Revolution #183, November 15, 2009

Special Issue on Prisons and Prisoners in the U.S.

From the Hellholes of Incarceration to a Future of Emancipation

The United States—the richest and most powerful nation in the world—has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of its prisoners. 2.3 million people languish in prison in the country that brags of being the “leader of the free world.”

The Criminalization of a Generation and the Oppression of African-American and Latino People

For many Americans, the astronomical rates of incarceration are statistics. But millions of Black and Latino youth grow up in an environment where they see many of their older friends going into, and coming out of, prison. For whole communities, the prospect of prison looms ominously over people’s lives.

If you live in a poor Black urban neighborhood, whether New York or Los Angeles, Chicago or Atlanta or some other city... ten percent of the children you know have a father in prison or jail. One out of every five adults you know can’t vote because at one point in their life they got a felony conviction. These same people are banned from having a government job and can’t get many types of assistance—including financial aid for college. You feel it and see it all around you—from the politicians, the TV news, the police waiting to jack you up on the corner. Young Black men are degraded and treated like criminals, with no future other than prison, some shit job or the military. In the first six months of 2009, the NYPD stopped and frisked 163,118 Black people in New York City. Almost none were charged with crimes—91 percent were neither arrested nor given a summons, but they were criminalized and entered into NYPD databases.

African-Americans are 13 percent of the general population, but over 50 percent of the prison population. Nearly 60 percent of all young Black men born between 1965 and 1969 who dropped out of high school went to prison at least once on a felony conviction before they turned thirty-five. The incarceration rate of Black male high school dropouts is nearly fifty times the national average. (“Can Our Shameful Prisons Be Reformed?” by David Cole, The New York Review of Books, November 19, 2009)

Black people in particular have always filled the prisons in greatly disproportionate numbers compared to whites. But as the forms under which Black people have been subjugated in this country have evolved, the forms of the enforcement of their subjugation have evolved as well. And the massive numbers of African-Americans in jail concentrate that—in terrible ways with ominous implications. In the 1950s, when segregation was still legal, African-Americans comprised 30 percent of the prison population. Sixty years later, African-Americans and Latinos make up 70 percent of the incarcerated population—at a time when that population has skyrocketed. (Cole)

In earlier eras, the slavemaster’s whip and the lynch mob enforced the super-exploited, and all-around subjugated state of Black people. Today, those forms of violent oppression have been replaced by policeman’s taser and gun, and the prison cell. Poor Black people and Latinos in the inner cities are at ground zero for police terror and the threat of prison. But Black people of all classes are enveloped by the brush of demonization, humiliation, and repression—witness the recent arrest of the prominent Harvard professor and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates, arrested for refusing to scrape and bow when accused of “breaking into” his own home.

From within this nightmare, a prisoner wrote to Revolution: “I am no stranger to struggle and hardship. I grew up in just one of the many, many slums in Chicago. I ended up in prison by the age of 13. I am 30 now. I have been raised by cold steel and concrete which I do not wear as a Scar of Honor but as an indictment against a system that has been built on genocide and slavery, and has continued to insist on throwing away its “undesirables” generation after generation. However, let me be clear, I am in search of the truth and not pity. My struggle is linked with the struggle of millions across the globe.”

These prisons are hellholes. Prisoners are subjected to maddening, mind-crushing torture in the form of isolation chambers. This kind of mental torture is considered a war crime when carried out against prisoners of war, but the U.S. inflicts this on tens of thousands of ordinary prisoners within its penal system. Prisoners are manacled, maced, tasered, and chained. They are set against each other, gladiator-style, in gang wars for the amusement of the authorities. Rape is used as a means of social control on prisoners, both women and men.

All this is intended to break the spirits of millions for whom this system offers no future.

It’s not getting any better, either. On the contrary. The rate of imprisonment has skyrocketed over the past several decades—in 1980 about a half million people were in jail in the United States; by 2006, that number was 2.3 million—an increase of over 450%. This explosion has cut a particularly devastating, defining swath through African-American and Latino communities, especially among poor young Black men. African-Americans are 13 percent of the general population, but over 50 percent of the prison population. They are incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than that of whites.

And this has had a devastating impact on Black people overall, with whole generations in the inner cities growing up expecting to end up in prison. While African-Americans have always been the victims of discrimination in the justice system, this has gotten far worse in the past 50 years—yes, far worse than the days of Jim Crow and open segregation. At the same time, the numbers of Latinos being incarcerated is also growing dramatically and is likewise out of proportion to their share of the general population.

