Organized Resistance: Building a Movement Against the Prison Industrial Complex

By Cassandra Shaylor Sep 10, 1998

Popular movements against punishment practices have never been easy to organize. But things seem to be changing. There are signs that a new sense of empowerment is developing in activist communities and that anti-prison movements may help kindle radical opposition to racism.

Critiques of the fast-growing U.S. punishment industry are beginning to surface in unlikely places like Ted Koppel’s Nightline. HBO airs a dramatic series on prison life, as well as prison documentaries. Widespread news reports have highlighted human rights abuses such as the nightmarish “training” video from the Brazoria Detention Center in Texas. News watchers have even been able to learn about the vast problem of sexual abuse in women’s prisons. In other words, fissures in the dominant discourse are providing a little more space for building movement.

Students are beginning to inhabit that space, organizing and demonstrating under the slogan “Education, not Incarceration!” Community activist Robin Templeton observes, “When we see 2,000 high school students marching in front of a multi-million dollar police station (in Concord, CA, in April), denouncing the trade-offs between education and incarceration, we realize that organizers must race to catch up with the energy, resistance, and commitment that is all around us.”

The Prison Moratorium Project (PMP) in New York recognizes the importance of urban popular culture as a tool for social change and will soon release a hip-hop compilation CD featuring popular artists who address prison issues in their music.

The National Committee to Stop Control Unit Prisons (NCSCUP) works to educate about the increasing use of permanent solitary confinement as a punitive measure within the growing number of “supermax” (super maximum security) facilities opening throughout the U.S. Through the development of a strong regional network, NCSCUP maintains up-to-date information about control units in every state and federal prison in the U.S.

Organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Maximums oppose repressive sentencing practices. Others, such as the Prison Law Office and Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, provide pro bono legal assistance. The Berkeley-based Prison Activist Resource Center disseminates information internationally through its e-mail listserve and website, and organizes classes and seminars for prison activists. Committees to free political prisoners, including the large number of Puerto Rican political prisoners and prisoners of war, came together in the recent Jericho campaign, which held its first major action in Washington, D.C. last spring.

According to Widney Brown of Human Rights Watch, growing numbers of grassroots organizations are using human rights language and tools to demand economic and political rights for prisoners. 1998 marks the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amnesty International has chosen the U.S. as the site of its annual campaign, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women is conducting investigations of women’s prisons in the U.S.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, activists and scholars are calling for a national campaign called “Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex.” A conference and strategy session by the same name will be held at the University of California at Berkeley from September 24-27 to launch the campaign.

According to Critical Resistance organizer Gita Drury, “The urgency of the crisis truly is matched by the energy and dedication of a wide range of people who are coming together to fight it. It really is exciting to be part of a movement that strives to include so many people from different backgrounds, because that kind of coalition-building is the only way we will succeed.” 

Cassandra Shaylor is a staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in San Francisco.