This was a piece I wrote inside with an eye towards using it to actively organize inside prison:
With almost 2.5 million people incarcerated within the U.S., the crime epidemic is both shocking and undeniable. The Land of the Free has more of its citizens locked up per capita than any other Western nation, and perhaps even the world. The consequences – social, political, and economic – are far reaching.
But why such an explosive boom in incarceration rates? Could it be because there is a sudden, inexplicable rise in “bad” people? Or could there be a logical, materialistic way of looking at it that can help expand our understanding of not just this increase in criminality but also shed some light on the way our whole society functions?
To begin, it is important to understand the role of prisons in societies generally. Are they simply to keep the bad people away from the good? Well, maybe partially. After all, murder, rape, and assault have pretty much always been illegal, right? But haven’t prisons also been used against people that, looking back now, had no business being incarcerated? Think of the heretics of the Spanish Inquisition or Soviet or Chinese dissidents. Surely we wouldn’t consider these people in the same thread as murderers, right? So what is it that murder and dissent, even non-violent dissent, have in common?
Well, imagine any society that had people running around murdering and raping with no recourse to control that small segment of the population. People couldn’t go out for fear of attack, social trust would disintegrate, and the society would be completely destabilized.
So now if we think of a repressive theocracy having heretics running all over questioning the power of God or the Pope, then we can start to see a common characteristic. The same is true with a one-party dictatorship. It simply must control dissent or it will become destabilized. Prisons exist to provide stability to the respective system in which they serve.
If this is true, then the U.S. must have a huge destabilizing force working within it. What is it? Let’s look at the make-up of the prison population and try to find out.
U.S. prisons are full of all kinds of people committing all kinds of crimes. There are, of course, violent criminals: murderers, rapists, and the like. These are “classic” criminals and, as we went over previously, would be tremendously destabilizing if not controlled. Now, whether prison or mental health would be the best ways of “controlling” these elements is a different, although very important, debate, but goes beyond the scope of this essay. The fact is, it has to be controlled one way or the other and prisons serve that job today.
Our prisons also contain perpetrators of white collar crime: securities fraud, Ponzi schemes, and embezzlement. Even though we live in a capitalist system and many of these criminals are from the capitalist class, the rules that keep capitalism flowing can’t be broken. This would also destabilize our social system.
But the great bulk of our prisons are filled with neither “purely” violent nor white collar criminals. Our prisons are primarily filled with drug-related and immigration-related criminals and the extreme majority of these are poor and working class people. Here we begin to hit at the heart of the matter. In a capitalist system, where the poor and working class are the most potentially destabilizing force through their own self-organization, prisons serve as a mechanism to control society by controlling the poor.
Also, by looking at prison statistics, we can see that the working class isn’t one big blob that’s the same all the way through. It is divided. It is divided in many ways, but one of the deepest and most prominent, as well as being one of the most vital to understanding our situation, is race. This is reflected by the wildly lopsided incarceration of Black and Brown people in the United State. Though each group makes up a minority of the U.S. civilian population, both groups overwhelmingly fill out our prison ranks. This can only be explained two ways: either both Black and Brown people are genetically predisposed to commit crime or the institutions in our society are built around racism.
Even though scientific, genetically-based racism has been thoroughly debunked by the 21st century, let’s quickly go over where science now stands on the issue. The fact is, genetic studies of humans have shown that there isn’t nearly enough genetic diversity to properly divide humans in to neat little racial groups and what diversity that does exist is spread broadly, not categorically. This means genetically and scientifically, no one can point to a specific genetic point and say, “This is where ‘Black’ begins and here is where it ends. Here is where ‘White’ begins and here is where it ends.” We just aren’t designed like that.
What we call “races” are more accurately defined as “clinal variations.” Instead of sharp, defined categories, humans function on a gradient, like grayscale on a computer. Clinal variations are just characteristic changes in the same basic human model. Race is a social and historical creation, not a genetic one. All racial divisions are created by social forces and must be learned. They are not inherent to the human condition.
This means the shocking difference in incarceration rates can only be explained by understanding our social institutions. We mentioned earlier that we live in a capitalist society and it is divided into the capitalist class – also known as the business class – and the working class. The whole history of our social institutions is the history of the struggle between these two classes, and between the divisions that exist within these classes, like race or gender. The business class is always trying to keep the working class under control, often through those racial or gender divisions, so they will always have workers to build roads, work in cubicles, wait tables, or raise the next generation of workers. This is how the capitalist class makes its profits and maintains itself from generation to generation.