Meanwhile, the authorities foment widespread gang and racial clashes in prisons as a means to divide and conquer, and then use what they have incited as a rationale for further brutality and torture. “Association” with a gang, which can mean almost anything, is invoked to lock prisoners down in special isolation units that quickly create such extreme psychological trauma that over and over again prisoners lose their minds. In many prisons, inmates are required to declare allegiance with a gang by the prison authorities under the pretext of segregating gangs.

And increasingly, within the prisons—as throughout society—the so-called “alternative” to the dog-eat-dog mentality fostered by the prison system is reactionary Christian fundamentalism. In this way, shock troops are recruited from among the ranks of the oppressed—to reinforce the very system that oppresses them. (See “Recruiting for Christian Fascism—Inside the Prisons.”)

So let us say here to the people who rule this society: if you can do no better than to assign millions of Black and Latino youth to a future of crime and punishment in conditions of high-tech barbarism... then get the hell out of the way! Because this wholesale destruction of human lives and potential is not only terrible and tragic but totally unnecessary as well. With revolutionary state power, we could build a society where the energy and creativity of these youth—whose spirit today is suppressed and mutilated and channeled into self-destruction and self-hatred—could be part of a vibrant new revolutionary society aiming to eliminate every last vestige of exploitation and oppression.

And let us also say to those who are ruled by this system: if there were no other crime of this system than this—and there are of course many other horrific crimes carried out by the powers-that-be—that would be reason enough to make revolution. And reason enough to get with the revolutionary movement today, to begin actively hastening the day when such a revolution could be made.

But it is important to dig more deeply into how we got into this situation, in order to see why this is so, for real.

Behind the “Population Explosion” in the Prisons

Rape in Prison: A Concentration of Patriarchal Mentality & A Tool of Social Control

One particularly horrific abuse of prisoners is rape. Rape is done by prison guards—particularly in women’s prisons—and it is also carried out by inmates against other inmates.

At the age of 18, Dorothy (her last name has not been publicized by her supporters), a Native American woman from upstate New York, left the reservation where she grew up, and married a much older man. Her husband beat her for years, even when she was in advanced stages of pregnancy. When she tried to run away, he broke her ribs and put a pistol to her head threatening to shoot her. At the age of 22, Dorothy began a life sentence for killing her abusive husband. Shortly after her arrival in prison, a guard began demanding sex. She refused, and he began to withhold about half of her ration of food, and her soap and toilet paper. One day, the guard found Dorothy alone in the laundry room. He locked the door from the inside, and although Dorothy fought back, he raped her. When she tried to gain access to the prison’s mental health services for counseling, she was turned away, eventually offered Thorazine, a dangerous and mind-numbing drug. Defying threats if she spoke out, she reported the rape to the prison superintendent and a counselor in the mental health unit, and to the state’s investigative office, to no response. After over a year, she joined a lawsuit filed against the guard and the prison. The suit was dismissed without even addressing the merits of the case, based on laws that make it almost impossible for inmates to sue prison guards. (“Words From Prison: Sexual Abuse in Prison,” ACLU)

Among men, rape is widespread. In one sense, this is a concentrated expression of the predatory and patriarchal mentality inculcated in males by this society, in a situation in which there are no women to dominate. At the same time, it is a tool of social control manipulated by the authorities. The widespread rape in U.S. prisons inflicts severe physical and emotional pain and trauma on the vulnerable young men who are its victims, as it does to women. It carries great risk of infecting victims with HIV/AIDS. In sensationalist “news” programming about prison life, and TV dramas, prison rape is depicted as a product of a prison population of predators and psychopaths, carried out despite the best efforts of authorities to stop it. But, if prison authorities are trying to prevent prison rape, under conditions where they monitor and control prisoners’ every move, then why is it that, according to a 2003 Congressional study, over a million inmates had been raped over the previous 20 years. A million inmates.

An ABC News report in April of 2009 quoted a former prison guard, Johnny Vasquez, as saying that when prisoners came to guards with complaints of being raped, they were told, “You need to grow some and defend yourself. Quit coming in here crying. Get out of my office. Don’t bring this to me.” That, in essence, is an expression of the depraved kill-or-be-killed (and relatedly, macho male supremacist) values and morality of the system that runs the prisons and uses rape as a tool to promote and enforce those values.

Harvard University criminologist Dr. James Gilligan told ABC that authorities use rape as a “bribe or a reward” to powerful inmates “to cooperate with the prison authorities.” “As long as they cooperate, the prison authorities will permit them to have their victims.” The ABC report summed up: “Experts say some prison officials quietly permit rape as a way to control the population.”

The prison population in the U.S. mushroomed in the early 1970s. Before that, the United States sent people to jail at about the rate of industrialized countries in Europe—around one in every one thousand Americans were in jail. Starting in 1975, the incarceration rate in the U.S. increased dramatically. Today 7 out of every 1,000 Americans are in prison, a ratio greater than any other country.

