Prison Camp America

Today, the news came that the United States Court of Appeals in Sacramento, California, has ordered the state government of Governor Schwarzenegger to free 40.000 prisoners, an estimated 25% of the total prison population of that state. The immediate cause is the immense overcrowding in the prisons, which even after implementation of the measure would operate at 137.5% of capacity, and currently operates at almost 200%. (1) This is however not an isolated phenomenon. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, not just in absolute numbers (some 2 million), but also relative to population. It significantly surpasses such bulwarks of freedom as China and Russia, and according to official statistics, even North Korea. Blacks but also Hispanics in the United States are disproportionately part of this burgeoning prison population, and in fact more so than in the past, indicating a ferocious war against the American underclass and especially its minority members that has been going on since the 1960s. The black imprisonment is now seven times higher than the white one, whereas during the days of segregation and the civil rights movement, this was four times. (2)

Generally the tendency is to blame for this the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, a broad campaign by the United States to use military and paramilitary methods of policing against a mostly imaginary pandemic of drug abuse. This campaign started around the time of Nixon’s election in 1968, when the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs began a central oversight of enforcement of drug laws, and ballooned into its current absurd proportions after Nixon and after him Reagan paramilitarized the police forces in the cities. As Christian Parenti has shown, this coincided on the one hand with the desire of the conservative petty bourgeois and bourgeois elements in the United States to repress the rebellious spirit of the 1960s and the widespread skepticism towards government that resulted from the Vietnam War, and on the other hand with the attempted reconstruction of liberalism after the oil crisis and the subsequent profit squeeze. Being able to stamp out lower and middle class resistance against militarism and authoritarianism in the United States was a must for the ruling class, which had not been so challenged in its heartland in decades; being able to dispose of the growing unorganized underclass created by the destruction of American manufacturing and the policies of neoliberalism was a welcome bonus. That much of this underclass was, as always, black (and Hispanic) only made it all the more desirable. Those groups had shown worrying capabilities to organize and resist, for example in the form of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.

Yet this well-known tale is not all there is to it. Another issue that must be considered is the state of the prisons themselves. In 1971, prisoners of all races had revolted in Attica prison in New York, following the suspicious death of a radical inmate. The rebels took hostages and made demands, all of which revolved around humanizing the prison conditions, combating overcrowding and so forth. But what is more important is that they also included demands against the “ruthless brutalization and disregard for the lives of the prisoners here and throughout the United States”, and the latter part of that statement shows their concerns were becoming political and surpassing the (literal) confines of their surroundings. Politicization of the prisons, directly following the revolt of the middle class youth demanding liberalization and the widespread resistance against the imperial war in Vietnam must have appeared to the American establishment as a nightmare scenario. They therefore conspired to make this permanently impossible in the future. The Attica revolt was of course brutally repressed (3); but more importantly for the future, it became prison guard policy to purposely encourage the formation of racial gangs, to divide the prison population. Prison rape, an appallingly widespread phenomenon in American prisons, is consciously used as a means to discipline prisoners who are in any way likely to resist the guards’ control efforts – so often in fact that the United States Supreme Court had to issue an order prohibiting the practice, although this seems to have had no effect so far.(4) This has made American prisons seething cauldrons of violence and abuse, utterly destroying any remote chance of a prisoner’s mental health and social competence surviving incarceration long enough to permit rehabilitation. Some of the worst prisons, such as Corcoran in California and the work camp Angola in Louisiana are truly hellish to such a degree that the authorities might as well inscribe upon their entrance: Ye Who Enter Here, Abandon All Hope. This depradation also reflects on the neighbourhoods the newly minted gang members came from, as the gangs now form a permanent predatory threat to the ‘home population’, with gang memberships persisting for multiple generations. This of course produces new prisoners, and so the cycle of imprisonment continues.

Of course, there is profit in this too, profit for the few. The prison complex is fairly small as a part of the national economy, especially compared with the mainstay of America’s militarism, the Pentagon. Nonetheless, the prison population is growing so fast and the prisons are so overcrowded that prison management and construction is a very viable industry, if not for the scrupulous or faint of heart. Owing to the petty bourgeois tendency of white Americans to want to have their cake and eat it too, Californians imprison more people than France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined.(5) Yet they are utterly opposed to paying any taxes for maintaining them. The huge prison population is the product of the American bourgeoisie’s own experiments, a monster that haunts them in their sleep: to exorcise it, they try to starve the beast, hoping it will disappear. In the state of Alabama, this was taken so literally that prison directors are allowed to keep any money not spent on food for prisoners when budgeted for that purpose, so that one director embezzled $212.000 by malnourishing the inmates.(6) This in a state that imprisons so many it still spends 20% of its money on ‘corrections’. Elsewhere, lack of budgeting has forced the state governments to sell management of the prisons on the cheap to private companies of semi-mercenaries, such as Wackenhut. It has also greatly increased the power of the prison guard unions, especially in California, as they are all that stands between this perfectly meek civilized society and the boogeymen of their own creation. Would not Dr. Jekyll do anything to have someone restrain Mr. Hyde? Indeed, the prison guards are given practically free reign over their prisons, a position which is routinely and systematically abused: corruption is rampant, guards extort sex and money out of prisoners, torture is widespread and prisoners set against one another. Needless to say, this union of prison guards is not what socialism understands by unions, since a union is an organization to defend workers from capital and to organize them collectively. In this case, the workers, if one can call them that, are organized against society, and on behalf of capital. This is no union, this is a guild conspiracy. For proof of this thesis, one need only look at the response when their rampant abuse is finally checked by outside inspection: when federal agents attempted to arrest prison guards for extorting prisoners in Florida, the guards opened fire and killed one.(7) Such conspiracies against all social norms and social health are only possible with the connivance of capitalist politicians, particularly in America’s district-based political system, where in fact in some districts non-voting prisoners form such a large part of the ‘population’ that it allows the creation of new kinds of rotten boroughs. Moreover, prisons tend to be located in remote areas, thereby often constituting the major source of employment in a rural district, which of course ensures that whoever is elected to represent that district will be a good friend to the voting part of the prison.

