by Micah Holmquist
In the mid 1960s the Berkeley campus of the University of California was home to Free Speech Movement which set the stage for many of the social movements that would follow. Today it may be the epicenter of a new movement against the prison system in the United States.
On September 25-27, 1998, over 3,000 people gathered in Berkeley, California to attend a conference focusing on issues surrounding U.S. prisons. Titled "Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex," the conference brought together a wide range of prison activists in an attempt to build a sustained anti-prison movement.
The last twenty years have seen a dramatic expansion in the size of what is euphemistically called the "corrections" system. Presently over 1.8 million people are incarcerated a threefold increase since 1980 in U.S. prisons and jails. On a per capita basis more people are incarcerated in this country than any other and the prison population is expected to double again by the year 2005. The increase has hit people of color and women the hardest and can be primarily attributed to harsher sentencing of non-violent drug offenses. Several studies have shown that the average federal sentence for a first time non-violent drug offender is longer than that for rape or man slaughter.
While the average citizen might not be aware of these statistics, those who attended Critical Resistance were and believe that there is more than enough evidence to show that prisons, at the very least, need to be dramatically reformed. Furthermore most of those who participated are of the belief that the continued growth of prisons will result in the building of a movement against them. They believe this both because more and more people will find themselves, their friends, or the loved ones behind bars but also because the growth of prisons has been followed by a dramatic increase in the use of prison labor by private companies. Corporations such as Boeing and Walt Disney currently use prison labor for some of their products and the prisoners receive far less than the legally mandated minimum wage.
The growing connection between corporations and prisons is one reason that many activists have begun to use the term "prison industrial complex." A spin on the term "military industrial complex," no exact meaning exists for prison industrial complex. In a speech given on the first day of the conference, organizer and former political prisoner Angela Y. Davis defined the term as being the growing connection between prisons and corporations along with the rapid expansion of prisons, the growing reliance of certain communities on prisons for economic viability, and the growing political influence of prison guards and administrators. Others at the conference went farther than Davis and argued that the prison industrial complex is a replacement for the outdated military industrial complex. However this was disputed by other conference participants, most notably journalist Christian Parenti, who argued that prisons are not presently nearly as big as the military is or has been in the past.
Despite these differences there was agreement that the prison system is deeply flawed and needs to be changed. During the panels and workshops which made up the bulk of Critical Resistance, conference participants were given an opportunity to learn more about the mis- named "criminal justice system" from beginning to end. Thus there were events focusing on issues such as police brutality and racist police practices, racist/sexist/classist sentencing procedures and practices, the conditions of prisons, and even the difficulties that individuals had adjusting to life after prison due to parole procedures.
Additionally there were many meetings, both formal and informal, where activists could gather and discuss plans for future actions. Out of these meeting came regional task forces on various issues. Several of the task forces agreed to meet in the future and to coordinate their actions in the future.
The creative energy of the movement was also in full effect. From poetry to plays, movies to music, and pictures to paintings the Critical Resistance conference had the entertainment that even the most dedicated need. The works of prisoners were displayed and performed alongside of those of activists which served to enforce the importance of building connections between those in prison and those on the outside.
While these events were important, just about everyone agreed that the ultimate success or failure of Critical Resistance would be determined by what people did after the conference when they returned to their workplaces and communities. The stakes are quite high. In the previously mentioned speech, Angela Davis made the point that "either the prison industrial complex will become a way of life ... or we will abolish it all together."
But what exactly Davis meant when she encouraged abolishing the system was unclear. Many of those in attendance would describe themselves as revolutionaries and would argue that nothing short of a revolutionary change can solve the problems of the prison system. Others, although perhaps not a clear majority, hold a more moderate view and believe that radical changes can be successfully accomplished without revolution. But there did seem to be general agreement that the movement would have to be radical and work hard to avoid unintentionally reinforcing the strength of the prison system as other prison reform movements have done. That this is a very real danger was made clear by Patricia O'Brien, the director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, in a panel titled "Histories of Prison 'Reform.'" O'Brien argued that in the past well meaning prison reformers have added legitimacy to the prison system by removing the system's most unsavory aspects without changing it fundamentally.
One pitfall that otherwise radical movements have often fallen into is relying on so called liberals to enact change. Numerous speakers spoke out against the Democratic Party, saying that it is part of the problem and not the solution. And it appeared that majority of those in attendance agreed with this analysis. During the conference a letter was read from Maxine Waters, a Democratic congresswoman who is one of the most liberal in the U.S. House of Representatives, which included many suggested reforms in the criminal justice system. While the crowd cheered some of these changes, the end of the letter was greeted with chants of "Keep Assata free." This being a reference to the fact that Waters recently cast a vote calling for the extradition of Assata Shakur, a former political prisoner who, having been liberated from the prisons of New Jersey, now resides in Cuba.
Along with a distrust of Democrats, the "Keep Assata free" chants also reflected the near universal support of attendees for the over 150 political prisoners and prisoners of war who are held behind bars by the U.S. This is important as it stresses the connection between the emerging movement against prisons and other social movements which fight for political, economic, and social justice which the political prisoners and POWs were involved in. Similarly many activists were eager to draw the connection between the growth of prisons and attacks on education such as tuition hikes and the elimination of remedial programs at the City University of New York and attempts to eliminate affirmative action in states such as California, Texas, and Michigan. Despite the supposedly booming economy it appears to many that very destructive seeds are being sown. With attacks on educational opportunities many are finding that they are being forced into low paying service jobs while more and more of those who would otherwise work in those service jobs are winding up in prison.
This gets to the heart of the problem that many see with the prison system. Rather than being something removed from everyday life, the prison system is simply the most brutal manifestation of the lives faced by most people in the U.S. In a session focusing on prison resistance Frank "Big Black" Smith, a leader in the 1971 rebellion at Attica State Prison in New York, described prison as "maximum jails" and "free" society as being "minimum jails." Smith would go on to say that both prisons and the larger society needed to change and reminded the crowd that "none of those things can happen without you."
In slightly more exotic language David Gaither of The Beat Within, a publication that features the writings of youth who are currently in detention centers, said "we're asking people to rebel against society." In that statement Gaither reflected the hope of those involved with Critical Resistance, and the broader anti-prison movement as well, that the fight against prisons can become a fight to build a just and humane society where people are neither locked up in cells or involved in destructive and hurtful activities that presently often lead people to prison.
For more information on the Critical Resistance movement contact the conference organizers. They can be reached in the following ways...
Fax: (510) 845-8816
Mail: Critical Resistance
PO Box 339
Berkeley CA 94701
World Wide Web:
Micah Holmquist is a 21-year-old History major at the University of Michigan whose honors thesis is on prison resitance in the years 1975-95.
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