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Feature

On the Political Offense:
Comments on Bennett's

by Gusano Barrenador


Prisons as a Tool for Political Control

The second assertion of Bennett's that worries me is that Wale(ogonek)sa, Havel and Mandela emerged from prison in "strong mental and physical health," and that the "leaders, and the people, of the U.S. applauded" them after their ordeals. Firstly, whether the majority of the U.S. "people" could identify these persons is questionable. Secondly, many of the "leaders" in the U.S. (and I take this in context as meaning members of Congress and other career politicians) who did applaud Mandela, did so from obedience to political protocol and not from conviction of his righteousness, since they had spent much of their time coddling the white South African government and denouncing Mandela and the African National Congress as "communist." Lastly and most importantly, if Bennett's remark is to be taken as typifying the prison experience of political dissidents, it smacks of the myth of the resurrection: some sort of magical death from which they are reborn stronger and more enlightened, with their glory shining around them. It is easily interpreted this way. Bennett quotes sources asserting that "Havel said prison was the only place that he could get any writing done." If the three political prisoners cited did survive with their minds and bodies intact, it was in spite of prison, not because of it. Such mythic forms, even if interesting, explain nothing about what exactly the state is trying to accomplish by imprisoning political "criminals." Nor can they account for the political prisoners murdered legally or extralegally by the state--Sacco and Venzetti, George Jackson, and the RAF members at Stammheim--just to mention a few whose names, if nothing else, survived.

Bennett describes Alan Berkman's experience in prison as pitiable because he nearly died of complications arising from Hodgkins Disease, but his experience as a prisoner, other than being a victim of medical neglect, is overlooked. I had to chuckle at the irony of Bennett's description of Berkman's suffering, since despite his attempt to contrast it with Havel's allegedly positive experience, Berkman "got writing done." (And not only is his back straight, but he is also over six feet tall and rather powerfully built.) While in prison Berkman penned a response to an article by an activist who had also spent some time in prison. In it he states,

Self-worth. Dignity. Self-respect. These are the feelings prison consciously or unconsciously is designed to destroy. These are the same feelings that racism and economic inequality in society work to destroy in the poor and people of color. This is why we believe Sam [Day] and others err when they reduce prison life to "three hot [meals] and a cot" and other minor indignities. It's like reducing chattel slavery to hard work, bad pay and poor living conditions. It leaves out the truth of the human dimension of oppression. And it leaves out the human reaction to prison conditions: rebellion. Prison "riots" are fundamentally slave rebellions (Berkman and Blunk 1992: 191­2)

Alan Berkman spent most of his sentence for "conspiracy" in the U.S. Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois--the prototype "control unit" prison. Marion USP was built in 1963 to replace Alcatraz as the federal government's maximum security prison. About the same time Dr Edgar Schein, a psychologist at the MIT School of Industrial Management, and other researchers were beginning to promulgate their theories of "behavior modification" (a.k.a. "brainwashing") among U.S. prison officials, theories based mainly on his study of North Korean "re-education" techniques. Concerning his promotion of behavior modification, Schein said,

Should we condemn our own methods because they resemble brainwashing? I prefer to think that the Communists have drawn from the same reservoir of human wisdom and knowledge as we have, but have applied this wisdom to goals that we cannot condone. These techniques in the service of different goals, however, may be quite acceptable to us (Ryan 1992: 93)

The ethical issue of using people as a means to an end is skipped over, as is normal when the state or capitalism is involved.

Resulting discussion of behavior modification's useful application focused specifically on Black Muslims and Vietnam War protestors. By 1968 Marion USP had a brainwashing pilot program called CARE--Control and Rehabilitation Effort--which consisted of solitary confinement coupled with intense psychological attack sessions and "group therapy." These techniques are consistent with Schein's three-step program of "unfreezing," "changing" and "refreezing" personality, based on dependency, and psychological and emotional debasement. After a work strike at Marion in 1972 sixty men were forced into the CARE program. This happened in the same year that President Nixon ran for election on a domestic policy of "law and order" after a term in office that had experienced some of the most intense political, class and racial conflict in U.S. history. In 1982 after alleged members of a neo-Nazi inmate group stabbed two guards to death the entire prison was "locked down," or in officialese, turned into a "closed unit operation," a state in which it remains to the present day. Prisoners have been confined to their cells for as many as twenty-three or twenty-four hours a day. They are subjected to arbitrary strip searches, confiscation of their possessions, shackling and beatings. They have physical contact with almost no one, save the guards handcuffing them. Alan Berkman said of his experience there,

