No More Prisons!
Dana Williams
Dave Dellinger once stood before a judge prepared to sentence him to prison and stated: “I think that every judge should be required to serve time in prison before sentencing other people there, so that he might become aware of the degrading and anti-human conditions that persist not only in Cook County jail but in the prisons generally of this country.” In Dellinger's bold and brash pronouncement, there lies a simple truth-- prisons are the warehouses of America's poor and powerless, not places that society's elites frequent.

Christian Parenti notes that prisons have become a tool of class warfare, a way in which to manage the marginal population of society. In his book “Lockdown America”, Parenti details the ways in which the present prison-building-boom came to be, and the ways in which prisons control. Prisons serve a useful purpose on the outside: they punish the poor for their poverty, they remove poor people from interfering with rich people and their daily lives, and they regulate/distract society's volatile populations that given other means might rebel. Within prisons, inmates are kept in line by an acknowledged-- but never addressed-- system of gangs and prison rape, brutal and indifferent guards, and a never ending cycle of deprivation, punishment, and exile.

There are now more than two million human beings either locked up in American prisons or in some other stage of the incarceration process. Two million souls living and breathing recycled air, violence, frustration, and enslavement. It boggles the mind to imagine such vast numbers not being able to have a say in the most basic elements of their lives: when they can goto the bathroom, where they can travel, who they can speak to, what they can (and cannot) do, and for how long.

What has our society gained from this amazing incarceration rate? Lengthy cycles of recidivism and sentencing, broken families, a burdened legal system, heightened feelings of animosity and revenge, entrenched attitudes of “law and order”, out of control police forces, a soiled “Bill of Rights”, intensified criminal training, and billions of dollars wasted into a black hole of political ambition. What have we lost? We've lost an entire generation of black men, the wisdom to differentiate between alcohol, nicotine, and “illegal drugs”, and the ability to forgive others for their mistakes. Can we gain any of these things back?

The Black Panthers considered all African-Americans in prison to be political prisoners. Wouldn't that still be the case? If you look at who is in prison, you find that 9 out of every 10 people are poor. They never had a chance, they're life options were already determined by the time their parents gave birth. The rich can afford lawyers and a strong legal defense to keep themselves out of jail. Further, white collar crimes which impact many more people are the least pursued offenses, have the most piddly “punishments”, and usually place a guilty offender in a high-class Hilton prison, while the petty thieves and drug-dealers are thrown in to schools of hard knocks. Are not the poor in prison because of capitalism, because of the political State? What else could the average prisoner be but a political prisoner?

Of course, the rapid growth in prisons is intimately linked to the expansion and vigor of the so-called “Drug War”. Despite the reality that rehabilitation is many times more effective and fiscally cheaper, politicians have the population scared and convinced that drug users and dealers must be “punished” for what usually amounts to an act that only harms themselves. It would be too easy to point out that the Drug War's violence is exacerbated (if not simply created) by the illegality of drugs, and if drugs were freely available, the violence would not exist and they could be regulated to be safer.

At their root, prisons serve a societal function not far different from drugs and alcohol, police, religion, and television. They neutralize the will of the powerless to resist those with power and try to gain their own power. Prisons are, therefore, not only the large monolithic concrete and steel cages, but also represent all the traps that we get stuck in that prevent us from living our lives free. We need a world with fewer prisons not more prisons. We must stop the campaigns of fear and turn back the push for social repression, and say loudly, “No More Prisons!”