The Politics of Prisons


“Incarceration in the United States, . . . is a site in which the technologies of racism and imperialism intersect.”  Malini Johar Schueller , Locating Race: Global Sites of Post-Colonial Citizenship

U.S. prisons are not full to overflowing because there was, or is, a “crime problem,” to which mass incarceration must be the necessary remedy. The U.S. prison population of more than 2.3 million rose to its current levels, whether crime was on the rise or on the decrease. Even when it did go down, sociologists argue that, at best, it could account for less than one-tenth of any reduction (Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, (Russell Sage Foundation, pages 1-8).

Moreover, any “reduction” is more than offset by the ways our prisons cause crime and make conditions of life worse for already poor communities, as shown by criminologist, law and justice Professor Beth E. Ritchie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, and American’s Prison Nation (NYU Press, 2012, 99-124).

Nor is the prison system a result of some generalized public neglect, which more liberal and humane gestures might correct.

No, the prisons are a political and systemic problem.  They are the result of U.S. state structural violence. The very definition of what a crime is, and which are enforced, and how, is part of this structural violence. Mass incarceration unleashes, as John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor, Todd Clear argues, a set of processes for Imprisoning Communities that “makes disadvantaged neighborhoods worse” (Oxford University Press, 2007).

As Malini Schueller says above, incarceration is a system where “technologies” – i.e. institutional policies and practices – produce structural patterns that consolidate white class power (racism) and that strengthen U.S. imperialism (controlling certain “surplus populations” at home to support U.S. projects in global sovereignty abroad). As the U.S. services an increasingly transnational class of elites, it also exports its political ideology of imprisonment and markets abroad its prison apparatus and technology.

The structuring power of gender and sexuality also have to be named as intrinsic parts of the politics of imprisonment. Poor women (especially from communities of color) and the sexually different (particularly persons of color from LGBTIQ groups) are also increasingly brought under surveillance and captivity in U.S. prisons (Eric A. Stanley and Nat Smith, eds. Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex).

Today’s prison system is not just a product of the recent decades, the three or four often cited since the late 1970s when prisons grew to their 2.2 million and more. No, mass incarceration is rooted in the long history of the U.S. Slavery, the Jim and Jane Crow era, share-cropping and convict lend-leasing are all pertinent to understanding mass incarceration today.

Indeed, before the nation’s founding, captivity, profit, labor, sexuality, race and gender have been constructed and forged by predominantly white colonizing regimes to control and exploit non-white bodies – African, as well as Asian, Latin American, Caribbean, Pacific Islander and more (poor whites, and dissenting white organizers, too).

The present-day structural violence of the politics of incarceration works essentially like this: first, increase dispossession of vulnerable communities (cutting social services for the poor, subverting support systems for women and children, limiting quality education, demonizing these poor as predominantly black and brown “drug users”), and then fund policing and prisons as major means for dealing with the poor.

The racialized poor become disposable peoples, warehoused into the prisons. As sociologist Loic Wacquant writes in Punishing the Poor, the U.S. state dismantles anything that looks like a truly empowering “safety net” for the poor, and wields only a “dragnet” for sweeping them up into prison. Especially revolutionary and dissident leaders from these communities have been targeted by the state, increasing the number of political prisoners.

Revolutionary journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, in his writings throughout 32 years of death row and imprisonment, has referred to this politics of imprisonment, as a veritable War on the Poor(Mumia audio, read by actress/activist Ruby Dee)

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