Newsletter – Outing The Prison-Industrial Complex

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What do you call a system in which private entities partner with law enforcement to spy on peaceful protesters and arrest them, in which the poor and people of color are preyed upon to meet private prison quotas in order to provide slave labor, in which drug use is treated as a crime rather than the public health issue that it is, and in which police are heavily militarized and violate the law without being held accountable?

Like the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex (PIC) has become a behemoth that feeds personal and corporate profits through human exploitation. Its tentacles reach into many parts of our society. It is necessary to understand how the many aspects of the PIC operate in order to confront it and stop it from swallowing up our families and communities.

Ending the Failed Drug War

Drug War No More Drug WarWhile drug prohibitions have existed nearly 100 years, in 1968 President Nixon gave it a name: the war on drugs. More than forty years in, rather than stopping drug use, the drug war has destroyed the lives of millions of families, filled the jails with nonviolent offenders and fueled corruption within law enforcement. A new report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch finds that the number one reason for arrests is possession of drugs, one arrest every 25 seconds, and that more than half of these are for marijuana though 58% of people in the United States support legal marijuana. Police, who are encouraged to make arrests either openly through quotas or quietly through rewards, go after low-level drug offenses because they are easy. And they often violate civil rights through illegal searches and seizures to do so. And, of course, marijuana and other drug arrests are racially disproportionate to communities of color.

The impact of these arrests are great. They can lead to the loss of jobs, the loss of government benefits such as tuition or housing assistance, and they can lead to loss of life. Dozens of people have died in jail awaiting trial for possession of drugs. And now, as Maya Schenwar reports, states are considering legislation to increase the consequences for selling drugs, including life in prison or the death penalty if drugs are sold to a person who then dies of an overdose.Reparations for police torture

And treating drugs as illegal has enabled police to have control over communities, especially low-income communities. Investigative reporter Jamie Kalven wrote an in-depth exposé on corruption within the Chicago Police Department. Officers kept drugs that were confiscated and routinely stole money and valuables from public housing residents.

Criminalizing drug sales and possession have not stopped them and as a result ending the war on drugs is moving into the mainstream of political discourse. The United States has high rates of drug use. It is clear that a new approach is needed. Many groups recommend decriminalization of drugs and treating drug use as a public health issue instead through better education about drug use, regulation of use as is done for alcohol and treatment on demand for people who are addicted.

Massive marijuana joint in front of White House on April 2, 2016 by John Zangas

Massive marijuana joint in front of White House on April 2, 2016 by John Zangas

2016 may be the biggest year ever for marijuana legalization. This year nine states will vote on legalization of marijuana or on allowing medical use. In five states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — voters will decide on legalization of marijuana by regulating and taxing it. If passed these states will join Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska with such laws, as well as DC which has legal marijuana without a system allowing sales. The federal government has allowed these laws to be put in place without threat of prosecution and has allowed marijuana to be sold on tribal lands. These laws have raised tremendous amounts of tax dollars and reduced arrests, without any serious harms.Even though youth in Colorado are not using more, law enforcement is focusing its resources on youth, causing increased arrests.  In addition to votes on legal marijuana, there are protests in favor of ending the war on marijuana. The first protest against marijuana criminalization was on August 16th 1964. Ending this injustice has been a long time coming.

Four other states, Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota, will vote on legal medical marijuana, which is already legal in nearly half the country. Federal courts have ruled that the federal government cannot prosecute medical marijuana in states where it is legal. Even Congress passed a law allowing veterans to use medical marijuana overruling a Veterans Administration policy. While the Drug Enforcement Administration has refused to recognize reality, their denial of rescheduling of marijuana is not slowing progress to end the war on marijuana.Marijuana No Jail for a Plant

We know the criminalizaiton of drugs has failed despite the war on drugs producing massive seizures of drugs, mass arrests as well as the largest prison population on the planet. But what about the alternative? There are many countries around the world that have enacted various forms of decriminalization or legalization of various drugs that have consistently shown successes — reduced arrests, low levels of drug use, less death and less crime.

We will focus on one here — Portugal. Fifteen years ago Portugal enacted decriminalization of all drugs. The results are dramatically positive. There has been no major increase in illicit drug use despite the removal of the threat of prosecution. Rates of drug use in Portugal have remained below the EU average and far below US levels.  Portugal has experienced a major drop in drug-related arrests and incarceration. People receiving treatment for drug problems in Portugal also rose by 60 percent between 1998 and 2011. There has been a steep reduction in new HIV cases: In 2000, the number of new cases among people who use drugs was 1,575—by 2013, that figure was only 78. In 2001, 80 people in Portugal reportedly died due to drug overdose—in 2012, that number was just 16.  The only question remaining is whether deciminalization goes far enough or whether a legal, regulated and taxed market would be even more effective.

