Few institutions illustrate the oppression of people in capitalism better than prisons. Millions of people, almost completely members of the working class, in the United States and around the world, are presently wasting away for violations of the laws of private property or for crimes that stem from residing in a society based on want for some and privilege for others.
There is no question that the vast majority of crimes today for which individuals are incarcerated are crimes of property. The Crime Index for 2001 makes it clear that somewhere in the region of 84 to 90 percent of crimes are entirely property-related. Surveying the statistics from several states, we find that 173,000 out of 192,000 crimes were property-related in Alabama (90 percent). In California, 1.13 million people were arrested for property crimes out of a total of 1.34 million arrests (84 percent). In Florida, there were 782,000 property crimes out of 913,000 crimes (85 percent). In Kentucky, there were 109,000 property crimes out of 119,000 crimes (91 percent). All states fell roughly in this range, with 84 percent being the lowest. Violent crimes represented the next largest group, standing at about 10-18 percent of all crimes. Murders fell into the smallest group, representing roughly 0.1 to 0.2 percent of all crimes.
Capitalism is a society of haves and have-nots. The market economy generates such poverty and artificial scarcities that it is the prime cause of thefts. Even average wage and salary earners must seriously budget their incomes to obtain the necessaries and luxuries of life. The very system is rooted in an individualistic dog-eat-dog ethic that wastes resources on a vast scale, thus pre-empting any possibility for making rational use of our technological and productive capacity. Workers are denied access to the wealth they have collectively produced as a class, and so must make do with the crumbs called wages and salaries with which to obtain what they need or want. By contrast, they produce surplus value for their employers, which entitles a small class of owners to live off a vast store of accumulated wealth.
Another way to work the system?
To make matters worse, wealth is only produced in capitalism if it may generate a profit. Thus, there are never sufficient items of wealth to meet the needs of the human population, not even sufficient jobs in which workers may sell themselves to the employing class to receive wages. It is therefore no surprise to find that the vast majority of crimes occur in the poorest neighborhoods, where most people make ends meet for themselves or their families only with the utmost difficulty, if at all, and where even the prospect of finding a job is bleak.
Such social relations of inequality as we find in capitalism are essential to explaining why so many African-Americans in the U.S. are incarcerated for crimes of property, and for crimes of selling drugs. In 1997, 33 percent of all arrests in the entire country were of blacks,1 and in 1999, 49 percent of all prison inmates were black, even though African-Americans represented only about 13 percent of the overall population. Most of the arrests of this population were for low-level drug offenses. Interestingly, while over 90 percent of those tried for drug offenses in the state of California in 1995 were minorities, the drug-using population in that same state was more than 60 percent white. The 60 percent of drug users probably did not reside in the same extremely impoverished communities as the non-white 90 percent of drug offenders. One must, after all, have a considerable amount of money (at least, more than can be obtained from welfare checks) to spend on expensive drugs, money available to almost no one in the poorest, often minority, neighborhoods of the United States.2
Racism likely also plays a part in the disproportionately high number of arrests and incarcerations of black youth – they are more likely to be stopped, frisked, arrested, prosecuted, sentenced and executed than whites committing the same crimes. The effects of this high rate of incarceration upon black working-class communities have been devastating. What happens when 30 percent of African-American males ages 20-29 are snared in the “3 P’s” of prison, probation, or parole? It means, for starters, that the black community has been effectively denied participation in the electoral system, after winning it in the successful civil rights marches and protests of the 1950s and 1960s. Ten states deny voting rights for life to ex-felons, 32 deny them to felons on parole, and 29 states disenfranchise felony probationers. Thus, at any given time, a vast proportion of blacks are not able to exercise any political rights at all. Furthermore, parolees are often denied employment opportunities. There are counties in California in which a mere 21 percent of that state’s parolees are working full time. This official cold shoulder further fuels the cycle of poverty in black communities. Thomas K. Lowenstein, director of the Electronic Policy Network, estimates that 80 percent of prison inmates are parents. Children of prisoners are five times more likely to experience incarceration than those children who never had to suffer the misery of having their parents locked away, according to other researchers.3
After being released from prison, ex-cons are poorly equipped to sell themselves in the job market. This is because the jobs available in prison are of the types that are no longer as prevalent in the United States, but of the kind that employers pay for dirt cheap in the Third World. Unless U.S. prisoners are expected to emigrate to the sewing sweat shops of Central America where they would be lucky to make $200 a year, the job skills they obtain in prison will be next to useless, thus encouraging them to return to the far more lucrative illegal activities they engaged in before. Besides, most black and poor communities have so few jobs available that job training alone will be irrelevant in removing the economic conditions that led to the high crime rates in the first place.4
Poverty is simply a fact of capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system based on commodity production. It is incapable of producing wealth outside of its narrow profit motive, and incapable of hiring workers that it may not generate a profit from. Therefore, inevitably capitalism generates poverty. For as long as it has existed, millions of workers have been pressured into making money illegally, selling drugs, selling their bodies, robbing banks, breaking into homes and so on – and millions more will continue to follow them.
