No More Prisons

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The American prison system and the legal system that wastes human life -- especially the lives of people of color -- has become one of the sorest political issues.

Various Artists

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Friday, April 21 2000, 1:49 PM


The function of the prison system in the United States is no particular mystery. It is the disciplinary domain of capitalism, one that grew from an abysmally-performed but legitimate role of social protection into a near-autonomous empire housing an invisible underclass of nearly two million. While the crime rate has plunged, the incarceration rate has soared. The majority of prisoners are serving time for non-violent offenses, and many of these prisoners have committed drug offenses no different than those committed by the two current Presidential candidates, Al Gore and George Bush.

The American prison system and the legal system that wastes human life -- especially the lives of people of color -- has become one of the sorest political issues. Yet this is not an issue for politicians who are deathly afraid of being characterized as 'soft on crime.' Prison reform is not on the mainstream political agenda because politicians are not afraid of poor folks who do not vote. Rather, the political class worries about a middle class that can build or end a political career, whether through votes or campaign activism. And in many communities throughout the United States, public-salary jobs in the prison system have become the major sustenance of middle-class life.

Creating an effective answer to this neat system of social cannibalism, one that feasts off fear of racial underclasses, is not easy. The prison reform movement of the late nineteenth century, one that responded to another period of especial abuse within the prison system, emphasized reform ideology and return to productive labor. In an economy that has very limited use for the 'bottom' of the labor pool and rewards the hardest work with the worst wages, there is little economic motivation to provide job training to prisoners or return them to productive labor. Instead, American prisons have become a pool of labor available for Third World wages.

Unfortunately, very little solid economic research has documented and explored the labor input values, returns to capital, the streets-prison cycle, and economic depletion of families and communities resulting from this bloated prison-industrial system. Controversialist discussion of the economics of domestic slavery has never been a good way of advancing a professional career. Beyond books like William Upski Wimsatt's No More Prisons (Softskull Publishing, 1999) or Christian Parenti's Lockdown America (Verso, 1999), the literature remains thin.

So popular culture is providing the critique that American politicians and intellectuals almost entirely fail to enunciate, understand or join. Intellectual leadership on the issue is coming off the streets and from the prisoners and former prisoners themselves.

Given a vastly changed prison-industrial regime, old-style moral reformism administered by professional or philanthropic classes is irrelevant, to the marginal extent that it ever was relevant. For the past twenty years and even further back, the prison reform movement has relied heavily on the communities most directly hurt by the expanding empire of imprisonment.

The No More Prisons album emerges from this new anti-prison movement and relies on similar sentiments among hip-hop musicians. Raptivism Records, which dedicates itself to progressive political issues, collaborated with the Prison Moratorium Project and the album will benefit that project. The collaboration has been especially extensive here, since the list of supporting organizations stretches from the Democratic Socialists of America to the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence and Black August. There is a further tie-in to Wimsatt's No More Prisons. A coalition politics of production created the album and those politics will be crucial to obtaining change in prison policy.

This compilation album offers a wide variety of anti-prison hip-hop. "Dedicated", a track by Sister Asia, Steele and Top Dog, is especially lyrical and compelling. A chorus of "You can lock my body but my mind is free" summarizes one basic sentiment of this album. Several songs concern the extreme fractures between mind, body and society that the prison system produces and thrives upon. Daddy-O's "Voices", for example, tells the brief story of a repeat prison convict, his release, next re-imprisonment, and the voices that inhabit his consciousness. "Let Us Go" by Lyric and Mike Ladd talks of the divisions created by prison that two souls try to overcome.

At some points politics overwhelms artistry. A cut like "No More Prisons" by Hurricane G. and Rishi relies on some rough vocals, on words that are supposed to shock but we have all heard, and on poor political comparisons ("it's like the Third Reich.") Or the politics get very shoddy, as where Rubberoom indulges in false heroics about "burn[ing] the plantation" or where Akbar's "Battle Cry" spins out a futurist vision of apocalyptic Islamicism responding to oppression. Even one of the better tracks on the album, "Rich Get Rich," still slips in an unenlightened reference to "Illuminatis trying to screw us".

"Hold the Key", one of the album's low points contributed by Scientifik El-D, God Wize, L Da Headtoucha and K-Slaughta, holds out for militarized communal violence, complete with gunfire effects. Poseur hyper-masculinity, whether in hip-hop or in any artwork, is truly unimpressive. It was precisely towards such naturalizations and mythicizations of a pseudo-resistant violence that Benjamin wrote "Critique of Violence" to argue that these were no more than reflexive perpetuations of the original problem.

But side-by-side with these songs come sophisticated and angry tracks like "Murda Box" by Hedrush, dead prez and People's Army, or The Coup's "Drug Warz," where the music and politics work better together. "The Plan" by the Reepz is excellent, particularly in capturing the systemic character of the streets-prison cycle. Grandmaster Caz rescues a less-than-innovative beat in "Too Much" with an overlay of from-the-heart lyrics. In "Behind Enemy Lines" the dead prez create a convincing mix, bringing a prisoner's thoughts together with the sounds of a prison environment.

The unevenness of the No More Prisons album reflects the anger that the US legal system and its prison industry has generated. Where the album fails, that failure comes from knowing the problem but letting anger obscure clear answers. Where the album succeeds, anger remains in descriptions rather than the sole definition of a social response.

No More Prisons is a Raptivism Records release 

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.
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