Writing from Attica prison shortly before the infamous 1971 rebellion, Sam Melville wrote to a friend that prison had changed him. “One thing is for certain,” he wrote, “when I emerge [from prison] … I won’t be a honky anymore.” Melville, who was incarcerated for bombing a number of U.S. military and corporate installations in New York City, had thrown his lot in with the Black and Puerto Rican radicals at Attica upon his arrival there. New York State Troopers shot him in the chest and let him bleed to death when they brutally retook Attica on September 13, 1971.
Melville’s ruminations suggest a broader reimagining of how we understand the role of white prisoners in a system whose central feature seems to be its racism. Prisons are inescapably racist. Prisons do not just house victims of racism. Rather, they produce racism. Prisons use racism to govern and suppress their captives. Racism remains a strategic tool to ensure that prisoners distrust or attack each other rather than the institution itself. The centrality of racism to punishment has been the most salient feature of popular critiques of mass incarceration, including Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, and Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.
Yet the mainstreaming of a liberal antiracist critique of prisons fails to explain how mass incarceration both works and changes over time. The statistical disparity between the number of Black and white people incarcerated has shrunk in recent years. Tepid reforms to the drug war and a growing leniency among many urban district attorneys to some nonviolent offenses have lowered the number of African Americans going to prison — even while Black people, as of 2016, remain incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people. Meanwhile, the opioid crisis, with its suburban and rural geography, and hardline prosecutors in rural counties have contributed to a rise in the number of white people — especially white women — going to prison and jail. And nearly every single one of the 2.2 million people in prisons, jails and detention centers comes from the poor and working class. All of this is taking place in the context of stagnating wages and deteriorating social conditions that particularly impact people of color but have lowered the standard of living for all Americans.
Prison is and always will be a tool to preserve capitalist inequalities, which are most acutely felt through racism (what a number of people call racial capitalism). The widespread economic precarity, shifts in the demography of incarceration, and growth in transformative social movements offers the opportunity to clarify how an antiracist challenge to prison opens the door to a broader struggle for freedom.
In Golden Gulag, a blockbuster study of California’s prison expansion in the 1980s and 1990s, geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore generatively defined racism as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” This definition highlights the innate racism of prison as an institution. It does not point to specific racial groups. Instead, it defines racism as the structural decisions to create certain groups into a hierarchical order that subjects some groups to early deaths.
The death could be swift, as in the routine killings by police officers, or it could be slow, as in the thousands of people serving life without parole sentences, or the hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated people and others whose sustained exposure to violence, poor quality of food and water, and substandard health care has led to chronic medical conditions that result in early death.
The criminal legal system makes groups as part of its routine functioning. The first group it makes is “criminals,” who are then separated into sex-segregated institutions. Officials assign people to racial groups, which then appear along with their height, weight and other identifying information as part of their “criminal” profile. Prison officials and others in the criminal legal system use other metrics like sexuality, gender presentation, geography and political affiliation to create group hierarchies, often in intersecting ways.
Racism is central to how prison operates. Black people often receive the brunt of this racism — the longest sentences in the toughest conditions with the fewest privileges. Black, Latinx and Indigenous people are more likely to receive the death penalty, serve time in solitary confinement, and be denied access to programs or employment while incarcerated.
Meanwhile, antiracist white people incarcerated for their political activism often receive more extreme punishment than other whites: Consider the ongoing incarceration of antiracists like David Gilbert, Tom Manning and Marius Mason, among others. Though not the majority of incarcerated people, these activists suggest ways that we might begin to expand the discussion of the problem of prison beyond a narrow focus on racial disparities.
Prison Racism Beyond Disparities and Collateral
Progressives often describe incarcerated white people as what Michelle Alexander called “collateral consequences” of anti-Black mass incarceration. Black Agenda Report editor Glen Ford echoed this view, describing white prisoners as the “unintended, collateral damage of the race wars that birthed the nation and built an empire.”
Describing white prisoners as “collateral damage” to an anti-Black system of mass incarceration is both true and incomplete. It misses how the targets of repression can change — as we’ve seen in the expanded demonization of immigrants from Latin America and Muslim-majority countries in recent years.
Put differently, the racism of prison far exceeds the disparities of prison admissions. We can look no further than the failures of bipartisan prison reform in recent years, which has aimed to reduce disparities without much denting the overall number of people in prison. Is mass incarceration less of a problem if its demographics correspond more evenly to the population as a whole? If only 12 percent of the prison population were Black, could we say that prisons are no longer racist — regardless of what happened inside of prisons or whether the prison population still hovered at 2 million people? Racial disparities are one sign of the prison’s racism, not its distinguishing feature. Rather, the repressive violence of the institution constitutes its core racism. Any institution that sorts people into groups for the purpose of subjecting them to varying forms of potentially deadly violence is a racist institution.
Additionally, there is the risk of assuming that because criminalization is anti-Black, all Black people have criminal records — or that no white people do. Such assumptions reinforce the racism of prison. They can also lead to a mistaken emphasis on reducing disparities of prison admissions rather than reducing the reliance on incarceration itself.
That racism is at the center of elite arguments to bolster policing, lengthen sentences, expand prisons and worsen conditions is undeniable. But the core racism of incarceration is best revealed in what the institution does: controlling those communities most rebellious or, by virtue of their marginalization, those most likely to rebel.
“The vast majority of people in prison are there not so much for what they did but for who they were when they did it,” said Laura Whitehorn, who spent more than 14 years in prison for conspiring to bomb several government buildings in protest of police killings and aggressive U.S. foreign policies in the 1980s. In this highly stratified society, where half of all U.S. adults have an immediate family member currently or formerly incarcerated, most people who come into contact with the criminal legal system are poor people from highly marginalized communities who find themselves on the receiving end of racial capitalism’s miseries. The racism that lives there is not in the disparities of admissions. It is in the institution itself.
