Mumia Abu-Jamal writes, “Prisons are repositories of rage, islands of socially acceptable hatreds, where worlds collide like subatomic particles seeking psychic release.” As it locks down millions behind the steel curtains of the state and renders them invisible by fostering the contempt of people on the outside, the prison industrial complex brutalizes people in the most repugnant ways. However, powerful voices of resistance resonate from within this gray steel wasteland.
An Unheard Truth
The principled defiance of prison writers to the mind-numbing logic of incarceration has transformed the U.S. prison into a primary site for radical thought and political analysis. As a young prisoner named Edward says, prison writings can communicate an unheard truth which unveils the disturbing commonalities between prison life and the reality of the outside. His poem, “The Suppression of Truth,” reads:
“The suppression of the truth is a cause of mental infestation,/ appearing to the present as every life’s manifestation/ … Falsified information portrayed as an aphorism/ passed into the mind from another’s illusive pacifism./ The truth cannot be given, taken, withheld, or received./ We already possess and are it, we just need to believe.”
The act of writing, especially for politically active prisoners, is both a tool of mental survival and a primary means of interaction with political struggles, communities, and individuals in the free world. Thus, people on the outside can form meaningful solidarity with radical prisoners by engaging their intellectual work.
By segregating people labeled as criminals, prison simultaneously fortifies and conceals the structural racism of the U.S. economy. Claims of low unemployment rates — even in black communities — make sense only if one assumes that the vast numbers of people in prison have really disappeared and thus have no legitimate claims to jobs. The numbers of black and Latino men currently incarcerated amount to two percent of the male labor force. According to criminologist David Downes, “[t]reating incarceration as a type of hidden unemployment may raise the jobless rate for men by about one-third, to 8 percent. The effect on the black labor force is greater still, raising the [black] male unemployment rate from 11 percent to 19 percent.”
Through their audacious refusal to be broken by the prison apparatus and judicial system, radical prisoners teach us that there is power in collective identification. They remind us that the political resistance mounted by oppressed people is frequently a life-or-death proposition. Angela Y. Davis once wrote from her prison cell, “Our very survival has frequently been a direct function of our skill in forging effective channels of resistance.”
Radical prisoners’ confrontations with official violence impress a distinct political urgency on their writings. These writings demystify our most hallowed American institutions and vividly expose the structural violence of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.
Political prisoner Laura Whitehorn has recently argued, “I think we need to find a way to wake up all those people out there who dream that locking up more and more people will solve the problems of violence and crime — problems that come not from the oppressed but from the very nature of this capitalist system. We need to make them understand that what they are locking up and destroying is, in the end, their own humanity, their own souls.” These words challenge us to disrupt and transform a popular ideology of “law and order,” and to expose the function of prisons within a broader context of economic exploitation and state violence.
The rapidly increasing number of women prisoners confront a devastating state violence which weaves sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy into the prison apparatus. In 1992, political prisoners Silvia Baraldini, Laura Whitehorn, Marilyn Buck, and Susan Rosenberg wrote: “Women in prison are at the very bottom. The misogyny and contempt for women in the society as a whole are compounded by the way the prison system is organized to exploit and utilize women’s oppression …. All women’s prisons operate based on the all-pervasive threat of sexual assault and the dehumanizing invasion of privacy.” This radical gender analysis pushes at the limits of most prevailing conceptions of the prison industrial complex and provides us a point of departure for building a movement that confronts the sexism and patriarchy at the heart of this Goliath.
Radical prisoners like Jackson, Davis, and Abu-Jamal believe that their incarceration conforms to the essential logic of the social order. Erskine Johnson writes from his Death Row cell, “I could go on and on pointing out many atrocities being perpetrated under the guise of justice, particularly to African Americans, but by no means to them exclusively. I would suggest to you, that as surely as I sit here, unjustly accused and convicted, it could one day be you or someone that you know and love. Don’t just take my word for it. Take a closer look at how the system works and more importantly who it works for.”
Fascism as Everyday Experience
Incarcerated activists inhabit an everyday condition which forces the inflammatory language of “fascism” to fall away from easy abstraction and become a relevant ingredient of serious political analysis. George Jackson’s nuanced view was that “fascism is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any particular set of problems that arise to threaten the predominance of the traditionalist, capitalist ruling class.”
This “fascism” not only requires the repression of dissent and warehousing of the “human waste” of advancing capitalism, but also wages extensive propaganda campaigns to justify the most extreme forms of social control. Jackson’s writings were a central cause for his eventual assassination by San Quentin prison guards; then-Governor Ronald Reagan effectively called for Davis’ execution prior to her trial; and Abu-Jamal was framed up and thrown on Death Row because of his unrelenting activist journalism.
The collective work of radical prison writers poignantly demonstrates what Davis has called a “merging of the personal and the political” — a dissolution of the political and philosophical boundaries that usually separate individual lives from collective struggles and institutional realities. Despite being physically isolated by the state apparatus, radical prisoners have defiantly maintained this outlook.
Radical prisoners refuse to surrender consent to the incomprehensible daily beatings of the world’s most “advanced” prison system. They question the moral legitimacy of a social structure that systematically eats the gristle of poor folk, people of color, women, immigrants, and especially its warehoused prisoners. Radical prison writings challenge our apathy, undress our cynicism, and call us to action.
Dylan Rodríguez is a member of the organizing committee for Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex and a graduate student in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.