The Play’s the Thing December 16, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Criminal Justice, Education, Poverty, Race, Racism, Torture.
Tags: august wilson, chris hedges, education, incarceration, poverty, prison, prisoners, Race, racism, roger hollander, solitary confinement, theatre, torture
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Posted on Dec 15, 2013, http://www.truthdig.com
|AP/Ted S. Warren|
|Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson in his Seattle neighborhood in 2003.|
By Chris Hedges
I began teaching a class of 28 prisoners at a maximum-security prison in New Jersey during the first week of September. My last class meeting was Friday. The course revolved around plays by August Wilson, James Baldwin, John Herbert, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Miguel Piñero, Amiri Baraka and other playwrights who examine and give expression to the realities of America’s black underclass as well as the prison culture. We also read Michelle Alexander’s important book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Each week the students were required to write dramatic scenes based on their experiences in and out of prison.
My class, although I did not know this when I began teaching, had the most literate and accomplished writers in the prison. And when I read the first batch of scenes it was immediately apparent that among these students was exceptional talent.
The class members had a keen eye for detail, had lived through the moral and physical struggles of prison life and had the ability to capture the patois of the urban poor and the prison underclass. They were able to portray in dramatic scenes and dialogue the horror of being locked in cages for years. And although the play they collectively wrote is fundamentally about sacrifice—the sacrifice of mothers for children, brothers for brothers, prisoners for prisoners—the title they chose was “Caged.” They made it clear that the traps that hold them are as present in impoverished urban communities as in prison.
The mass incarceration of primarily poor people of color, people who seldom have access to adequate legal defense and who are often kept behind bars for years for nonviolent crimes or for crimes they did not commit, is one of the most shameful mass injustices committed in the United States. The 28 men in my class have cumulatively spent 515 years in prison. Some of their sentences are utterly disproportionate to the crimes of which they are accused. Most are not even close to finishing their sentences or coming before a parole board, which rarely grants first-time applicants their liberty. Many of them are in for life. One of my students was arrested at the age of 14 for a crime that strong evidence suggests he did not commit. He will not be eligible for parole until he is 70. He never had a chance in court and because he cannot afford a private attorney he has no chance now of challenging the grotesque sentence handed to him as a child.
My stacks of 28 scenes written by the students each week, the paper bearing the musty, sour smell of the prison, rose into an ungainly pile. I laboriously shaped and edited the material. It grew, line by line, scene by scene, into a powerful and deeply moving dramatic vehicle. The voices and reality of those at the very bottom rung of our society—some of the 2.2 million people in prisons and jails across the country, those we as a society are permitted to demonize and hate, just as African-Americans were once demonized and hated during slavery and Jim Crow—began to flash across the pages like lightning strikes. There was more brilliance, literacy, passion, wisdom and integrity in that classroom than in any other classroom I have taught in, and I have taught at some of the most elite universities in the country. The mass incarceration of men and women like my students impoverishes not just them, their families and their communities, but the rest of us as well.
“The most valuable blacks are those in prison,” August Wilson once said, “those who have the warrior spirit, who had a sense of being African. They got for their women and children what they needed when all other avenues were closed to them.” He added: “The greatest spirit of resistance among blacks [is] found among those in prison.”
I increased the class meetings by one night a week. I read the scenes to my wife, Eunice Wong, who is a professional actor, and friends such as the cartoonist Joe Sacco and the theologian James Cone. Something unique, almost magical, was happening in the prison classroom—a place I could reach only after passing through two metal doors and a metal detector, subjecting myself to a pat-down by a guard, an X-ray inspection of my canvas bag of books and papers, getting my hand stamped and then checked under an ultraviolet light, and then passing through another metal door into a barred circular enclosure. In every visit I was made to stand in the enclosure for several minutes before being permitted by the guards to pass through a barred gate and then walk up blue metal stairs, through a gantlet of blue-uniformed prison guards, to my classroom.
The class, through the creation of the play, became an intense place of reflection, debate and self-discovery. Offhand comments, such as the one made by a student who has spent 22 years behind bars, that “just because your family doesn’t visit you doesn’t mean they don’t love you,” reflected the pain, loneliness and abandonment embedded in the lives of my students. There were moments that left the class unable to speak.
A student with 19 years behind bars read his half of a phone dialogue between himself and his mother. He was the product of rape and tells his mother that he sacrificed himself to keep his half brother—the only son his mother loves—out of prison. He read this passage in the presentation of the play in the prison chapel last Thursday to visitors who included Cornel West and James Cone.
Terrance: You don’t understand[,] Ma.
Terrance: You’re right. Never mind.
PauseTerrance: What you want me to say Ma?
Terrance: Ma, they were going to lock up Bruce. The chrome [the gun] was in the car. Everyone in the car would be charged with murder if no one copped to it …
Terrance: I didn’t kill anyone Ma… Oh yeah, I forgot, whenever someone says I did, I did it.
Terrance: I told ’em what they wanted to hear. That’s what niggas supposed to do in Newark. I told them what they wanted to hear to keep Bruce out of it. Did they tell you who got killed? Did they say it was my father?
Terrance: Then you should know I didn’t do it. If I ever went to jail for anything it would be killing him … and he ain’t dead yet. Rape done brought me into the world. Prison gonna take me out. An’ that’s the way it is Ma.
Terrance: Come on Ma, if Bruce went to jail you would’uv never forgiven me. Me, on the other hand, I wasn’t ever supposed to be here.
Terrance: I’m sorry Ma … I’m sorry. Don’t be cryin’. You got Bruce. You got him home. He’s your baby. Bye Ma. I call you later.
After our final reading of the play I discovered the student who wrote this passage sobbing in the bathroom, convulsed with grief.
In the play when a young prisoner contemplates killing another prisoner he is given advice on how to survive prolonged isolation in the management control unit (solitary confinement, known as MCU) by an older prisoner who has spent 30 years in prison under a sentence of double life. There are 80,000 U.S. prisoners held in solitary confinement, which human rights organizations such as Amnesty International define as a form of torture. In this scene the older man tells the young inmate what to expect from the COs, or correction officers.