Increasing Militarization of Police

A screen shot from the film "Do Not Resist" which tracks the history of police militarization.

A screen shot from the film “Do Not Resist” which tracks the history of police militarization.

In his new film, “Do Not Resist,” Craig Atkinson documents the growing use of SWAT teams for questionable searches and the perverse culture that has developed. The son of a SWAT team commander, Atkinson sensed a shift in the use of SWAT raids, so he set out to document a justification for their use. He failed. Compared to when his father was an officer, the number of SWAT raids has escalated exponentially, from 29 raids in his fathers thirteen years as  commander to as many as 80,000 raids nationally per year. Atkinson showed that search warrants were often issued on suspicion of drugs, but time after time families were terrorized and little to no drugs were found.

Atkinson describes the film’s intention as this:

to provide a glimpse inside the realities of American policing, challenge the policing-for-profit model that has caused departments in economically depressed communities to treat their citizens as walking ATM machines, call out a warrior culture that divides law enforcement from the public they’re sworn to serve, and flag the dangers of war-zone technologies being applied domestically.”

The data that was used by law enforcement to track activists of color. | Photo: Reuters / Wikimedia Commons

The data that was used by law enforcement to track activists of color. | Photo: Reuters / Wikimedia Commons

Atkinson also documents the rise of the police militarization industry. Retired military officers are going into business providing tools for surveillance to local law enforcement agencies. These tools are also being used against peaceful protesters. Even Silicon Valley has been participating in the surveillance of protesters by providing access to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram data for monitoring and searches, a practice which they say they have ended. During the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, social media data was used to follow protesters and identify participants with outstanding warrants.

On the flip side, technology could be used to document police interactions with civilians and to hold them accountable, but Nathalie Baptiste reports that technology such as body cameras is either not being used or police are fighting to restrict the public’s access to the recordings. There must be a fundamental reconstruction of police departments away from militarization and towards entities that protect everyone in our communities by focusing on violent and property crimes and by being held accountable for their actions.

Support the Slave Revolt 

Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/AP

Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA/AP

Behind bars in the United States, prisoners are victims of grave human rights abuses. They lose their rights and their safety is not protected. A new documentary, produced by Bill Moyers, called RIKERS, that will air in November, documents prison conditions as told by people who have directly experienced it. This is required watching for anybody who is not familiar with the horrifying treatment of prisoners.

Prisoners in the US are slaves. Olivia Alperstein writes that they work long hours for extremely low pay and are forced to pay high prices for basic necessities such as telephone calls and extra clothing or food. Laws that protect workers don’t apply to prisoners, and even the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, does not apply.

Chris Hedges describes the profitable prison industrial complex:

The 2.3 million human beings, most of them poor people of color, who are locked in cages across the country provide billions in salaries and other revenues for depressed rural towns with large prisons. They provide billions more in profits to phone card companies, money transfer companies, food service companies, merchandise vendors, construction companies, laundry services, uniform companies, prison equipment vendors and the manufacturers of pepper spray, body armor and the many other medieval instruments used for the physical restraint of prisoners. They also make billions for corporations—Whole Foods, Verizon, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Sprint, Victoria’s Secret, American Airlines, J.C. Penney, Sears, Wal-Mart, Kmart, Eddie Bauer, Wendy’s, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Fruit of the Loom, Motorola, Caterpillar and dozens of others—that collectively exploit 1 million prison laborers.”


Prisoners are fighting back. On September 9, the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica Uprising, prisoners across the country went on strike against the conditions that they face. Almost two months into the strike, there has been little to no media coverage, but they are having an impact.

In one California facility where 212 prisoners are on strike, the prison is losing over $24,000 in revenue each day. Multiply that for the 72,000 prisoners in 22 states who are striking. In Alabama, corrections officers took action in solidarity with the inmates by not showing up for their shifts and speaking out about prison conditions. Inhumane prison conditions has led to the Department of Justice to start an investigation into Alabama prisons.

The prisoners involved in the national prison work strike understand power. They understand that their struggle is largely invisible to the public. In fact, the public benefits from their labor through low prices for the goods they produce. And they understand that the political system, in which they cannot participate, does not protect them. They are taking action to use the one tool they have, their refusal to work, which impacts the bottom line of the PIC, to force change. Prison Industrial Complex -- the one door left open

The prison strike isn’t being covered by the media. So it is imperative that we all spread the word about it and provide support in whatever way we can. Leaders of the strike are being held in isolation. Outside communication has been cut off. If there is a prison on strike near you, show your support by calling or writing letters to the warden. Organize a solidarity action outside the prison where inmates can see or hear you. You’ll find information and resources at Support Prisoner Resistance.