[T]he whole essence of power is that the oppressed are not human and therefore have no human rights. That's really what the control units are designed to do.... You know they say everybody [at Marion] is the "worst of the worst." You know that's a lie. In the federal system, it's anybody the FBI and the Attorney General says goes to Marion. I was a medium security prisoner; I had been convicted for the first time; I had no convictions for prison violence or prisoner escape attempt. It made no difference. I was a political prisoner, and like many, many, many other political prisoners, I was somebody that they were going to isolate, somebody that they were going to attempt to break. Someone, who, if they could strip me of my sense of dignity and self, they would be stripping me of my political identity. The FBI thought that it would be a victory against the movement I came from.... By breaking a political prisoner or POW, the FBI hopes to not only destroy the individual, but also to strike a blow against the movements that people represent (Berkman, Shakur, Ikuta and Lopez 1996: 11­2).

The continuing lock-down at the federal prison at Marion, Illinois, set the precedent for the proliferation of control unit techniques. The collective punishment that characterized the closed-unit operation at Marion is attractive to the powerful and is the core of the control unit project. It is used both inside and outside of prisons. Just as "anti-gang" laws target poor, urban African and Latino youth en bloc, within prisons "administrative segregation" is a key tool of control units: the further persecution of whole categories of prisoners who are deemed likely to resist the prison authorities. Whereas "disciplinary segregation" has been used to punish or control individual prisoners considered culpable for a certain infraction within prison (presumably carefully limited by Constitutional law), "administrative segregation" is applied preemptively to suspected gang members and militant religious organizations, as well as to prisoners who have been convicted of crimes stemming from their political activities, who have been sentenced on the basis of their political affiliations and beliefs, and who organize fellow prisoners around legal and political issues.

Since the Marion lock-down "supermaximum" or "control unit" prisons have been opened by thirty-six states, based on the results of the Marion experiment and lessons derived from the use of "dead wings" and "terrorist-isolation units" in Germany and the U.K. (Ryan 1989). A few of these have received widespread public attention, such as the Pelican Bay Special Housing Unit in California. But most, like the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore (the conditions of which the U.S. Department of Justice argues "violate the constitutional rights of the inmates" and "result in extensive demand for mental health services") are almost unknown outside the local communities they affect. Last year the Marion control unit was officially replaced by the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) at Florence, Colorado. Among the first prisoners transferred there were several members of the UFF and the FALN, including Ray Luc Levasseur and Oscar Lopez Rivera. Attorney General Janet Reno reiterated at the ADX's inauguration that it was built to contain the "worst of the worst." Still, the two prisoners responsible for the slaying of the guards at Marion in 1982--among other homicides they committed on the inside--are not going to be transferred there. Prisoners at the ADX are locked-down twenty-two and three quarters hours a day. They have no human contact other than the coercion of the guards. Levasseur describes his surroundings:

It seems endless. Each morning I look at the same gray door and hear the same rumbles followed by long silences. It is endless. Subjected to humiliations designed to buckle our knees we are: bent over, arms clamped behind our backs, pawed, prodded, cell-searched, strip-searched, commanded, marched of 50 feet, silenced, and hooked to a chain running through 1,500,000 prisoners [the U.S. prison population]. All this is enforced by a porcine abomination called the Goon Squad whose idea of combat is to jump on handcuffed and caged prisoners while applying boots, truncheons and blasts of chemical agents to faces that are pushed into unforgiving concrete.

I am deeply cornered in their prison. My sight is diminished, but I maintain my vision. I see their hand in the use of four point "restraints" to spread-eagle prisoners, something inherently abusive regardless of the excuse. I see forced feedings, cell extractions, mind medications and chemical weapons used to incapacitate. I see a steady stream of petty hassles, harassments, verbal barrages, mindfuck games, disciplinary reports, medical neglect, and the omnipresent threat of violence. Airborne bags of shit and gobs of spit become the response of the caged.