This explosion in the prison population was not due to an increase in crime in the U.S. In immediate terms, it seemed to be a result of the so-called “war on drugs.” And it is true that from 1980 to 1997, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased by 1,100 percent (Race, Incarceration, and American Values, by Glenn C. Loury, with Pamela S. Karlan, Tommie Shelby, and Loïc Wacquant). Now these were not the fabled “drug kingpins” of TV fantasy, or even the street corner sales force. By 2008, four of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one in five was for distribution; fully half of all drug arrests were for marijuana offenses. (FBI, Crime in the United States, 2008, Arrest Table, available at

Yet while official propaganda whipped up the vast use of drugs as the most serious threat to society, this “war on drugs” actually had a deeper source than some supposed concern over the widespread desire of people living under this system to numb themselves. Indeed, this “war on drugs” was engineered from the highest offices, at a time when the system was facing great challenges around the world and on the home front.

This was put succinctly and bluntly by Richard Nixon, who was president in 1969. At that time, Nixon’s top assistant wrote in his diary: “[Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” (The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House, p. 53, by H.R. Haldeman, cited in Smoke and Mirrors: the War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, by Dan Baum)

Indeed, the struggle of Black people in that era, and the revolutionary forces and sentiments within that, resonated throughout society, and intersected with a wide range of grievances and struggles, from the oppression of women to the war in Vietnam. It literally shook the system to its foundations, calling its very legitimacy into question among millions and millions of people.

So the system lashed back with a vengeance at revolutionary forces and the masses of people who were rising up. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed by police and national guard during the uprisings of the mid to late 1960s. Hundreds of Black Panther Party members were jailed. A number of key Panther leaders like “Bunchy” Carter and George Jackson were assassinated; the most horrific example was the murder of Fred Hampton, while he slept, by a heavily armed tactical unit of the Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO), in conjunction with the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. No one was ever convicted for any of these crimes; though scores of Panthers and sympathizers were sent to prison for decades, as a result of blatant frame-ups and trumped up charges.

At the same time, in the face of massive rebellion, the rulers of the U.S. opened some doors to some sections of Black people, lowering some barriers to employment and education. The rulers intended through doing this to develop a “buffer section” among Black people—a section of people that, even as they continued to suffer discrimination and bitter forms of oppression, would also begin to feel more of a material stake in the status quo.

Recruiting for Christian Fascism—Inside the Prisons

Prison authorities push the Bible and in particular virulently fascist fundamentalist Christian cults inside the prisons. Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator, is currently in the process of placing Christian fascist programming from Pat Robertson’s Trinity Broadcast Network into all 65 of its state, federal and juvenile facilities in nineteen states and the District of Columbia. Beyond that, there are now special prisons, or prison wings, for Christian fundamentalists. Former Nixon crony Chuck Colson did time after pleading guilty to felony obstruction of justice for his attempts to smear Pentagon Papers defendant and anti-war activist Daniel Ellsberg. Today Colson is a reactionary Christian fundamentalist who sets up “faith-based prisons.” And Christian fundamentalist groups run some of the few programs for re-integrating prisoners into society on their release. Through the widespread promotion of Christian fundamentalism (in blatant contradiction to the supposed separation of church and state), prison systems program captives to blame themselves (and other prisoners) for their conditions, and enlist as “Christian soldiers”—both in prison and when they get out in service of a Christian fascist movement being unleashed in society as a whole.

Coinciding with these developments were major changes having to do with globalization. Factories producing goods were moved first from the inner cities to the suburbs and then to other countries—while the masses of Black people remained locked in those urban cores due to continued housing segregation and deprivation. Simultaneously, the inner cities were deprived of funds and allowed to become economic and cultural dead-zones. The drug trade and the gangs involved in that trade to a certain degree arose spontaneously—but they were also systematically manipulated and in some cases promoted to fill the economic and political void left in the ghettos and barrios by economic abandonment and counter-revolutionary suppression of the movement. That escalated in the 1980s, as the CIA orchestrated the funding of pro-U.S. Central American terrorists (the “Contras”) through the sale and distribution of drugs through gangs in the inner cities of the U.S. (See “The CIA/Crack Connection: RW Interview with Gary Webb,” at, and Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, by Gary Webb).

The rulers used all this, along with other attacks, to create a “pariah class”1 in the inner cities—that is, social outsiders for whom normal considerations and rights did not apply. And they in turn used the presence of that pariah class as an outlet and target for the resentments building up among a large section of white people, many of whom were also facing economic setback and instability, re-fitting and reinforcing the “tool” of white racism for these times.

