The Roots of Mass Incarceration in the US: Locking Up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor
Edited by Mumia Abu-Jamal and Johanna Fernandez
Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 28, No. 3, November 2014
Prison populations have exploded in the United States, with a nearly eight-fold increase in the number of people behind bars from 1970 to today. In the initial decades of that breathtaking ascent, Black radical organizations, along with other groups spearheading systemic change, were devastated by, among other things, government counter-intelligence operations.
One result is that today there are dozens of political prisoners incarcerated for their stands against repression. Some are Prisoners of War (POWs) from the just liberation struggles of Black, Native American, Puerto Rican and Mexican people. Some of these prisoners have been held for more than 40 years. The cancerous growth of mass incarceration and the lethal repression of revolutionary groups are neither accidental nor unrelated.
The scandal of mass incarceration in the United States is finally getting some public attention, with a few damning statistics frequently cited: The United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners; and while African Americans constitute 15 percent of illicit drug users, they are 75 percent of those in prison for drugs. While this new exposure is welcome, the mainstream discussion fails to get at the roots of the problem and therefore can’t begin to address the depth of the changes needed.
In the November, 2014, special issue of Socialism and Democracy, “The Roots of Mass Incarceration in the US: Locking Up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor,” provides a penetrating analysis of a range of the issues involved and points toward the steps that are needed to turn around these horrors. Not surprisingly, the most trenchant essays in this collection come from those who have been in the trenches – those who have been fighting this monster for decades, especially the several pieces written by political prisoners and ex-political prisoners. This publication couldn’t be more timely and relevant, as the mighty river of the Black Lives Matter movement flows across and brings new life into the country.
“The Roots of Mass Incarceration in the US” was edited by scholar/activist Johanna Fernandez and Mumia Abu-Jamal, the political prisoner who has been held in Pennsylvania since 1981 (and is a stellar journalist and superb writer). Their introduction is a brilliant essay: Right in the first paragraph, they hit the nail on the head, writing that in the wake of the advances of the 1960s, the US launched “the frenzied reaction to the black freedom struggle that set the stage for today’s hyper-incarceration of poor urban black and brown communities.” They go on to elaborate on a number of key, but rarely highlighted, issues – including the deleterious impact on the children and communities of those ripped away to jail, and the ways in which the system dehumanizes people at home while similarly invading, torturing and killing abroad.
Black men are incarcerated at a higher rate in the US today than they were under apartheid in South Africa … The poor/rich ratio within each racial group is even steeper than the ratios between races.
Fittingly, the first piece in the issue is an interview with Angela Y. Davis (“Deepening the Debate Over Mass Incarceration: An Interview”). Davis has been an outstanding voice – both as author and as activist – around both mass incarceration and political prisoners since her own time in jail in 1970. As always, she’s completely clear about how these travesties are grounded in the foundation of white supremacy and capitalism. Also, in welcome contrast to many commentators, she underscores the impact on women. Even though they make up only a small portion of the incarcerated, the number of women in prison has been increasing at a much faster rate than that of men, with over 200,000 women behind bars today. Davis links that rise to the shredding of the social safety net, while she also critiques the virulent attacks on black women’s roles in keeping their families together.
The racist character of the “justice” system is stunning. The rate of incarceration for black males is nearly eight times that for white males; and for women, the ratio is almost 3 to 1. Black men are incarcerated at a higher rate in the United States today than they were under apartheid in South Africa. Sociologist Loic Wacquant (“Class, Race, and Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America”) also reminds us not to forget class: He shows that the poor/rich ratio within each racial group is even steeper than the ratios between races.
The system manipulates poor and working-class whites by deflecting what should be anger against capitalism to various racially coded scapegoats, including welfare recipients, immigrants and those accused of street crime.
While class is always an important basis for how policies are applied, the dynamics leading to mass incarceration flow from an epic political battle. Kevin “Rashid” Johnson is a courageous fighter for prisoners’ rights who’s been in prison for over 20 years. He’s also a keen analyst of society and clearly states what set off the cancerous growth of prisons along with the lethal political repression. In “Racialized Mass Imprisonment: Counterinsurgency and Genocide,” he writes:
The US mass imprisonment model developed as yet another disguised system of racialized social control and counterinsurgency in specific response to the New Afrikan/Black Liberation movement [which] catalyzed the various rebellious social movements of that day (including the Women’s, anti-Vietnam War, Native /American, Gay-Lesbian, etc. movements.
Johnson also exposes how the system manipulates poor and working-class whites by deflecting what should be anger against capitalism to various racially coded scapegoats, including welfare recipients, immigrants and those accused of street crime.
From inside prison walls, I regularly observe the sad irony that many white prisoners are heavily invested in white supremacy as a way for those prisoners, disdained by society, to feel that they are “better” than other people.
Despite their lower rate of incarceration, the mushrooming of the total population has meant that a much greater number of whites are locked up today than in the 1970s. Those invested in their racism fail to see how the advances for prisoners’ rights came only in the context of the Civil Rights and the Black Power movements.