Ojore (speaking slowly and softly): When they come and get you, ’cause they are gonna get you, have your hands out in front of you with your palms showing. You want them to see you have no weapons. Don’t make no sudden moves. Put your hands behind your head. Drop to your knees as soon as they begin barking out commands.
Omar: My knees?
Ojore: This ain’t a debate. I’m telling you how to survive the hell you ’bout to endure. When you get to the hole you ain’t gonna be allowed to have nothing but what they give you. If you really piss them off you get a ‘dry cell’ where the sink and the toilet are turned on and off from outside. You gonna be isolated. No contact. No communication.
Ojore: ’Cause they don’t want you sendin’ messages to nobody before dey question some of da brothers on the wing. IA [internal affairs officers] gonna come and see you. They gonna want a statement. If you don’t talk they gonna try and break you. They gonna open the windows and let the cold in. They gonna take ya sheets and blankets away. They gonna mess with ya food so you can’t eat it. An’ don’t eat no food that come in trays from the Vroom Building. Nuts in Vroom be spittin’, pissin’ and shittin’ in the trays. Now, the COs gonna wake you up every hour on the hour so you can’t sleep. They gonna put a bright-ass spotlight in front of ya cell and keep it on day and night. They gonna harass you wit’ all kinds of threats to get you to cooperate. They will send in the turtles in their shin guards, gloves, shank-proof vests, forearm guards and helmets with plexiglass shields on every shift to give you beat-downs.
Omar: How long this gonna go on?
Ojore: Til they break you. Or til they don’t. Three days. Three weeks. You don’t break, it go on like this for a long time. An’ if you don’t think you can take it, then don’t start puttin’ yerself through this hell. Just tell ’em what they wanna know from the door. You gonna be in MCU for the next two or three years. You’ll get indicted for murder. You lookin’ at a life bid. An’ remember MCU ain’t jus’ ’bout isolation. It’s ’bout keeping you off balance. The COs, dressed up in riot gear, wake you up at 1 a.m., force you to strip and make you grab all your things and move you to another cell just to harass you. They bring in dogs trained to go for your balls. You spend 24 hours alone one day in your cell and 22 the next. They put you in the MCU and wait for you to self-destruct. An’ it works. Men self-mutilate. Men get paranoid. Men have panic attacks. They start hearing voices. They talk crazy to themselves. I seen one prisoner swallow a pack of AA batteries. I seen a man shove a pencil up his dick. I seen men toss human shit around like it was a ball game. I seen men eat their own shit and rub it all over themselves like it was some kinda body lotion. Then, when you really get out of control, when you go really crazy, they got all their torture instruments ready—four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, tethers, and waist and leg chains. But the physical stuff ain’t the worst. The worst is the psychological, the humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, extreme light or dark, extreme cold or heat and the long weeks and months of solitary. If you don’t have a strong sense of purpose you don’t survive. They want to defeat you mentally. An’ I seen a lot of men defeated.
The various drafts of the play, made up of scenes and dialogue contributed by everyone in the class, brought to the surface the suppressed emotions and pain that the students bear with profound dignity. A prisoner who has been incarcerated for 22 years related a conversation with his wife during her final visit in 1997. Earlier his 6-year-old son had innocently revealed that the woman was seeing another man. “I am aware of what kind of time I got,” he tells his wife. “I told you when I got found guilty to move on with your life, because I knew what kind of time I was facing, but you chose to stick around. The reason I told you to move on with your life was because I didn’t want to be selfish. So look, man, do what the fuck you are going to do, just don’t keep my son from me. That’s all I ask.” He never saw his child again. When he handed me the account he said he was emotionally unable to read it out loud.
Those with life sentences wrote about dying in prison. The prisoners are painfully aware that some of them will end their lives in the medical wing without family, friends or even former cellmates. One prisoner, who wrote about how men in prolonged isolation adopt prison mice as pets, naming them, carefully bathing them, talking to them and keeping them on string leashes, worked in the prison infirmary. He said that as some prisoners were dying they would ask him to hold their hand. Often no one comes to collect the bodies. Often, family members and relatives are dead or long estranged. The corpses are taken by the guards and dumped in unmarked graves.
A discussion of Wilson’s play “Fences” became an exploration of damaged manhood and how patterns of abuse are passed down from father to son. “I spent my whole life trying not to be my father,” a prisoner who has been locked up for 23 years said. “And when I got to Trenton I was put in his old cell.”
The night we spoke about the brilliant play “Dutchman,” by LeRoi Jones, now known as Amira Baraka, the class grappled with whites’ deeply embedded stereotypes and latent fear of black men. I had also passed out copies of Robert Crumb’s savage cartoon strip “When the Niggers Take Over America!,” which portrays whites’ fear of black males—as well as the legitimate black rage that is rarely understood by white society.
The students wanted to be true to the violence and brutality of the streets and prison—places where one does not usually have the luxury of being nonviolent—yet affirm themselves as dignified and sensitive human beings. They did not want to paint everyone in the prison as innocents. But they know that transformation and redemption are real.
There are many Muslims in the prison. They have a cohesive community, sense of discipline and knowledge of their own history, which is the history of the long repression and subjugation of African-Americans. Most Muslims are very careful about their language in prison and do not curse, meaning I had to be careful when I assigned parts to the class.
There is a deep reverence in the prison for Malcolm X. When the class spoke of him one could almost feel Malcolm’s presence. Malcolm articulated, in a way Martin Luther King Jr. did not, the harsh reality of poor African-Americans trapped in the internal colonies of the urban North.
The class wanted the central oracle of the play to be an observant Muslim. Faith, when you live in the totalitarian world of the prison, is important. The conclusion of the play was the result of an intense and heated discussion about the efficacy and nature of violence and forgiveness. But by the end of a nearly hourlong discussion the class had unanimously signed off on the final scene, which I do not want to reveal here because I hope that one day it will be available to be seen or read. It was the core message the prisoners wanted most to leave with outsiders, who often view them as less than human.
