Created: Thursday, 08 May 2014 09:45
Written by Administrator
Eugene Puryear, PSL Publications, 2013
A great deal has been written in recent years about the US prison and criminal justice system. Much simply graphically describes the absolute horror of torture and death which exists at the heart of the world’s largest ‘democracy’, exposing death row, solitary confinement, mandatory minimum sentencing, juvenile detention and so on, while some commentators try to explain how US society got to the point where a staggering 7.1 million people are either in prison or being monitored by the criminal justice system (on probation, parole etc).
Eugene Puryear writes from an overt Marxist perspective and Shackled and Chained locates mass incarceration squarely in the framework of the development of US capitalism, as well as exposing the key role of ‘liberals’ and the Democratic Party in making mass imprisonment the norm in late 20th and 21st century USA. Writing in a non-academic and accessible style, the author also seeks to debunk a range of right-wing ‘theories of crime’ and critiques some popular liberal view on mass incarceration, in particular the prevalent idea of the ‘prison industrial complex’.
It is of course always worth repeating the facts about US imprisonment, as they can never fail to shock and horrify. Whether relative to the population or in absolute terms, the prison system is the largest in the world by far, and the racial make-up of those incarcerated so stark that Puryear can easily state that: ‘if we separate out US prison statistics by gender and race, there is little doubt that the Black man in America is the most hunted, persecuted and incarcerated person in the world’.
In 1960 the country’s prison and jail population was 322,945; in 1970 it was 338,029. Allowing for population growth the rate of incarceration remained stable until the mid-1980s. Between 1985 and 1995 nearly twice as many people were imprisoned as in the previous 60 years combined, and during the same period the total number of those in prison or jail, or on probation or parole rose from just under three million to just over five million (p4).
For every 100,000 Black men in the US 4,374 are behind bars, as opposed to 1,775 for Latino men and 678 for white men. The ratios are similar, although the overall figures far smaller, for women, although Puryear points out that in recent years the fastest growing section of the prison population has become white women. Presumably this relates to the impoverishment of sections of the hitherto more stable white working class as a result of the current capitalist crisis.
The prison system is massively overcrowded, food is poor, health care provision appalling, education and rehabilitation programmes virtually non-existent and torture - in the form of prolonged solitary confinement - has become the norm for dealing with political prisoners, subversives, gang members and anyone else the authorities want to suppress for any reason.
‘Currently 44 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons use solitary confinement units, nationally holding around 25,000 prisoners in near complete isolation… California’s Pelican Bay state prison has 500 inmates who have spent more than 10 years in solitary.’ (p23)
‘Clearly this system is constructed to eliminate any bonds of trust between inmates, to isolate those who stand up for themselves and break up religious and political groups considered potentially subversive. That the Pelican Bay prisoners launched a hunger strike under these conditions, kept in complete isolation from one another is an amazing feat of heroism that would have been on the front page of every US newspaper had it taken place in another country.’ (p24)
Slavery and imprisonment
Puryear takes the reader through a brief history of how the current prison system came into being, beginning with the periods of slavery and post-slavery:
‘Since the early United States emerged with two distinct but interlinked social systems, capitalism in the North and chattel slavery in the South, it should come as no surprise that the early development of incarceration came with sharp regional distinctions. The most common image that comes to mind of prisons – of specially guarded facilities and prisoners confined to individual cells – originated primarily in the capitalist North. The closer the South moved towards a “free” labour market after the abolition of slavery, the more the form of Southern prisons conformed to what was common in the North.’ (p35)
The abolition of slavery was gradually followed by the implementation of the ‘Jim Crow’ segregation laws and many of those who currently campaign against mass imprisonment and, in particular, against the use of cheap prison labour in the US couch their propaganda in terms of opposing either ‘prison slavery’ or ‘the new Jim Crow’ or both. These activists essentially maintain that slavery has not really been abolished but that its form has changed, with prisons having become the new plantation and factory in one. They cite the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which outlaws slavery and ‘involuntary servitude’ except ‘as punishment for crime’. (Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights is worded in a similar fashion in relation to ‘forced labour’.) Puryear does not go along with this, arguing that instead of being all about the creation of one big factory or ‘prison industrial complex’, the modern prison system is instead a place to put those whose labour power is not currently needed and prisons are a dumping ground for what Marx termed ‘the reserve army of labour’:
‘As modes of social control and national oppression, slavery and Jim Crow were designed around Black people actually labouring. Mass incarceration, by contrast, is a political and state response to the masses of people being thrown out of the productive process altogether. (p46)
Revolution in the air
The second historical period which Shackled and Chains deals with in depth is that beginning in the late 1960s.Puryear describes how:
‘Today the mainstream media portrays the late 1960s and early 1970s through stereotypical cultural and generational clashes, but in reality it was a period of enormous social turmoil that raised the idea of revolution – both for those who hoped for it, and those who feared it.’ (p49)
The ruling class responded to social upheaval with ‘law and order’ politics, conflating protest movements and criminality to create a perception of looming anarchy which threatened every part of the system: ‘the government, the “free” market, the military, the police, the family and many others, including white supremacy’. So great and real was this fear of impending revolt, that the reaction that the state must clamp down urgently was not simply the preserve of the traditional right but was readily taken up by Democrats and liberals.
