Throwing Their Bodies Upon the Gears: A Background on Mass Incarceration and the September 9th Prisoner Strike

On September 9th 1971, in a small New York town called Attica, home to a NY state correctional facility, a prison uprising began. Prisoners gained control of the facility, took hostages, and sent a list of demands to the authorities. Eye witness accounts claim it was a truly revolutionary situation. Inmates of all colors and backgrounds came together to demand an end to their shared oppression. Four days later, on September 13th, the uprising would end in a massacre. Governor Rockefeller ordered the National Guard and state police to retake Attica by force. Thirty-one prisoners, and nine guards that had been taken hostage, were killed. The guards’ deaths were immediately blamed on vengeful prisoners. Autopsies revealed that the guards had been killed with bullets fired by the besieging force of national guardsman and state troopers. Retaliations against the inmates were fierce and brutal. National headlines were quick to smear the prisoners. The uprising has gone down in history as a riot. A memorial for the dead guards stands outside the prison.

Little has changed in the past 45 years for prisoners in Attica. Indeed, things have gotten worse for all U.S. inmates over the past four and a half decades. Today, on the anniversary of the Attica Uprising, people locked in prisons across this country are going on strike in the largest ever prison strike in U.S. history. To be sure, prisoner resistance has not disappeared since the Attica Uprising, today is a continuation of its legacy and the countless acts of prisoner resistance since. But the strike is historic nonetheless.

So what is the background of the prison strike? What does the strike entail? Who are these prisoners? What type of conditions are they living in? Why should we care what happens to convicted criminals–after all, aren’t they a threat to civilized order? Isn’t it just to imprison people who have done terrible things? And if not, what do socialists propose to do about it?

I. Mass Incarceration and Profit

In the 45 years since the Attica Uprising the United States’s prison population has grown by 700%. The United States contains 25% of all people incarcerated across the planet. No other society in world history has imprisoned more of its own citizens. Currently over two million people are incarcerated in prisons or jails, with almost five million people on probation or parole. This means almost seven million people are currently part of the criminal-justice system. According to the FBI 1 in 3 U.S. citizens has a criminal record. This phenomena has become known as “mass incarceration”; a sterile name for what is essentially a 21st century gulag system.

A particularly vile part of this system is the private prison. Prisons owned by wealthy capitalists and run for a profit. Private prisons were introduced in the 90’s as a response to overcrowding and as part of the broader wave of neoliberal policy “solutions” meant to cut costs. Today 131,000 people are currently incarcerated in private prisons. The Corrections Corporation of America is the largest private prison company in the world and consistently returns huge profits to investors (the CEO of CCA, David Hininger, made 3.4 million dollars in 2015). The conditions inmates incarcerated in private prisons face are almost always worse than their government run counterparts (For an in-depth and first hand look at life inside private prisons and life living in rural poverty I highly recommend Shane Bauer’s investigative piece in Mother Jones). Recently, private prisons made headlines when the Department of Justice announced it would not be renewing their federal contracts, effectively phasing out federal private prisons. But the private prison industry is not worried– only 13 private prisons will be closing. State contracted private prisons, which contain the vast majority of inmates incarcerated in private prisons, will not be affected and neither will the network of privately run immigration detention centers.

U.S. prisons, whether privately run or government run, don’t just house inmates, they also extract massive profits from prisoner labor. There is a long list of companies that use the unbelievably cheap labor of prisoners to increase their profits. Prisoners often work for less than a dollar an hour to sew Whole Foods’s uniforms, pick produce for Walmart, or answer phones for AT&T’s customer service department.

In many prisons labor is technically not mandatory, but if an inmate wants to pay his/her legal fees and court fees or buy  basic necessities, then they have no choice but to work. In some states unpaid labor is mandatory for all inmates. This is the dark side of the 13th Amendment. States like Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Alabama, Mississippi, and many more all require inmates to work on “prison farms” reminiscent of 19th century slave plantations. That 21st century capitalist enterprises benefit from slave labor abroad is widely known. That they still benefit from slave labor at home may come as a shock to many.

II. A Racist System

Proportionally, the victims of modern day slavery are the same victims of the old plantation system: black Americans. Nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million people incarcerated are black. Black Americans are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites. In 2001 one in six black men and one in one hundred black women had been incarcerated. That number has not improved and is devastating to a community that has suffered from centuries of economic and social oppression. In fact it is a continuation of the same systematic oppression black Americans have always faced.

Our prisons are filled with black and poor people who are forced to labor for slave wages (at best) and often come out of prison in more debt than they had when they were first incarcerated. Debt-ridden, they are released back into their already economically devastated neighborhoods. The black mark of a criminal record makes finding employment nearly impossible even if there were jobs available. Recidivism is incredibly high. According to a study released in 2005, 76.6% of prisoners were rearrested within 5 years of their release.

