Criminal InJustice† is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.
by nancy a. heitzeg
Prisons are ubiquitous, yet ironically invisible in our Incarceration Nation. They permeate our literal and figurative landscapes — both physical and psychic. The prison industrial complex represents a source of jobs and corporate profit, an economic growth sector, the “law and order” back-bone of political careers and the subject of reality shows and news accounts and True Crime stories.
We love to look.
But the prison industrial complex also represents 2.5 million interrupted lives — those of real human beings with families and stories and histories. And in addition to the pains associated with loss of liberty, the conditions of confinement for many, are increasingly tantamount to torture.
And where there are prisons, there is torture: brutal beatings, grave humiliations, perverse censorship – and even murders – all under a legal system that is as blind as that statue of a woman holding aloft a scale, her eyes covered by a frigid fold of cloth…
And then, we turn away.
Never is this paradox more apparent than when i visit a place noted for beautiful scenery or touristy “fun” and the excesses of mass incarceration are hidden in plain sight. Louisiana, for example, noted for Creole and cuisine, for New Orleans, jazz and Mardis Gras. The fact that Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world — the City of New Orleans, even higher still with small town of more than 6000 prisoners in the Orleans Parish Prison, hidden right near the center of a major metropolitan area – certainly does not appear on vacation brochures.
Nor does the fact that sunny California — the land of Hollywood, Disneyland, breath-taking scenery, of San Francisco, flowers in your hair, the Haight and the Castro — imprisons in sheers numbers more than any state. More prisoners here than Florida, more than Texas even — nearly a quarter million locked away in what is the epicenter of the contemporary PIC. Numbers so excessive they made the SCOTUS blink and declare that the extreme over-crowding must be reduced by as many as 46,000 inmates. And conditions of solitary confinement so egregious that inmates have staged as series of hunger strikes, and most recently appealed to the United Nations for relief:
The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law believes that the treatment of California prisoners placed in Administrative Segregation Units and Security Housing Units should be brought before the United Nations. Placing thousands of prisoners in segregation for long periods of time is one of the most serious mass human rights violations taking place in the United States today.
The men being held in the Pelican Bay State Prison SHU Short Corridor agreed, and the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law has prepared a petition to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Human Rights Council, United Nations General Assembly, with 22 main plaintiffs of different races at different California prisons, ranging from one year in segregation up to 39 years in complete isolation based solely on a process of prison gang “validation” by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
But wherever there are cages –there are those seeking to open them. Just as California is the home of the modern PIC, so too is it the home of the Prison Abolition Movement.
And more on all this later, for now, wherever you are — Look..
[We] must turn the wheel of the so-called “criminal justice system” in America, which is, in fact, a destructive, counter-productive, annual $69 billion boondoggle of repression, better known by activists as the Prison Industrial Complex…
That means more than a one-day event, no matter how massive or impressive. It means building a mass movement that demands and fights for real change, and eventually the abolition of structures that do far more social damage than good.
It means the abolition of solitary confinement, for it is no more than modern-day torture chambers for the poor.
It means the repeal of repressive laws that support such structures.
It means social change – or it means nothing.
So, let us begin: Down with the Prison Industrial Complex!