In California, prisoners are fighting back against appalling human rights violations. Their hunger strike is into its third week, with nearly 1,000 inmates still participating. When the strike began, 30,000 prisoners refused meals. The prisoners are striking against long term solitary confinement, a punishment recognized as a form of torture by sources as diverse as the UN, John McCain, and Amnesty International. In California, it is often used to punish inmates suspected of being gang members. Such suspicion is laden with racial bias. As Shane Bauer explains,
“I have seen cases of people who are put in the SHU and deemed gang members because they have academic books by the Black Panthers or journal writings about African-American history. Even the materials for gang investigators teach that the use of the words ‘tío’ or ‘hermano,’ ‘uncle’ or ‘brother’ in Spanish, can indicate gang activity.”
California prisons torture inmates for reading about black liberation or for speaking Spanish.
The racism California’s prisoners are fighting does not stop there. They also demand an end to group punishments, including what ProPublica‘s Christie Thompson calls “race-based lockdowns that restrict an entire race of inmates for one prisoner’s violation.” This kind of collective punishment should disgust all who believe in individual rights. Anyone who values freedom, equality, or human dignity should support California’s striking prisoners. But we should not stop there.
The prisoners seek an end to some of the worst abuses of the prison system. We should demand an end to the prison system itself. The prison system is a continuation of slavery. The 13th Amendment prohibits slavery “except as a punishment for crime.” So rather than abolishing slavery, the 13th Amendment simply changed its form. After the Civil War, Southern states used the Black Codes to criminalize blacks. This created forced labor that was arguably worse than slavery. As Angela Davis explains:
Slave owners may have been concerned for the survival of individual slaves, who, after all, represented significant investments. Convicts, on the other hand, were leased not as individuals, but as a group, and they could be worked literally to death without affecting the profitability of a convict crew.
This extension of slavery continues today.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as “Angola,” was converted from a slave plantation to a prison, and is still used for forced agricultural labor. Sweatshop conditions exist in prisons across the country. Companies like Walmart, AT&T, and Starbucks all profit from this slave labor. So do war profiteers like BAE, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing. The racism of slavery persists; 60% of prisoners are people of color. The abolitionist movement has some unfinished business, and it can only be resolved through prison abolition.
Prison abolitionism is often seen as utopian, but I believe it is one of the most practical causes activists can work towards. I support three core tactics for resisting and eventually abolishing prisons:
1. Support prisoners. Act in solidarity with prisoners who resist, such as the hunger strikers. Write letters to prisoners. Raise money for their commissary or send them books. While these sorts of actions will not abolish prisons on their own, they help prisoners survive incarceration, and they can help build a resistance movement on all sides of prison walls.
2. Resist the prison growth industry. Organize against construction of any new prisons, jails, and detention centers. Divest from banks that profit off prisons, such as Wells Fargo, and urge others to do the same. Expose prison profiteers like Jane Marquardt and undermine their political influence. Film cops, finance legal defenses, and promote jury nullification, so fewer people are sent to prison.
3. Build alternatives to prisons. For example, LGBT people of color in New York run a Safe Neighborhood Campaign, which trains local businesses and community groups to stop violence without calling the police. Women organize many grassroots projects to defend themselves from gender violence in an America where 97% of rapists are never sent to prison.
Building alternatives to police and prisons can make communities safer and end the state’s monopoly on security and justice. Abolishing prisons is a moral imperative. But moreover, it’s a practical plan.