Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Orange Has Been the New Black ... for a Long Time

“Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis, 2003

Prisoners in Guantanamo on hunger strike.  Prisoners in California on hunger strike.  Volleyed and thundered.  Almost total black-out by the bourgeois ‘news.’  We know the majority of prisoners in Guantanamo are innocent or with short term charges.  The prisoners in California are protesting, as their number one demand, the practice of long solitary confinement.  They say it is an abridgement of the right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment, as prohibited in the U.S. Bill of Rights.  Solitary for many years is torture.  Of course, the U.S. protects torturers and still sends suspects to be tortured, even under Obama.  Solitary?  The U.S. CIA developed that technique long ago – referred to in Naomi Klein’s book, “The Shock Doctrine.” (reviewed below)

Angela Davis, of course, was jailed herself long ago, and is still an anti-prison activist.  This book is a description of the need for prison ‘abolition’ – not prison ‘reform.’  The term ‘prison reform,’ as she points out, is as old as prisons themselves – showing they were flawed from the get-go.  Prisons were at one time thought as a progressive reform over English capital punishment and mutilation for minor crimes (see Saudi Islamist criminal law now).  However, even in the 1800s a normal liberal like Dickens understood that prisons were cruel and rehabilitated no one.  Nothing has changed – except, perhaps, the neo-liberals, as they now embrace the prison-industrial complex.

Davis’ figures are somewhat dated, as things have gotten worse since she wrote this book.  2.3 million prisoners are now incarcerated in the U.S., the highest percentage in the world.  25% of all the prisoners in the world are in U.S. prisons, when we have only 5% of the world population.  Half are in jail for drug ‘crimes.’  The majority are black.  70% of arrested blacks go to jail for drug ‘crimes’ – a percentage many times higher than whites. The super-max isolation prison – invented here in the states, the land of the ‘free’ – is now being exported to South Africa, Australia and other countries. 

Her book fits in perfectly with the books “Slavery by Another Name” and “The New Jim Crow” (both reviewed below.) It is a short primer on prison justice issues, covering the profiteering corporations, women’s issues in jail, the theory and a bit of the history of prisons, and the politics of abolition versus ‘reform.’  As Davis points out, mass incarceration in the U.S. is an extension of slavery and of Jim Crow convict leasing.  It plays the same role in the black – and now Latino population – as those systems did, as a form of labor profit and control.  Prison and police hang over the black and Latino communities like Damocles swords, as a warning to all – even if you are never jailed.  Time passes in the U.S., but only the forms change.

After the Attica revolt in 1971, college courses were offered to prisoners by a local college.  That program ended 21 years later and that is symbolic - as U.S. prisons no longer pretend to ‘reform’ anyone.  It is a purely punitive institution, measured in time only – just like work.  Libraries are shut, educational opportunities reduced, even weight-training cut back or ended.  Instead, prisoners work for capitalist firms for peanuts – Hospital Corporation of America, Dial Soap, AT&T, Famous Amos, ADM, Nestle, Wal-Mart, Ace, Hewlett Packard, RJ Reynolds, Verizon, Polaroid, Sprint and Ameritech. Not to mention the integration of the military with the prison-industrial complex, or the firms like Wackenhut or Correctional Corporation of America (“CCA”) and the food/ medical/ drug firms that can make direct profit in the privatization of prisons.  And no surprise, privatization is most prominent in the south and west of the U.S.  The American Gulag is a very profitable place. 

The strip search, which is legal in the American prison system – which involves probing a woman’s vagina and anus and a man’s anus for ‘contraband’ – is a form of sexual assault.  And it is just the beginning of the practices of sexual abuse and assault practiced in U.S. prisons, of which women are especial targets  (See commentary on "Rape, Really?"  below.) While ‘outlawed,’ the practices are not prosecuted, but tolerated as a part of the punishment regime.  Hey, you’re in ‘prison.’  What do you expect? 

Davis does not dwell on the death penalty or the drug war or draconian sentencing laws or even solitary, opposing all, but instead shows how these practices are part of a wider prison system that is actually an integral part of capitalism.  Prisons are the place where economic, cultural and ethnic ‘violators’ are put; where the surplus population can be housed; where corporate super-profits can be made; where punishment can be meted out that is not meant to deter crime; where minorities can be disenfranchised; where the ‘free’ work-force can be terrorized; where blame can be laid. 

So far, it seems to be working.  But like every other oppressed group, prisoners are rising.

And I bought it at Mayday Books.
Red Frog
July 24, 2013

P.S. - A quote from the Guardian re prison ’reform’ and racist disparities in crack cocaine sentencing, July 23rd:
"Last month, President Obama quietly did something that should shake every American to the core. Seeking to enforce federal crack cocaine laws that have since been repealed, the Obama administration asked a federal appeals court to ensure that thousands of human beings, mostly poor and mostly black, remain locked in prison even though everyone agrees that there is no justification for them to be there."

I.E. Obama & Holder want to continue the sentences of mostly black crack cocaine convicts, even after those laws have been repealed.  In other words, the black upper-middle class running the STATE can be as big an enemy of black people as the white upper middle class.

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