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PRISONVISION: Surviving the Pinta, the Big House, the Joint

Prisonvision turns our critical gaze to an analysis of prisons from the perspectives of prisoners, activists, radical scholar-activists, and the criminalized.

Arturo J. Aldama, Pancho McFarland, Mike Mosher

Issue #71, December 2004

Prisonvision cover

Crime pays some people in very big ways. Bechtel and Halliburton plunder Iraq. Inside the US, corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America, Wackenhut, and Unicor constitute a prison-industrial complex. Hundreds of companies build and/or manage prisons, supply food and medical services, or "in-source" their production by using cheap, malleable, nonunion prison labor. The continued growth of the prison-industrial complex needs bodies to discipline in order to collect revenues. These bodies, the abject and the subaltern, are the poor, the brown, the black, the addicts, the abused, the depressed, the traumatized, and the radical.

Prisonvision turns our critical gaze to an analysis of prisons from the perspectives of prisoners, activists, radical scholar-activists, and the criminalized. Our Prisonvision perspective discusses how prisoners, ex-cons, and the criminalized speak from incarcerated spaces and examines what they are saying. Prisonvision analyzes criminal justice legislation with an eye toward illuminating its effects on the subaltern, the rebellious and the so-called undisciplined.

To analyze our society using lenses of Prisonvision is to see that imperial crusades always hit home. United States militarism, colonialism, neo-colonialism and internal colonialism, destabilization of the Middle East, and avaricious resource consumption has brought catastrophe to our poorest and most marginalized communities. The extreme and ever-increasing wealth gap between the poorest and richest countries -- as well as between the poor and rich within the United States and other overdeveloped nations -- means that many millions have been and continue to be fodder for the prison industrial machine. To see with Prisonvision is to connect the dots between United States imperial foreign policies, domestic suppression and oppression, our worsening economy, and our two million plus prison population.

To act with Prisonvision requires recognizing the humanity of prisoners and the criminalized, and the humanity of every soul on Earth, especially our own nation's incarcerated. It means to engage in alliances with the criminalized and acts of solidarity with those currently feeling the jackboot of imperialism. It requires that we begin dialogues with prison employees. As a result of outsourcing, runaway industries and other aspects of the last three decades of economic restructuring, many in rural and poor communities have few choices of employment other than prison work or related industries. Milledgeville, Georgia has 20,000 residents...and seven prisons.

In these warehouses of institutionalized violence, in these hotbeds of class, racial and sexual violence--and amidst white supremacist coercive violence of many prison guards--Prisonvision illuminates spaces of cultural, political, artistic, musical and literary resistance. Cultural practices of resistance in spaces of trauma and explicit de-humanization include tattoo art that honors the owner's family, cultural pride, and spirituality. These practices include drawing and cartooning, paño art (complex stitching and beading on cotton handkerchiefs), poetry, short stories, testimonios and prison autobiography, rap music. We even see them in current fashions inspired by prison life, such as pants as low-slung and baggy as you're likely to be issued in prison.

The authors in “Prisonvision” understand how our nation suffers the impact of the discredited War on Drugs that included mandatory minimum prison sentences. They testify to the impact of the explosion in the numbers of police and Border Patrol agents in the 1980s and 1990s with the advent of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Operation Gatekeeper militarized the US/Mexico border and forced people into the “killing fields” of the Sonora desert-lands. The perversion of imprisonment has led to the sentencing of youth as adults, epidemic prison rapes and institutionalized sexual violence, plus a serious prevalence of AIDS. The rise of male and female chain gangs is disturbing, degrading, and disgusting. Felony records bar many from voting; a disproportionate number of them African-American and Latino men. It is estimated that over 30-36% of African-American and Latinos have served time or on either probation or parole, and these incarceration statistics oddly mirror in direct proportion the “drop-out” or push out rates of Black and Latino kids in school. There are similar and even more disturbing patterns for Native American children in proportion to their population regarding incarceration rates. There is a dramatic increase of women entering the prison system for reasons that speak to larger patterns of gender oppression while their new-born children are torn from their arms a few hours after birth to suffer the fate of the ill-funded and often violent foster care system. The paths to the prison system for ethnic and poor youth are streamlined by state enforced police brutality, and a judicial system that mandates harsh sentencing for those deemed "other."

The authors in this issue apply their gaze to a variety of issues all the while using their Prisonvision to see with clarity how the dangerous trends in criminalization, incarceration, racism, and imperialism have created a culture of fear, violence and sheer meanness. On the other hand, cultures of resistance continually emerge. As these essays critique the United States system of criminal justice, they are organized in a type of meta-journey. We begin at the state-enforced processes of criminalization that set the pre-conditions or determine criminality on subjects and communities seen as threats to bourgeois, hegemonic and imperial interests. We proceed to surviving incarceration and internment and creating intellectual, cultural, and political resistance in spaces of confinement and enforced "docility". We arrive at documents of how the state continues to enact violence in formal and informal ways for folks and communities deemed "corrected" by their confinement. Prisonvision attempts to consider the full range of derogatory effect of prisons on society that limits sovereignity, autonomy, and freedom of expression and lively hood before, during and after struggles to re-integrate and survive outside the Big House, Da Joint, or what Chicanos call the Pinta.

