The Weekly Abolitionist: Prisons, Control, and Black Market Resistance

Palestinian prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails are not allowed conjugal visits. They have no physical contact with loved ones, and all visits have a glass barrier between visitors and inmates. But prisoners and their wives are finding a route around this social control by smuggling sperm out of prison and using in vitro fertilization to have children, the Washington Post reports.

Suad Abu Fayed, whose husband is imprisoned for involvement with the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, recently had a child by this method. “I know it won’t be easy raising a baby with a husband in jail, but this is our way of breaking Israel’s siege on us,” she told the Post. “We are challenging [Israel’s] occupation and getting something beautiful in return.”

These restrictions on reproduction and human contact are unjustifiable forms of control that are cruelly dehumanizing, unnecessary for preventing or stopping violence, and fit into an overall system of occupation, coercion, apartheid, and control. Yet prisoners, their families, and others find ingenious and entrepreneurial ways around this.

Black markets have played a similar liberating role in Alabama with the recent Free Alabama Movement. Prisoners inside Alabama prisons have used cell phones, which are prohibited inside prisons, to produce videos exposing and protesting unjust conditions. The Free Alabama Movement made headlines in late April by calling for a strike by prison laborers to protest slave-like labor conditions. The strike was endorsed by the Industrial Workers of the World. The transparency, political speech, and action taken by the Free Alabama Movement would not be possible without the illicit smuggling of cell phones into prisons. Once again, black markets prove vital to political resistance.

In attempts to squelch such black markets, prison officials engage in pervasive surveillance and invasive searches. Among the worst of these are strip searches and cavity searches. These searches can traumatize rape survivors and provoke them to harm themselves or others. Moreover, they involve forced exposure and intimate contact to the point that they themselves often meet the state’s own definition of sexual assault. Angela Davis refers to strip searches as “routinization of sexual assault.” Yet in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone being booked into jail, even for something as trivial as a traffic stop, could constitutionally be strip searched in order to prevent them from bringing contraband into a jail or prison. Given the transparency and accountability illicit cell phones could facilitate, it could be argued that the state has created a feedback loop where routine sexual assault is justified in order to deprive inmates of access to tools that could counter illicit sexual assault. Yet in spite of these systems of control and surveillance, markets persist and flourish, and contraband remains common in prisons around the United States and around the world.

Ultimately, human beings want to engage in exchange and access goods and services. According to economist David Skarbek, prison gangs have largely formed as governance institutions to facilitate this sort of exchange. Skarbek’s forthcoming book, The Social Order of the Underworld, examines these issues in detail. Skarbek has also documented more open markets in San Pedro Prison in Bolivia, where prisoners engaged in self-governance and guards did not squelch market activity.

Prohibition does not work. Markets route around prohibitions and state violence, and the flourishing of black markets is a key part of prison resistance.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory