 12) So even if locking up people in the 70s and 80s did curtail some crime, clearly there isn't a direct correlation between imprisonment rates and crime rates.
There was a drop in the number of prisoners in the United $tates between 2010 and 2014 (4%), but this was driven by California which made up 62% of the national decline. Outside of California, total prison populations fell by 1.9% during this same period. But at the same time total admissions rose by 1.1%. Pfaff cites this statistic in particular to point out a failure of prison reform efforts using the metric of total prison population. If the goal is to reduce the prison population overall, looking at the drop in people locked up will miss the fact that the total number of prisoners is actually rising!(p. 69) This is an important point as we know that prison has lasting effects on all who are locked up, as well as on their community, even if they are only serving short sentences.
War on Drugs is not driving prison growth
Disagreeing with the common argument that locking up low-level drug offenders is driving up the prison population, Pfaff points out that "only about 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges — and very few of them, perhaps only around 5 or 6 percent of that group, are both low level and nonviolent. At the same time, more than half of all people in state prisons have been convicted of a violent crime."(p. 5) So ey argues that targeting non-violent drug offenders is focusing on too small a population to make a significant impact.
Pfaff offers extensive data analysis to demonstrate that the number of people serving time for drug convictions just aren't enough to be a major driver of state prison growth. Ey does concede that "the single biggest driver of the decline in prison populations since 2010 has been the decrease in the number of people in prison for drug crimes. But focusing on drugs will only work in the short run. That it is working now is certainly something to celebrate. But even setting every drug offender free would cut our prison population by only 16 percent."(p. 35)
From this analysis Pfaff concludes that it is essential that prison reformers not avoid talking about violent crime. "From 1990 to 2009... about 60 percent of all additional inmates had been convicted of a violent offense."(p. 187) "[T]here are almost as many people in prison today just for murder and manslaughter as the total state prison population in 1974: about 188,000 for murder or manslaughter today, versus a total of 196,000 prisoners overall in 1974."(p. 185) And due to length of sentence, "Violent offenders take up a majority of all prison beds, even if they do not represent a majority of all admissions."(p. 188) So those serious about cutting back prisons will need to cut back on locking people up for violent crimes.
Length of sentence
Pfaff concludes that longer sentences are not the cause of rising imprisonment rates. This is the opposite of the common anti-prison activist position: "despite the nearly automatic assumption by so many that prison growth is due to ever-longer sentences, the main driver of growth, at least recently, has been steadily rising admissions for fairly short terms."(p. 74) "[M]ost people serve short stints in prison, on the order of one to three years, and there's not a lot of evidence that the amount of time spent in prison has changed that much — not just over the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, but quite possibly over almost the entire prison boom."(p. 6)
Pfaff does concede that official sentences, per statutes, have gotten longer, but ey claims time served has changed much less. At most average time served in state prisons increased by 36% between 1990 and 2009, which ey calls a small increase that can’t explain most of the prison growth over that time. (p. 58) Ey argues that tough sentencing laws are all about politics and legislator image, trying to look tough on crime. But they count on prosecutors not actually imposing the maximum punishments.
Private prisons vs public employees
We agree with Pfaff that private prisons don't play a very large role in the current Amerikan criminal injustice system. "Private spending and private lobbying ... are not the real financial and political engines behind prison growth. Public revenue and public-sector union lobbying are far more important."(p. 7) And ey correctly identifies "the real political powers behind prison growth are the public officials who benefit from large prisons: the politicians in districts with prisons, along with the prison guards who staff them and the public-sector unions who represent the guards."(p. 7)
Pfaff makes a compelling point: public prisons will act the same way private prisons act when facing the same contractual incentives. Ey goes on to argue that it might actually be better to expand private prisons but give them incentives for better performance, such as rewarding lack of recidivism.
It is public prison employees who are the strongest opponents of private prisons. This was seen in Florida where an attempt to privatize 27 prisons was killed after the public employees' union got a bunch of congresspeople to vote against the bill.(p. 87)
This strength of public prisons lobbying is also behind the fact that closing public prisons doesn't necessarily result in much savings because the unions will aggressively oppose any lost jobs. In Pennsylvania, the state closed two prisons in 2013 and laid off only three guards. In New York the prison population dropped by 25% since 1999 but they have not closed any prisons.(p. 88)
Pfaff concludes: "In other words, reformers should not really be concerned with the privateness of the PIC. They should worry that as prisons grow, the supporting bureaucracies — private and public alike — will grow as well, and they will fight against anything that jeopardizes their power and pay."(p. 91)
Pfaff is correct that private prisons are not driving incarceration rates. Actually, public employee wages are playing a much larger role. However, there are valid reasons to oppose privatization for reformers, or anyone who subscribes to a sense of humynism. In our bourgeois democracy, the law does provide for greater accountability of public institutions. Therefore, public prisons will generally allow less unnecessary suffering than private ones. Of course, neither privatization, nor the public sector can eliminate the oppression of the capitalist state that is meted out by the police and prisons. Yet, privatization of the state-sanctioned use of force only creates more problems for those working for progressive change.
Pfaff disagrees with the argument that a big driver behind the prison population is recidivism, specifically that lots of people are being sent back to prison for technical violations or small issues. Ey does find that in most states the number of parole conditions has gone up, from an average of 11 in 1982 to an average of 18 in 2008.(p. 62) But digging into recidivism more deeply, Pfaff cites a study that found that only about a third of people admitted to prison end up returning. And ey correctly notes that if the commonly cited Bureau of Justice Statistics claim of a 50% recidivism rate is wrong, this just means that even more people are ending up in prisons at some time in their lives. This is perhaps an even scarier story than the high recidivism rate because it means that even more lives are being ruined by prison.
States vs counties
Pfaff points out that the $50 billion that states spend on prisons is only about 3% of state spending. And as has been seen in examples above, the savings from decarceration are not that great if states can't actually close prisons or lay off guards. Also, releasing individual prisoners doesn't result in much savings because prisons work on an economy of scale. While we can calculate the average cost of incarceration per persyn, we can't translate that directly into savings when one persyn is released, because the entire infrastructure is still in place.(p. 99)
New York City actually did cut its prison population recently, along with a few other urban counties in New York. However, rural counties sent more people to prison so the overall impact was growth, not decreasing numbers of prisoners in New York.(p. 76) Similarly, higher crime rate areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco in California send relatively fewer people to prison compared to more rural counties which tend to be more conservative.(p. 77)
We touched on this urban vs. rural discrepancy in imprisonment rates in a recent article on national oppression in prison, suggesting that this could be the primary driver behind the (temporary?) drop in the discrepancy between incarceration rates of oppressed nations and whites. Since more whites are in the rural counties, statistically that's who is getting locked up if those counties are locking people up at a higher rate. Pfaff's data backs up our theory.
Prosecutors driving imprisonment
Pfaff argues compellingly that the primary driver behind the boom in prisoners in the past few decades is prosecutorial toughness: prosecutors are charging more people with more serious crimes. Prosecutors have a tremendous amount of latitude. They can determine the charges brought against people, which in turn drives the level of seriousness of the crime and potential sentences. They can also decide when to take a plea and what to offer in the plea.
To prove the impact of prosecutors, Pfaff cites data between 1991 and 2014 when crime rates were falling. During this period the arrest rates by police matched crime rates, which means that as violent and property crimes fell so did arrests for those offenses. In states Pfaff examined, arrests fell 10% between 1994 and 2008. But at the same time the number of felony cases rose steeply. Fewer people were entering the criminal injustice system but more were facing felony charges. Pfaff calculated a 40% increase in felony cases. Ey found this was the only thing that changed; felony charges resulted in imprisonment at the same rate as before. So Pfaff concludes: "In short, between 1994 and 2008, the number of people admitted to prison rose by about 40 percent, from 360,000 to 505,000, and almost all of that increase was due to prosecutors bringing more and more felony cases against a diminishing pool of arrestees."(p. 72) The probability that a prosecutor would file felony charges against an arrestee basically doubled during this time period.