As has also been set out in greater detail by other writers, such as Christian Parenti in Lockdown America*, this counter-offensive began under the government of Republican Richard Nixon with the rapid expansion and militarisation of the criminal justice apparatus and the vicious COINTELPRO political onslaught on the Black Panther Party and other sections of the revolutionary and protest movement. Despite the ferocity of this crackdown, Nixon’s government remained essentially Keynsian and simultaneously presided over the expansion of Medicare and Social Security and the introduction of a wide range of social programmes, including drug treatment and affirmative action to promote the upward mobility of Black Americans. Following the economic crisis of the 1970s, in which ‘the pool of unemployed workers continued to increase, and… was disproportionately Black’, it was the subsequent governments of Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton that turned away from liberal economics to embrace the ultra-reactionary ideas of Milton Friedman and went on to implement measures which led to the mass incarceration regime which exists today.
Republicans and Democrats both ‘tough on crime’
Throughout the book, Puryear reviews and rejects a number of criminological theories, arguing that the more easily refutable, overtly racist ideology, which claims poverty and crime result from a genetic or cultural predisposition or deficiency, is not very far removed from more liberal constructs in which sociologists and criminologists describe a predominantly Black underclass which remains poor due, not to a lack of economic equality of opportunity but because it has – whether through its own fault or not - developed a ‘culture of poverty’:
‘For conservatives, bad culture created poverty; for liberals, poverty created bad culture, which then became a self-perpetuating element perpetuating poverty. These two trends offered different policy prescriptions to address the “underclass” but both conceptions focused on the behaviour of the poor.’ (p86)
‘Poverty and inequality are obscured as political issues, moreover, because the educational system, the media and politicians promote the idea that the capitalist economy fundamentally “works”. By denying the systemic imperative of capitalism to sharpen inequality and maintain a “ reserve army of unemployed”, even liberals suggest that the government must only help the “less fortunate” get an “equal opportunity” to succeed. With this pro-capitalist assumption as a starting point, the failure to emerge from poverty and deprivation is explained as a problem of the individual.’ (p87)
As neo-liberal economics, the culture of individualism and ‘law and order’ crime rhetoric took a firm hold on US politics, the Reagan government began introducing and encouraging the use of increasingly long prison sentences, many with mandatory minimums or ‘three-strikes’ provisions, resulting in life imprisonment for relatively minor crimes, as well as criminalising drug users, restricting access to bail and building new prisons. Much of this was done under the guise of the ‘war on drugs’, embraced by both Republicans and Democrats, with minor variations as to how much money they wanted directed towards community initiatives and treatment programmes, but complete consensus on the drive to increase imprisonment. Between 1980 and 1990 the proportion of drug offenders in federal prisons rose from 23% to 54%. The ‘war on drugs’ specifically targeted Black people, despite all evidence pointing to a fairly equal pattern of drug use across all ethnicities.
The first mandatory minimum sentencing bill was introduced to Congress, not by a hard-nosed, openly racist Republican senator, but by the ‘archetypal liberal’ Edward Kennedy. By the time Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency in 1993, the ‘New Democrats’ had ditched any progressive parts of the Democrat agenda which the party had earlier adopted in response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s:
‘This convergence within ruling-class politics led to the massage of major crime legislation in the 1980s and 1990s, which resulted in skyrocketing imprisonment among Black working-class communities. “Centrist” Democrats, seeking the power and resources of Sunbelt capitalists, appealed to middle-class sectors that both feared and scapegoated “the ghetto” as the cause of the country’s economic and racial problems. Taking the Black vote for granted…top Democratic figures went to great lengths to show they could be just as tough on crime as Republicans. A moderate, and sometimes conservative, trend among the Black political establishment made it possible for the Clinton administration to carry out this racist program with a non-racist face.’ (p102-3)
Clinton, who these days is repeatedly congratulated for balancing the US books, introduced the largest crime bill in US history. The resulting Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 contained multiple punitive measures, together with funding for 100,000 more police officers, $9.7bn for prison construction and development.
The only answer is socialism
Puryear concludes that mass incarceration in the US is simultaneously a way of warehousing the unemployed ‘reserve army of labour’ and of neutralising resistance and protest. As the majority of both the unemployed and of those who have led serious resistance are Black, this cannot fail to be intrinsically racist.
Confronting this reality involves building: ‘a movement against mass incarceration [which] must not only expose the racism, inhumanity and devastating consequences of such policies. It must also tear down the ruling class theories that justify mass incarceration.’ (p107)
‘The problem is not just that the government spends too much money on prisons or puts too many people in jail. It is that the current system thrives on poverty, unemployment, national oppression, racism, militarism and stark inequality – crimes in and of themselves - while imprisoning the victims of these phenomena… We cannot “solve’ crime without solving the social question. That is the position of revolutionaries, such as the workers and activists who are members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation – join us!’ (p129)
And, of course, as Eugene Puryear encourages everyone keen to build a movement against mass incarceration in the US to join the PSL, we too would say that in order to support the prison struggle in the US and Britain, the best way is to get involved with a revolutionary organisation, which supports prisoners and campaigns for a socialist society which will end the capitalist system that runs the punishment machine. Shackled and Chained ends with an appendix entitled ‘Free all political prisoners’. Among these are Mumia Abu Jamal and the Cuban Five, just some of those behind bars who both our organisations continue to campaign for. For Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! we also say ‘join us’ to build a movement against mass incarceration in the US, Britain and across the capitalist world.
* Locked up in the land of the free