Prison: Recruiting Grounds for the Right
Recognizing that prisons govern through racism, some on the right have seen it as a way of recruiting more people to their cause. The incarceration of extreme racists like Dylann Roof, James Alex Fields Jr. and Samuel Woodward has given contemporary far rightists imprisoned figures to rally around. More mundanely, the preponderance of white people incarcerated during the opioid crisis provides an opening for more mainstream conservative figures to develop a white-centered approach to questions of mass incarceration. As I have suggested elsewhere, Republican support for the First Step Act and other criminal legal endeavors should be seen as one gambit to suppress radical critiques of imprisonment while recruiting or maintaining the conservative loyalties of white people impacted by the prison system.
Christian conservatives are no stranger to such politics. After his incarceration for Watergate-related crimes, former Nixon appointee Chuck Colson founded a conservative prison ministry. He would go on to play a key role in Right on Crime, the conservative network pushing for privatized, surveillance-based alternatives to mass incarceration. When he was governor of Arkansas, Christian theocrat and Fox News commentator Mike Huckabee granted more than 1,000 pardons and commutations in 10 years, well over what most Democratic governors have done in recent decades.
The core precept of antifascism assumes particular urgency in prison: If you don’t organize people, they will. In other words, the absence of antiracist outlets for white people in (and out of) prison opens the door to recruitment by white supremacists, Christian theocrats and other far-right groups. Writing about prison after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a Michigan prisoner named Jerry Metcalf wrote that “prison is a real-life example of the world white supremacists want.” As in the streets, so in prison: Only determined antiracist opposition, including one that has something to offer some of those being recruited by the right, can prevent the realization of such a dystopian outcome.
Traces of History, Urgencies of Now
This provisional sketch of prison racism and white prisoners builds on the longstanding insights of activist prisoners. Since at least the 1960s, much of the radical prison organizing tradition has been Black nationalist in thought and multiracial in character. George Jackson, one of its principal architects, affirmed as much when he wrote, “If a man wants to relate to my blackness, fine, but I would prefer he relate to me on the basis of my status as a soldier in the world revolution.” Jackson wrote frequently that racism was the greatest divider of prisoners, to the benefit of their real enemy: the prison system and the capitalist state it upheld. That is why, he said, guards so often rely on racism to run prisons. It is an effective means of social control. When Black prisoners crafted protest demands in what became the 1970 “Folsom manifesto of demands and anti-depression platform,” they framed their demands in ways that the entire prison population could identify with.
Nearly every prison uprising in recent memory has been Black- and/or Latinx-led and thoroughly multiracial, from the 1993 Lucasville Rebellion to the 2011–2013 California prisoner hunger strikes to the 2018 national prison strike. In each case, incarcerated people have undercut prison racism with multiracial solidarity. Black prisoners continue to advance some of the sharpest critiques of the prison system while creating space for white prisoners to participate in antiracist human rights campaigns.
The social life of prisons is in many ways more complex than academic and popular analysis of it would indicate. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, many in the political prisoner support movement referred to antiracist political prisoners like Marilyn Buck as “Euro-Americans” rather than “white.” In Washington State, where, in 2018, whites are 79 percent of the total population and 69 percent of the prison population, many incarcerated people distinguish between those who are committed to white supremacy versus people whose ancestry can be traced back to Europe but who are not invested in white supremacist ideologies. The former are called “white,” as sure a confirmation as any that whiteness was created to serve instruments of power. The latter, however, are called “Caucasian.” Ironically, as some prisoners have told me, this distinction began decades ago as a way for Nazi gangs to differentiate between those loyal to white supremacy versus those who were not. Today, however, it serves a different purpose, differentiating personal ancestry from political loyalty.
Prison, as formerly incarcerated journalist and activist James Kilgore wrote, is a place simultaneously ruled by solidarity and racism. “You can cram 150 ‘convicts’ into a converted gym and make them sleep on triple bunks, and they will develop a way to get along without violence,” Kilgore wrote about his six-and-a-half years in prison, even though “prisons are steeped in hate and violence.” Decades earlier, journalist Tom Wicker was so impressed with the solidarity forged among prisoners during the Attica rebellion that he described the prison yard as the “first place I have ever seen where there was no racism.”
These are the contradictions of prison racism, much as they are the contradictions at the heart of the United States itself: brutal racism and inspired solidarity compete and coexist. This is, after all, the country that elected both Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jeff Sessions and Barbara Lee. While U.S. prisons will likely always reserve their toughest punishments for Black, Indigenous and Latinx people, millions of white people are also currently or formerly incarcerated. They have their own deep connections to the carceral state — giving them, at least potentially, a stake in opposing it too.
We do not need the endless number of think pieces on incarcerated white people that mainstream journalists have churned out on rural white Trump voters. The “white working class” remains an inherently contradictory term, emphasizing privilege and oppression. Yet as the material benefits of whiteness decline, more white people find themselves incarcerated — and, perhaps, with a desire for justice. As Lorenzo Jones, co-director of the Katal Center put it, “Poor and formerly incarcerated white people have to fight for what they’re due; and they have to make sure everyone gets it.”
The U.S. carceral state is large, cruel and unnecessary. And with half of all American adults having an immediate family member who is or has been incarcerated, there is a powerful political constituency to mobilize against its cruelties. If prison, like racism more generally, hurts nearly everyone, to different scales and degrees, so must movements against prison enlist nearly everyone, even if in different scales and degrees.
Overcoming decades of division and segregation to build multiracial movements powerful enough to take on the government’s repressive apparatus is no small task. But the freedom we seek, the world we need and deserve, rests on it.