As a potential second-wave of COVID-19 begins and many bourgeois people begin to enjoy “life getting back to normal,” many groups of working-class and disposessed people are still facing a high-level of danger on a daily basis that COVID only compounds. In particular, incarcerated people in America are at a significantly higher risk of contracting COVID due to unsanitary conditions, lack of social distancing and PPE, and lack of adequate medical care. As of April 22, there were 9,437 reported cases of COVID in American prisons. This, of course, only takes into account prisoners who were administered tests in the first place, and we can assume the numbers are likely much higher, as with the general population.
As communists, we feel it is important to pay attention to the specific class and racial antagonisms of prisons as an organ of the white supremacist capitalist state. As comrade George Jackson points out:
Most people realize that crime is simply the result of a grossly disproportionate distribution of wealth and privilege, a reflection of the present state of property relations. There are no wealthy men on death row, and so few in the general prison population that we can discount them altogether. Imprisonment is an aspect of class struggle from the outset. It is the creation of a closed society which attempts to isolate those individuals who disregard the structures of a hypocritical establishment as well as those who attempt to challenge it on a mass basis (8).
In Lenin’s State and Revolution, he notes how prisons represent an arm of the capitalist state that ensures its hegemony and dominance. Jackson furthers this theory by considering imprisonment itself as class warfare. How else do you explain that incarcerated people earned 40% less prior to incarceration than people who had never been incarcerated? How else can we understand why Black people in America are incarcerated five times more than white people? What better way for the state to exercise the control of the ruling white bourgeois class than to simply lock up and torture those who are not content to simply submit?
Slavery is also legal in prisons. The 13th ammendment to the US consitution reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The provisions for slave labor in prisons were literally built into the US constitution. Further, the American prison system itself was literally built in the Reconstruction Era (post-Civil War) in order to continue forced, unpaid labor for Black people. Once the Slave Codes in America were abolished by the 13th amendment, the “Black Codes” in America criminalized activities such as vagrancy, “unlawful assembly,” the posession of firearms or the sale of alcohol, interracial relationships, and practicing any occupation other than servant or farmer without a license issued by a judge. Failure to pay exorbitant fines for these acitivites quickly resulted in imprisonment. The convict leasing program, wherein companies or individuals would pay the state a fee to “rent” convicts and their labor, was the only thing that kept the Southern economy from total collapse. The police system, too, as we know it was largely established in order to keep Black people “in line” and to enforce the Black Codes, thereby continuing slave labor in America.
This image from Angola Correctional Facility in Louisiana (2018) recalls an overseer standing over slaves in the pre-Civil War American south.
Today we can see the continuation of the Black Codes in the harassment and often outright murder of Black people existing in public–“disorderly conduct” charges, harassment of street vendors, and the school to prison pipeline itself. The pigs have murdered countless Black people, and white supremacist vigilantes often take matters into their own hands, such as the recent murder of Ahmaud Arbery by an ex-pig and his son. We can also see the continuation of the convict lease system in the contemporary prison labor system, where prisoners are paid less than $1 an hour (if that) to produce goods for private companies, states, the federal government, and to fight fires. In firefighting work in California, Alaska, and Oregon in particular, many prisoners are often simply left to die.
So far we have established that the prison system is an organ of class rule of the white supremacist bourgeois state. And if this is an extension of the capitalist state, there can be no reform–only abolition itself will resolve the contradiction. Both abolition of the settler-colonial capitalist state, and also abolition of prisons. Our task, then, as communists who seek the abolition of capitalism itself, is to first make prisoners understand that the social injustice they face is part of a larger system–that of capitalism itself, and that its cure is communism and the abolition of the capitalist state and prisons.
The first question (which is often asked both in bad faith and in good faith) is what do we do about people who are “genuinely violent” and are a physical danger to others. In response to this, communists understand that violence is everywhere under capitalism, and that many forms of violence have their roots in the underlying contradictions and antagonisms created by capitalism. For instance, many of the forms of labor that exist outside the legal economy (what we would call lumpenproletariat) are necessitated by the fact that these people cannot survive under sanctioned forms of labor under capitalism.