This whole horrible situation today that we document in this special issue—the massive explosion of incarceration and the criminalization of two generations, now, of African-American and Latino2 youth—did not come about because these youth stopped wearing belts in their pants. It came as a result of how those who run this system responded to the revolutionary challenge of the 1960s, along with the ongoing economic and political changes in society overall.

The System’s Answer—and Ours

Divide and Conquer vs. Fight the Power, and Transform the People, for Revolution

One prisoner wrote to Revolution: “Today California prisons in particular have passed a regulation where as the state is now housing prisoners of all social groups & races together in cells, this new regulation is creating conflict between prisoners, it is basically pitting prisoners against one another in gladiator style fights as before only now confined to a cell.”

And, that prisoner poses: “[T]here is a remedy to situations like this and it will take the vanguard in each prison to find this remedy & bring it to fruition, we will not be used as roosters at a cockfight! This is a classic case of the state trying to take heat off themselves and direct prisoners rage upon one another rather than the proper direction.”

This has been a continuation, in new and extremely twisted terms, of the centuries of oppression and white supremacy developed by, and built into, this system. (See “The Oppression of Black People, the Crimes of This System and the Revolution We Need,” Revolution #144, for a detailed analysis of this history, its legacy, and the ongoing systematic oppression of Black people in this society.) This system, as Bob Avakian has pointed out, had two chances to “make it right” in regard to its historic criminal oppression of the African-American people: after the Civil War, and after the titanic struggles of the 1960s. After the Civil War, following the brief period of Reconstruction, instead of bringing justice, the system answered by re-enslaving, in new forms, the masses of Black people on plantations in the South, in a cruel and dehumanizing system of sharecropping and segregation, enforced by the lynch mob. (See “How This System Has Betrayed Black People: Crucial Turning Points,” by Bob Avakian.)

And after the struggles of the 1960s, faced again with the demand for justice, the system again responded viciously—with the counter-revolutionary suppression we have detailed here, and the ongoing discrimination, inequality and oppression—concentrated in the mass incarceration of Black youth in hellholes.

A Supermax Death Sentence

A 2001 Amnesty International report detailed the death in prison of David Tracy, sent to jail for minor drug charges at age 18. After five suicide attempts, and with just a few months remaining on his sentence, he finally killed himself at age 20 in a supermax isolation cell at Wallens Ridge State Prison (WRSP) in Virginia. Amnesty described conditions in that unit: Prisoners “are routinely abused with electro-shock stun guns, subjected to racial verbal abuse by guards, fired on with painful pellet guns, and placed unnecessarily in five point restraints [strapping a prisoner down to keep him from moving his arms and legs].” Conditions in this typical supermax are “contrary to international standards prohibiting torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including those set out under the International Covenant on Civil or Political Rights and the Convention against Torture—treaties ratified by the USA.” In other words, in addition to being inhumane and immoral, the conditions in U.S. prisons are illegal by U.S. and international law. (“United States of America: Abuses continue unabated? Cruel and inhumane treatment at Virginia supermaximum security prisons.”)

In other words, each time the answer to the quest for justice came back from the system: a resounding NO. (The existence of a Black president at the head of this system—one who studiously avoids taking on any manifestation of the particular oppression faced by Black and other minority people and who indeed lectures the masses of Black people on their supposed bad habits—does not change this in any fundamental way.)

Now is time, and past time, for the people to respond to this answer given by the system.  It is time, now, to get with the real revolution—a revolution that aims to do away with all oppression. To fight the power, and transform the people, for revolution. To get with the revolution we need—and to get with, and promote, the leadership we have, Chairman Bob Avakian.

In doing this, we can all draw inspiration from those prisoners who have responded to the call of the revolutionary movement, some of whose letters appear in this issue: those who have defied the locked-down conditions imposed by the authorities and ruptured with the dog-eat-dog “gangsta” values that pervade prison and who instead aspire to be emancipators of humanity.

There is another way. Time to get with it.

1. The concept of the targeting of Black people and Native Americans as a “pariah class,” dating back to the early days of the U.S., and the overall way in which white supremacy has served to blunt class-consciousness in the U.S. since then, has been drawn on and further developed by Bob Avakian in the important work, Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy. (Available in print [2008, RCP Publications] and online at [back]

2. The term Latino takes in many different distinct nationalities whose roots are in Latin America but who occupy a subordinate, oppressed position within U.S. society. While the forms of oppression differ in certain important ways, there are also forms in common among these nationalities, and between them and the African-American masses (as well as other immigrant communities). And one particularly important form of oppression that is shared is the brutal and unjust treatment by the criminal justice system—from the cops on the street to the courts to the prisons. [back]

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