The prison industrial complex is a war on the people that will continue to grow unless we rise together to stop it. We can have an impact. Learn more about it, spread the word and show your support. Let’s demand that the human rights of all people are respected and say no to to the war on drugs, say no to the militarization of police and to mass incarceration; and say no to slavery.

  • William Johnson

    Some scholars like Noam Chomsky have called the U.S., a “Failed State”, while one, Prof. Sheldon Wolin, coined the title, “Inverted Totalitarianism” to describe it and I believe both are correct.
    If a person isn’t white, or is white but poor, life is more like living in an occupied territory than a democracy, which the U.S. most certainly is not, no matter what it’s called, it can’t accurately be called that.
    The question so many ask these days is how to change it, change meaning most of time, bringing the country back to being a republic without the monied interests controlling the branches, institutions and agencies of government?
    Without an informed citizenry, any changes to the system are unlikely to happen and while Popular Resistance and many other sites do as good a job of informing people as any, or is possible to do, corporate media is still where most receive information on issues and that is little more than state and corporate propaganda put into the public domain by those who can afford to own that segment of the system.
    If an informed citizenry is the job of we the people on the other hand, we’ve a ways to go yet.

  • Alan MacDonald

    Kevin, when you ask:

    “What do you call a system in which private entities partner with law enforcement to spy on peaceful protesters and arrest them, in which the poor and people of color are preyed upon to meet private prison quotas in order to provide slave labor, in which drug use is treated as a crime rather than the public health issue that it is, and in which police are heavily militarized and violate the law without being held accountable?”

    And assuming that you are asking this question with the intent of ‘naming’, recognizing, educating people to ‘call-out’, expose, rally against, and successfully confront and over-throw (non-violently) this thing that you are proposing to NAME for the purpose of igniting effective ‘popular resistance’ and a successful “Political Revolution” against it by simply firing a loud, public, sustainable, and NON-violent “Shout heard round the world” in order to create a Second American REVOLUTION of the people against it — then the only name that could possibly and actually succeed in starting such a democratic Revolution in America against that ‘thing’, would be to call it what you yourself personally ‘called it out as’ in October 2011 in Washington DC —- which is an “EMPIRE” —- for the simple reason that the First (and ONLY Successful) American Revolution was “against Empire”, a far more obvious and highly visible Empire albeit, and an Empire which was far less effectively DISGUISED, which only wanted to be GLOBAL, and which was powered by the massive funding advantages of capital accumulation of industrialization and finance CAPITALISM.

    Kevin, what else would you call it other than what you called this cancer of EMPIRE in October 2011??

  • easywriter

    Prisons are fast becoming the new concentration camps…

  • Aer O’Head

    Not to mention, enforcers of social control and, increasingly, political control as well.

  • Abelli

    Prison industrial complex is a war on Justice and Democracy. It concerns United Prisoner Breeding Nation of North America, World Leading Jailer Land. Prisoner have no voting right!
    It’s an invitation for corruption: Federal grand jury indicts former Illinois
    Corrections director, July 19, 2007 CHICAGO – AP “The former director of
    the Illinois Department of Corrections, was indicted Thursday on charges he
    accepted $50,000 in kickbacks from lobbyists for vendors that had contracts
    with IDOC, federal prosecutors said.”
    American Slavery, Reinvented; Sep 21, 2015 The Thirteenth Amendment forbade slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The Atlantic
    Much to do making a change!

  • Hosea Mcadoo

    It is fascism.

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  • AlanMacDonald

    Hosea, America had only one successful founding Revolution, and was birthed by confronting and freeing itself from EMPIRE in the 18th century.

    The American Anti-Imperialist League was formed in the 19th century (by Mark Twain, et al.) to lobby, educate, and advise America NOT to become an EMPIRE.

    Many millions of Americans in the mid-20th century (including my father) battled against and overcame EMPIRES — the Nazi and Japanese Empires, during the Second World War of Empires.

    American President Ronald Reagan claimed to have ending the last Empire on earth at the end of the 20th century by calling-it-out as an “Evil EMPIRE” (despite the fact that he didn’t know that all Empires are Evil).