Pfaff attributes this prosecutorial aggression to a few things. First, the number of prosecutors trying cases has increased significantly over the past forty years, unrelated to crime rates. Prosecutor discretion is not new, but they seem to be using it more and more aggressively in recent years. And it is the prosecutors who have complete control over which cases get filed and which get dismissed. Prosecutors also have a huge advantage over public defenders, whose budget is significantly less than prosecutors and who don't benefit from free investigative services from law enforcement.(p. 137)
Overall Pfaff finds very little data available on prosecutors and so finds it impossible to come to firm conclusions about why they are so aggressively increasing prosecution rates. Ey spends a lot of the book talking about potential prosecutoral reforms but also concludes that mandatory data collection around prosecution is essential to get a better handle on what's going on.
While this data on the role of prosecutors in driving imprisonment rates in recent years is interesting, revolutionaries have to ask how important this is to our understanding of the system. Whether it's more cops on the streets driving more arrests, or more aggressive prosecutors driving more sentences, the net result is the same. If we're looking to reform the system, Pfaff's data is critical to effectively targeting the most important part of the system. But for revolutionaries this information is most useful in exposing the injustice behind the curtain of the system. We want to know how it works but ultimately we know we need to dismantle the whole system to effect real and lasting change.
Even within eir general belief that prisons are necessary to stop crime, Pfaff makes some good points: "To argue that prison growth contributed to 25 percent of the drop in crime does not mean that it was an efficient use of resources: perhaps we could have achieved an equally large decline in a way that was less fiscally and socially costly."(p. 116) And ey goes on to note that studies suggest rehabilitation programs outside of prison do a much better job reducing crime.
Some of Pfaff's solutions are things we can get behind, like adequately funding public defenders. And most of them, if effective, would result in fewer prisoners and better programs to help prisoners both while locked up and once on the streets. But still these solutions are about relatively small reforms: giving prosecutors more guidance, expanding political oversight, expanding parole and providing more scientific structure to parole decisions, appointing prosecutors rather than electing them, setting up better contracts with private prisons paying based on how prisoners performed upon release.
All of these reforms make sense if you believe the Amerikan prison system has a primary goal of keeping society safe and reforming criminals. This is where we deviate from Pfaff because we can see that prisons are just a tool of a fundamentally corrupt system. And so reforms will only be implemented with sufficient belief from those in charge that the fundamental system won't be threatened. And certainly the Amerikan imperialists aren't looking to "improve" or reform the system; they will only react to significant social pressure, and only as much as they need to to take pressure off.
As a Hollywood movie based on a Marvel comic book, Black Panther stands out for overtly political themes and some honest discussion of national oppression. It features a Wakandan society of supremely advanced and peaceful Africans. A society that includes strong, empowered wimmin in roles of defense, science and serving the oppressed.
The Wakandan society is completely hidden from the world and led by a king, T'Challa, the movie's hero. Its isolation is based in a legit fear of the imperialist world which has a long history of oppression and exploitation in Africa. The Wakandan solution was to hide, and focus on building a strong and peaceful society internally. It was wildly successful, surpassing the rest of the world in all realms of science. And what's more, the movie suggests that Wakanda built, on the wealth of its natural resources, a society with no apparent exploitation or oppression. But this isolationism does have a growing opposition from within, from some who want to help the oppressed in the world.
We can compare Wakanda's isolationism to revolutionary movements that have taken power in one country, only to find themselves surrounded by enemies. In places like north Korea, Cuba, and Albania, isolation was a strategic move against outside interference, but ultimately was also a great difficulty for these nations. Wakanda does not face similar challenges due to its tremendous wealth of resources, but also because no one knows about its advanced society, so there's no severe drain of resources being spent on national self-defense. The world thinks Wakanda is just a Third World country full of farmers.
What we found most interesting about the movie was not the protagonists, but the antagonist, Eric Killmonger, who came up in Oakland in the 1990s. Killmonger's father (T'Challa's uncle) was serving as a Wakandan spy in Oakland when ey fell in love with the oppressed New Afrikan people ey was living among, and decided ey needed to take Wakandan resources to help liberate these people. For betraying Wakanda, Killmonger's father was killed by the king (eir own brother), which left Killmonger abandoned in Oakland. The king kept this betrayal, death, and Eric a secret all the way to the grave, so Killmonger's appearance came as a sudden surprise to those living an idyllic life in the capitol.
