Incarceration as Fascism, Incarceration as Imperialism

Incarceration is about controlling. Not just those who commit criminal acts, but also those who society has no economic use for. If there are no laws existing to lock up this latter demographic, the facts tell us that the ruling classes will create new laws and intensify enforcement of existing statutes. An almost perfect example of this process is the so-called war on drugs. It was in 1971 that the Nixon White House launched its so-called war. John Ehrlichman, who was Nixon’s advisor on domestic affairs, revealed the drug war’s true intention in a conversation with writer Dan Baum quoted in the April 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine, stating “ The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.” The current administration of Joe Biden signed onto the campaign not long afterwards. Biden remains a supporter to this day.

This notion is but one element of author Benjamin Weber’s new book, American Purgatory: Prison Imperialism and the Rise of Mass Incarceration. Weber argues that the rise of mass incarceration in the United States is a reflection of Washington’s historical policies against Blacks, the indigenous and immigrants and the expansion of those policies to populations in those nations Washington’s military invaded and occupied. Virtually all of those latter populations were (and are) non-white and all resisted the US efforts to colonize them. In other words, after a history of subjugating Blacks, indigenous and immigrants in the homeland, Washington uses similar methods of incarceration to control the populations of nations it invades. Some blatant examples of this include the torture methods used against Iraqis in detention centers like Abu Ghraib and the counterinsurgency program known as Operation Phoenix in southern Vietnam. The latter saw whole villages destroyed; the residents were then forcibly moved to so-called hamlets. These hamlets were the equivalent of the reservations the US military forced northern America’s indigenous populations into.

In American Purgatory, Weber refers to the explosion of political resistance in US prisons and jails in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This movement included several uprisings and other forms of resistance. The 1971 Attica rebellion is probably the best known of the uprisings, although several other such incidents occurred before and after that uprising was violently put down by New York police forces. However, he does not stop there. Instead, Weber takes the reader back in US history to a time when Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe called for a separate penal colony for insurgent slaves and other so-called criminals. In his chapter regarding this concept, the author discusses its longstanding consideration, including one idea that those freed by the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation be shipped to such colonies as a way to keep them under control. Of course, a separate piece of land was never claimed for this colony, although Alaska was considered. Instead, Weber suggests that the construction of prisons in remote parts of the united States combined with constant prisoner transfers between those institutions creates a comparable scenario. If one adds the fact that in many states prisoners are imprisoned in facilities far away from their families and hometowns, this becomes even truer. In terms of prison imperialism, Weber tells the reader about the colonial prison system put in place by the US military in the Philippines during the decades long struggle by those Filipinos fighting the US colonial regime there.

The incarceration of resisters in the Philippines also included a form of parole, where inmates were rewarded with greater autonomy for informing and other behaviors favorable to the colonial powers. From there, the author launches a discussion of modern forms of incarceration; from parole to ankle braceleting to indeterminate sentencing. All of these represent in a very real manner the attempt by the state and those it serves to control populations it both considers surplus and fears. Indeed, American Purgatory is as much about this fundamental function of the so-called justice system as it is about the nature of prisons and the humans inside them. As for those who didn’t try to curry the Filipino prison officials’ favor, they were often shipped to facilities on other islands far from their families. Like the US prison systems that do the same—state and federal—the prisons in these places far from home might as well be in another land.

The recently published book titled Rattling the Cages brings the underlying themes of Weber’s American Purgatory into a very personal dimension. A collection of oral histories from US political prisoners, this work makes the politics of incarceration both personal and real. To begin with, the book’s existence once again asserts that there are political prisoners in the United States, despite the constant denial of this fact by those in power. While many of these prisoners were first imprisoned in the 1960s and 1970s, the individuals whose comments are included in Rattling the Cages prove that individuals continue to be tried and convicted for political actions up to the current time. From Black Panthers to animal rights activists, Puerto Rican independence fighters to antiwar resisters, the speakers in this book not only give lie to the myth that the United States does not have any political prisoners, it also makes it clear that most if not all of those prisoners are treated differently once they are locked up. This different treatment includes a lot of time in solitary, incarceration in conditions that are accurately described as torture, and constant transfers from one prison to another. The reason for this is simple: the authorities are afraid of the prisoners’ organizing capabilities. Just like on the outside, the authorities fear a population who can describe their oppression and are willing to organize against it.

A lot of work went into the making of this book. On both sides of the walls. Trying to get in touch with people on the inside is never easy. This is even more true when one has no familial connection to the prisoner. As for the prisoner, their entire life inside is subject to the whims of wardens, guards and other authorities whose pettiness is reinforced by the bureaucracy of the system they operate in. The fact that the editors and their publisher (AK Press) were able to obtain so many testimonies from people inside—people who are inside for actions against the state and its commercial sponsors—is impressive, to say the least. Each contributor to the text was provided a set of three prompts. These serve as subheadings for each entry by the incarcerated. After a brief introduction by the editors, the prisoner responds to the prompts, which are: Prison life, Politics and Prison Dynamics, and Looking Forward. Some responses run a few thousands of words, while others are only a few hundred words long. All reveal a few commonalities about the prison experience. Those who have been in prison longest make comparisons between the nature of prisons and prisoners over the years. Although I certainly do not want to generalize, my general impression of the changes inside can be summed up with these brief observations. Prisons are more oppressive now. Prisoners are more isolated from each other now. Many prisoners are less educated and more individualistic. Some lifers noted that there seems to be less violence between prisoners than in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, there is less solidarity. Drugs are everywhere—a result of the so-called war on drugs.

Fascism exists in its clearest and most violent form in the prisons of the United States. This does not mean it doesn’t exist elsewhere in an equally draconian form, just that it exists in that manner in the US prison system. This fact is one that no one in power—liberal, conservative or trumpist—is likely to acknowledge. Indeed, as Weber makes clear in his text and the testimonies of the incarcerated dramatically underscore, it is the liberal insistence on the necessity of incarceration that makes the fascist nature of prison an essential aspect of the practice. Many of those who call for the abolition of prisons understand this essential condition of the system. In order for the movement for abolition to advance, it seems necessary that this understanding become more widely accepted. As Jalil Muntaqim suggests in his testimony: “We need to build and strengthen a prison abolitionist movement. We need to build a campaign like BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) in terms of a fight against mass incarceration. Any corporation that does business with the prison industrial complex should be boycotted and sanctioned….we need…to take the money (profit-Ron) out of prisons.” (126)

The time is now.

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: