Micah Timothy Holmquist on Wed, 30 Sep 1998 08:02:54 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Critical Resistance: A Step Forward in the Fight Against Prisons

This a piece which I wrote on the Critical Resistance conference which I
attended this past weekend.  Please forward and/or reprint it if you care
to. Micah

Critical Resistance:  A Step Forward in the Fight Against Prisons by Micah

In the mid 1960s the Berkeley campus of the University of California was
home to Free Speech Movement which set the stage for many of the social
movements that would follow.  Today it may be the epicenter of a new
movement against the prison system in the United States.

On September 25-27 over 3,000 people gathered in Berkeley, California to
attend a conference focusing on issues surrounding U.S. prisons. Titled
Critical Resistance:  Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, the conference
brought together a wide range of prison activists in an attempt to build a
sustained anti-prison movement.

The last twenty years have seen a dramatic expansion in the size of what
is euphemistically called the =B3corrections=B2 system.  Presently over
1.7 million people are incarcerated - a threefold increase since 1980 - in
U.S. prisons.  On a per capita basis more people are incarcerated in this
country than any other and the prison population is expected to double
again by the year 2005. The increase has hit people of color and women
the hardest and can be primarily attributed to harsher sentencing of
non-violent drug offenses.  Several studies have shown that the average
sentence for a first time non-violent drug offender is longer than that
for rape or man slaughter.

While the average citizen might not be aware of these statistics those who
attended Critical Resistance were and believe that there is more than
enough evidence to show that prisons, at the very least, need to be
dramatically reformed. Furthermore most of those who participated are of
the belief that the continued growth of prisons will result in the
building of a movement against them. They believe this both because more
and more people will find themselves, their friends, or the loved ones
behind bars but also because the growth of prisons has been followed by a
dramatic increase in the use of prison labor by private companies.  
Corporations such Microsoft and Walt Disney currently use prison labor for
some of their products and pay the inmates far below the legally mandated
minimum wage.

The growing connection between corporations and prisons is one reason that
many activists have begun to use the term prison industrial complex. A
spin on the term military industrial complex, no exact meaning exists for
prison industrial complex.  In a speech given on the first day of the
conference organizer and former political prisoner Angela Y. Davis defined
the term as being the growing connection between prisons and corporations
along with the rapid expansion of prisons, the growing reliance of certain
communities on prisons for economic viability, and the growing political
influence of prison guards and administrators. Others at the conference
went farther than Davis and argued that the prison industrial complex is a
replacement for the outdated military industrial complex. However this
was disputed by other conference participants, most notably journalist
Christian Parenti, who argued that prisons are not presently nearly as big
as the military is or has been in the past.

Despite these differences there was agreement that the prison system is
deeply flawed and needs to be changed.  During the panels and workshops
which made up the bulk of Critical Resistance, conference participants
were given an opportunity to learn more about the misnamed criminal
justice system from start to beginning. Thus there were events focusing on
issues such as police brutality and racist police practices,
racist/sexist/classist sentencing procedures and practices, the conditions
of prisons, and even the difficulties which individuals had adjusting to
life after prison due to parole procedures.

Additionally there were many meetings, both formal and informal, where
activists could gather and discuss plans for future actions. Out of these
meeting came regional task forces on various issues.  Several of the task
forces agreed to meet in the future and to coordinate their actions in the

The creative energy of the movement was also in full effect.  From poetry
to plays, movies to music, and pictures to paintings the Critical
Resistance conference had the entertainment which even the most dedicated
need.  The works of prisoners were displayed and performed along side of
those of activists which served to enforce the importance of building
connections between those in prison and those on the outside.

While these events were important, just about everyone agreed that the
ultimate success or failure of Critical Resistance would be determined by
what people did after the conference when they returned to their work
places and communities. The stakes are quite high.  In the previously
mentioned speech, Angela Davis made the point that 'either the prison
industrial complex will become a way of life ... or we will abolish it all
together.' But what exactly Davis meant when she encouraged
abolishing the system was unclear.  Many of those in attendance would
describe themselves as revolutionaries and would argue that nothing short
of a revolutionary change can solve the problems of the prison system.  
Others, although perhaps not a clear majority, hold a more moderate view
and believe that radical changes can be successfully accomplished without
revolution.  But there did seem to be general agreement that the movement
would have to be radical and work hard to avoid unintentionally
reinforcing the strength of the prison system as other prison reform
movements have done.  That this is a very real danger was made clear by
Patricia O'Brien, the director of the University of California
Humanities Research Institute, in a panel titled 'Histories of Prison
Reform.' O'Brien argued that in the past well meaning prison
reformers have added legitimacy to the corrections system by removing the
system's most unsavory aspects with out changing it fundamentally.
One pitfall that otherwise radical movements have often fallen into is
relying on so called liberals to enact change.  Numerous speakers spoke
out against the Democratic Party, saying that it is part of the problem
and not the solution.  And it appeared that majority of those attendance
agreed with this analysis.  During the conference a letter from Maxine
Waters, a Democratic congresswoman who is one of the most liberal in the
U.S. House of Representatives, which included many suggested reforms in
the criminal justice system.  While the crowd cheered some of these
changes, the end of the letter was greeted with chants of 'Keep Assata
free.' This being a reference to the fact that Waters recently cast a
vote calling for the extradition of Assata Shakur, a former political
prisoner who, having been liberated from the prisons of New Jersey, now
resides in Cuba.

Along with a distrust of Democrats, the 'Keep Assata free' chants also
reflected the near universal support of attendees for the over 150
political prisoners and prisoners of war who are held behind bars by the
U.S. This is important as it stresses the connection between the emerging
movement against prisons and other social movements which fight for
political, economic, and social justice which the political prisoners and
POW s were involved in.  Similarly many activists were eager to draw the
connection between the growth of prisons and attacks on education such as
tuition hikes and the elimination of remedial programs at the City
University of New York and attempts to eliminate affirmative action in
states such as California, Texas, and Michigan.  Despite the supposedly
booming economy it appears to many that very destructive seeds are being
sowed.  With attacks on educational opportunities many are finding that
they are being forced into low paying service jobs while more and more of
those who would otherwise work in those service jobs are winding up in
prison. This gets to the heart of the problem that many see with the
prison system. Rather than being something removed from everyday life, the
prison system is simply the most brutal manifestation of the lives faced
by most people in the U.S.  In a session focusing on inmate resistance
Frank Big Black Smith, a leader in the 1971 rebellion at Attica State
Prison in New York, described prison as 'maximum jails' and 'free' society
as being 'minimum jails.' Smith would go on to say that both prisons and
the larger society needed to change and reminded the crowd that 'none of
those things can happen without you.'

In slightly more exotic language David Gaither of The Beat Within , a
publication which features the writings of youth who are currently in
detention centers, said 'we are asking people to rebel against society.'
In that statement Gaither reflected the hope of those involved with
Critical Resistance, and the broader anti-prison movement as well, that
the fight against prisons can become a fight to build a just and humane
society where people are neither locked up in cells or involved in
destructive and hurtful activities that presently often lead people to

For more information on the Critical Resistance movement contact the
conference organizers.  They can be reached in the following ways...

Email: critresist@aol.com
Fax: (510) 845-8816
Mail: Critical Resistance
       PO Box 339
       Berkeley CA 94701
Phone: (510) 643-2094
World Wide Web:

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