FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Microcosm of the Nation–Control Unit Prisons

by RON JACOBS

In the late 1990s and early part of this century I worked as a researcher and writer for the journal Southland Prison News.  This small journal usually ran about thirty pages and was sent out to prisoners incarcerated primarily in the US South.  Edited by an inmate in Virginia, each issue contained a digest of articles concerning prisoners and prisons along with a feature or two, some book reviews, some prisoner poetry and art.  I stopped working for the journal when the funding dried up.  Before that work, I had never spent much time working on prison-related issues.  Sure, I had attended forums and rallies supporting various political prisoners and prisoner rights ever since the uprising and massacre at Attica prison in 1971, but my political work usually did not involve prison issues.  Perhaps this came from a distaste acquired through various brushes with the law and the subsequent days spent in jail here and there.

The same cannot be said for Nancy Kurshan and the people whose work she so artfully chronicles in the recently released book Out of Control: A Fifteen Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons.  Kurshan, a lifelong political activist, (among other things, she is one of the founders of the Yippies) is an ardent opponent of the US prison system, especially those prisons known as control unit prisons.  Her book tells of the genesis and growth of these units throughout the United States and of the battle to oppose them.OutOfContro Webl

It is not a tale with a happy ending.  According to the text’s introduction, over 80,000 prisoners are currently locked away in control unit prisons in the United States.  What this means is that over 80,000 prisoners exist in a world controlled almost completely by prison architecture and the guards those prisons employ.  Living in cells smaller than many suburban bathrooms, the walls are painted white, lights are on most of the day, no windows or even bars, hardly any exercise, no reading materials and no visitors; that is the life of most prisoners in these units.  Sometimes there are even further restrictions.  Rarely are there fewer. These units are constantly watched by prison video feeds and prisoners are often beaten at will by the guards. If this doesn’t bother you, then you probably shouldn’t bother reading the rest of this review.

There are over 2,000,000 people locked up in the United States.  That is more than any other nation in the world.  Furthermore, the rate of incarceration in the United States is higher than that of any other nation.  According to the NAACP, African American and Latinos comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though they make up approximately one quarter of the US population.  This is not because Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be criminals.  It is because US laws and the police that enforce those laws target these demographic groups.  This fact alone lends credence to the argument made by the activists in Out of Control that there is a calculated plan to imprison black and Latino men in the US.  The history of the US is one that required control of its Black population, even after slavery.  Indeed, even more so after slavery.  Prisons are part of that plan.  It is with this as a fundamental part of that understanding that Kurshan tells her story of a movement (Movement to End the Marion Lockdown) built to oppose that calculation.

The reader is presented with detailed descriptions of the meetings, protests, legal campaigns, and other work the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown undertook over the fifteen years of its existence.  This group was composed of leftists, religious clergy and laity, families of prisoners and other concerned humans. There are small victories and many defeats, primarily because of the complete lack of regard for prisoners’ humanity displayed by the Bureau of Prisons, most politicians and other officials.  There are also the small victories.  After years of demanding a new water source be built for the Marion prison, headway was finally made.  Occasionally, even a prisoner gets freed.  Throughout, the narrative is told with a warmth and humanity that exists in direct contrast to the tales being told.  Her description of the development of a friendship between her family and the Reverend Bruce Wright, whose book Black Robes, White Justice was one of the first books to discuss in plain terms the role the US justice system plays in continuing the racism of US society, is the story of a friendship between unsung warriors.

Many of the procedures used in control unit prisons began in the 1960s when the United States government started locking up leftist revolutionaries and others as part of its COINTELPRO program.  This time period is also when leftists began to consciously focus on prisoner rights, in part because their leaders were being locked up.  This work helped them to understand that prisons are the final point of confrontation between the state and those who act against it.  Indeed, this is precisely why prisoner struggles for human rights are components of the greater struggle for those rights.