The play has a visceral, raw anger and undeniable truth that only the lost and the damned can articulate. The students wrote a dedication that read: “We have been buried alive behind these walls for years, often decades. Most of the outside world has abandoned us. But a few friends and family have never forgotten that we are human beings and worthy of life. It is to them, our saints, that we dedicate this play.” And they said that if the play was ever produced, and if anyone ever bought tickets, they wanted all the money that might be earned to go to funding the educational program at the prison. This was a decision by men who make, at most, a dollar a day at prison jobs.
We read the Wilson play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The character Bynum Walker, a conjurer, tells shattered African-Americans emerging from the nightmare of slavery that they each have a song but they must seek it out. Once they find their song they will find their unity as a people, their inner freedom and their identity. The search for one’s song in Wilson’s play functions like prayer. It gives each person a purpose, strength and hope. It allows a person, even one who has been bitterly oppressed, to speak his or her truth defiantly to the world. Our song affirms us, even if we are dejected and despised, as human beings.
Prisoners are given very little time by the guards to line up in the corridor outside the classroom when the prison bell signals the end of class. If they lag behind they can get a “charge” from the guards that can restrict their already very limited privileges and freedom of movement. For this reason, my classroom emptied quickly Friday night. I was left alone in the empty space, my eyes damp, my hands trembling as I clutched their manuscript. They had all signed it for me. I made the long and lonely walk down the prison corridors, through the four metal security doors, past the security desk to the dark, frozen parking lot. I looked back, past the coils of razor wire that topped the chain-link fencing, at the shadowy bulk of the prison. I have their song. I will make it heard. I do not know what it takes to fund and mount a theater production. I intend to learn.
Tags: capital punishment, death penalty, human rights, prisoners, roger hollander
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Roger’s note: the United States government via its military actions, arms exports and financing of other governments’ (such as Israel) military adventures, is responsible for thousands of criminal deaths. Most of the States execute hundreds of mostly Afro-American, Latino and indigenous inmates. And that’s not to mention wholesale torture. But abort a three-month old fetus? Murder!!!
Published on Tuesday, November 20, 2012 by Common Dreams
As world makes progress towards abolishing state-sanctioned murder, US remains defiant
The US on Monday once again voted down a resolution at the UN calling for an international moratorium on the death penalty. In doing so, the US joined nations it often critcizes as human rights “outliers” like Iran, North Korea, Syria and China in opposition to a growing global trend away from the practice.
A record number of countries voted to abolish the death penalty, but the US sided with Iran and North Korea on the issue. (Photo: Eric Risberg/AP)
Though the US often loudly criticizes other nations for their human rights records, the US in recent years has lost its moral footing in the wake of torture scandals, its continued position on the death penalty, and because of many policies practiced under the umbrella of what it calls the “war on terror.”
US allies in the European Union, as well as Israel, Australia, Brazil and South Africa were among the growing number of nations who voted in support of the resolution, which grew to 110 nations this year from 107 when the resolution was last put to a vote in 2010.
Norway wrote on its Twitter account was “a great result.”
In May, the US annual human rights report criticized Iran, Syria, China and other countries for human rights abuses, and “had particularly harshly worded condemnation of Iran and Syria,” countries the US said it was “watching,” The Guardian reported.
Yet the US has also been subject to criticism from Amnesty International and other groups over such abuses as domestic executions, extrajudicial drone strikes overseas, wars of aggression and its prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Norway, along with France’s new government, campaigned for the full General Assembly to pass a resolution in December calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.
The vote is non-binding, but diplomats say it would increase moral pressure. As The Nation reports:
The vote tears apart traditional alliances at the United Nations. The United States, Japan, China, Iran, India, North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe were among 39 countries to oppose the non-binding resolution in the assembly’s rights committee. Thirty-six countries abstained.
Some 150 countries have abolished or instituted a moratorium on capital punishment, according to Amnesty International.
The organization reports that China executed “thousands” of prisoners in 2011, and other countries executing at least 680, “with Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia major users of capital punishment.”
In the United States, Illinois last year became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty.
Tags: civil liberties, human rights, incarceration, james ridgeway, jean casella, John McCain, prisoners, prisons, roger hollander, sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, torture
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Imagine a place filled with closed, windowless cells. Each cell may be so small that you can extend your arms and touch the side walls. It may contain a bunk of poured concrete, a toilet, perhaps a small table and stool. A few personal possessions – books, family photos – may be permitted, or they may not. The door to the cell is solid steel.Approximately 80,000 prisoners are held in solitary confinement, which has been labelled torture by the UN, in US prisons. (Photograph: Brennan Linsley/Pool/Reuters)
Three times a day, a food tray slides in through a slot in the door; when that happens you may briefly see a hand, or exchange a few words with a guard. It is your only human contact for the day. Five times a week, you are allowed an hour of solitary exercise in a concrete-walled yard about the same size as your cell. The yard is empty, but if you look straight up, you can catch a glimpse of sky.
Imagine that a quarter of the people who live in this place are mentally ill. Some have entered the cells with underlying psychiatric disabilities, while others have been driven mad by the confinement and isolation. Some of them scream in desperation all day and night. Others cut themselves, or smear their cells with feces. A number manage to commit suicide in their cells.
You may remain in this place for months, years, or even decades. The conditions in which you live have been denounced as torture by UN officials and by a host of human rights, civil liberties, and religious groups. And yet you remain where you are.
This place is located not in some distant authoritarian nation or secret black site abroad, but here on US soil. In fact, there are places like it in nearly every state in the union, within sight of our own cities and towns. On any given day in the United States, supermax prison and solitary confinement units hold at least 80,000 men, women, and children in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation.
Most of them have committed nonviolent offenses against prison rules or have been categorically branded as “high risk”. A large and disproportionate percentage suffer from serious mental illness. Some of them are children. Condemned to solitary by prison officials, they spend 23 hours a day in their cells without work, rehabilitative programming, or human contact of any kind.
What remains to be seen is whether Congress will take further action to curb this failed and torturous practice.
These prisoners live out of sight of the public and the press. Their conditions have, with few exceptions, been condoned by the courts and ignored by elected officials. As a result, over the past three decades, the use and abuse of solitary confinement in US prisons has grown into one of the nation’s most pressing domestic human rights issues – yet it also remains one of the most invisible.