    An array of famous American public intellectuals, academics, and experts in the field of ‘Empire-studies’ — such as Chomsky, Zinn, Johnson, Arendt, Berman, Parenti, Hardt, Wolin, Shoup, Robinson, Glennon, Blum, Bacevich, et al. in the 21st century; researched, diagnosed, recognized, educated us, ‘exposed’, ‘called-out’, and wrote that America was “acting like a global Empire” and documented this with proof — while advising that America must stop.

    So, “Fascism” is just one of the perverted ‘big tools’ of EMPIRE — as are; myth, mystery, fundamentalist religion, ethnicity, feudalism, nationalism, racism, ideology, finance capitalism, et al.

  • rgaura

    The prisoners in Illinois are being poisoned by GMO soy meat substitute. They get no meats. The politician who signed the contract is in federal prison for corruption, but the inmates still have to survive on food that produces myriad degenerative diseases as well as mental health problems.

  • rgaura

    don´t demean as an `identity issue´ the carcereal complex. For those of us who hope their family member survives their incarceration without permanent psychological scars. Or survives it literally. Every issue is important, and all of the movements chip away at empire, and the complex of belief systems which support it ideologically.

  • Alan MacDonald

    William, Yes, you are certainly correct —-as far as you go (which is not far enough) — just as it is by NO MEANS FAR ENOUGH, on the part of “Popular Resistence and many other sites” that DO NOT DO “a good job”, because they all ‘hold back’ from really exposing the situation that exists, and thus offer NO contrary narrative or actual ‘Popular Resistance’ against the overwhelming influence of the MSM, “corporate media” (as you call it), or the ‘media/propaganda-sector’ of the EMPIRE (as I call it).

    It is as if the ‘leftish’, progressive-lite, and so-called ‘alt-media’ are not only NOT offering the only compelling and Revolutionary truth of a serious ‘counter-narrative’ to the overwhelming and deceitfully pro-EMPIRE narrative, but that the useless and weak counter-punching of the ‘leftish’, progressive-lite, and so-called ‘alt-media’ is actually aiding the oppression and dominance of the MSM/corporate media by dividing, distracting, and disabling the only power of the people in dispersing only loads of little “indentity issue” narratives and thousands of stories about all these “issues” — which actually helps the Disguised Global Capitalist EMPIRE to remain ‘disguised’ and “off-the-table” in all discussions — or should I say Disqussions, since much of the complacent ‘leftish’, progressive-lite, and weak to dead supposedly ‘alt media’ web-sites have actually surrendered by using this troll-enabling and troll-hiding Trogan-horse-shit software to wreck their own communities of commenters.

    For a serious core of genuinely left, progressive, and honestly ‘alt-media’ sites to accomplish anything other than facilitating our surrender to the EMPIRE they must ‘grow some’ and openly, publicly, loudly, overtly, and consistently focus on the only counter-Empire message —which is to fire a loud but non-violent “Shout heard round the world” in order to ignite the essential Second American “Political Revolution AGAINST EMPIRE”.

  • Alan MacDonald

    rgaura, I do not mean to demean the serious ‘point-symptom-problem’ of the “carcereal complex” or ‘PIC’, however I will not be applying my own efforts against “GMO soy meat substitute”, but instead will spend all my efforts in focusing exclusively on ‘exposing’, ‘calling-out’, educating, rallying folks, and non-violently confronting this damn Disguised Global Capitalist EMPIRE that is the single causal cancerous hidden meta-source of that actually causes all the little “identity issues”, more important (but still subordinate) ‘symptom problems’, like; never-ending wars, Wall Street looting, racism, vast inequality, domestic spying, and our entire “ailing social order” [Bauman] — which is the damn effin’ EMPIRE.

    And, rgaura, I don’t fell the least bit guilty for concentrating entirely on the EMPIRE —- because I know that ‘Popular Resistance’, TruthDig, CommonDreams, you (and hundreds of thousands of people like you) are carrying the other end of the canoe of “fighting the Empire” — although I sometimes feel as if I am dragging it to the water myself in order to drown the god-damned thing!

  • rgaura

    I think we basically agree. What are some of the belief systems (propaganda from media) that support empire? Why do we talk about à race to the top´ as an educational value? There are many ways we can oppose values of empire in our lives, in our choices. We need to starve the beast by removing our attention, belief, and transferring our funds and investments from the tapeworm economy to local credit unions.
    Living in Mexico the last few years has me aware of the wonderful community values practiced by people here. Such dignity, mutual regard and help of others. These indigenous values are so nurturing, and have such pleasant ramifications. Learning to be part of a community, not having power over others needs to be part of our pedagogy from the ground up.

