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Most readers probably know the outline of this story: beginning in the 1970s the incarceration rate in America, the proportion of the population sent to prison, started to rise exponentially. The rate of incarceration in America is now the highest in the world. And in absolute numbers the U.S. has gone from having around 300,000 citizens in prison in the late 1970s to about 2.3 million as of last year. This doesn’t include those held in immigrant detention facilities, a number that has also risen exponentially, particularly in the last four years.
Two trends begun in earnest in the 1980s are behind the rise. The ‘war on drugs’ has nominally produced the incarcerated and the privatization of the prison system provides the economic motive for increasing the number of those incarcerated.
In her book The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness author Michelle Alexander lays out the racial politics behind the ‘war on drugs.’ In essence, in the 1980s and 1990s political opportunists appealed to white fears and racialized the public health problem of drug abuse for political gain. In so doing, they (re)demonized black America and gave cover to the idea that this county’s legal, penal and policing systems are to prevent ‘crime,’ rather than to produce, legitimize and enforce racial and class oppression.
In fact, drug abuse in America is broad based and racially diverse. White Americans use illegal drugs in approximate proportion to black and brown Americans. The reason why black and brown Americans go to prison for drug violations while white Americans don’t is because of explicitly racist policing such as New York’s ‘stop and frisk’ policy that (illegally) targets black and brown youth and men.
There are no similar policing practices in rich, white suburbs, and therefore no similar rates of drug arrests. Additionally, for those arrested for drug offenses, sentences differ between black and white because of an urban / suburban divide by drug form (e.g. crack versus powder cocaine) that has been racialized.
The privatization of America’s prisons makes explicit the economic basis for the racial and class divide that has led from the ‘founding’ of this country on race-based slavery and genocide to the original Jim Crow laws in the post-civil war South (and ‘soft’ racism everywhere else) to today’s “prison industrial complex’ and ‘New Jim Crow.’
Private prisons are built and run by politically connected capitalists whose profits increase with the number of imprisoned and with the amount of unpaid labor that they are able to extract. This system has replaced slave ‘ownership’ with captive labor that faces social (legal) sanction under the legitimizing strategy of punishment for ‘crimes’ committed. However, if the laws are racist and policing is racist then the system is racist (and classist).
Were ‘crime’ suppression behind the increase in incarceration rates the enthusiastic prosecution of Bush and Obama administration officials for war crimes, torture, false imprisonment, murder and illegal surveillance would be accompanied by near endless prosecutions of Wall Street for financial crimes and industrial leaders for environmental and myriad other crimes. The complete and utter immunity that America’s economic and political elite has from criminal prosecution is clear evidence of the class basis of the legal, penal and policing systems.
In addition to the personal tragedies that the prison industrial complex produces; wasted lives, stolen labor, social exclusion, lost family and community ties, permanent impoverishment, this system is a class crime. Much has been made of the reluctance of Americans to rebel, even under circumstances deemed intolerable. But a large number of Americans who face the material conditions conducive to rebellion are in prison. Maintaining social control in the face of a wildly bifurcated economy where a few live off of the labor of the many is a clear purpose of this system.
The American state is no neutral actor in the political economy. As Ms. Alexander articulates, investigation of the facts finds few ‘accidents’ in the construction of this racist legal, penal and policing system. Seeking redress through ‘official’ channels is, as Malcolm X put it, a diversion. And at this point in history, one’s view of the appropriate solutions is very much a function of one’s analysis of the problems.
The prison industrial complex is a moral and political crime. It is a class crime. It is also a microcosm of the broader systems of capitalist domination, exploitation and control. It ties to declining wages for labor in the face of rising corporate profits. It ties to rising unemployment and the declining proportion of the population in the work force. It ties to increasing indebtedness in the face of more onerous legal repayment requirements. It ties to the increasing discretion of the political elites to imprison us. It ties to increasing surveillance. It ties to racist wars for the economic benefit of the few. In a system based on exploitation, the prison industrial complex is just one more mode of exploitation.
When (former Black Panther) Angela Davis was asked about political violence some decades ago (Swedish television interview) she made the point that black America was the victim of political violence, not the perpetrator. Racist and classist legal, penal and policing systems are the perpetrators of systematic political violence. Self-defense against this political violence is an entirely legitimate political and moral tactic. Additionally, this system represents the interests of capitalist exploitation and domination. One is unlikely to be changed without the other.
In both political and moral terms, ending this prison industrial complex system is an imperative. As in the 1950s and 1960s, we must organize, mobilize and go into the streets. The existing system is the problem, not the solution. And it will be the facts on the ground that matter, not the chatter from politicians and designated leaders (Democrats). This racist, classist prison system must be ended now.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York. (Check out Rob Urie’s work at the CounterPunch Online auction.)