Government and the Prison System: A Mirror Image of Uselessness
By Anarchist/Anti-Fascist Political Prisoner Matthew Lamont AKA Rampage
Most people who write about prison abolition describe prison as being cruel, inhumane, and racist. It is all of that and more, but many don’t look at its uselessness. Many more don’t look at how prison is almost a crystal ball to tell what future the government holds for society. In this article I will talk about how a method of reforming a criminal has become exactly the opposite: a method of creating worse criminals. I will also cover what the cause of crime really is, why the government needs prisons to stay in power, and why we don’t need either.
The Origins of the Prison Concept
If I told most prisoners where the idea of prisons came from, they would probably refer me to a California medical facility. The idea of prisons came from the American Quakers in Philadelphia in 1787. The Quakers opposed floggings, public humiliation, and public executions. Instead, they advocated putting a criminal in solitary confinement with nothing but a bible. The idea was the criminal would have nothing to do, but to reflect on his or her wrongs, and come out a good productive individual. The idea also stressed that criminals be kept separate, so they would not influence each other. As time progressed prisons became a preferred method of punishment around the world and as prisons filled and industry came along it became too expensive to keep inmates from congregating, and later, communicating. As centuries have progressed the goals of imprisonment have become blurred and contradictory.
What is the goal of imprisoning a person? The three most common answers are to reform the criminal, deter crime, and protect society. However, does the prison system accomplish any of these goals? Decide for yourself.
As we already covered earlier, the Quakers made prison an alternative to other punishments they found inhumane. They believed in reforming the criminal, instead of taking vengeance on him or her. Of course, the only similarities today to the original concept of prison the Quakers had and the modern-day prison industry is that the walls are still made of concrete. The idea that a prisoner sitting in a cell with a bible as his or hers only company would reform a criminal, seemed ridiculous to many people back then. Prisons were a hard idea to sell, but eventually prevailed after much lobbying. The current ideology and practice the prison system carries today would never be supported by the Quakers, nor would it have been adopted by the already skeptical state governors and congressman. If you were on the streets in poverty with no employment, and had to steal to survive, what good would two years of being housed in a violent crime-infested environment, with only criminals as your company, do? Undoubtedly, it would only make matters worse. With a felony record employers are hesitant to give a person a job. Desensitized by prison and unemployed, most parolees and ex-cons become even more dedicated to a life of crime, and for a few, a life of violence.
Deterrence is a joke at best. It is strange indeed that the states with the strictest laws have the highest crime rate. California came up with the “three strikes” law. The law was campaigned under removing repeat violent offenders from society, using a brutal child-rape and murder as their example. No decent and honest human being would want people roaming the street preying on children. The law quickly passed. The results - Our favorite boogymen are still preying on children, undeterred by the “justice system.” Meanwhile, the law is being arbitrarily used on petty offenses, such as a man getting 25 years-to-life for stealing a piece of pizza. Our children are still in danger, but at least we have removed the threat to our pizza. As the laws have become more strict more low-income families have been devastated, resulting in an abundance of orphans and single mothers, and a new generation of children grown up on the streets. Now with 32 prisons overfilled in California alone, our “war on crime” continues on.
The prison system cannot protect society from crime. For every criminal taken off the street another ten quickly appear. In fact, the prison system endangers society. As shall be discussed in the next section, prisons are breeding grounds for crime and violence. There are few who leave prison unaffected by the experience of being snatched out of society and being thrown into an even more violent and oppressive world. Though prisons have “job opportunities” (sweat shops) inside, most of these are manual labor in which you don’t learn any valuable job skills. Instead, an inmate learns new crimes, joins a gang, or becomes extremely angry, bitter, and frustrated. How can an institution protect society when the only career inmates learn is a criminal one, before being unleashed back in society?
The Belly of the Beast
Imagine living in the middle of the desert, 200 miles away from home and being kept in by electrified fences with gun towers on each corner. Now imagine waking up everyday to a small locked concrete cell. Identical cells line the walls of a large gym-type room housing around 100 people. These hundred people make up multiple opposing factions who always have a shaky truce. Many inmates walk around with improvised weapons shoved up their ass (this is called “packing your lunchbox). On the yard inmates train with their separate gangs, doing numerable calisthenics, pushups, pull-ups, and lifting weights. The yard is as unstable as nitroglycerin; a mere spark can turn the yard into a bloody battlefield of chaos. The guards have long lost control of the prisoners. They just make sure nobody escapes, they don’t get attacked, and the chaos is contained. Fanning the flames is the flowing drug trade and racial tension. Welcome to the modern-day “maximum security” California state prison. For many convicts, the scene above doesn’t need an imagination, because it’s their everyday life. Prisoners and guards call these types of institutions “gladiator schools” or “war-zones.” The most infamous of these “war-zones” have become household names. Whether or not you have ever seen a county jail before, the names Pelican Bay, San Quentin, or Soledad probably ring a bell. These prisons used to pump out over a hundred stabbings annually by themselves. They were the most active prisons in California as far as race riots and gang rivalry. To change this, the worse prisons turned a few of the level 4 yards into level 2s or 1s. This way the murder and mayhem is now equally spread throughout the CDC (California Department of Corrections). This is a typical solution prison officials apply to most problems found in the prison system. Change the problem, shuffle it, sugarcoat it, cover it up, but never solve it.