A core analysis of mass incarceration is powerfully presented in two essays in the middle of this volume (both by friends of mine). The first of these is by dedicated organizer dequi kioni-sadiki and Sekou Odinga, a political prisoner/POW who was still inside when this essay was written and was recently released after doing 33 years. In “‘We Reserve the Right to Resist’: Prison Wars and Black Resistance,” they provide a sweeping sense of the history of mass incarceration, tracing it back to the resistance to slavery and the repression to enforce it. The attacks on the modern Black Liberation movement are best exemplified by (but not limited to) the government’s illegal COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program) of disruption, imprisonment and assassination. That went hand-in-hand with mass incarceration to control and contain the ghettos.
Kioni-sadiki and Odinga give a sense of the range of political movements that have produced the dozens of political prisoners being held today. The campaigns to free political prisoners and for decarceration are not competing arenas, but rather, they form a joint struggle. All of this is based on the nature of the system: “The politics of mass and political imprisonment must never be separated from the fight against capitalism, colonialism, racism and classism [and] gender oppression,” they write.
That understanding points to the necessity of fighting for deeper, overall political change.
The central question about political prisoners/POWs in the United States is not “guilt or innocence” . . . but rather people’s rights and responsibilities to resist racism and colonialism.
Drawing on the experience of the Black Panther Party and its programs for survival pending revolution (Odinga was one of the Panther 21 of 1969, one of the most notorious frame-ups in US history), they emphasize the role of grassroots organizing based in a class analysis to meet social needs and move toward self-determination and economic vibrancy for oppressed communities.
The second of these essays is “Black Power Incarcerated: Political Prisoners, Genocide, and the State,” by Laura Whitehorn. Drawing on her own years as a political prisoner from 1985 to 1999, she presents a poignant snapshot of the realities “under the unrelenting psychological and physical attrition those [prison] conditions cause.” Pointing out that the United States holds 33 percent of the world’s incarcerated women, Whitehorn relates that to the history of genocidal violence and disruption against black people in the United States. She underscores the international nature of the system of imperialism and the vital legitimacy of anticolonial struggles.
Given the pivotal role of state repression in maintaining overall social control, “what happens in our nation’s prisons happens, ultimately, to all of us.”
In that context, Whitehorn writes, the central question about political prisoners/POWs in the United States is not “guilt or innocence” of the criminal charges in each case, but rather people’s rights and responsibilities to resist racism and colonialism. While reforms are desperately needed to stop what we can of pervasive and persistent harm, “any reforms have to be viewed through the lens of the longer-range goal, abolishing the imperialist prison system.”
In addition to emphasizing how mass incarceration and the locking up of dissidents are used to enforce an oppressive system, this collection includes analyses of resistance. The inclusion of several current and ex-prisoner activists as authors speaks volumes in itself. In addition, historian Heather Ann Thompson contributes an essay, “Lessons from Attica: From Prisoner Rebellion to Mass Incarceration and Back,” that gives a gripping account of the 1971 Attica prison uprising and the state’s response with a brutal massacre that killed 39 human beings and tortured many more. She explains that government officials knew that to achieve full control over the criminal justice system they would have to crush the prisoners’ rights movement.
Thompson mentions a recent resurgence of struggles, with mass prisoner hunger strikes in California, Georgia and other states – a development worth a major essay in its own right. Given the pivotal role of state repression in maintaining overall social control, “what happens in our nation’s prisons happens, ultimately, to all of us.” Thompson calls on all who want to achieve social change to actively support prison struggles.
The volume provides a promising example of outside organizing in New York state in the essay, “Release Aging People in Prison/RAPP: Challenging the Punishment Paradigm.” Authors Laura Whitehorn and Mujahid Farid (who was an outstanding prisoner rights activist in New York state for the decades up until his release in 2011) argue effectively for the logic of releasing elders in prison, whether their initial offense is defined as nonviolent or violent, and uses that as an opening to challenge the entire punitive paradigm for dealing with social and public health problems. This encouraging account whets our appetite for learning about other relevant projects. While no single collection of essays can be all-inclusive, this volume would have benefited greatly by including a list, with contact information, of such organizations. A good one can be found in the political prisoner index to Dan Berger’s The Struggle Within: Prisons, Political Prisoners, and Mass Movements in the United States (PM Press, 2014).
If you’re looking for a collection that provides a cogent core analysis, understands mass incarceration’s realities – not statistically, but rather in terms of our epic political struggles – and roots the problems in the very nature of the social system, then this Socialism and Democracy special issue is an outstanding and essential read. The volume demonstrates why we need to go beyond various reform proposals – valuable as they are – to a much broader struggle for change.
A book release event, Nothing to Lose But Our Chains: Black Resistance and the Roots of Mass Incarceration, will take place Friday, March 20 from 6 to 9 pm in New York City at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center, 3940 Broadway, Harlem. Speakers will include dequi kioni-sadiki, Sekou Odinga, Nyle Fort, Johanna Fernandez and Laura Whitehorn.