The Prison Industrial Complex

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Political rhetoric in the United States adopts issues that substitute for direct discussions of class...in refusing to speak to why the prisons of the United States have become home for literally millions of people of color during the past several decades, American political rhetoric has engaged in another of its historic evasions of race and racial oppression.

Angela Davis

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Thursday, January 27 2000, 2:34 PM


Conventional wisdom has it that American politics refuse to speak about class. That is only a partial truth, one that looks only at vocabulary. Rather, political rhetoric in the United States adopts issues that substitute for direct discussions of class.

Prisons, which during the last decade boomed like never before in the nation's history, are a premier means of discussing class in America. Campaign speeches since the 1960s have competed to be toughest on crime, promising to channel ever-increasing billions of public monies into policing the streets rather than addressing the heart of crime --- poverty. The effect, not the cause, has been the center of public attention. This is a social logic that creates institutional consequences, and prisons are that institution. Prison construction bonds and three-strike laws have become the new War on Poverty.

Particularly in refusing to speak to why the prisons of the United States have become home for literally millions of people of color during the past several decades, American political rhetoric has engaged in another of its historic evasions of race and racial oppression. The abuse and waste of human lives in prison due to the intertwined effects of class and race are one of this country's greatest shames.

And yet angry toads on podiums across the country scream for more and stronger cement boxes in order to advance human civilization. Few politicians dare question whether more prisons and more death penalties bring greater public security. In many states it has become unclear whether the major party candidates are running for governor or chief public executioner.

In this new CD produced by David Barsamian and Alternative Radio, Angela Davis gives her analysis of the prison industrial complex that has grown to define social discipline in America. The material is an edited version of a 1997 speech at Colorado College. The politics of prisons have defined Davis' life. Probably her first recording was a 1970 interview with San Francisco radio host Art Seigner on this topic. For years Davis has been involved in intense public activism around the prison industry, including speaking tours and recent participation in the 1998 Critical Resistance conference at Berkeley.

Still, Davis suffers by an association with a hoary '60s political romanticization of the Soledad Brothers. The radical '60s infatuation with weapons in a situation where they were useless beyond their provocation value --- like English professor H. Bruce Franklin standing on the library steps at Stanford with weapon in hand --- was ridiculous. It was the mockery of copycat poseurs at a photo op. Where guns and violence were no longer ridiculous, as at the Marin County courthouse massacre led by Jonathan Jackson in 1970, it was an unproductive form of political suicide. When Davis briefly praises George Jackson here for his political genius, we forget the senseless deaths of five men and Jackson shot while running futilely for the prison fence in 1972. Insofar as Davis relies on a political image constructed through a tidy, innocent and romantic image of George Jackson and other radical prisoners of that era, she avoids an effective critique of tactics and strategy. What didn't work in the 1960s works even less now.

For the words on this album though, Angela Davis deserves respect for honesty, insight and passion. Much of her '60s concern for the development of the prison industrial complex and its function in the control of minority communities was prescient. At the center of Davis' argument is an undeniable truth: there is a fear of young black men that emerges from a social irrationalism, one concerned with specifying a form for a specter. To summarize her argument, the fear of communism and fear of crime spring from equivalent psychological processes: the racialized criminal has become the New Enemy.

There is an historical insufficiency here. The representation of black men most especially as a social threat is an old American phenomenon that continually renews itself, as the current exhibit of lynching photographs and postcards at a New York gallery evidences in the most graphic and horrible terms. This image of racial violence haunts American life, and prisons have joined lynching as new sites of brutality. Instead of burning humans alive now, the United States buries them alive in prisons. The U.S. prison system functions today in largest part as a disciplinary system for people of color, with little remaining of its correctional ideology. The words of Frederick Douglass introducing Ida Wells' On Lynching --- "If American conscience were only half alive, if the American church and clergy were only half Christianized, if American moral sensibility were not hardened by persistent infliction of outrage and crime against colored people, a scream of horror, shame and indignation would rise to Heaven֦amp;quot; --- are as equally valid for the U.S. prison system as their original context of lynching.

As Davis argues, "We have learned how to forget prisons." They exist as an invisible world, cut off from the 'outside.' To counter this social forgetfulness, Davis seeks to make prisons more visible within the community. She calls ultimately for the creation of a new abolitionist movement against prisons that will reshape their form and programs.

Davis integrates her discussion of prisons into the rise of a contemporary social discipline, one that functions through the abuses of transnational capital against Third World labor as much as through creating a profitable domestic architecture building refuse bins for human beings. A broad set of linkages spread out through her discussion. As Davis points out, "Prisons move into the vacuum that has been created as transnational corporations move out." Communities without employment chase after new prison construction projects, and labor from among the two million prisoners in the United States has become as cheap as Third World labor. Fresh labor arrives all the time, particularly from the increasing number of women going into the prison system as welfare services shut down and women enter the largest alternative economies --- drugs and sex --- for lack of a mainstream economic alternative. The prison industrial complex has acquired its own imperial logic and momentum. Ironically, if this observation arrives together with still-radical economic analysis from Davis, its major point has become accepted wisdom among more mainstream political thinking that has watched lobbying by prison guard unions shape criminal codes and seen prison expenditures soar over higher education investments.

Why has this new concentration arisen on prisons as keystone institutions of social order? It certainly has no logical link to rising crime, since most crime rates have remained steady in relation to population or have declined for years. The drug wars have filled up the prisons, not violent street crime. Rather, prisons have had an increasing symbolic function in the United States. In response to social pressures towards narrow and hard definitions of economic utility, together with the threat of indigence without a safety net, a new sense of conformity and fear inhabit civil life. Be like us and work like us if you want to stay free and healthy. There is a resistance to freedom itself, in part based on the positive substitution of consumption for freedom and in part based on the negative possibility of an end to 'free' consumption --- that is, prison. The symbol of the prison speaks to more than the punishment of a particular crime or rehabilitation a particular criminal. Increasingly it speaks to life in the United States where economic marginality is being criminalized.

If American conscience were only half-alive, it might listen to Davis and others protesting the relentless expansion of the prison systems.

The Prison Industrial Complex is an Alternative Tentacles release  

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.
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