The minds of some prisoners are collapsing on them. I don't know what internal strife lies within them but it isn't mitigated here. One prisoner subjected to four point restraints (chains, actually) as shock therapy, had been chewing on his own flesh. Why is a prisoner who mutilates himself kept in the ADX? Is he suppose to improve his outlook on life while stripped, chained and tormented by a squad of guards and prison functionaries? (Levasseur 1996: 2)

Levasseur says of the effect the ADX has on his state of mind, "If I told you the kind of thoughts it's produced in me, I could probably be indicted" (Pendergast 1995: 19) Prisoners are offered stepwise program for release from the ADX to less restrictive parts of the Florence prison complex, depending on their compliance with the administration. The ultimate "privilege" is a chance to work at the UNICOR plant, a prison company that has contracts with the Department of Defense. Most political prisoners refuse to abase themselves by joining this program and therefore never qualify to leave the ADX (Pendergast 1995).

Control unit prisons await political prisoners and inmates who rebel against the their captors. Levasseur writes,

In a 1993 commemoration of the Marion lockdown I wrote that the ADX (then under construction and slated to replace Marion) "awaits those who continue to refuse and resist." Sure enough, ADX became the destination for those prisoners held responsible for the recent uprisings throughout the federal system. The best were sent to ADX after running gauntlets of gunshots, beatings, tear gas, and the destruction of their few personal belongings (Levasseur 1996: 4).

Control units are not just a matter of "doing time," or rites of passage that produce heroes. They have the real capacity to crush people. I do not want to dissuade activists from taking action for fear imprisonment, only to emphasize that it is a well honed weapon the state uses to destroy political opposition.

The "Prison Movement" and the Anti-prison Movement

What I'm saying is that they put us in these concentration camps here the same way they put people in tiger cages or "strategic hamlets" in Vietnam. The idea is to liquidate the dynamic sections of the overall movement, the protagonists of the movement. What we've got to do is prove this won't work. We've got to organize our resistance once we're inside, give them no peace, turn the prison into just another front for the struggle, tear it down from the inside. Understand?

--George Jackson (Wald and Churchill 1992: 179)

I suggest two anarchist strategies that I think are more viable and principled than Bennett's "political defense" and do not impart to the state undeserved authority.

The first is that anarchists--if they earnestly believe in the causes of political prisoners--should try to support and strengthen the movements of which these prisoners are members, lending their anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist perspectives. Bennett's suggestion that political crimes should be distinguished from "ordinary criminal activity" is both a poor strategy for movement building and an unprincipled stance for anyone who understands and is concerned with oppression in this country, as elsewhere. I hope that it is obvious that the very conditions that political prisoners have been combatting are those that are conducive to "crime," including self-destructive and violent behavior. Approximately seventy percent of the U.S. prison and jail population is incarcerated for what the Department of Justice calls "economic crimes"--larceny, burglary, shoplifting, drug dealing--more, if one includes armed robbery (Lichtenstein and Kroll 1990; NCCJ 1993). The penal system is overwhelmingly racist: half the U.S. prison population is African American, mainly men, though this ethnic group accounts for only about twelve percent of the country's population (Churchill and Vanderwall 1992). Women, the segment of society that universally is in the most precarious economic position with the least political representation, make up the fastest growing portion of the prison population, increasing at nearly fifteen percent per year, almost twice the rate of increase in the male prison population (NCCJ 1993). Blacks are between three and seven times more likely than whites to received the death sentence for similar crimes (NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund 1994). Rather than drawing a line between the political crimes and ordinary, "social" ones, we should seek to link the struggles of political prisoners to the plight of other inmates, promoting the politicization and organization of the prison population. This is what BPP Field Marshal George Jackson, assassinated at San Quentin in 1971, called the "Prison Movement." He put it this way,

We must educate the people in the real causes of economic crime. They must be made to realize that even crimes of passion are the psycho-social effects of an economic order that was decadent a hundred years ago. All crime can be traced to objective social­economic conditions, socially productive or counterproductive activity (Jackson 1990: 107­8).