On Tuesday, for the first time, the US Congress has taken a look at these domestic black sites. The Senate judiciary subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights, and human rights held a hearing in which corrections officials, lawyers, and mental health experts – along with one lone survivor of prison isolation – testified to the “human rights, fiscal, and public safety consequences” of solitary confinement.
For evidence of humanitarian consequences, the senators need only turn to their colleague John McCain, who spent two years in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war in Vietnam (in a cell somewhat larger than those in most American supermaxes). “It’s an awful thing, solitary,” McCain later wrote. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
As for fiscal and public safety consequences, the subcommittee members can look to evidence-based research that keeping prisoners in solitary confinement costs two to three times more than keeping them in the general population, and is likely to increase both prison violence and recidivism. Or they can study the example of the few states – including Maine and Mississippi – that dramatically reduced the number of prisoners they keep in isolation, with positive results.
What remains to be seen is whether Congress will take further action to curb this failed and torturous practice. Given the political will, the subcommittee could begin by holding more hearings around the country, while its staff carries out an investigation that opens up to public scrutiny the tormented inner workings of supermax prisons and solitary confinement units.
An independent federal body with the absolute right to enter and report on prisons could go even further in exposing abusive conditions. Legislation could then force the creation and adoption of federal standards for the treatment of prisoners, which states would have to meet in order to receive federal funds.
All of this depends upon our elected leaders taking seriously the notion that all Americans – including prisoners – have an absolute right to immunity from torture by the state. That is likely to happen any time soon, but until it does, unimaginable things will keep taking place at black sites in our own backyards.
James Ridgeway is senior Washington correspondent for Mother Jones, and co-editor of Solitary Watch. James began his career as a contributor to the New Republic, Ramparts and the Wall Street Journal. Later, he was co-founder and editor of the political newsletters Mayday, Hard Times and the Elements.
Jean Casella is a freelance writer, editor and publishing consultant, and co-editor of Solitary Watch
Tags: chain gangs, cheap labor, incarceration rates, labor, labour, modern day slavery, prison industrial complex, prison labor, prison population, prisoners, racism, rania khalek, slave labor, slavery, unicor, us prisons
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strategy in the eternal quest to maximize profit.
are able to get away with paying them wages that rival those of third-world
sweatshops. These laborers have been legally stripped of their
political, economic and social rights and ultimately relegated to second-class
citizens. They are banned from unionizing, violently silenced from
speaking out and forced to work for little to no wages. This
marginalization renders them practically invisible, as they are kept hidden from
society with no available recourse to improve their circumstances or change
They are the 2.3 million American prisoners locked behind bars where we
cannot see or hear them. And they are modern-day slaves of the
It’s no secret that America imprisons more of its citizens than any other
nation in history. With just 5 percent of the world’s population,
the US currently holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 2008,
over 2.3 million Americans were in prison or jail, with one of every 48
working-age men behind bars. That doesn’t include the tens of
thousands of detained undocumented immigrants facing deportation, prisoners
awaiting sentencing, or juveniles caught up in the school-to-prison
pipeline. Perhaps it’s reassuring to some that the US still holds
the number one title in at least one arena, but needless to say the
hyper-incarceration plaguing America has had a damaging effect on society at
According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy
Research (CEPR), US prison rates are not just excessive in comparison to the
rest of the world, they are also substantially higher than our own longstanding
history. The study finds that incarceration rates between 1880 and
1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 prisoners per 100,000
people. After 1980, the inmate population began to grow much more
rapidly than the overall population and the rate climbed from about 220 in 1980
to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.
The costs of this incarceration industry are far from evenly distributed,
with the impact of excessive incarceration falling predominantly on
African-American communities. Although black people make up just 13
percent of the overall population, they account for 40 percent of US prisoners. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), black
males are incarcerated at a rate more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5
that of Hispanic males and black females are incarcerated at approximately three
times the rate of white females and twice that of Hispanic females.
Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow that more black men are in jail, on probation, or on parole than were
enslaved in 1850. Higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates
of black drug offenses. In fact, whites and blacks engage in drug offenses,
possession and sales at roughly comparable rates.
Clearly, the US prison system is riddled with racism and classism, but it
gets worse. As it turns out, private companies have a cheap, easy labor market,
and it isn’t in China, Indonesia, Haiti, or Mexico. It’s right here
in the land of the free, where large corporations increasingly employ prisoners
as a source of cheap and sometimes free labor.
In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy in the
eternal quest to maximize profit. By dipping into the prison labor
pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only cheap but easily
controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing benefits like
health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously paying little to no
wages. They don’t need to worry about unions or demands for
vacation time or raises. Inmate workers are full-time and never
late or absent because of family problems.
If they refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and lose
canteen privileges along with “good time” credit that reduces their
sentences. To top it off, the federal government subsidizes the use
of inmate labor by private companies through lucrative tax write-offs. Under
the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), private-sector employers
earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every work release inmate they employ as a
reward for hiring “risky target groups” and they can earn back up to 40 percent
of the wages they pay annually to “target group workers.”
Study after study demonstrates the wastefulness of America’s
prison-industrial complex, in both taxpayer dollars and innocent lives, yet
rolling back imprisonment rates is proving to be more challenging than ever.
Meanwhile, the use of private
prisons and now privately contracted inmate labor has created a system that does
not exactly incentivize leaner sentencing.
implications of such a system mean that skyrocketing imprisonment for the
possession of miniscule amounts of marijuana and the the expansion
of severe mandatory sentencing laws regardless of the conviction, are policies
that have to potential to increase corporate profits. As are
the“three strikes laws” that require courts to hand down mandatory and
extended sentences to people who have been convicted of felonies on three or
more separate occasions. People have literally been sentenced to life for minor crimes like
Reinvention of Slavery
The exploitation of prison labor is by no means a new
phenomenon. Jaron Browne, an organizer with People Organized
to Win Employment Rights (POWER), maps out how the exploitation of
prison labor in America is rooted in
slavery. The abolition of slavery dealt a devastating economic
blow to the South following the loss of free labor after the Civil
War. So in the late 19th century, an extensive prison system was
created in the South in order to maintain the racial and economic relationship
of slavery, a mechanism responsible for re-enslaving black
workers. Browne describes Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison to
illustrate the intentional transformation from slave to inmate:
“In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of
Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now
expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working
the land—a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.”
