Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lock 'Em Up and Throw Away the Key

I'm never far removed from thinking about prisons, prisoners and those who so relish incarcerating their fellow citizens in tiny cavities of darkness and pain. Those of you who've read this blog fairly regularly know by now that I was highly involved in the national prison abolition movement in the 1970's. I've counseled prisoners and their families. I've trained people to work with those re-entering society. I've worked with teenaged boys already locked into the system and trained others to do so. I designed programs for adjudicated and "at-risk" kids for an Africentric agency for two years. And I taught a wildly popular and very reality-based course on adolescence and delinquency at a university for more than five.

I met both of my children's fathers while they were still incarcerated. I have friends who did as much as twenty-five years straight. I have friends today who are still caught up in the system in one way or another. I went up to the craft fair in Angola last October and very much want to return, if possible, next month. And I'm incredibly clear about the fact that the criminal code is the line between personal freedom and the power structure, which is made up of those, we should remember, who get to decide what constitutes a crime and how it should be punished.

There are few of us by now, I expect, who don't know that the United States has more people behind bars than any other nation in the world. Far more. Roughly two and one-half million of us are "doing time" these days. And the majority of us must surely know that men of color and most particularly, African-American men, are far and away the most disproportionately likely to be those individuals.

No wonder so many "decent, God-fearing" White folks have the impression Black men are dangerous. Why else would so MANY of them be locked up? We sure are lucky, one can almost hear average White folks say, that we have plenty of prisons to put all these bad Black guys in so we can all be "safe." Besides, prisons and jails and law enforcement bodies of all kinds provide millions of jobs for the rest of us, right? And jobs are something we're getting pretty desperate about of late.

If you find yourself agreeing with this sentiment (or even leaning in that direction), I strongly suggest that you read "Slavery Haunts America's Plantation Prisons" by Maya Schemwar. And if that article leaves you wanting more, you might read God of the Rodeo: the Quest for Redemption in Louisiana's Angola Prison by David Bergner. And then, if you really want to get a good grasp on the bottom line (literally), you can pick up Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.

I've been talking and writing about prison so long, I'm running out of words.

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The photo above appears in Douglas A. Blackmon's book, Slavery by Another Name. The poster is an example of Ricardo Levins Morales' work and is available from Northland Poster Collective. It reads "More than ninety thousand inmates in US prisons labor in a booming "prison industrial complex" for a growing list of major corporations. As unprecedented numbers of Americans are swept into the penal system by crime, drug, and welfare policies, their labor is being sold at bargain rates. Laws prohibiting prison labor have fallen as prison sales have swelled to nearly a billion dollars per year. At the close of the century, the prison workforce is an increasingly important arena for organizing."

8 comments:

Sorrow said...

YES...
I hear you,
One of the reasons,(many) that I do not buy starbucks coffee. They use Good old prison labor, as there main source to make there cups and packages, to picking there beans.
How do i know?
Because I have a circle of friends, like yourself, who have slipped and slid into the cracks of that odious system.
Ignorance is bliss..
not.
yeah we need more prisons...
not

Changeseeker said...

Sorrow: Starbucks, huh? Well, isn't THAT interesting? I can see how the packaging would lend itself to prison labor, but where are they picking beans? Do you mean that giant bags of beans are delivered and then the prisoners pick out the "bad" ones (or something)? Good grief!! Inquiring minds (in my globalization class, race class, and social problems class) want to know. And thanks, thanks, thanks for this input. So much for Starbucks...

Professor Zero said...

I need to go to Angola. Should go twice since it's unrealistic to go to two parts of it in the same day. Keep talking about it. I am a lazy thing and haven't been in almost a year.

Changeseeker said...

I wouldn't be hard to cajole into it, PZ. ;^) What do you think?

Macon D said...

Thank you for these reminders of another shameful horror that most Americans prefer not to think about. Me too, actually--I've had this post open in a Tab for awhile now, waiting for me to read it. For some reason, I kept putting it off. I think that reluctance of mine to simply read this post is a symptom, of how the general American culture's indifference to the facts you present here affects even those of us who care about such things. Your work with prisoners, though, and this post, are admirable movements against the grain.

Changeseeker said...

Yes, Macon, I am more conscious of this situation on many levels. Yet I have "owed" a prisoner a letter for at least six months (or more). We move so quickly through our days and their world is pretty much held in abeyance in many respects. It is as though they don't exist (and they express feeling that way). That's why I like to go in. Because sometimes, for the moment when somebody from the "outside" looks at them, they feel acknowledged and even alive. And that such a huge gift for such a small cost.

Chocoholic said...

Ugh, I just found this post...and blog..and had to comment on this one. I heard the story about Angola prison on NPR the other day and my thoughts while driving were "This sounds an awful lot like slavery." I'm definitely going to have to read those books you mentioned as I wanted to know more about how prison labor can be used like that.

Changeseeker said...

Hey, Chocoholic. Welcome to my house. You'll find those books veeeeery informational. And drop by anytime.