Eric Killmonger is a product of eir abandonment by Wakanda and eir upbringing on the streets of Oakland. Killmonger saw the desperate struggles of the New Afrikan nation in the United $tates and could not forgive Wakanda for not helping these people. Killmonger wasn't only seeking persynal revenge for eir father's death, ey was fighting to continue eir father's dream of helping the oppressed liberate themselves. Killmonger's education (at MIT) and training (in the U.$. military) was purposeful, focused on getting em into a position to control the Wakandan resources so that ey could use them to help the oppressed. Killmonger cultivated the passion and perseverance to bring em all the way to the hidden society of Wakanda and into a duel for the throne.
Killmonger doesn't hesitate to kill, even those ey seems to care about, to achieve eir goal. But this is war, and the lives of millions around the world are at stake. We respect Killmonger's drive and focus. Nicely asking the Wakandan king to hand over some weapons and technology to help the oppressed wasn't going to work. Even similar requests from influential people within Wakandan society were denied. So Killmonger reasonably believed that eir only option was to take what ey wanted by force.
There were many different reactions to this contradiction between peaceful isolationism vs. violent uprising, playing out in the battle for the throne. A faction of Wakandans (the civil defense force) enthusiastically joined Killmonger once ey explained eir plan to arm New Afrikans in the United $tates and Wakandan spies all over the world. Killmonger's proposal also included ensuring the sun never set on the Wakandan empire. Whether the civil defense force joined for altruistic or power-hungry reasons is up to the viewer to decide.
The royal defense force begrudgingly remained loyal to the throne when Killmonger took power, from an adherence to conservative traditionalism more than anything else. The royal defense quickly switched sides when a technical justification arose — the duel for the throne was not complete, because T'Challa was still alive. This faction of the military is made out to be heroes, but they were defending a king who upheld isolationism against a king who wanted to help free the world's oppressed.
Yet another angle is represented by T'Challa's love interest, Nakia, a spy who worked among refugees and victims of humyn trafficking. Ey stubbornly refused a chance to become queen, so ey could continue eir important work helping people outside of Wakanda. While ideologically Nakia had much in common with Killmonger, at least in opposing Wakanda's isolationism and wanting to liberate oppressed people globally, ey remained loyal to T'Challa. Nakia, like many other Wakandans, was primarily against Killmonger's strategy of sending weapons and firepower out all over the world, and persynal feelings for T'Challa were an influencing factor.
There were many strategic problems with Killmonger's solution to imperialist oppression, including the lack of leadership or liberation movements to take advantage of the military and technology resources ey was offering. It's hard to see how just delivering weapons to the oppressed would lead to liberation. In fact those weapons could easily have ended up in the hands of the imperialists, which — besides tradition and "it's not our way" — was a primary justification given by T'Challa and others for keeping Wakanda hidden from the world.
In the end, the conservative king wins, but ey learns that ey does have a duty to the world's people. A big part of T'Challa's change in perspective comes when the pedestal ey has built for tradition and blindly following eir father's path is torn down by the discovery of the family secret. The appearance of Killmonger is a huge turning point for T'Challa. T'Challa comes to see Killmonger as a monster who was created by eir own father's hands. T'Challa sees how an adherence to tradition and isolation actually alienates people, such as young Eric, who T'Challa feels should otherwise be included in the Wakandan umbrella of aid and help.
So T'Challa comes to finally agree with Nakia and Killmonger that Wakanda has a moral obligation to share its expertise. Unfortunately, in spite of all Wakanda's international spies, King T'Challa still fails to correctly assess the balance of forces, and the friends and enemies of the oppressed. The last scene of the movie shows T'Challa making a speech at the United Nations, announcing that Wakanda will begin sharing its technology and knowledge with the world. Ey also buys a few buildings in Oakland, California to open Wakanda's first youth outreach and education center.
If T'Challa really wanted to help the world's oppressed, ey could use Wakanda's technology of being able to stay hidden in plain sight, and its reputation as a nonthreatening farming nation, to build the strength of an underground army, to soon fight the oppressors for dual power, and then freedom, including an end of capitalism. Rather than going to the UN and announcing "Hey! We're organizing and doing cool shit that will threaten your power! Watch us closely!" ey could do this discretely and very successfully. It seems T'Challa moved from conservative to liberal, and didn't quite make the step to true revolutionary.