The abolition of slavery quickly gave rise to the Black Codes and Convict
Leasing, which together worked wonders at perpetuating African American
servitude by exploiting a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for
crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the
United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The Black Codes were a set of laws that criminalized legal activity for
African Americans and provided a pretext for the arrest and mass imprisonment of
newly freed blacks, which caused the percentage of African Americans in prison
to surpass whites for the first time. Convict
leasing involved leasing out prisoners to private companies that paid the state
a certain fee in return. Convicts worked for the companies during
the day outside the prison and returned to their cells at
night. The system provided revenue for the state and profits for
plantation owners and wasn’t abolished until the 1930s.
Unfortunately, convict leasing was quickly replaced with equally despicable
state-run chain gangs. Once again, stories of vicious abuse created
enough public anger to abolish chain gangs by the
1950s. Nevertheless, the systems of prisoner exploitation never
Today’s corporations can lease factories in prisons, as well as lease
prisoners out to their factories. In many cases, private
corporations are running prisons-for-profit, further incentivizing their stake
in locking people up. The government is profiting as well, by
running prison factories that operate as multibillion-dollar industries in every
state, and throughout the federal prison system, where prisoners are contracted out to major corporations by the
In the most extreme cases, we are even witnessing the reemergence of the
chain gang. In Arizona, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in
America,” Joe Arpaio, requires his Maricopa County inmates to enroll in chain gangs to perform various community services or
face lockdown with three other inmates in an 8-by-12-foot cell, for 23 hours a
day. In June of this year, Arpaio started a female-only chain gang made up of women convicted of
driving under the influence. In a press release he boasted that the
inmates would be wearing pink T-shirts emblazoned with messages about drinking
The modern-day version of convict leasing was recently spotted in Georgia,
where Governor Nathan Deal proposed sending unemployed probationers to work in Georgia’s
fields as a solution to a perceived labor shortage following the passage of the
country’s most draconian anti-immigrant law. But his plan backfired when some of the probationers began walking off
their jobs because the fieldwork was too strenuous.
There has also been a disturbing reemergence of the debtors’ prison, which
should serve as an ominous sign of our dangerous reliance on prisons to manage
any and all of society’s problems. According to the Wall Street Journal more than a third of all U.S. states allow
borrowers who can’t or won’t pay to be jailed. They found that judges signed off
on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010 in nine
counties. It appears that any act that can be criminalized in the
era of private prisons and inmate labor will certainly end in jail time, further
increasing the ranks of the captive workforce.
Prior to the 1970s, private corporations were prohibited from using prison
labor as a result of the chain gang and convict leasing
scandals. But in 1979, Congress began a process of deregulation to restore private sector involvement
in prison industries to its former status, provided certain conditions of the
labor market were met. Over the last 30 years, at least
37 states have enacted laws permitting the use of convict labor by private
enterprise, with an average pay of $0.93 to $4.73 per day.
Federal prisoners receive more generous wages that range
from $0.23 to $1.25 per hour, and are employed by Unicor, a wholly owned
government corporation established by Congress in 1934. Its
principal customer is the Department of Defense, from which Unicor derives
percent of its sales. Some 21,836 inmates work in Unicor programs. Subsequently,
the nation’s prison industry – prison labor programs producing goods or services
sold to other government agencies or to the private sector — now
employs more people
than any Fortune 500 company (besides General Motors), and
generates about $2.4 billion in revenue annually. Noah Zatz of UCLA law school estimates that:
“Well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are working
full-time in jails and prisons throughout the United States. Perhaps some of
them built your desk chair: office furniture, especially in state universities
and the federal government, is a major prison labor product. Inmates also take
hotel reservations at corporate call centers, make body armor for the U.S.
military, and manufacture prison chic fashion accessories, in addition to the
iconic task of stamping license plates.”
Some of the largest and most powerful corporations have a stake in the
expansion of the prison labor market, including but not limited to IBM, Boeing,
Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq,
Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern
Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and
many more. Between 1980 and 1994 alone, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion. Since the
prison labor force has likely grown since then, it is safe to assume that the
profits accrued from the use of prison labor have reached even higher levels.
In an article for Mother Jones, Caroline Winter details a
number of mega-corporations that have profited off of inmates:
“In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female
South Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria’s
Secret and JCPenney. In 1997, a California
prison put two men in solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to
replace ‘Made in Honduras’ labels on garments with ‘Made in the
According to Winter, the defense industry is a large part of the
equation as well:
“Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers’ uniforms, bedding,
shoes, helmets, and flak vests, inmates have ‘produced missile cables (including
those used on the Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)’ and ‘wiring harnesses
for jets and tanks.’ In 1997, according to Prison Legal
News, Boeing subcontractorMicroJet had
prisoners cutting airplane components, paying $7 an hour for work that paid
union wages of $30 on the outside.”
Oil companies have been known to exploit prison labor as well. Following the
explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers and irreparably
damaged the Gulf of Mexico for generations to come, BP elected to hire Louisiana prison inmates to clean up its
mess. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state in
the nation, 70 percent of which are African-American men. Coastal residents
desperate for work, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by BP’s negligence,
were outraged at BP’s use of free prison labor.
In the Nation article that exposed BP’s hiring of inmates, Abe
Louise Young details how BP tried to cover up its use of prisoners by changing
the inmates’ clothing to give the illusion of civilian workers. But
nine out of 10 residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana are white, while the cleanup
workers were almost exclusively black, so BP’s ruse fooled very few
Private companies have long understood that prison labor can be as profitable
as sweatshop workers in third-world countries with the added benefit of staying
closer to home. Take Escod Industries, which in the 1990s abandoned plans to open
operations in Mexico and instead moved to South Carolina, because the wages of
American prisoners undercut those of de-unionized Mexican sweatshop workers. The
move was fueled by the state, which gave a $250,000 “equipment subsidy” to Escod
along with industrial space at below-market rent. Other examples include Ohio’s Honda supplier, which pays its prison workers
$2 an hour for the same work for which the UAW has fought for decades to be paid
$20 to $30 an hour; Konica, which has hired prisoners to repair its copiers for
less than 50 cents an hour; and Oregon, where private companies can “lease”
prisoners at a bargain price of $3 a day.
Even politicians have been known to tap into prison labor for their own
personal use. In 1994, a contractor for GOP congressional candidate Jack Metcalf
hired Washington state prisoners to call and remind voters he was pro-death
penalty. He won his campaign claiming he had no knowledge of the
scandal. Perhaps this is why Senator John Ensign (R-NV) introduced a bill earlier this year to require all
low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week. After all, creating a national
prison labor force has been a goal of his since he went to Congress in 1995.
In an unsettling turn of events lawmakers have begun ditching public
employees in favor of free prison labor. The New York
Times recently reported that states are enlisting prison labor to close budget gaps to offset cuts in
federal financing and dwindling tax revenue. At a time of record
unemployment, inmates are being hired to paint vehicles, clean courthouses,
sweep campsites and perform many other services done before the recession by
private contractors or government employees. In Wisconsin, prisoners are now taking up jobs that were once
held by unionized workers, as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s contentious
Why You Should Care
Those who argue in favor of prison labor claim it is a useful tool for
rehabilitation and preparation for post-jail employment. But this
has only been shown to be true in cases where prisoners are exposed to
meaningful employment, where they learn new skills, not the labor-intensive,
menial and often dangerous work they are being tasked with. While
little if any evidence exists to suggests that the current prison labor system
decreases recidivism or leads to better employment prospects outside of prison,
there are a number of solutions that have been proven to be
According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, having a history of
incarceration itself impedes subsequent economic success. Pew found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11
percent, cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40
percent. The study suggests that the best approach is for state and
federal authorities to invest in programs that reconnect inmates to the labor
market, as well as provide training and job placement services around the time
of release. Most importantly, Pew says that in the long term, America must move
toward alternative sentencing programs for low-level and nonviolent offenders,
and issuing penalties that are actually proportionate with real public safety
The exploitation of any workforce is detrimental to all
workers. Cheap and free labor pushes down wages for
everyone. Just as American workers cannot compete with sweatshop
labor, the same goes for prison labor. Many jobs that come into
prison are taken from free citizens. The American labor movement
must demand that prison labor be allowed the right to unionize, the right to a
fair and living wage, and the right to a safe and healthy work
environment. That is what prisoners are demanding, but they can
only do so much from inside a prison cell.
As unemployment on the outside increases, so too will crime and incarceration
rates, and our 21st-century version of corporate slavery will continue to expand
unless we do something about it.
Tags: California, Criminal Justice, human rights, hunger strike, john rudolf, pelican bay, prison conditions, prison inmates, prisoners, prisons, roger hollander, solitary confinement
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Published on Saturday, July 9, 2011 by the Huffington Post
Nearly 1,500 inmates at six California prisons have joined a hunger strike by prisoners confined in one of the state’s harshest isolation units, prison officials said Friday.
Demonstrators hold up a sign during a rally in front of the State Building in San Francisco, Friday to support prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison. Inmates in an isolation unit at Pelican Bay State Prison are on a hunger strike to protest conditions that they describe as inhumane. Advocates say several dozen inmates in the Security Housing Unit declined to eat their morning meal on Friday. The unit holds about a third of the 3,100 inmates at the Northern California prison. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) The hunger strike began a week ago and was organized by prisoners confined in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison, a maximum security facility located near the Oregon border. Inmates there are held in windowless isolation cells for more than 22 hours a day and can have little or no contact with other prisoners for years and even decades at a time.
A core group of prisoners at Pelican Bay said they were willing to starve to death rather than continue to submit to prison conditions that they call a violation of basic civil and human rights.
“No one wants to die,” James Crawford, a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder and robbery, said in a statement provided by a coalition of prisoners’ rights groups. “Yet under this current system of what amounts to intense torture, what choice do we have?”
The hunger strike comes only weeks after the Supreme Court ordered California to dramatically lower its prisons population, because severe overcrowding was exposing inmates to high levels of violence and disease.
California prison conditions were so poor as to be “intolerable with the concept of human dignity,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion.
The hunger strike is not a protest against overcrowding, however, but against the treatment of offenders who are segregated from the general population due to gang affiliations or crimes committed in prison.
In June, the Pelican Bay inmates provided prison officials advance warning of their intent to begin a hunger strike and made six key demands, including that the prison reform its policies on long-term solitary confinement.
The prisoners cited a 2006 report by a group of attorneys and law enforcement professionals that determined long-term solitary confinement practiced in U.S. prisons can create “torturous conditions that are proven to cause mental deterioration.”
State and federal courts have rejected prisoner lawsuits seeking to alter such policies, however. Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that prisoners in the Pelican Bay isolation unit were held there due to their known affiliation with prison gangs or for violent acts committed in prison.
“The purpose of the Security Housing Unit is to remove gang members’ influence over other inmates and to keep our prisons safe,” she said.
The prisoners also called for an end to a policy allowing indefinite detention in the isolation unit for inmates suspected of continued involvement in gang activity. Gang-affiliated prisoners can be released from the unit if they “debrief,” or provide information on other gang members.
Those who choose not to “debrief” must serve a minimum of six years in the solitary unit and can be held there indefinitely if they engage in any activity that prison officials deem gang-related.
The Largest Prison Strike in American History Goes Ignored By US Media December 23, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Media.
Tags: bill of rights, civil liberties, corrections, Criminal Justice, georgia prison, human rights, joe weber, Media, prison, prisoners, roger hollander, slavery, strike
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By Joe Weber Thursday, December 16, 2010
Today marks the end of a seven-day strike where tens of thousands of inmates in Georgia refused to work or leave their cells until their demands had been met. The odd thing is, that until today, no one had ever heard about this strike.
