May The Prisons Rot and Burn in Hell

Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time is not a joyful book to read. However, it is an extremely important one. Examples illustrating the inhumane nature of the policy of mass incarceration pepper the text. As one reads more and more of the book, it becomes clear that the intention of this policy is not rehabilitation; in fact, the only reasons for this policy are punishment and social control. Numerous writers and activists have noted how mass incarceration is focused on the poor and primarily non-white. Some have even called it the modern version of antebellum slavery, especially in cases where prisoners are employed by corporate America and paid virtually nothing. The story Kilgore has written points out other similarities to that long ago slavery: the destruction of families, the abuse of prisoners, and the refusal by the system to acknowledge the humanity of those it has locked up. By framing the movement against mass incarceration in terms of the civil rights struggle, he simultaneously humanizes those in prison while contextualizing the dynamic of the prison system in terms of the history of that struggle. Although many books have been written on this subject, it is quite possible that Kilgore is the only author of such a book that did real time inside the prison system itself.61HFKSwNxsL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_

Kilgore makes it crystal clear that mass incarceration is but one aspect of the capitalist rulers’ war on working people, especially those who are not white-skinned. His chapter on the family members left behind when the main breadwinner in a family is sent to prison is a laundry list of actions taken by legislatures, law enforcement and the private sector whose intent can only be the further impoverishment of the poor, working or not. When one adds the destruction of families that occurs all too frequently because of immigration enforcement, the ripple effect becomes even clearer. Children stuck in detention centers without parents, couples separated from their children and each other, the brutality of certain guards and sexual abuse by improperly vetted employees in the prisons; the fact of such inhumane treatment is enough to demand these places be closed down, even if they are the anomaly and not the norm. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the way the system is designed that permits these abuses. Merely changing personnel or rules of employment will not end them. Indeed, only abolishing the system itself will.

Besides the increase in long term incarceration of US citizens and the subsequent proliferation of prisons, laws put into place the past three decades that criminalized immigrants living in the United States without papers have also dramatically increased the number of prisoners in US prisons. In essence, these laws, beginning with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, turned the act of crossing into the United States without the correct documents into a crime. Previously, this was considered a civil offense. Now, tens of thousands of immigrants without papers are detained for varying lengths of time before they are deported. Many of these people are place in privately-owned facilities. This process, known as Operation Streamline, was implemented in late 2005 by President George W. Bush. First-time offenders can be sentenced to a maximum of six months but are often sentenced to time served and deported. Repeat offenders can receive up to two years in prison but generally get from 10 to 180 days. If a repeat offender has a criminal record, he or she can receive a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

As I noted earlier, there have been a number of books published on this subject the past few years. In large part, I would say this is because of the growing movement against incarceration and its excesses. When combined with the movement against solitary confinement and supermax prisons, it is reasonable to say that the movement against current trends in imprisonment is almost as influential as the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, many of the rights won by prisoners back then were taken away during the succeeding backlash against treating prisoners humanely. This has meant that many of the battles against the abuses described in Understanding Mass Incarceration are variations on battles fought back then. This book delineates the need for a systemic approach to the incarceration business in the United States and demands serious work on creating alternatives to incarceration. Kilgore and his editors have composed a graphically pleasing, very readable, emotionally and intellectually engaging work. It is concise, fairly complete and quite convincing in its presentation of the facts surrounding the inhumane and socially destructive policy of mass incarceration.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: