Pages to Prisoners

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While American politicians repeatedly
throw around words like ‘freedom’ and
‘liberation’ as cornerstones of their policies,
approximately 1.4 million inmates sit
in U.S. prisons. Why is this? Why does
America have so many jails? One might be
tempted to respond with a quip that we
have all been, to a certain extent, indoctrinated
with: “because there are so many
criminals”. However, in a country where
the number of inmates in state and federal
prisons has increased more than six fold
since 1970, where African Americans and
Latinos together represented 63% of all of
those incarcera ted in 2002, and wh ere
64% of jail inmates in 1996 earned $1,000
or less per month, the question proves far
more complex: what constitutes a criminal
in this society? If more jails simply lead to
m ore “c ri m i n a l s”, is the pri s on sys tem
working? If it is not working for society,
whom is it working for?
Beginning four dec ades ago, s pec i a l
interest groups, politicians, and private
companies began working the prison system.
At a time when the 1950’s ‘just blame
the com mu n i s t s’ a pproach was on the
decline, America needed a new enemy.
Nixon’s tough-on-crime legacy, the Rockefeller
drug laws,and Reagan’s drug war all
pointed to a convenient culprit – the common
criminal. The resultant explosion of
the prison industrial complex can be compared
to boosts in national defense programs,
namely in a blurring between the
private and the public sectors. The Reagan,
Bush, and Clinton administrations
welcomed prison privatization with open
While the first private prison business
contract was signed in 1984 between the
Corrections Corporation of America and
Hamilton County Tennessee, as of the year
2000, there were 153 privately owned correctional
facilities operating in the United
States with a capacity of over 119,000.
Who are these companies? The third
largest U.S. prison company, the U.S. Corrections
Corporation, has been accused of
forcing unpaid
prison labor, and its
ch a i rman has plead
guilty to money laundering.
like AT&T and Westi
n ghouse also take
advantage of prisoners,
both to market
t h eir produ cts and
services, and to provide
cheap to free labor. At the same time,
as of the year 2000, 81% of those in state
prison had been convicted of nonviolent
crime, and in 1996, 1 in 4 inmates was in
jail for a drug offense, as compared to 1 in
10 in 1983. It would appear as though a
growing industrial complex needs a growing
market – more prisoners.
The pri s on boom is more than just bi g
bu s i n e s s ; it is an atti tu de . It is an unspo ken
u n derstanding that certain people are useless
to soc i ety, that theymust be locked up,
h i d den aw ay. It is a claim that the re acti
on a ry con dem n a ti on of i n d ivi duals is the
on ly valid way to con f ront perceived soc i a l
probl em s . It is the cre a ti on of a fear cultu re
to keep this sys tem in place , and to keep
“probl empeop l e” in their place s .And it is a
rel i a n ce on infinite growt h , for if i m pri son
m ent is the soluti on to perceived soc ietal
probl em s , t h en a more ef fective “s o luti
on”meansmore pri s ons and more cri m in
a l s . And who are the people being “o t hered
”, s hut aw ay, and bl a m ed for Am eri c a’s
probl ems? Th ey are disproporti on a tely
Af rican Am eri c a n , L a ti n o, and poor. Th e
l ogic behind the sys tem is all too cl e a r.
The prison industrial complex believes
that it does not need to answer to anyone.
Its ideology and industry are self-perpetuating
and self-justifying. Yet, this is an
industry that deals in a currency of human
lives, and fosters a
re acti on a ry ideo logy
based largely
on classism and
In order to
counter this, antipri
s on activi s m
should be empowering
and supportive
to those behind
bars. The reality of the prison industrial
complex is that peoples’ lives are being
tossed out by a system that depends on
su ch ostrac i s m . Thu s , while or ga n i zed
resistance to the prison system occurs on
all different levels, it is ultimately geared
toward prisoners getting their lives back,
and on everyone coming toget h er to
develop creative, proactive ways to conf
ront the probl ems facing our soc i ety.
A local collective called Books Through
Bars seeks to build such solidarity. This
recently formed group uses donated books
to fill the book requests of prisoners from
all over the state and throughout the Midwest.
Books Through Bars also encourages
prisoners to submit their writing and art
for publication in ‘zines, websites, and
other media.
What does involvement in such a collective
entail? If you were to walk in to a
typical three hour pack-athon, you would
find a small group of people gathered at
the Independent Media Center, sorting
t h ro u gh let ters and searching thro u gh
piles of books, while maybe listening to
music or munching on snacks. Beneath
the surface of this lies the dedication and
organization required to coordinate such
get-togethers, to raise funds for postage,
raise awareness in the community, and to
make contact with prisoners. Apart from
the volunteer energy, the resources for the
program, including the books themselves
and the money for postage, come from the
Ch a m p a i gn – Urbana com mu n i ty. Mo s t
i m port a n t ly, h owever, Books Th ro u gh
Bars rests upon the involvement of the
prisoners themselves, upon their willingness
to establish lines of communication
with the collective.
While Books Th ro u gh Ba rs is a loc a l
or ga n i z a ti on , it is a part of a mu ch larger
ef fort . From San Fra n c i s co to Philadel ph i a
to Au s ti n , Books to Pri s on ers or ga n i z ati
ons are working to raise aw a reness abo ut
the pri s on indu s trial com p l ex , and to provi
de su pport for its vi cti m s . Says loc a l
Books Th ro u gh Ba rs or ga n i zer Ad a m
D avi s , “This is not just abo ut sen d i n g
books to pri s on ers .This is abo ut buildinga
m ovem en t .”
If you are interested in getting involved,
please con t act iwi ll re s i s t @ h ell o k i t ty. com
The statistics and information for this
article can be found at:
w w w. pri s on activi s t . org
h t tp : / / w w w. pri s on su ck s . com / f act s h eet s . s h tml
h t tp : / / w w w. t h e a t l a n ti c . com / i s su e s / 9 8 dec
/ pri s on s . h tm

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