Inmates in ten Georgia prisons, Baldwin, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Smith and Telfair State Prisons, to name a few, went on strike last Thursday to protest their treatment and demand their human rights.
According to an article by Facing South, Department of Corrections have been nervous about deteriorating conditions in Georgia’s prisons since early 2010. Wardens started triple bunking prisoners in response to budget cuts—squeezing three prisoners into cells intended for one. Prison officials have kept a watchful eye out for prisoners meaning to riot, for prisoners’ rights lawyers to litigate, or both.
Poor conditions and substandard medical care are also on the inmates’ list of demands. However, the jailed’s main gripe seems to center on landing recognition as workers entitled to fair pay.
As it goes, prisoners in Georgia are forced to work without pay for their labor—seemingly a violation of the 13th Amendment, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude.
For months the prisoners had apparently used cell phones to get in touch with inmates from other prisons, organizing a non-violent strike. The outcome began the morning of Dec. 9—by Dec. 13 the GDC issued a statement that four prisons were completely on strike.
An interview with one of the strike leaders revealed that every group of inmates in the prison had been working together. “They want to break up the unity we have here,” said an anonymous strike leader in an interview with the Black Agenda Report. “We have the Crips and the Bloods, we have the Muslims, we have the head Mexicans, and we have the Aryans all with a peaceful understanding, all on common ground.”
The largest prison strike in American history seems like a topic ripe for the press, however there was no mention of it anywhere in mainstream media. Smaller outlets like Black Agenda Report and Facing South (Institute for Southern Studies) have been covering the strike since day one.
Perhaps there was a larger hand at play—one that did not want the deplorable conditions of the Georgia prison system to surface. If Wikileaks has taught us anything, it is that the revolution will be televised.
The prisoners demands:
- A LIVING WAGE FOR WORK: In violation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude, the DOC demands prisoners work for free.
- EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES: For the great majority of prisoners, the DOC denies all opportunities for education beyond the GED, despite the benefit to both prisoners and society.
- DECENT HEALTH CARE: In violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, the DOC denies adequate medical care to prisoners, charges excessive fees for the most minimal care and is responsible for extraordinary pain and suffering.
- AN END TO CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENTS: In further violation of the 8th Amendment, the DOC is responsible for cruel prisoner punishments for minor infractions of rules.
- DECENT LIVING CONDITIONS: Georgia prisoners are confined in over-crowded, substandard conditions, with little heat in winter and oppressive heat in summer.
- NUTRITIONAL MEALS: Vegetables and fruit are in short supply in DOC facilities while starches and fatty foods are plentiful.
- VOCATIONAL AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES: The DOC has stripped its facilities of all opportunities for skills training, self-improvement and proper exercise.
- ACCESS TO FAMILIES: The DOC has disconnected thousands of prisoners from their families by imposing excessive telephone charges and innumerable barriers to visitation.
- JUST PAROLE DECISIONS: The Parole Board capriciously and regularly denies parole to the majority of prisoners despite evidence of eligibility.
Tags: Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, battlefield executions, david edwards, Obama, prisoners, roger hollander, Seymour Hersh, Taliban
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By David Edwards
May 12, 2010 “Rawstory” —
The journalist who helped break the story that detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were being tortured by their US jailers told an audience at a journalism conference last month that American soldiers are now executing prisoners in Afghanistan.
New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh also revealed that the Bush Administration had developed advanced plans for a military strike on Iran.
At the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Geneva, Hersh criticized President Barack Obama, and alleged that US forces are engaged in “battlefield executions.”
“I’ll tell you right now, one of the great tragedies of my country is that Mr. Obama is looking the other way, because equally horrible things are happening to prisoners, to those we capture in Afghanistan,” Hersh said. “They’re being executed on the battlefield. It’s unbelievable stuff going on there that doesn’t necessarily get reported. Things don’t change.:
“What they’ve done in the field now is, they tell the troops, you have to make a determination within a day or two or so whether or not the prisoners you have, the detainees, are Taliban,” Hersh added. “You must extract whatever tactical intelligence you can get, as opposed to strategic, long-range intelligence, immediately. And if you cannot conclude they’re Taliban, you must turn them free.
Hersh has a long history as an investigative journalist and worked for many years at The New York Times. In 1969, he broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Tags: allen roland, federal inmates, for-profit prison, geo group, human rights, prison abuse, prison guards, prison industrial complex, prison industry, prison racism, prisoner abuse, prisoners, prisoners rights, private prisons, roger hollander, u.s. prisoners, Undocumented Immigrants, us prisoners
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March 1st, 2009 ,
Two months before the fraud charges, a study by the Seattle University School of Law and the nonprofit group OneAmerica reported that conditions at the Tacoma facility violated both international and domestic laws that grant detained immigrants the right to food, due process and humane treatment.
Federal immigration officials have the authority to incarcerate undocumented immigrants, asylum-seekers, and even lawful permanent residents while they await hearings with immigration judges or appeal decisions. ICE reports the average length of stay is 30 days, but detentions can last years, according to a November 2008 ICE fact sheet.”
Still no rights for Bagram prisoners February 21, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Human Rights, Iraq and Afghanistan, Torture, War.
Tags: aclu, Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, al-Qaeda, bagram, bagram air base, boeing, cia, civil liberties, detainees, doj, enemy combatants, eric holder, Guantanamo, human rights, International law, justice department, matt apuzzo, nedra pickler, obama administration, prisoners, roger hollander, state secrets, suspreme court, Taliban, torture
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Posted : Friday Feb 20, 2009 21:22:43 EST
http://www.armytimes.com/news/2009/02/ap_terrordetainees022009/WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, siding with the Bush White House, contended Friday that detainees in Afghanistan have no constitutional rights.
In a two-sentence court filing, the Justice Department said it agreed that detainees at Bagram Airfield cannot use U.S. courts to challenge their detention. The filing shocked human rights attorneys.
“The hope we all had in President Obama to lead us on a different path has not turned out as we’d hoped,” said Tina Monshipour Foster, a human rights attorney representing a detainee at the Bagram Airfield. “We all expected better.”
