“America is revealing a visage stark with harshness. Nowhere is that face more contorted than in the dark netherworld of prison, where humans are transformed into nonpersons, numbered beings cribbed into boxes of unlife, where the very soul is under destructive onslaught.” – Mumia Abu-Jamal
Whatever we allow to happen to people incarcerated in prisons and jails will not stay contained behind their walls. Although people imagine punishment, torture, and even execution to be justified because of criminality, it’s not that simple. The roots of the U.S. prison system and the police and the courts that fuel mass incarceration have nothing to do with justice. They are meant to uphold white supremacy, subjugation, exclusion, and slavery. Oppressive motives have shaped who this society believes does and doesn’t deserve state violence’s wrath. This is why we see racist overrepresented outcomes in arrests, conviction, and imprisonment. That’s the criminal legal system working as it was intended to. This is why, in part, whatever incarcerated people are subjected to will make its way from behind bars to those larger overrepresented populations that have not been locked up yet. Those who are most targeted by the state’s machinery experience the brunt of this, and see it taking shape all around us.
Recent news of the overturning of Roe v. Wade shocked many who thought this could never happen in the U.S. The falsehood that this country is a beacon of progress was exposed by state-sanctioned attack on bodily autonomy and reproductive rights. Yet this has always been the norm in prison. The decision to bear a child or have a pregnancy terminated has often been dictated by the officials who control these facilities. Shackles during childbearing, forced sterilization, and forcing pregnancy to term have happened regularly in prisons. Not to mention sexual abuse at the hands of guards creates an unsafe environment, especially for prison populations who have been more likely to be subject to sexual violence. It’s not just reproductive health care that’s neglected and controlled through authoritarian measures. Health care more broadly is dreadful for incarcerated people. Outside of prisons, four out of five pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. But preventing them, inside or out, matters less because of who’s doing the dying.
Though a case like that of Sandra Bland is well known as questionable death in police custody, countless others also end up dead in preventable ways. COVID-19 exposed how the prison serves its purpose to execute people through medical neglect. For example, it was reported that 80% of those who died from COVID-19 in jail custody in Texas between March and October 2020 were in pretrial detention and hadn’t yet been convicted of a crime. It’s even been reported that police have manipulated records of Black people’s custody deaths by blaming the “sickle cell trait.” It doesn’t matter if you’ve been sentenced to death or not, a lack of health care and systematic neglect are an easy way to kill the people society deems undesirable. The Department of Justice admits that “underreporting is widespread” of how many people end up dead in law enforcement custody. Those who are Black, poor, immunocompromised, diasbled, and especially less likely to have access to health care outside of prisons suffer a systematic slaughter. With over 1 million COVID-19 deaths and a daily onslaught from preventable illnesses, there’s no question that avoidable mortality is a purposeful tool for a wealthy country with more than enough resources to combat it.
The capitalist hoarding and strategic mishandling of resources kills conveniently, making insidious executions a preordained circumstance. Every aspect of life can be destroyed in this way. As sweeping fascistic book bans and censorship cover the country, the imprisoned know maybe better than anyone how hard it is to freely access education and literature. While attacks on voting rights and election restraints grow, the imprisoned are the easiest population to punish with civil death. Climate disaster also doesn’t ignore those in cages who are regularly denied clean water, abandoned during weather crises, and forced to languish in their own waste. And though police freely kill outside of prisons, there may be protests, but those who are locked up are far less likely to see solidarity when they’re extrajudicially killed by prison police. So much of what we know as the terror that indicates deeper descent into fascism in the U.S. first appears in prisons.
The prison system is a perfect storm of injustice, which is why many prison abolitionists are fighting for a world without them. Though different abolitionists with different politics fight to abolish the prison to different ends, it’s important to understand the state’s role. The law and the police protect the interests of those in power, and the prison is a device they can always make use of. States use borders, prisons, police, and courts to serve the interests of their ruling class. Those who are at odds with a ruling establishment are incarcerated as potential threats within the entrails of legal systems, be it for territory, resources, race, gender, ethnicity, or imperial conquest’s sake. Since white supremacy is the order of the U.S. state and provides its direction, those who are not white and oppressed by this are most likely to be attacked. But this society more largely is an extension of the prison. “This is a prison out here too,” said Black anarchist Martin Sostre. “As long as you are oppressed by the State and the State is in control this is a minimum security prison.” The inside and the outside are connected, which is why both require struggle and resistance. To neglect one side of this connectivity is to weaken the fight against fascism.
To overcome fascism, the prison has to be a priority. If there is a universal disregard for the lives of people who will get what’s coming to all of us first, worsening conditions will spread without any issue. Perhaps this is why Mumia Abu-Jamal has called prisons “human waste camps” and a “state-constructed shadow.” It’s what’s endlessly lurking behind us. Furthermore, if we presume to think that we can abolish the police or prisons and leave the larger state apparatus intact for some sort of “revolutionary” reform, we will learn again what W.E.B. Du Bois warned us happened after enslavement: “The slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
Reform gave the U.S. and other countries the modern prison thanks to the Eastern State Penitentiary model. Reform made slave catchers into police and enslaved people into “inmates.” Reform gave us solitary confinement as a “humane” alternative. Reform has also repurposed revolutionary states’ prisons, police, and militaries to commit reformed atrocities in new uniforms. Why do it all over again? To build anew, much has to be torn down. And that should begin with the idea of organizing our lives against the capitalist world order that uses prisons, jails, and detention centers as a means of control and legitimacy. Though first, to see a future where this is possible requires seeing the imprisoned; our struggles are linked by chains.