Prisons have become a society within a society; there own gangs, rules, laws, politics, courts, and even their own prisons inside prisons (security housing units, or SHU). There’s jobs and unemployment (which is ironically on the rise). There are territorial boundaries of micro-nations created by inmates. There are alliances, treaties, truces, and wars. There are revolutionaries and fascists. And of course, there’s crime.
With buildings holding 100 people in a human warehouse, things can understandably get messy. With five of those buildings on one yard, things are totally out of control. It may come as a surprise to some people that these institutions, where security is the top priority and deterrence second, have more crime going on inside, than the areas with the highest crime rate in the state have going on outside. Buying drugs is much easier in prison than it is on the street, though much more expensive. Drug use and alcohol abuse is much more common in prison than any neighborhood on the street. Even the guards are in on the drug trade. Of course, drugs are the least of the Dept. of Corrections problems. There’s prostitution, extortion, bribery, assaults, stabbings, murders, and in some places, rape. Not to mention the all-too-often rioting that seems to plague the prison system. Unfortunately, none of these crimes are usually implemented towards the staff. Most riots are clashes between competing ethnicities, or gangs. The few cases of stabbings or assaults on guards usually are a result of a guard antagonizing or attacking an inmate. In these cases the inmate’s comrades are sometimes bound by their gang’s code of conduct to “jump in” the fight. A guard being stabbed is extremely rare. It is mostly reserved for guards who make it their goal in life to treat inmates as abusively as possible. The amount of these types of guards, though still high, has dropped since more inmates have gang affiliations now these days and the use of steel weaponry has become a preferred method of settling disputes. With the exception of the Black Guerrilla Family, inmate gangs do not organize themselves with the specific intent to target correctional officers. The prison gang Black Guerrilla Family, who carried on the legacy of the infamous prison revolutionary George Jackson, has been drive underground and is almost completely inactive. Most members have been given “indeterminate SHU” terms, which means spending the rest of your time in the hole. For lifers, that’s their entire life. This was due to DOC outlawing membership in any “prison gang” (a gang started in prison). If three separate pieces of evidence conclude you are a member, you are considered “validated,” and sent to the SHU until you give up information (“debrief”) about your gang to prove you have dropped out. The names of George Jackson and the Black Guerrilla Family are only whispered about, like forbidden legends.
With all this in mind I’m sure you’re wondering what similarities our current prison system has to its original concept. The more pressing question seems to me: If the prison system cannot deter crime in its own facilities, how is it going to serve as a deterrent to would-be criminals on the street? Or how about: how cans this type of environment ever hope to benefit an individual? Your guess is as good as mine.
Is There Any Suggestions?
I would challenge anybody to show how prison benefits society and justifies the amount of tax payer’s money that is set aside for the parasitical CDC; A Department that has only proved to develop violent criminal mentalities in those who were thrown in prison for trying to climb out of poverty through illegal methods. Even the courts have recognized the chaos going on into today’s prison facilities, as seen in this statement: “The association between men in correction institutions is closer and more fraught with physical danger and psychological pressures than is almost any kind of association between human beings.” Is it hard to believe that an individual who has lived five years in a man-made hell like prison would come out more nihilistic towards the lives of people in the society that put him in there?
Many prison activists have tried and in some cases succeeded in improving the conditions of prison. However, this has failed to accomplish any more than easing the suffering caused by the disease of imprisonment. No matter how much you alleviate the symptoms, the disease remains only to cause new problems. Like a disease, the prison system gets worse as time progresses. The CDC is always on the verge of collapse. With 32 prisons overfilled, and no money to build new ones, the CDC’s facilities are in chaos. Across the state, prisoners are being laid off jobs and their college courses are being cut. Recently the prison staff in Wasco State Prison and Delano went on Strike. This was particularly damaging to the CDC, because both prisons have the reception centers that CDC uses to process incoming inmates to the system. We are now seeing “tough on crime” politicians suddenly flipping the script, though as quietly as possible: Law-makers silently passed sentence reduction laws on all short-term inmates housed in community correctional facilities and “fire camps.” However, no matter how many short-term “solutions” CDC tries, the holes are only patched up temporarily, while more seem to appear. Still, the CDC carries on its damaged voyage through the stormy waters and the prison officials, armed with tin cups, try to keep their condemned ship from sinking into the chaos below.