As pointed out before, there are now over 2,000,000 people incarcerated in the United States.  Prison construction and maintenance is often one of the larger elements of government budgets.  This is despite the fact that crime has consistently gone down in the past decade.  These facts make it clear that prisons are not so much about fighting crime as they are about controlling segments of the population.  As austerity takes a greater hold on the US economy, one can be certain that more working and poor men and women will be sent to prison while the real thieves run the country further into the ground.

Besides being a detailed and inspiring account of a group of human rights activists, Nancy Kurshan’s Out of Control is a useful resource for discussing the realities of prison in the twenty-first century United States. It is also the tale of a particular part of the movement opposed to that reality.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the forthcoming novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

February 22, 2017
Mike Whitney
Liberals Beware: Lie Down With Dogs, Get Up With Fleas
John Grant
On Killers and Bullshitters*
Peter Linebaugh
Catherine Despard, Abolitionist
Patrick Cockburn
The Bitter Battle for Mosul
Ted Rall
Sue the Bastards? It’s Harder Than You Think
Yoav Litvin
The Emergence of the Just Jew
Kim Scipes
Strategic Thinking and Organizing Resistance
Norman Pollack
Mar-a-Lago, Ideological Refuge: Berchtesgaden, II
Fred Donner
Nixon and the Chennault Affair: From Vietnam to Watergate
Carl Kandutsch
Podesta vs. Trump
Ike Nahem
To the Memory of Malcolm X: Fifty Years After His Assassination
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s Tough Talk Won’t Fix Chicago
Paul Donnelly
Betsy DeVos and the War on Public Education
Ebony Slaughter-Johnson
The End of an Alliance for Police Reform
Richard Lawless
Wall Street Demanded the Nuclear Option and the Congress Delivered
Liaquat Ali Khan
Yes, Real Donald Trump is a Muslim!
Ryan LaMothe
“Fire” and Free Speech
CounterPunch News Service
Bloody Buffalo Billboards
February 21, 2017
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Finance as Warfare: the IMF Lent to Greece Knowing It Could Never Pay Back Debt
CJ Hopkins
Goose-stepping Our Way Toward Pink Revolution
John Wight
Firestarter: the Unwelcome Return of Tony Blair
Roger Harris
Lenin Wins: Pink Tide Surges in Ecuador…For Now
Shepherd Bliss
Japanese American Internment Remembered, as Trump Rounds Up Immigrants
Boris Kagarlitsky
Trump and the Contradictions of Capitalism
Robert Fisk
The Perils of Trump Addiction
Deepak Tripathi
Theresa May: Walking the Kingdom Down a Dark Alley
Sarah Anderson
To Save Main Street, Tax Wall Street
Howard Lisnoff
Those Who Plan and Enjoy Murder
Franklin Lamb
The Life and Death Struggle of the Children of Syria
Binoy Kampmark
A Tale of Two Realities: Trump and Israel
Kim C. Domenico
Body and Soul: Becoming Men & Women in a Post-Gender Age
Mel Gurtov
Trump, Europe, and Chaos
Stephen Cooper
Steinbeck’s Road Map For Resisting Donald Trump
February 20, 2017
Bruce E. Levine
Humiliation Porn: Trump’s Gift to His Faithful…and Now the Blowback
Melvin Goodman
“Wag the Dog,” Revisited
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima: a Lurking Global Catastrophe?
David Smith-Ferri
Resistance and Resolve in Russia: Memorial HRC
Kenneth Surin
Global India?
Norman Pollack
Fascistization Crashing Down: Driving the Cleaver into Social Welfare
Patrick Cockburn
Trump v. the Media: a Fight to the Death
Susan Babbitt
Shooting Arrows at Heaven: Why is There Debate About Battle Imagery in Health?
Matt Peppe
New York Times Openly Promotes Formal Apartheid Regime By Israel
David Swanson
Understanding Robert E. Lee Supporters
Michael Brenner
The Narcissism of Donald Trump
Martin Billheimer
Capital of Pain
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail