US: Punishment for Profit (11/98)

Echoing the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, Winston Churchill once declared, in his inimitably authoritative voice of empire, that how a society treated those it imprisoned was the surest indication of how civilized it was. Churchill himself had been incarcerated in South Africa when he was a young reporter covering the Boer War. And although conservative in much of his thinking, when it came to prisons, his underlying humanity and progressive instincts always shone through.

Unlike most Euro-establishment politicians of his generation, Churchill was also fairly sympathetic to the concept of the United States. He understood all too well that the cultural and political momentum was shifting irreversibly westward across the Atlantic, and at least partially reconciled himself to the notion that, perhaps, such a movement wasn’t an altogether bad idea.

As the century winds down, the US is indeed the pre-eminent world power. Yet, the democratic premises, the civic promise, which Churchill believed it could carry forward, are in deep trouble, not least because of the way the country now treats its burgeoning prison population. Failing Churchill’s civility test, the US is plunging down a steep, rutted path to barbarism.

When Ronald Reagan became president, approximately 300,000 people were behind bars. Eighteen years later, the figure is well over 1.5 million. Within five years, there will likely be two million prisoners. And, contrary to the prevalent mythology that a coddled inmate population lounges around in luxury, the realities of the system are desperately cruel. Far from princely abodes, prisons are barren concrete, metal, and plexiglass constructions, hidden behind rolled razor wire fences, patrolled by gun-carrying guards; they are also spheres of abuse where high-tech weaponry such as stun guns and debilitating chemical sprays are employed as tools of control, and where the captive residents are routinely broken both physically and mentally.

I have been writing about prisons for some time now, so when I heard about a conference on the system, I decided to pay a visit. Critical Resistance, organized by a committee led by Angela Davis, met in UC Berkeley during September. Although the political energy and determination was quite inspiring, even more remarkable was the amount of information. Linking together seemingly disparate elements of a social system, the conference painted a picture of the prison-complex as a systematic network of human rights violations.

So large has that complex become, and so integral to the US economy, that incarceration policy is metamorphosing from a crime-containment issue to a preeminent human rights concern. As Jose Lopez, a Puerto Rican nationalist imprisoned in the 1970s, put it during the opening plenary: "If American cities are becoming America’s bantustans, then America’s prisons are becoming America’s concentration camps." In the last 20 years, annual spending on these camps has risen from $2.3 billion to $31.2 billion. And with this expansion, human rights and the project of rehabilitation have fallen by the wayside.

Rituals of Abuse

Amnesty International lists certain rights – food, shelter, a basic education, and so on – as inalienable; in the prisons, they are routinely violated. The US is a signatory of treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD); the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners; and, of course, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of modern human rights theory. Much has been written about the US’ use of the death penalty – how it’s one of only five countries to execute juveniles, how the application of capital punishment is massively racially biased, and how the US routinely executes retarded prisoners. But the issues run much deeper. Through the use of computer-controlled solitary confinement "pods," the shackling of prisoners, the well-documented sexual abuse of female inmates, a vastly racially skewed "war on drugs" and sentencing process, and the regular use of excessive force in the control units and maximum security prisons, the US flouts all of these conventions.

Under Governor Pete Wilson, California no longer even lists "rehabilitation" as one of its incarceration policy goals. Further, two of its maximum security prisons have developed particularly egregious reputations. Pelican Bay is a closed "SuperMax" facility that isolates prisoners for 23 hours per day in conditions of sensory deprivation that drive many insane. In one astonishing instance, guards dropped a psychotic African-American inmate who had smeared himself with shit into a tub of boiling water. After one of the officers announced he was going to be scrubbed until he was white, the officers proceeded to cook him. Photographs of his legs taken afterward indeed showed them skinless, white, and burnt to the third degree.

Ruling on a class action lawsuit brought by inmates, a judge declared that, "Dry words on paper cannot adequately capture the senseless suffering that California inflicts on its inmates at Pelican Bay." In Corcoran prison, until the mid-1990s, guards pitted rival gang members against each other in the exercise yard, and then proceeded to shoot the gladiatorial combatants apart, using riot-control bullets and 9mm shells that explode inside the body. Five prisoners died during these years, and dozens more were seriously wounded.