One principle that needs to be established, if we believe that the struggles against both crime and punishment are inseparable, is that guidance must be sought and taken from prisoners themselves. Prisoners have experienced the injustices of the judicial and penal systems and are doing some of the most important political organizing for prison reform, prison abolition, and the nurturing of creative and transformative social formations. Since many are prisoners for having done as much on the outside, dedicated activists and radicals must continue to support these activities through the bars. It is not a matter of prison reform or prison abolitionist groups working on the outside versus prisoners organizing on the inside; these movements for social change must be united. I would maintain that some of the most exciting and productive anti-authoritarian activity is taking place within prisons right now. Political prisoners and prisoners who have become politically aware on the inside have elaborated trenchant critiques of the state and other authoritarian institutions. This should come as no surprise, given he intense violence they encounter every day and how much their movements have lost to state repression.

A second principle and strategy should be consideration of alternatives to the current judicial­penal system, while working to abolish prisons. Although the incidence of "crime" is exaggerated and used for reactionary ends, it is a real problem in many cases--especially among the poor. Anarchists should try to aid and develop community-based solutions to deprivation and predatory behavior--solutions that empower all parties involved and strengthen social relations. Crime destroys social bonds--and prisons continue this destruction. Prisons are a crime of the state. Concentrating more on rebuilding those social bonds in a way that does not depend on the state and the interests it defends will lead us away from crime and imprisonment. An instance of crime should be considered an opportunity to question norms, values and life's conditions. It should not be taken as a chance for repression and deterrence through fear, or for normative rehabilitation. The dehumanizing results of these authoritarian methods are manifest. A crime, however terrible it may be, is a starting point for reconciliation within communities.

Prison abolitionists, among them many anarchists (at least in name), as well as other prison activists, are also in the best position to link prison issues to other social problems and diverse social and political movements. The explosive growth of imprisonment in this country in the last couple of decades is linked to cuts in public spending on housing and other forms of social welfare, as well as to the exploitation of low-wage, unorganized prison labor. Class resistance is manifest but disorganized. Furthermore, historically, prisons have been one of the most powerful tools of the state against the self-determination of colonized peoples in this country. Emancipation of prisoners has been and is a crucial element of the Black Liberation and New Afrikan Independence Movements, among others. This is why I quoted George Jackson. Although he was not an anarchist, he spoke and wrote passionately about the use of prisons in the oppression of class and race, and his words still resonate with prisoners, many of whom identify with abolitionism and anti authoritarian tendencies within national liberation movements.

Unfortunately, many anarchists--mostly whites--have a blind spot to national liberation movements. Some oppose them on grounds that anarchists are "internationalists" and therefore cannot support such "nationalisms." Not only does tagging these movements with "nationalism" fail to convey the diversity of their strategies and aims (most of them are not seeking devolution into separate European-style nation-states), but it also betrays an ignorance of the colonialist legacy leftists and anarchists have inherited. Traditional leftist talk of "blurring colors," like loose usage of "freedom" and "truth," is also part of the rhetoric of both contemporary liberals and conservatives. Internationalism is sterile concept, if leftists and anarchists use it to deny colonized peoples their history and culture, and to dismiss their claims. This term too has been co-opted into the rhetoric of the neo liberals, who insist that the Internet, "free trade" and transnational outsourcing are going to transform the world into one big, happy "global village" (or as Coca Cola suggests, "Fruitopia®"). A celebration of "colors" and cultural diversity is a wonderful and powerful thing, if it is done with respect. Anarchism evolved in a modern European political culture that whittles human nature down to a single measure of worth, and human endeavor to a single direction and unitary history.

Not only should anarchists recognize on principle the validity of the claims of peoples whom European colonialism has oppressed, but they should seek to comprehend the values of non-Western traditions. Anarchists in search of alternative social institutions could learn greatly from the variety of forms and processes among the societies and communities existing within and between modern nation states. It is increasingly clear that the Western economistic model of "progress," with its restricted measures of "productivity" and expansive industrialization, is neither economically nor ecologically sustainable. A multivalent and explosively creative "internationalism"--perhaps unprecedented in its variegated and potent complexity--could result from dialogue between anarchists and the colonized world. It could renew the meaning of "revolution." As a step toward this dialogue, anarchists' critical and positive engagement of national liberation movements not only helps the struggle for autonomy of some of the most oppressed people in the world but is also a step toward developing rich concepts of community and person, and concomitant radical, new social practices. From the perspective of organizing and growing and moving anarchism forward, it is unfortunate that "Ojore Lutalo" ("New Afrikan anarchist political prisoner") is not as familiar a name to many self declared anarchists as "Michael Bakunin." Unhappily, many professed anarchists choose to wallow in nostalgia for the heyday of anarchism, thought to be generations past.

