To be in prison is to be a whipping post for those in political power. I will always find it a little odd and slightly offensive when people of an intellectual background or mindframe try to explain the mechanics of oppression to me. As if life was a classroom or thesis where real experience is trumped by word-ideas and an ability to apply precision to philosophy. Those of us in the prison system know oppression. We live it everyday, every hour. Authority, slavery and domination are our lot. Any employee, guard, visitor or invisible faceless bureaucrat need only snap their fingers and we are whisked away to confinement cells smaller than your bathroom. For days, months, or years.
In a capitalist system of immense social stratification ‘prisoner’ is the lowest rung in a classist and racist society. When you face federal prison charges your indictment reads ‘The United States of America Vs. (insert your name)’. That is usually the first and last truth you will be awarded. From that point forward you face the largest maniacal bully on the face of Mother Earth, the United States government.
Currently there are more than 2 and a half million people imprisoned in America. With more than 6 million on parole, probation or supervised release. That is approximately 1 out of every 33 adults in the U.S. which are in some stage of ‘corrections’. Nearly everyone in this system falls into one or more of four categories, those being: 1. Black, 2. Latino, 3. Poor, and 4. Uneducated.
Women in prison are routinely incarcerated hundreds of miles away from their families and children. Much further distances than men. Due to their minority status amongst the prison population (most prisoners are men) women endure imprisonment by a system that makes little concession for sex and gender differences, and often heaps extra derision and scorn upon the female prison population. Women that come into the prison system pregnant are often chained and shackled to tables while giving birth. They also have immensely greater chances of never seeing their children again after the hour or two that they are allowed to spend with their newborn babies. Upon return to their prison cells, robbed and stripped of their progeny, women in prison face a grief and hollowness worse than anything I can imagine. There are currently over 150,000 African American women imprisoned in America or on probation, parole or supervised release. That’s 1 out of every 9 African American women in the United States.
Under the guise of the war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on guns, and of course the war on terrorism the prison system incarcerates the indigenous, people of color, and the poor at unprecedented rates. In the process criminalizing many addicts and small time ‘middlemen’ drug dealers that would benefit far more from help with their addictions, instead of criminalization and imprisonment around more serious or violent offenders.
As much as I identify with being vegan, straightedge or anarchist I also Identify with being a prisoner. I have been incarcerated in county jails such as Cerro Gordo county and Black Hawk county in Iowa. Or Davis County in Utah and Jefferson County in Colorado. I have been in state prisons in Iowa, such as Oakdale Classification Center, Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility, Anamosa State Penitentiary, and North Iowa Correctional Facility at Rockwell City. I have been in a corporate run prison at the Nevada Southern Detention Center and I have been in Federal Prison in Oklahoma at the Federal Transfer Center and now the United States Penitentiary of Marion on the Infamous Communications Management Unit for ‘domestic terrorists’, where I currently reside.
Contrary to how the media or politicians portray prisoners we are just people. Among the millions of people that are incarcerated are mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, children, parents, friends, fathers, brothers, uncles, aunts, grandfathers, grandmothers and family. As a prisoner you experience first hand far more diversity than you do in the open air prison (society). Instead of being divided by class, politics, religion, gender, sexual orientation, color, culture and all the other dividers we use to tribalize and separate ourselves from each other. We are all right here in close quarters. People that you once thought were repulsive in manner, attitude or appearance become more familiar to you than your best friends from free world.
Of course Prison can also be a violent world just like in the open air prison you live in. The difference is that there is no running away from violence in here. Which means that as a prisoner you relearn instincts that you may have lost or never thought you had. Like a child you learn how to read people, you learn how to not be fooled by nice clothes, slick talk or kind words. You learn that not everyone that postures violently is dangerous and some that seem completely non-threatening are very dangerous indeed. You learn how to deal with lots of truly different people under adverse circumstances as a matter of everyday life. You learn how to not be sensitive over other peoples views or beliefs.
Unfortunately, you also learn that the outside world, much like the media define you by your crimes. If you stole some money when you were a kid, wouldn’t you find it unfair and discriminatory if 20 years later when you were trying to get a job, or an apartment, or admission to college you were told “sorry, we can’t allow thieves here”? This is exactly the case with nearly all that come out of prison. there is years of time between you and your offense but you still must be defined by it.
The first time I was released from prison I had many a good job denied me, solely because of my criminal record. I started to lie about it on my job applications and then was finally able to get a job as a fry cook at Applebee’s, a shitty corporate restaurant. An old acquaintance recognized me and told the boss about my past. I was brought into the office and thoroughly berated and threatened with being fired for being a liar. And then finally allowed to continue my ‘privilege’ of working in a place completely against my ethics as a vegan so that I could avoid going back to prison on a parole violation for not holding ‘adequate employment’.
This is to say nothing of the difficulties that gay lesbian and transgendered people face in prison or the slave wages prisoners must endure while working in the prison if they want to keep their ‘general population’ status and have the ‘privilege’ of looking at the sky or of making a 15 minute call to family.
In a hierarchical society where all life is viewed in ranks or the rungs of a ladder. In a consumer driven society where all life is a commodity or only as important as it’s output for consumer gain the prison is quickly becoming the model used in society. Schools, workplaces, post offices, airports and the shopping malls. Along side the nastier businesses such as slaughterhouses, military and police training which all go off of the same model as the penitentiary design and mentality. Which is, by the way, why so many ex-military people work in prisons. It’s because they themselves were institutionalized by the government.
It is only a matter of time before the open air prison drops it’s facade and the walls go up, and the razor wire glistens in the afternoon sky and the rights you thinks you have all become privileges. Because if you want to see the future of a class society, of imperialism and corporate fascism you need look no further than the lowest class within that society, it’s prisoners. But just like slaughterhouses, prisons are tucked away in small-town USA, in rural areas where you don’t see. The mainstream media ignores prison and it’s millions of inmates unless it happens to make a good story to interview one of the ‘human monsters’ that languish within. Just like it ignores the murder and death of Animals behind walls to feed filthy and destructive industries.
So it’s up to you to care where other don’t. It’s up to you to raise awareness where others won’t. And it’s up to you to use your freedom and privilege in the cause of liberation . If not you, then who? If not now, then when?