The Supreme Court last summer gave al-Qaida and Taliban suspects held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the right to challenge their detention. With about 600 detainees at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and thousands more held in Iraq, courts are grappling with whether they, too, can sue to be released.
Three months after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Guantanamo Bay, four Afghan citizens being detained at Bagram tried to challenge their detentions in U.S. District Court in Washington. Court filings alleged that the U.S. military had held them without charges, repeatedly interrogating them without any means to contact an attorney. Their petition was filed by relatives on their behalf since they had no way of getting access to the legal system.
The military has determined that all the detainees at Bagram are “enemy combatants.” The Bush administration said in a response to the petition last year that the enemy combatant status of the Bagram detainees is reviewed every six months, taking into consideration classified intelligence and testimony from those involved in their capture and interrogation.
After President Obama took office, a federal judge in Washington gave the new administration a month to decide whether it wanted to stand by Bush’s legal argument. Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd says the filing speaks for itself.
“They’ve now embraced the Bush policy that you can create prisons outside the law,” said Jonathan Hafetz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who has represented several detainees.
The Justice Department argues that Bagram is different from Guantanamo Bay because it is in an overseas war zone and the prisoners there are being held as part of a military action. The government argues that releasing enemy combatants into the Afghan war zone, or even diverting U.S. personnel there to consider their legal cases, could threaten security.
The government also said if the Bagram detainees got access to the courts, it would allow all foreigners captured by the U.S. in conflicts worldwide to do the same.
It’s not the first time that the Obama administration has used a Bush administration legal argument after promising to review it. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a review of every court case in which the Bush administration invoked the state secrets privilege, a separate legal tool it used to have lawsuits thrown out rather than reveal secrets.
The same day, however, Justice Department attorney Douglas Letter cited that privilege in asking an appeals court to uphold dismissal of a suit accusing a Boeing Co. subsidiary of illegally helping the CIA fly suspected terrorists to allied foreign nations that tortured them.
Letter said that Obama officials approved his argument.
The Price of America’s Prison Gulags February 18, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in California, Criminal Justice.
Tags: anthony gregory, california prisons, civil liberties, crime, Criminal Justice, drug policy, human rights, legal system, mandatory prison sentences, non-violent offenses, petty criminals, prison gangs, prison industrial complex, prison industry, prison rape, prison sentences, prison slavery, prison system, prisoners, prisons, reagan presidency, recidivism, roger hollander, victimless crime
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Anthony Gregory, www.consortiumnews.com, February 17, 2009
Editor’s Note: For the last three decades, the United States has been dominated by a philosophy that might be called “tough-guy-ism,” confronting every problem whether foreign or domestic with a swaggering commitment to force and punishment.
Not only has “tough-guy-ism” led the United States into military quagmires like the Iraq War but it has saddled the nation with a vast prison gulag system where millions of Americans are warehoused for excessively long sentences, as the Independent Institute’s Anthony Gregory notes in this guest essay:
A three-judge panel has tentatively ruled that “[t]he California prison system must reduce overcrowding by as many as 55,000 inmates within three years to provide a constitutional level of medical and mental health care,” according to the New York Times.
Taxpayers rightly resent the price tag of the prison system, and many might understandably think that prisoners should have no right to expensive care at their further expense. But if the prisons cannot afford to care for its prisoners, we obviously have far too many.
Now is a good time to seriously reassess the whole system altogether.
Prisons exploded in their growth in the 20th century. The Progressive Era, whose leaders dreamed of recreating society and redeeming mankind through an active and expansionist state, accelerated the development of today’s system. It grew steadily.
Before Reagan’s presidency, there were half a million Americans in prison or jail and fewer than one and a half million on parole or probation. Now there are more than two million behind bars and seven million total in the correctional system. In California, prisons grew by 500 percent from 1982 to 2000.
This is madness. And it’s expensive.
Some worry about the strain on social infrastructure if prisoners were mass-released, but they could not possibly cost the state more than they do now. They would also at least have the chance to create wealth as workers and consumers in the market, rather than just being a drain in the public sector.
Each prisoner costs taxpayers $35,000 a year. Victims are not made whole, but forced to foot the bill to house their perpetrators.
The state used to have some restitution centers through which white-collar convicts could work and pay back their victims as well as some of their detention costs — but these were closed down last month. State officials said the program was too expensive.
Only government could lose more money making people work than just locking them up, feeding and clothing them.
Most offenders never get the opportunity to pay restitution, but are simply jammed in obscenely overcrowded cages. California’s system is designed to hold about 100,000 but instead holds 171,000.
Judges used to have wide discretion in sentencing, which minimized overcrowding. In 1977, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown stripped judges of this authority. “Over the next decade, California’s legislature, dominated by Democrats, passed more than 1,000 laws increasing mandatory prison sentences,” according to the Washington Post.
Brutal violence is all too common. Human Rights Watch estimates that nationwide one out of fifteen male inmates is raped. Many prisoners are effectively the slaves of their cellmates.
Gang violence is endemic. The institution has become a totalitarian hell for those inside.
What’s worse, most people incarcerated should not be. A quarter of the inmates are locked up for non-violent drug offenses. They committed no act of violence against anyone’s person or property, and their imprisonment is part of a destructive drug policy that has boosted crime, trashed civil liberties, uprooted the social order and corrupted the whole legal system.
Many others are in prison for other non-violent offenses against the state — unapproved gun ownership, tax evasion, and so forth. Many petty criminals do not deserve anything like today’s prisons, and their incarceration helps no one.
Most prisoners can and should be released. The number of those who actually must be isolated from society would not lead to overcrowding or be an ungainly financial burden.
California’s recidivism rate is the highest in America. The system does not work.
Indeed, people go in as small-time thieves and come out far worse. They go in as drug users and come out desensitized to savage violence. They go in as burglars and come out as rapists. Prisons increase crime.
Conservatives talk about the good old days when there was more civility, more freedom, lower taxes and less crime. There were also far fewer prisons. Until the modern system is rethought, we can never restore the liberty and social peace we once had.
Anthony Gregory is a research analyst for the Independent Institute