In a larger perspective, it is not hard to see how the vast increases in the militarization of the United States since WWII internally are related to its vastly increased militarization vis-à-vis the outside world. During the Second World War, the United States so greatly increased its productive capacities compared to other nations that it emerged from that war as the undisputed master of the imperialist-capitalist bloc, challenged only by the USSR and its satellites (and slightly by China). The war also saw the United States transform it somewhat lagging military, particularly the Army, into a military powerhouse that has the power and will to dominate the planet, as well as being the only nation this far to ever actually use a nuclear bomb. Historical experience shows that whenever a nation becomes focused on its military competition with the other powers, this has its immediate impact on the internal affairs of the society, which become irredeemably shot through with the poison of militarism. Even nations on the road to socialism, or thinking themselves so, have in the past been highly vulnerable to this. So all the more for the United States. Instead of salvaging capitalism by means of a redistributionist reconstruction like the New Deal, the country now had the strength as well as the need to safeguard its position by applying its outside methods to the inside. McCarthyism, assassinations, bipartisan racist strategies, wars on the ‘dangerous’ poor in various disguises, provocation and repression of resistance movements, even using the mentally deficient as a tool: the new Prussianism followed the increase in global power inexorably and stopped at nothing to maintain it. It has even gone so far as to export this peculiar brand of ‘crime policy’ to its protectorates, such as Colombia, in name of the global ‘War on Drugs’, a war which even its most reactionary proponents acknowledge as totally ineffective from a rational viewpoint.(8)

The growth of the American prison population also nicely follows this pattern of the growth of the 20th Century American empire. Until the early 1970s, the American prison population was about 110 per 100.000; then it doubled by the late 1970s, doubled again in the 1980s, and doubled once again in the 1990s. It reached 445 per 100.000 in 1998. Among them are one in fourteen black males in the United States; 25% of black males have been in prison during their lifetime. Yet it cannot be said violent crime exploded during this period, to justify this policy of chain-gang capitalism. On the contrary, the prison population has increased far beyond proportion to violent crime, which has decreased in the United States in the past decades, although it is still significantly higher than in Western Europe.(9) Of course, given the difference in the two areas’ respective policies both in terms of social-democracy and in terms of rehabilitation of prisoners, the latter should come as no surprise.

America’s status as a prison camp country not only pares well with its self-appointed role as ‘world sherriff’. It also reveals the reductio ad absurdum of violently repressing the same poor and marginalized, proletarian and lumpenproletarian, that have been created by the social relations that make up the modern capitalist state. The process of the bourgeoisie seizing and then enforcing its unbridled power has ever gone hand in hand with warfare against the poor, now open, now concealed. From the Poor Law of Elizabeth I to the Panopticon of Bentham, from the mass hangings at Tyburn to the modern Californian prison complex, from Alcatraz to the Bastille, there is a clear continuity of strategy. Just as it is with capital and the proletariat it produces, so is the modern militarist state and the ‘terrorist’ or ‘criminal’ or ‘saboteur’ menace it fears so much. They are as the sorcerer’s apprentice that has unleashed powers it cannot control. And has become abundantly clear now by the utter criminal failure of American crime policy, in the end no cage can hold a hateful, broken people when every day the nation’s institutions add new members to its ranks.

(1) Mike Zapler, “Fed judges order California to devise plan to slash prison population”. San Jose Mercury News (August 4, 2009).
(2) Robert Perkinson, “The Prison Dilemma: Getting Past the Punitive Turn”. The Nation (June 17, 2009).
(4) Farmer vs. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994); Christian Parenti, Lockdown America (New York, NY 2008), passim.
(5) Eric Schlosser, “The Prison-Industrial Complex”. The Atlantic (December 1998).
(6) “Sheriff Arrested Over Prison Food Scam”. CBS News/Associated Press (Jan. 7, 2009).
(7) “Sex and drug arrest triggers deadly Florida prison gunfight”. CNN (June 22, 2006).
(8) Among these are President Reagan’s reactionary Attorney General Ed Meese and ‘drug czar’ (a fitting title) Barry McCaffrey. See: Theodore Hamm, “Our Prison Complex”. The Nation (Sept. 23, 1999).
(9) Schlosser, op. cit.


Reading your post reminded me of a Johnny Cash song, which he sang at a concert at San Quentin Prison:

“San Quentin, I hate every inch of you
You cut me and you scarred me through and through
And I’ll walk out a wiser weaker man
Mr Congressman, you can’t understand

San Quentin, what good do you think you do
Do you think I’ll be different when you’re through
You bend my heart and mind and you warp my soul
Your stone walls turn my blood a little cold

San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell
May your walls fall and may I live to tell
May all the world forget you ever stood
And all the world regret you did no good”

We have a similar problem with over-crowded prisons in England. There are currently over 80,000 men, women and children in prison in England and Wales. The prison population has been rising steadily since 1993, increasing from 42,000 to today’s unprecedented levels. This means that there are now a higher percentage of people in prison here than in any other country in western Europe.

With re-offending rates after release still at about 60% (and over 75% for young offenders) prison is an expensive failure.

To see what the Howard League for Penal Reform is doing about the problems of over-crowding in prison in England, why not take a look at

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