The working class is always trying to find ways out of this relationship. Slaves revolted, workers formed unions, students rebelled, and people of color marched, sat in, and took up arms. Sometimes the working class even formed its own organizations and parties that had total revolution of the system as their goal. But so far, the capitalist class has unfortunately found a way to hold them in it.
Often, the way capitalists accomplish this is by using those divisions in the working class to work out a deal with part of it and brutally repressing the rest of it. A recent example of this, and one very relevant to understanding our prison system today, was the struggle for Black Liberation in the ’60s and ’70s.
Before the Civil Rights struggle, Blacks were specifically and systematically oppressed by the law. This didn’t just hurt Black people, but also working class White and Brown people too. This is because the capitalist class used – and continues to use – racial alliances to create vertical alliances between the capitalist class and part of the working class. This gives one section, almost always the White section, a few more privileges than the rest of the class that isn’t White, but then prevents the working class from creating the important anti-racist alliances that strengthen the working class struggle to break out of capitalism.
The Black community fought hard and bitter battles to end this legal oppression. The capitalist class, recognizing the powder keg on which it was sitting, ended the legal oppression but couldn’t end the over all social conditions that continued to cause the Black community to rebel. The creation of advanced technology in factories created higher unemployment rates overall, which more harshly affected the Black community. This is because the business class must provide Whites with the privilege of getting hired first and fired last in order to maintain the uneasy class alliance.
Black people began to move towards a class conscious understanding of the racial situation in the United States. They build revolutionary organizations that were breaking the racial alliances between the classes and creating anti-racist working class alliances. By far the most popular example of this was the Black Panther Party. Strength to break out of the system was building rapidly.
Since the capitalists couldn’t provide jobs that didn’t exist, it ahd to find a way to replace the wage in working class Black communities to break their rebellion. It also needed a way to destroy alliances and control Black people. Thus the War on Drugs and our modern prison system was born.
Started officially under Nixon in the ’70s, it was dramatically escalated throughout the ’80s under the Reagan administration. Drugs served as the perfect solution to the business class’s problem Poor Black people stopped struggling for access to well-paying jobs the system couldn’t provide when their communities were flooded with highly destructive and addictive, but extremely lucrative, drugs. This broke the alliances that had developed within these communities and they collapsed into chaos and violence.
Further, by harshly criminalizing these dangerous and destructive drugs, the potentially destabilizing force – the rebellious Black community specifically and the entire working class generally – could be more easily and dramatically controlled.
The White working class, with its class allies in the Black community broken, couldn’t escape the attack the capitalist class turned on them. Throughout the ’90s, trade agreements around the world led to a further contraction in available work as even more high-paying manufacturing jobs were shipped out of the country, where labor is much cheaper. Meth began working its way into the White community in the same way crack destroyed the Black community, with the same highly criminalizing effects. Brutal violence and criminality began to take over poor White communities.
With the flood of new cases in the legal system, a strategy to cope with them had to be devised. Sentences were dramatically ramped up to put pressure on defendants to sign plea deals and avoid trials. High mandatory minimums were assigned to drug crimes that are the hardest to beat, namely conspiracy. The “substantial assistance” statute, or 5k.1 in the Federal system, was made the only way to get below the harsh mandatory minimums, often 10 years for first time felons. This highly incentivized incriminating testimony, even false or embellished testimony, which only deepened the fractured relationships within the working class communities.
By understanding prisons and the Drug War from an historical class perspective, we can understand not only why the system functions the way it does, but also some things we can do to fight against our current crisis. It’s important to understand that inmates need an organization to be strong. Many smart and capable people turn away from positive revolutionary struggle to negative, self-destructive activity like drug dealing or gang violence because they don’t feel they can do anything alone. And it’s true. Alone we are weak, but by organizing ourselves we can become strong.
This is the purpose of Prisoner’s Vanguard: to help people turn away from self-destructive activity to positive revolutionary activity. Prisoner’s Vanguard wants to break the racial alliances that keep our captors strong and us locked in fruitless battles. It aims to build strong, positive class alliances within the U.S. prison system. Prisoner’s Vanguard wants to give prisoners the opportunity to gain knowledge and perspective that helps them struggle and fight against the conditions that keep them locked inside and struggling outside. Prisoner’s Vanguard aims to build revolutionaries that will transform the system that builds the prisons that destroy our communities, our families, and our lives. Nothing short of this will do.