Prison abolition--the goal of the anti-prison movement--is obviously an immense task. It means radically changing society, not simply modifying or refining techniques of criminal and social control, without regard to the context of class, race and gender conflict that defines and motivates "crime." Possible directions toward prison abolition are too numerous to list here in full, but I conclude by recommending a few. Some of these have been discussed, and in some cases implemented, by various groups. Most of these groups make no claims to being anarchist, but anarchists can learn from them and may be able work with them.

Firstly, groups working toward prison abolition, or groups concerned with eradicating the underlying causes of crime (while dealing with anti-social behavior in new and productive ways) should be ready to welcome released prisoners into their political activity. Prison reform groups too often keep a political distance from prisoners and accept as given that the former prisoner alone is responsible for integrating himself or herself back into society, as if this shunning were not part of his or her punishment. Secondly, genuinely concerned groups should be ready to help ex-inmates find the means they need to survive and prosper on the outside: gainful employment, housing and a supportive community, for example. The development of cooperative or collective businesses that provide for oppressed communities and the building centers that provide such services to the community as meals, or goods and labor exchanges, are examples of the kinds of projects that could help prisoners rehabilitate themselves, while healing and strengthening communities shattered by crime and imprisonment. Finally, as a matter of both democratic principle and pragmatism, prison reform and abolition groups should not undertake such projects as interventions, but look rather to incipient or established projects in the communities in question and see whether or how they might assist them.

The twentieth century has had enough show-trials to make their point.

 

Bibliography

Some of these are to be found in Bennett's thorough bibliography, which I recommend perusing. I refrained in some instances from citing sources given in Bennett's article, unless I quoted directly.

Berkman, A. And T. Blunk. 1992. Thoughts on class, race and prison. In Cages of Steel: the Politics of Imprisonment in the United States. (W. Churchill and J. Vander Wall eds). Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press.

Berkman, A., S. Shakur, N. Ikuta and L. Lopez. 1996. Mass Incarceration and Control Units: Crime Control or Social Control. Chicago: Committee to End the Marion Lockdown.

Churchill, W. and J. Vander Wall. 1990. Agents of Repression: the FBI's Secret War against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement. Boston: South End Press.

Churchill, W. and J. Vander Wall (eds). 1992. Cages of Steel: the Politics of Imprisonment in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press.

Foner, P.S. (ed.) 1970. The Black Panthers Speak. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company.

Goldman, E. 1969 (1917). Prisons: a social crime and failure. In Anarchism and Other Essays. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Jackson, G. 1990 (1972). Blood in My Eye. Baltimore: Black Classics Press.

Levasseur, R.L. 1996. Trouble Coming Every Day: ADX--the First Year. Submission to the Regional Hearings of the National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons, Philadelphia, 27 April 1996. Madison: Friends of Political Prisoners.

Lichtenstein, A.C. and M.A. Kroll. 1990. The Fortress Economy: the Economic Role of the U.S. Prison System. (R. Kamel ed.) Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee.

Morris, R. 1995. Penal Abolition: the Practical Choice. Toronto: Canadian Scholar's Press, Inc.

NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. 1994. Death Row USA. Washington, D.C.

National Commission on Crime and Justice (NCCJ). 1993. A Call to Action: an Analysis of the United States Criminal Justice System, with Recommendations. (L.M. Thurston ed.) Chicago: Third World Press.

Pendergast, A. 1995. End of the line. Westword (12­8 July 1995), pp. 15­27.

Ryan, M. 1989. The Stammheim model: judicial counterinsurgency. New Studies on the Left, 10(1­2): 45­69.

Ryan, M. 1992. Solitude as counterinsurgency: the U.S. isolation model of political incarceration. In Cages of Steel: the Politics of Imprisonment in the United States. (W. Churchill and J. Vander Wall eds). Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press.

Wald, K. and W. Churchill. 1992 (1971). Remembering the real dragon: an interview with George Jackson. Reprinted in Cages of Steel: the Politics of Imprisonment in the United States. (W. Churchill and J. Vander Wall eds). Washington, D.C.: Maisonneuve Press.

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