President Obama's recent statements about mass incarceration, together with his decision to commute the sentences of 46 people serving lengthy and life sentences in federal prison on drug charges, treat "nonviolent drug offenders" as the symbolic figureheads of America's prison problem. This framing seems to imply that everyone else actually deserves to be in prison.
But the world's biggest prison system is not filled with nonviolent drug offenders alone. Before and alongside the war on drugs, mass incarceration was built through the wholesale repression of radical movements - especially in communities of color.
...Around the world, countries have often released political prisoners in an attempt to heal past wounds and address current injustices. But the punitive culture of the United States - still unchallenged in mainstream debates about mass incarceration - has yet to excise its demons of repression. As Whitehorn told me, permanent punishment tries to deny "that there are such deep problems in the system that there are movements dedicated to changing them by any means necessary." Much as prisons try to foreclose the radical imagination, political prisoners animate alternate horizons. Their freedom remains a necessary part of the fight against mass incarceration.