Monday, March 9, 2015

Beyond Reform: Essays Call for a Sweeping Reassessment of Incarceration

Prison populations have exploded in the United States, with a nearly eight-fold increase in the number of people behind bars from 1970 to today. In the initial decades of that breathtaking ascent, Black radical organizations, along with other groups spearheading systemic change, were devastated by, among other things, government counter-intelligence operations.

One result is that today there are dozens of political prisoners incarcerated for their stands against repression. Some are Prisoners of War (POWs) from the just liberation struggles of Black, Native American, Puerto Rican and Mexican people. Some of these prisoners have been held for more than 40 years. The cancerous growth of mass incarceration and the lethal repression of revolutionary groups are neither accidental nor unrelated.

The scandal of mass incarceration in the United States is finally getting some public attention, with a few damning statistics frequently cited: The United States, with 5 percent of the world's population, holds 25 percent of the world's prisoners; and while African Americans constitute 15 percent of illicit drug users, they are 75 percent of those in prison for drugs. While this new exposure is welcome, the mainstream discussion fails to get at the roots of the problem and therefore can't begin to address the depth of the changes needed.

In the November, 2014, special issue of Socialism and Democracy, "The Roots of Mass Incarceration in the US: Locking Up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor," provides a penetrating analysis of a range of the issues involved and points toward the steps that are needed to turn around these horrors. Not surprisingly, the most trenchant essays in this collection come from those who have been in the trenches - those who have been fighting this monster for decades, especially the several pieces written by political prisoners and ex-political prisoners. This publication couldn't be more timely and relevant, as the mighty river of the Black Lives Matter movement flows across and brings new life into the country.

"The Roots of Mass Incarceration in the US" was edited by scholar/activist Johanna Fernandez and Mumia Abu-Jamal, the political prisoner who has been held in Pennsylvania since 1981 (and is a stellar journalist and superb writer). Their introduction is a brilliant essay: Right in the first paragraph, they hit the nail on the head, writing that in the wake of the advances of the 1960s, the US launched "the frenzied reaction to the black freedom struggle that set the stage for today's hyper-incarceration of poor urban black and brown communities." They go on to elaborate on a number of key, but rarely highlighted, issues - including the deleterious impact on the children and communities of those ripped away to jail, and the ways in which the system dehumanizes people at home while similarly invading, torturing and killing abroad.


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