Further, much of liberal handwringing about sexual assault and domestic violence ignores the fact that only 5 out of every 1,000 people charged with rape will spend even a day in prison. 40% of cops are known abusers of their families. Even if those people are incarcerated, what about the prison system suggests that this “reforms” them? What does this meaningfully do to challenge the patriarchal society that we live in that devalues women and makes them financially and socially dependent on men, and told that they should just endure abuse, an idea which is reinforced at every turn? To be clear: this is not an advocation for restorative justice for rapists and abusers. Many feminist comrades have already explained the impossibility and inefficacy of restorative justice for these groups. However, the American prison system is not restorative justice, and it certainly does not keep women safe. The solution is not carceral feminism–it is abolition.
Even when revolutionary communists must necessarily take prisoners as part of class warfare, they abide to a process of reeducation and human treatment of prisoners. For instance, in the Phillipines, the New People’s Army treats political prisoners with humane treatment according to the Geneva Convention, and many former prisoners of the NPA report being treated kindly, fairly, and given medical care, food, and supplies. We can look to many humane methods of reeducating former reactionaries within the pre-revisionist People’s Republic of China, which treated people with fairness, care, and a chance to grow and self-criticize. For instance, Puyi, the last emperor of China, was rehabilitated and eventually came to be a devoted Marxist who recognized the role he and his family had played in instituting class rule over the proletariat and peasant classes of imperial China.This proves that communists can offer an alternative to prisons even when we have to take prisoners as part of revolution.
Now that we have laid out the Marxist case for prison abolition, we have to consider how we get there. As Mao tells us, “Every word, every act and every policy must conform to the people’s interests, and if mistakes occur, they must be corrected – that is what being responsible to the people means.” This means we must begin by considering what the interests are of people incarcerated in the US today, and adjust our theoretical and praxical understanding accordingly.
At Terminal Island Prison in San Pedro, California, over 700 of about 1000 medically vulnerable inmates have tested positive for COVID. Last week, the seventh inmate there died of COVID. Visitors report no social distancing, neglect of patients in isolation, and lack of proper PPE. In response to this, the US attorney general released a memo that ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to “identify ‘at-risk inmates who are non-violent and pose minimal likelihood of recidivism and who might be safer serving their sentences in home confinement’”. Looking at the algorithm that identities “low risk” inmates, we can see that only 7 percent of black men in federal prisons are eligible under these guidelines. Some states have decided to issue “compassionate release” programs for sick and elderly people who are “no longer dangerous,” but these programs often mean sending inmates to a longer-term prison, such as Angola Correctional Facility in Louisiana. In ICE facilities, which already show extreme overcrowding and human rights abuses, poor hygeine, and lack of medical care, independent investigations into deaths at a prison in New Jersey already determined that both deaths were a result of lack of timely medical care. In immigration detention facilities, the “crime” of being in this country undocumented itself was made necessary by the US’s installation of right-wing governments in many of the detainee’s countries of origin.
A Marxist and antiracist analysis of this language around “compassionate release” for “nonviolent” offenders shows us that the notion of “violent” people and crimes is already entrenched within antiblackness. The construction of Black men in particular as violent and dangerous has long been used to justify repression, enslavement, and murder through lynchings or police shootings. Further, what is “compassionate” about releasing someone into a world where they have no money, no chance of finding a job, no healthcare, poor housing prospects, and are ineligible for many forms of federal aid because of their record?
So how do we begin to address these needs of incarcerated people in the US today? We can begin by looking at the excellent work already being done by communist organizations such as the New Afrikan Black Panther Party’s Prison Chapter and the work of Kevin “Rashid” Johnson. These comrades have advocated for safer conditions in prisons and worked to radicalize prisoners, and brought attention to the inhumane treatment of prisoners. Recently, Rashid helped organize a hunger strike in the prison in Indiana where he is incarcerated. Their goals included: COVID testing for more inmates, access to hand sanitizer and nutrious meals, regular access to cleaning supplies for cells, and temperature checks for inmates and staff.
As communists, we should also support existing labor and union movements in order to advocate for the rights of workers, and prison labor is no exception to this. When prisoners push back against injustice, they are often subjected to solitary detention, demerits for “inciting a riot,” or threatened with physical or sexual violence by guards. We have to build relationships with currently incarcerated people in order to enact the mass line and be reponsible to their needs. It is not enough to simply affirm that prisons should be abolished, just as it is insufficient to state that capitalism should be abolished. We have to look to the needs of those most exploited and work to make abolition a reality.
Article by comrade Cíbolo