Historically, these policies (part of “The New Jim Crow“) have their roots in the white supremacist nature of the State, which has used the War on Drugs to strengthen itself. The War on Drugs began in 1971, the same year as the Attica Uprising. Its primary characteristics have been the occupation of black neighborhoods by police across the country, “tough on crime” bills (which implement policies such as three strike laws, minimum sentencing and felony charges for drug offenders), and the militarization of the police- all three of which fuel mass incarceration.

Under the guise of the “War on Drugs”, the entire apparatus of the criminal justice system has evolved into a nightmarish industrial machine with the singular purpose of caging black and poor people, extracting profit from their forced labor, spitting them back out into economically abandoned communities occupied by a hostile police force, and then caging them again.

95% of elected prosecutors are white. Their salary ranges from $49,000 to $142,000. They are responsible for prosecuting disproportionately black and mostly poor defendants. Public defenders, supposed to represent our constitutional right to an attorney, are notoriously overworked and underpaid. If defendants cannot pay bail they must build a legal defense behind bars while enduring the daily abuses and inhumanity of prison. This can last years. Most criminal defendants never make it to trial, instead they take a plea bargain. The plea bargain is presented to a defendant as a panacea. Pulled from their jail cells and placed into a room with the prosecutor, the accused is told that if they go to trial they will most certainly lose. Due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws they face 5-10 years in prison. But if they take the plea deal the sentence will be lowered. The accused knows they cannot afford a proper lawyer. They know the jury will not be selected from his/her community. They are coerced into accepting the plea bargain.

Most black prisoners find themselves being arrested due to circumstances out of their control. The official unemployment rate of the black community is 8.1%. This percentage does not take into account the amount of black Americans that have dropped out of the labor force, or are only working part time due to economic conditions (In regards to the entire country, the U6 unemployment rate, which takes into account people who have stopped looking for work or have been forced into part time work, has been stuck at around 9.7 all year). The jobs that are available don’t pay a living wage. Some turn to selling drugs to make ends meet. Others turn to doing drugs to escape the poverty. These people, and the majority of black Americans who have nothing to do with drugs, are constantly harassed by a heavily militarized police force made up of officers living outside the community they work in. CCTV cameras are set up for surveillance of certain neighborhoods. “Community Policing” is used to encourage white or more affluent gentrifiers to assist the local police force in criminalizing black and brown people. Police are armed to the teeth, routinely brutalize whoever they want with no repercussions, and are trained to shoot first and ask questions later.

The rise of “Broken Windows Policing” ensures the local population is constantly ticketed and subject to search for minor infractions. It means that “stop and frisk” policies are normalized and quota systems are implemented. The police force patrols segregated black neighborhoods confronting, citing, imprisoning, and killing members of the community for offenses like jaywalking, hanging out on stoops, selling lose cigarettes, parking illegally, and more often than not- for simply having black skin.

Just as private prisons and corporations profit off of black prison labor, municipalities and private probation companies profit from the mere existence of a black community. Municipalities with large black populations treat the community as a gold mine and make a large majority of the town’s income via citations and court fees. If defendants convicted of misdemeanors or small infractions cannot pay their fines they are routinely jailed and given the bill for their stay in jail. Take the case of Ferguson, where one woman received a ticket for parking illegally; by the end of her experience she had paid more than 1,000 dollars in fines and spent six days in jail. Another man was approached by police while resting in his car after playing basketball. The police accused him of being a pedophile due to the presence of children at the park, drew their guns on him, searched him and his car, and gave him eight arbitrary citations including a citation for the “false statement” of claiming his name was Mike, instead of Michael. The man later lost the job he had held for years due to these charges. These stories are illustrative of the oppression black communities face. This is the everyday experience of millions across the country. There are hundreds of Fergusons and thousands of Eric Garners and Philando Castiles.

Those who are convicted of a crime and serve out their sentence often return to their communities worse off than before. The few employers that do exist are hesitant to hire someone with a criminal record, welfare benefits are denied to felons, public housing is no longer an option, and all the while the former prisoners must carry with them the trauma they endured while incarcerated.

III. The Conditions of the Incarcerated

This segregated population, occupied by the domestic armed wing of the state, are routinely ripped away from their homes and families and forced to labor under inhuman conditions. A prisoner is stripped of all dignity. Their every waking moment is regulated. They are routinely brutalized by guards both physically and mentally (in the Mother Jones article cited earlier a guard is quoted as threatening rape if prisoners don’t comply). The beatings are savage, often four or five guards thrash a single prisoner. Medical care is severely lacking. The guards do not care whether you live or die- someone will be coming to replace you and higher ups will always cover up the viciousness of their underlings. Literature is censored, letters are read, visitation time is short. Many people are incarcerated far from their homes where their family cannot travel.

One of the most egregious parts of the prison system is the use of solitary confinement. People sent to solitary live in a single room, ranging from 6×9 to 8×10 feet, for 23 hours a day seven days a week. They are allowed one hour for exercise and some inmates don’t even receive this hour every day. Sometimes a small window is cut into the wall. Lights are kept on continuously. In some places the bathroom is just a hole in the center or corner of the cell. Meals come through slots in the door, as does most communication, which is only with their guards. These men and women are denied all physical and almost all social contact with other human beings. Some are there for weeks, others for decades. Human rights groups all over the world (including the United Nations) condemn the use of solitary confinement and yet it continues.

The isolation decimates the psychology of its victims. Prisoners in solitary experience a psychiatric disorder characterized by “hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and a litany of other physical and psychological problems” and demonstrate “anxiety, nervousness, obsessive ruminations, anger, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, as well as dizziness, perspiring hands, and heart palpitations”. Solitary destroys human beings, 80,000 to 100,000 of whom are subject to this torture on any given day in the United States.

The offenses that earned many of these unfortunate men and women their stay in “the hole” include: disobedience, political opinions or political activity, religious beliefs, possessing contraband, testing positive for drug use, reporting abuse by prison guards, using social media, and mental illness. It is the go to method of punishment and retribution. Just this year Chelsea Manning was put in indefinite solitary confinement for an alleged suicide attempt.

IV. The Strike

It has been shown that the conditions of the modern American prison are akin to the conditions of the slave camp. Today’s prison strike is about ending this slave system. The initial call to action states,

Slavery is alive and well in the prison system, but by the end of this year, it won’t be anymore. This is a call to end slavery in America. This call goes directly to the slaves themselves. We are not making demands or requests of our captors, we are calling ourselves to action. To every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land, we call on you to stop being a slave, to let the crops rot in the plantation fields, to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement.

This is a call for a nation-wide prisoner work stoppage to end prison slavery, starting on September 9th, 2016. They cannot run these facilities without us.

Today’s action is a direct attack on white supremacy and the capitalism that thrives off of it. The prison strike is a denial of the profit extraction at the heart of the prison industrial complex. It is the act of throwing one’s body onto the gears of the machine and preventing it from functioning at all. These men and women are risking harsh retaliation by standing against oppression and for human dignity. I urged everyone to join the oppressed against the oppressors today. We on the outside have freedom of movement and communication. Join a solidarity protest. Donate to a prisoner rights group. Educate yourself, your friends, and family about the prison industrial complex. Spread the word about the strike- the media won’t be covering it.

This is a list of solidarity actions by city.

You can donate to the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee here

V. The End

There was a popular slogan that came out of the 2015 Baltimore Uprising: “Resistance is justified when Baltimore is occupied”. It is as true for prisoners as it is for the people of Baltimore. The resistance of the oppressed is the engine of history. We can make no meaningful social progress if we refuse to fight for a better future.

If humanity is to advance then prisons must be left in the past. It is clear that prisons are not used to keep murderers and rapists out of society. Its primary purpose is to extract profit and maintain white supremacy. The majority of prisoners are not criminals, but victims. They are the victims of a system that has abandoned communities of working people of every color to unemployment, debt, and drug use. They are victims of a system that sees black bodies as less than human, that occupies their communities, and kills their sons and daughters. They are victims of a system whose sole purpose is to extract profit no matter how much it costs in human misery and environmental destruction.

We can punish murderers and rapists. We can keep them from committing crimes again by separating them from society. We are capable of building institutions that rehabilitate members of our communities that, for any number of reasons, must be rehabilitated.

Keeping human beings locked in cages on an industrial scale is barbarism. The system that profits from this barbarism has zero credibility. Prison is but one example of capitalism’s savagery. It must go to where it belongs- the ash heap of history. Today it is one step closer.

In solidarity,

J.R. Murray

[Image: During the Attica Uprising, inmates wearing cloaks and football helmets, some of them with makeshift weapons, wait to negotiate their demands with state officials].

Further Reading

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis

If They Come In The Morning: Voices of Resistance by Angela Davis

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault

From Blacklivesmatter to Black Liberation by Keeanga Taylor

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

America’s Reconstruction by Eric Foner

Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur

Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women by Victoria Law

Inside This Place, Not of It, Narratives of Women’s Prisons by Robin Levi & Ayelet Waldman

Bibliography [link]


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