Prisons Are An Inherent Part of the Capitalist System

Prisons are essential to the capitalist system

I’ve shared eight pieces that my penpal Lacino Hamilton wrote and sent me (this is the one I typed out in the middle of last month) before he was released several days ago, and this piece, fully titled “Prisons Are An Inherent Part of the Capitalist System, and Therefore Cannot Be Alleviated Within that System” focuses on how incarceration will always exist so long as America is a capitalist society. He and I agree on essentially every issue, so if you want to read more of his published work, this is a link to his articles on Truthout. As always, I have not edited or changed any of his writing for this post.

“Some people are going to call these programs reformist but we are revolutionaries and what they call a reformist program is one thing when the capitalists put it up and it’s another thing when they revolutionary camp puts it up. Revolutionaries must always go forth to answer the momentary desires and needs of the people…while waging the revolutionary struggle. It’s very important because it strengthens the people’s revolutionary camp while it weakens the camp of the capitalist power structure.” —BPP Minister of Self Defense Bobby Seale, 1969

In “Looking Back, Looking Forward: Some notes on the struggle against the prison industrial complex,” author Isaac Ontiveros writes that in the U.S. deep, broad, intentional, well-plan organizing against different parts of the prison industrial complex (PIC) have had incredible impacts. Some have charged that those “incredible impacts,” fights for better prison conditions, shorter stints in solitary confinement, ban the box, and so forth, are basically reformist. The social consequences of this belief are enormous.

The hardliners believe reforms are utterly useless, even as a tactic. I’m not a hardliner. I’m not antithetical to reform, but I do believe it’s critical to ask who’s organizing them, and for what purpose. Critical because these are exactly the kinds of questions that those who are struggling against the PIC must always have in the forefront of their thoughts. Critical because it appears reforms are being pushed as solutions to the harm and damage caused by the PIC. Critical because a lot of people seem to be unaware that in order for reforms not toe slide into irrelevance, they must be part of broader structural change.

Irrelevance like when spending cuts to prisons are made, essential services to prisoners’ health and safety are streamlined or eliminated; like when a prison is forced to close, remaining prisons add bunks; like when states shrink their prison population, electronic monitoring and other forms of e-carceration are increased; or like when the “have you ever been convicted of a felony” box is eliminated from job applications, it does not bar employers from conducting criminal background checks. Actually, when someone reviews job applications for a living, a lot of information can be gleaned regardless of what is or is not put on an application. My point is, while these and other reforms do meet momentary needs and desires, they are not solutions; and many individuals and groups give the impression they are.

Reforms must not be allowed to obscure (which I think they currently are) the PIC’s real role in the socioeconomic structure. I will forego the history of the PIC here, but how it gradually defined itself as the legitimate negotiator for resolving conflicts, and for responding to loss and trauma, can be pinpointed—ain’t nothing natural or inevitable about caging people for part or all of their lives. The PIC is a complex web of relationships and systems that represent the use of physical force by the State to control the lives of people defined as criminals, which of course is a political choice.

Reforms and abolition are interrelated but they are not identical, and no matter how much pressure a reform relieves, it does not alter this reality. I will say this, one of the main resources for the confusion is a lack of linking the PIC to analyses of the American capitalist system; a lack of presenting analyses of the capitalist system within the framework of it being open to effective challenge to the social fiction on which that power is predicated. The capitalist system, rather than the PIC, is the primary problem.

When reforms are not linked to those sort of analyses, when reforms do not take into account the enormous structural injustices at the base of the PIC, the capitalist system that requires those injustices is in great position to distort and co-opt reform. A perfect example is how some State prosecutors are currently co-opting the language of restorative justice while continuing the same retributive practices that have made America the world’s leader in imprisonment.

People who say they are serious about putting a stop to police terrorism, serious about putting a stop to profit and punishment centered justice, serious about ending caging people for part or all of their lives, the use of extreme force to defend the PIC, and so forth, those people must infuse and update all activities with education. I’m not talking about education in some cliche or superficial way, in some liberal arts way. I’m talking about revolutionary education (e.g., critical pedagogy, Fanonism, feminist frameworks, Cabralism, experiential pedagogy, etc) which have long and distinguished traditions that everyone, in one way or another, should situate themselves in so there is no ambiguity about the utility, or lack thereof, of reforms.

I’m talking about education that focuses analyses on the total social situation, so that people don’t get the impression that there isn’t an intrinsic connection between capitalism and the PIC, because there is. So people do not get the impression that it’s simply accidental that the two happen to coexist in America, because it’s not. So that people do not assume that changing the socioeconomic and political structures is out of the question, or that the best that can be hoped for is a strongly worded, but poorly carried out reform.

I know there are a lot of people who feel they are already engaged in this type of education, but most aren’t. There is an important distinction between stating facts with little or no context, and systematic analysis of the social structure. Facts absent context is like experience absent reflection, it’s insufficient to create awareness. It is the reflection process which turns experience into awareness. And it’s in the analyses process that an opportunity exists to evaluate tactics and undertake long-range planning for change.

The American capitalist system is more interested in social stability than it is in social change. It may, on occasion, after a significant amount of pleading or threatening to “go ape shit,” endorse reforms as a means of subverting social change, but it’s commitment to reform is only when it will best serve capitalism. The capitalist system’s one abiding concern is to protect and extend corporate investment and corporate domination of the country, and large parts of the world. All else, including the PIC, which disappears people who are marginalized or cannot be absorbed into the work force, must be subservient to that interest. I want to see those interests collapse into communal pockets.

In closing, I’m going to spell it out as clearly as I can. By its very nature a capitalist society cannot create structures free from massive amounts of exploitation. Millions of people are imprisoned as a result. Even if we eliminated prison, we would not necessarily eliminate exploitation. A two pronged strategy is necessary. We do what we can to turn the prison faucet off through reforms or whatever works, while focusing on the capitalist pipes that lead to that faucet.