I received this letter from a prisoner who asked me to share it with all. He would appreciate hearing your feedback.
Open Letter to Prisoners and Their Marxist-Humanist Friends
As an incarcerated person in FCI Bastrop, TX Facility, I read with interest four recent articles in News & Letters by prisoners or about the prison system. I would like to thank the editor for maintaining N&L‘s longstanding commitment to prisoners by raising their voices from behind the prison walls.
Michelle Alexander’s “Black/Red View,” “The New Jim Crow,” from the May-June 2010 issue provoked Georgiana Stewart to respond in the July-August 2010 issue. The other two articles are by prisoners Robert Taliaferro in the “Black/Red View” and Rand Gould’s “’yap and howl’ of justice,” both in the July-August 2010 N&L.
Alexander evokes a comparison between the present conditions of ex-felons and the Jim Crow legal structure. The analogy works on two levels: State and community. The State (all governmental policies and structure from local to federal) legal system defines the rules of engagement for society and its citizens, creating a lesser class: ex-prisoners. Some of the rules that maintain the second class status: denial of right to vote, legalization of employment discrimination, denial of a full range of services like assisted housing, medical care and food stamps. The impact of those laws is that 70 – 80% of the ex-felons return to prison. Anything that happens 80% of the time, must have structural sources for its cause, not just individual psychology.
The level of community is where the power of Alexander’s analysis rests. Alexander urges us to conceptualize ex-felons as another in a long line of second-class citizens. Then to frame the struggle for freedom within the context of slavery abolition in the 19th Century and the Civil Rights movement of the 20th Century. The two successful social movements were successful in overturning social institutions at least as entrenched as the prison industrial complex, if not more so. She calls for a similar mass mobilization for reintegration of these human beings into their communities. By framing the issue as New Jim Crow, it should provide hope that this struggle will eventually be won as well (for more on the prison abolitionist movement, see criticalresistance.org).
Georgiana Stewart responded to Alexander by questioning the Jim Crow metaphor. Jim Crow laws were designed to keep the newly freed slaves in a dependent relationship to the State and the white community who controlled the State apparatus. Georgiana is correct to point out that criminals’ actions placed themselves in the position of facing second-class status, and that our communities are not safe places to live, work and play as a result of illegal drug operations. In addition, a true need is for good-paying jobs for our youth to hold in our communities. All that being said, I still think Alexander’s analogy works as I described above. The problem of crime is not solved by mass incarceration, but in fact made worse, creating the very conditions it is designed to redress. I agree with Alexander that a human prison system needs to be constructed from the group up. From what actions we defined as illegal, how to prosecute, punish, rehabilitate and reintegrate the person back into society.
The two articles written by prisoners reflect the tension between the present social relations of “justice” and the potentially new human relations. Rand Gould skewers the so-called “justice” system with its roots in the Roman legal system. Every step along the great chain of justice from what is illegal, apprehending, prosecuting to punishing is found wanting by Gould’s sharp tongue. So he concludes with this lightning bolt:
“No person shall ever want justice, any more than they should want to die, go to heaven and live in a city of gold with a bunch of winged harp players, John Bunyan and St. John the Crazy…. This is justice well served. None for me, thank you, but I will have a little of that injustice if you don’t mind.
Some of that not-justice is what Taliaferro sings about in his letter to the N&L 2010 convention and printed in the “Black/Red View” column (July–August 2010). Robert unnecessarily disparages his theoretical skills, before describing in soaring terms the essence of Marxist-Humanist philosophy. All our movements for justice is where we find our freedom. From women in Afghanistan or Iran, GLBT activists in the Middle East, labor activists in China, undocumented Latinos in Texas or political prisoners in Cuba, all our struggles for freedom embody the justice we seek.
The penitentiary system is an alternative prison system of its day. The main forms of punishment were not too unlike the stonings and mutilations served by local law in some Islamic countries today. So the penitentiary was designed as an alternative to capital and corporal punishment. As the name suggests, the prison was a place for prisoners to do penance. After prayer and contrition, the hope was that these souls would leave prison reformed people. There is a growing movement who feel now is the time to attempt to design a new system which will achieve not only the transformation of the lives of prisoners, but the transformation of the society in which they live.
What is a Marxist-Humanist role in this growing prison abolitionist movement? We need to take our place alongside others embodying our philosophy of radically new human relations in thought and action. Demanding all participants’ full self-development (felons, ex-felons, community leaders, etc.). Insisting that the movement itself reflect the goals we seek to accomplish. Prisoners and community members are not objects to be manipulated for the sake of the cause. But the very people who we stand with are involved in their own transformation even as we transfer our communities. If we fail to build a movement or our philosophy of new human relations, the end result will probably be not much better than the last great effort to reform the prison system as the penitentiary system we have today.