  • William Johnson

    It’s impossible to go “far enough” Alan. Space alone takes care of that problem, if for example, I or anyone was writing for mass consumption. Don’t think for a moment however, I don’t get just as upset as you do, just as frustrated by sites serving the democratic, so-called, liberal left, living under the same totalitarian regime and all that means for those who have felt the power of it’s boot for real and not just in theory.
    Allow me to give an example of part of what I refer. I saw a clip from this past Sunday of a NFL game in Buffalo, where several players were booed for not standing for the national anthem. As you are aware, this is part of an attempt to bring attention to a militarized police gunning down unarmed minorities in the street, yet a majority of the fans were booing this display of support by those few players willing to bring attention to this gross injustice. While I found this a disgusting display on the part of the fans, I also realize most of them are just following orders so to speak. In any totalitarian society, the population is going to be propagandized to such a degree, many will believe the state’s propaganda, or enough will to keep the regime afloat.
    Allow me another example: In 1972, I had been an activist against the war since 1966 when I was 12, so I began early and truly believed we had made enough progress to overthrow the Nixon regime that year. Unfortunately, the citizens of 49 states didn’t agree, so the war regime remained until the Watergate Scandal. We had another chance to replace the system in the mid-70s too, but after that war was defunded, many simply returned to business as usual and went disco as I called it, while others called it, getting a job. Going into the history of those years is only useful as a tool for educating those who were not there, or want to learn about all the ins and outs, so serves little purpose here, even though it’s a part of the greater whole as you point out. Most people coming to this site are well versed in the ways of a system they usually are active in opposing and don’t have the time to read a book in the comment section that better explains the very empire to which you call attention. It would take several of those to document this empire, although Howard Zinn did a fine job of trying in his U.S. history book I’m sure you have read.
    I suppose what I’m asking is, why formulate your response to a comment as an attack on people not doing more? It’s impossible to know what people are doing daily by reading their comments in the first place and it only brings division when you attack those doing what they can with the gifts and time they have. I appreciate what you said though, just not the spirit of how you said it.

  • Alan MacDonald

    easy writer, yes —- most Empires have multiple concentration camps, and America did not want to be missing any of the features that any self-respecting Empire has.

    Hell, any real dyed in the wool Empire, let alone this truly global and fully Disguised Global Capitalist EMPIRE and last remaining Empire on earth simply ‘Must’ have concentration camps, hundreds and hundreds of militarist bases throughout the world, the biggest “Offense Department” in the world, and massive amounts of oppression and tyranny metered out on its domestic ‘subjects’, eh?

  • Alan MacDonald

    Morris, is that you?

    Your “Dark Ages America, the Final Phase of Empire” was fabulously revealing and amazingly prescient for 2007.

    BTW, Morris, glad to hear that Mexico has such a great “social order”, that you are happy there.


  • Alan MacDonald

    Yes, all “issues” have some importance, but “too many ‘issues’ spoil” the Revolution against Empire.

    Too many ‘issues’ inexorably distract, divide, dissipate, destroy the energy and understanding to fight against the only single, seminal, and signal,’meta-issue’ that depends on division, dissipation, and destruction of the seriousness of purpose and solidarity of Americans to throw-off their delusions and propagandist-induced stupification to actually fire a loud, public, sustained, (but non-violent) “Shout heard round the world” to ignite the essential Second American “Political Revolution against EMPIRE”.

    And without the Revolution the Empire wins forever — or at least until we all die.

  • rgaura

    No, I go by my real name. I don´t understand the Morris bit. I didn´t say social order. Actually, I love the organic order here, not the control and command sort that empires tend to foist on the population. Its more like the wild intelligent creativity of nature itself. Lots of creative expression, and ease of being.
    Mexico has many advantages. I love the fact that they do not invade other countries! Its constitutionally prohibited.

  • Alan MacDonald

    Sorry,Megaera, I was playing a bit on issue of living in Mexico, as Morris Berman, the brilliant social critic, professor, and renowned author of “Dark Ages America”, “Why America Failed”, and many other insightful and revealing books that focus on the Empire that has captured, controls, and virtually “Occupies” our once proud and sometimes improving ‘experiment’ attempting to perfect the concept of a democratic republic the actually represents the people — rather than assisting world class ‘hustlers’ from looting not just our economy but our dream of social justice and shared humanity.

    Morris lives in Mexico and continues to write leading edge diagnoses and corrective treatment measures to save the ‘body politic’ of our endangered country and world.

  • rgaura

    Name is Robin. Everyday I meet americans and canadians who have sold out and are buying houses down here and fleeing the mess the US has become!