So where are the lifeboats? It is important to understand what the root of the problem is, before we can determine a solution. The politicians will tell you the problem is crime, but what is the cause of most crimes? The most common myth that we are taught to believe is that the individual who committed a crime did it because they were evil or acting on evil temptations. This is ridiculous and entirely illogical. In fact, the idea probably belongs more in a bedtime story told to scare children, than in any campaign speech or law book. The insulting fact is that prison officials and “law and order” politicians try to use this myth in order to scare the public into accepting tougher laws and more prisons. The sad fact is the public actually buys it. Prisons have become the night light of society to keep “evil” criminals from coming out from under the bed.
However, as much as the boogeyman theory is accepted by the public, the facts remain un-mistakenly clear. Prison officials have stated that only 10-to-15 percent of inmates in the prison population are considered “violent predatory offenders” who need to be under continuous physical supervision. This leaves 85-to-90% of inmates who are either considered non-violent offenders or inmates who have not demonstrated a repetitive pattern of violence. A vast majority of these inmate’s crimes are products of a life of poverty and desperation. The favorite boogeymen that politicians use to pass their laws, such as child molesters, serial killers, and rapists, are an extremely small percentage of the prison population. In fact, it is a national policy to put these types of offenders in “protective custody”, because the general population inmates will try to kill them every time they are discovered on the mainline.
If you were to interview inmates you would be surprised to hear each one has a similar story to tell. A life on the street; broken homes; mother worked two jobs; father was in prison; raised by a street gang… the stories go on. Many spent their youths uneducated, unemployed, and unsupervised. I was told by one inmate of a nine year boy who jumped at him from an alleyway with a handgun, where he was patrolling for rival gang members. He ended up taking the boy home and feeding him. When asked where his mother was, the boy didn’t have a clue. Because of the vast amount of fathers and the growing number of mothers in low income neighborhoods are being thrown in prison, this kind of situation is becoming more common. As the prison system increases in size, the chaos on the streets seems to get worse, instead of better. Some areas seem more like a seen out of the civil war in Beirut, than an American city. With armed children, assault rifles, and rival gangs doing guerrilla style attacks on each other, it makes you wonder what exactly this so-called “war on crime” has accomplished. Some rivalries actually start in prison and spill over onto the streets outside. Prison has become so much a-part-of life “in the ghetto,” that wearing clothing that resembles state-issued prison uniforms is a common trend in the hip-hop culture. As unemployment continues to rise, the economy continues to collapse, the school funding continues to be cut, and the rich collect their fortune from tax cuts, the career of criminal activity seems more and more promising to the poor youth of today. Fortunes are to be made off dope house franchises, and gangs continue to war over control of the best spots. Cutthroat capitalism is the popular ideology of the new generation.
What does all this mean? It means the root cause of crime is poverty. In order to drop the amount of crime perpetrated in society today it will have to be necessary to equalize the distribution of wealth. The American economic system has never worked in a way in which every individual of every race has had an equal opportunity at having a piece of the pie. It’s not just that the capitalist ideals that America was founded on that is the problem, but the racism mixed with it. You can see this in the disproportioned amount of people of color in prison, as compared to whites, who represent the majority of the nation, but a very small minority in most prisons. In fact, a closer look at our prison system can show any person what is wrong with our current society. What is more horrifying is that goals and methods of the prison system are slowly implemented into the outside world. The priorities politicians today are security deterrence, which is exactly the policy of DOC. In order to implement a society in which wealth is distributed equally, the old society must be completely eradicated, and with it the state. Racism, classism, crime, poverty, corruption, constant war, environmental disaster; the amount of problems perpetuated by the current system are too numerous to list here. It is safe to say that our current system is a failure. Today it would be hard to look at prison without looking at the entire capitalist system. It would be hard to look at capitalism without looking at the rest of the failed systems based on state control. Prisons are the logical conclusion of failed authoritarian systems. Whether “socialist,” “communist,” or capitalist, governments have done nothing to benefit anything, but a small elite class of people. Knowing that they cannot have masses of poor or unemployed people on the streets without facing a revolt, these governments have elected to warehouse people like last year’s Christmas ornaments. Maybe prisons have a use after all: to ensure the oppressor stays in power and the oppressed stay divided and conquered.
PO Box 901