Prisons are among the most thriving slave communities in the United States or even the rest of the world (to be listed along with the still rampant enslavement of women and children, especially in Asia). The 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery on December 18, 1865, clearly states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (author’s emphasis). Slavery therefore was not completely abolished after the Civil War but maintained for the prison population. Indeed, after the Civil War, state prisons frequently rented out prison labor to private contractors. This is what led the Virginia Supreme Court to remark in an 1871 case known as “Ruffin v. Commonwealth” that prisoners were “slaves of the state.” For 70 years following the Civil War most state and federal prisons were completely self-sufficient slave economies, producing their own goods and food, and also some industrial products, without the producers being paid. Such blatantly slave or capitalist relations, where inmates were paid pitiful wages, were mostly abolished from the 1930s until the 1980s, when states began to reinstate that practice once more. In 1986, Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger urged the transformation of prisons again into “factories with fences.” Prisons were to return to being self-sufficient, profit-generating enterprises.
Such alterations in prison policy furnish an interesting parallel with the historic struggle between slavery and capitalism as modes of production. Slavery was finally abolished in this country in 1865 not only because it was an unarguably oppressive institution that understandably aroused the abolitionist sentiments of decent and just-minded men and women, but also because it was less efficient than wage slavery. Slaves and their families had to be clothed, fed and housed even when they did not or could not work. The ties of obligation that the chattel slave owner had for his human property often led slaves to attempt to destroy the owner’s machinery, burn his fields, even kill him. With the worldwide development of industrial capitalism’s far more efficient system of human exploitation, the bond of obligation between worker and employer was broken. Workers were now “free” – free to starve, free to be homeless, free to be let off the job, free to manage on meagre wages, free to pay a doctor to attend to them in their illness.
You work, therefore I am … rich
This freedom was truly a remarkable contribution to society, allowing the new rulers, the capitalists, the freedom to more or less pay their wages without any added responsibilities. (Although the working class over the past 150 years did insist on several further responsibilities that would be paid for out of their employers’ surplus value, it never contemplated abolishing the essential relations of employer and worker [owner and non-owner] – the modern version of master and slave.) But prisons have managed to preserve a great deal of the social and economic relations of chattel slavery, while similarly insisting upon a capitalist revolution in favor of transforming the previous slave prisoners into far more efficient wage workers, even though their wages are rarely more than the minimum.