In Alabama and Arizona, variations on the old Dixie chain-gang theme have re-emerged as punishment spectacles over the last few years. In the latter, ex-Governor Symington decreed that even death row inmates be taken out to break stones in the desert heat. (Ironically, Symington’s conviction for real estate fraud is likely to make him an inmate of his own system.) And in Texas – home to over 140,000 inmates – one zealous local politician demands that the death penalty be imposed on killers as young as 11.

In many state prison systems, gang members – even those suspected of being "affiliated" with gangsters – are segregated into super-max isolation. In cities like Denver, cops have long applied special harassment techniques to all those who fit a "gang-member" profile. As you might expect, the official profile effectively marks all African-American and Latino youth as such potential troublemakers.

The list of abuses goes on: juveniles placed into adult prisons, where they’re beaten and raped; jail-house lawyers removed from the general prison population; private prisons employing ill-trained guards who habitually resort to "excessive force," and so on.

But beyond the individual humiliations and ritualistic violence, there are the sentences themselves: Throughout the country, mandatory minimums put non-violent petty drug offenders (often no more than personal users) behind bars for decades at a stretch, while three strikes laws turn petty thieves into lifers. One in three young Black men is now either in prison, on probation, or on parole – a shocking figure which, in itself, should be a major community rights issue.

The New Cash Cow

The Critical Resistance conference took the human rights analysis even further. Increasingly, as was the case with the "convict-leasing" system in the post-Civil War South, prisons are becoming enormous wells of cheap or free labor for private corporations.

Since the 1979 federal Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program, prisoners have been put to work in ever-greater numbers. While most inmates would rather work than sit in their cells all day, labor and human rights activists argue that such activity should provide some benefits for the community rather than profit for private industries. Once private industry enters the picture, prisoners are put at risk of increasingly exploitative conditions. Equally important, the wages and jobs of employees on the outside are undermined by the abundance of cheap prison workers.

The latter scenario is already coming to pass. From Microsoft and TWA to data base companies in San Francisco, from telemarketing businesses to designer clothes manufacturers, prison labor is proving an even greater cash-cow than Third World maquiladora industrial zones. One union organizer mentioned a local company that had relocated to Mexico, throwing numerous unionized workers out of work in the US. Then it closed up shop in Mexico and re-established business in the US – behind the control gates of a prison.

In South Dakota, prisoners work for Lucent Technologies, IBM, and Intel, among other hi-tech firms. Meanwhile, in Texas, where prisoners aren’t even paid nominal wages for their sweat, inmates assemble remote control units for televisions. Texan prisoners also staff enormous agro-business concerns: Astonishingly, the state’s Department of Criminal Justice boasts the largest herds of cattle and horses in the Lone Star state.

If prisoners in California, where over 70 prison factories are now running, refuse to work, they’re often put into the isolation of Secure Housing Units and deprived of most of their canteen privileges. They also lose the "good time" credits that could lead to early release.

At the Critical Resistance conference, several community organizers made the point that the growth of such a system ties in with changing workplace and wage structures in the "free world" outside the prison walls. As Stacy Kono from Asian Immigrant Women Advocates put it: "Sometimes the workers are making 20 cents an hour. That’s very much the same struggle as that of immigrant garment workers on the outside." The abuses within the prison walls lead, indirectly, to attacks on the economic rights of people outside.

The US talks big about prison labor in countries like China. But the same things are going on in our own backyard. Of course, the corporate argument against the Chinese use of prison labor is that it undermines US industry’s ability to compete. But now, in a race to the bottom, corporate US and China are coming together in their embrace of a bonded workforce.

As the US moves into gulag-mode – locking up ever more people, employing entire communities to guard them, investing too much of the public purse in subsidizing this complex, and letting private industry reap the profit through free labor – the niceties of respect for human rights become mere rhetoric. At a "Third Way" conference held at New York University’s Law School four days before the Critical Resistance conference kicked off, President Clinton quoted the ex-governor of New York, Mario Cuomo. Politicians, he said, were apt to campaign and proselytize in poetry, and then to govern in prose. Nowhere is this more true than in the perversion of the country’s civic life that the prison-complex embodies. The poetry is Whitmanesque: US, land of opportunity, a grand experiment in egalitarian living, a place of noble causes, justice, and unbounded personal freedom. The prose, as we move toward a two-million-people-prison-system, is a grubby, dirty, furtive narrative.

Sasha Abramsky is a regular TF contributor.