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
While 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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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
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.
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.