The pieces by Saito, Wehr, Churchill, and Matisons turn their Prisonvision to legislation and policies enacted by the State that unfairly imprison, sentence or target groups or individuals. Natsu Saito, a professor of law, examines the use of US plenary powers to suspend the constitution, habeus corpus, and the rule of law to determine, and to protect its imperial interests in the case of Puerto Rico, internment of Native American tribes. In the post 9/11 era the designation of enemy combatant elevates subjects from both US and International legal protections, and Saito argues how all players, including federal judges, should be judged by the standards of law. Kevin Wehr offers similar concerns in an analysis of how the recent case of José Padilla evidences the erosion of habeas corpus. In his concrete analysis of the uneven application the law, Ward Churchill looks at the criminal counterinsurgency programs of the FBI infamously known as COINTELPRO. Its FBI squad leaders were convicted of vigilante violence, planting false evidence and even murder, yet they have not ever spent a day in jail. In the case of two members of the Omaha Black Panther Party falsely convicted, the Parole Board and the Governor of Nebraska have commuted their sentences...yet the Board of Pardons refuses to even schedule a hearing on the matter. Michelle Mattisons examines the complex and disturbing discourse around three strikes laws in California. The recent attempt to reform three strikes laws through Proposition 66 came up against a tidal wave of fear mongering and misinformation from Governor Schwarzenegger, government officials and pundits, and even the progressive activist community. Her essay tries to understand further the contexts of sex offender laws.

Rogelio Garcia-Contreras and David Mitchell focus on policies that affect individuals and communities during and after incarceration. Garcia-Contreras, a scholar who has worked with a center dedicated to community reintegration for ex-felons, uses incarceration and recidivism data to illuminate the ways in which the criminal “justice” system fails the mentally ill, female and violent offenders. David Mitchell examines the connections between the electoral and criminal justice systems. He argues convincingly that felon disenfranchisement laws dis-empower and otherwise harm whole communities, especially African American communities, causing a type of civil death.

Shoba Rajgopal, Michael Brooks, Robert Duran, and Robert Soza focus their Prisonvision on incarceration and criminalization of people of color. Rajgopal adds an international perspective to our national focus by “unearthing” the legacy of Indian revolutionary, Ajitha. Filmmakers have represented the life of this legendary female rebel who continues her work for social justice for subaltern communities in India, and against the normalized sexual violence that impacts the lives of poor Indian women. Michael Brooks dons the Prisonvision lenses to clarify the disturbing phenomenon of wrongful incarceration of Toledoan Danny Brown. Brown served 19 years for a murder he did not commit, based on faulty eyewitness statements and no empirical evidence, except that he fit the profile of a “black man” of a certain height and weight. Most people of color recognize that in these United States degrees, jobs and financial security do not protect us from state terror in the form of harassment, abuse, and unlawful incarceration. Driving, shopping or walking while black or brown are increasingly common claims made by state policing agents against dark-skinned individuals. For "Arab/Muslim-looking" blacks and Latinas/os, this especially means living in a constant state of fear. The private hells of sacrificed barrio and ghetto communities and white vigilantism add to the pressures that the dark-skinned feel as criminalized others. Robert Duran and Robert Soza share stories of how criminalized existences lead to state and private abuses of brown bodies and minds.

A counter-discourse of prisoners is alive and well through poetry, art, music and testimonial writing. Authors McFarland, Shabazz, Yamauchi, Riegle and Mosher discuss the expressive cultures of the imprisoned and criminalized in their essays. Pancho McFarland examines a critique of “terror, torture and imprisonment” found in a sample of underground Chicano rap artists. These organic intellectuals use their music to comment on the state of racialized criminalization in the United States, and how it fuels and is fueled by racialized imperialism, especially in the Middle East. McFarland argues that an understanding of the epidemic of incarceration, poverty and criminalization in Chicana/o barrios must include an analysis of the United States’ imperial endeavors. US citizens, especially the most marginalized and disempowered, must listen to Middle Eastern voices and act in solidarity with them if we are to truly bring justice to our communities. Rashad Shabazz shows how we can understand US history through attention to the writings of and about Black underground militancy. He looks at the revolutionary underground writings of the Black militant movements, many of whose authors served as political prisoners and exiles to Cuba and Algeria. Elyse Yamauchi tells the story of US "internment" camps that held thousands of Japanese Americans in prison from 1942 to 1945. Through the poetry that honors her mother and her community, we get a very different story of the war years in the United States than is celebrated in mainstream media. Yamauchi sheds light on the nativist, racialized hysteria brought about by United States war efforts that in addition to these concentration camps used to control Americans of Japanese descent. This hysteria meant attacks on youth of color (the misnamed Zoot Suit Riots) and the sensationalized media depictions of Black and Brown youth delinquency. Reexaminations of the mass incarceration of the Japanese might shed light on the current attacks against Muslim and Middle Eastern American communities and individuals today. The latest project by Rosalie Riegle tells the personal stories of those who have been incarcerated for political activities, including those -- like herself -- who critique the School of the Americas. This scandalous school's US taxpayer-funded classes on torture and counter-insurgency trained the most brutal death squad leaders in Latin America, especially those of Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile and Argentina. Mike Mosher shows the power of art to provide a voice to the incarcerated, their public voices taken away by the prison system, but regained to a degree in a comics workshop. Artist John Leanos then provides two portfolios of images, reflecting the abuse of America's "enemy combatants" and of our own urban youth.

In a fear-based climate that locks up and warehouses those deemed as insurgent, un-American or threats to the American way of life, Bad Subjects invite you to consider these stories, studies and view-points that lay bare the materiality of state violence in the body politic. Each indict how prisons serve as the legitimized mechanism and institution of this violence. The shock and revulsion that people of conscience feel for the atrocities committed inside Al-Ghraib? That's daily life in a lot of prisons controlled by, or in, the United States. Don't be afraid to look upon it with Prisonvision.

Arturo Aldama teaches Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado, Boulder. Pancho McFarland is a cultural studies instructor at Georgia College and State University. Mike Mosher is Asst. Professor of Art/Communication Multimedia, Saginaw Valley State University.

Copyright © Arturo J. Aldama, Pancho McFarland, Mike Mosher. Prisonvision cover adapted from John Leanos' "Digital Surveillance". . All rights reserved.