Hard life, hard feelings
It is often claimed that socialism is impossible because people are spontaneously lazy and avoid working whenever they can. But perversely enough, one of the most powerful arguments against this claim is based on observing how humans behave in prison. These are behaviors that exist far less commonly outside the prison walls, and so serve to illustrate how diverse are human behaviors and how much they reflect the material conditions of life. For inside the prison walls, denied freedom and dignity, humans degenerate into fearful, revengeful, murderous, and exploitative monsters in order to survive the terrible ordeals of incarceration. Every year, there are over 300,000 instances of (reported) rapes in prisons, almost all of men raping other men: 40,000 of which are of male children in juvenile detention centers and 123,000 of men in county jails, with roughly 5,000 rape victims being women. Most rapes are not reported, so it is likely the figures are actually many times greater than these available statistics. It has been estimated that unwanted sexual advances among inmates occur on the order of 80,000 a day.
The most likely victims of rape in American prisons are smaller young whites from that section of the working class frequently and incorrectly termed “middle class” for its greater propensity to secure employment; they are besides either not street-smart, or they have no gang affiliations. Sixty-nine percent of rape victims in prisons are white, while 85 percent of rapists in prison are black. The reason for such an ethnically disproportionate statistic is that the white prisoners are less likely to have established solidarity networks while in prison, since they are a minority in the prison but a majority on the outside, while the blacks are a minority outside but a majority inside.
Prisoners typically fall into three classes while in prison. There is a group of predators, also known as jockers, studs, wolves and pitchers. This group will seek out new victims and will always attack in groups. This group views itself as virile “men.” These men have never been penetrated or raped (or they would immediately lose their predator status). The second group is known as the jailhouse queens. This group actively carries on a female-like existence and is cherished by the predators.
Finally, the third group is known as the punks or fuck boys. These are the younger, weaker inmates who have been “turned out” by the stronger inmates. They are normally assaulted days after they arrive, and these attacks will continue until they either get protection, are locked up in protective custody, or turn queen themselves. AIDS/HIV is six times the national average in prisons, since rapists do not wear condoms. The 2001 Human Rights Watch report “No Escape: Male Rape in U.S. Prisons” describes a nauseating catalogue of beatings, rapes, and murders inflicted on new prisoners by other inmates. This same report describes understandably extremely high rates of clinical depression, anxiety disorders (for example, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), suicidal and homicidal tendencies found among prisoners who may not have been thus afflicted when they were first incarcerated.5
Prisons clearly fail to keep the population safe from itself. They play a considerable role in causing people who were sane before to develop antisocial personalities, and in adding to the population’s mental illness. They deprive children of their parents and communities of their members’ economic and other personal contributions, while sadistically punishing individuals on the surreal assumption that the prisoners “freely” chose their crime in a morally equal and objective universe, rather than acted within a seriously circumscribed universe of poverty, trauma, violence and alienation – one rife in antisocial and manipulative models of behavior.
In The Psychopathic Mind: Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment (1995), Dr. J. Reid Meloy wrote of several of the most common environmental variables common to sociopaths (who account for some of the violent crimes and almost all of the murders). These individuals, who have lost or have never developed a sense of empathy or concern for the rights or feelings of others, often identify with an aggressive role model in their own lives, such as an abusive parent. They attack the weaker, more vulnerable self by projecting it onto others. As multiple murderer Dennis Nilsen put it, “I was killing myself only, but it was always the bystander who died.”
According to Dr. Meloy, such antisocial personalities can be explained in various ways: frequently they have lost a parent (about 60 percent), have been deprived of love or nurturing (detached, absent parents), received inconsistent discipline (where the father for example might have been stern and the mother overly permissive, causing the child to grow up manipulating the mother and hating authority); or they may have had hypocritical parents who privately belittled the child while publicly presenting an image of the “happy family.”
Leadership, sociopathy, success
It has often been observed that psychopaths make successful businessmen or world leaders. What else are capitalists or leaders but individuals who must excel in the ability of requiring the submission and exploitation of other human beings? Of course, not all psychopaths are motivated to kill. But when it is easy to devalue others, and you have had a lifetime of perceived injustices and rejection, murder might seem like a natural choice. Psychiatry and prisons are in any case not designed to attack the real cause of the antisocial development of such individuals: a world that is itself antisocial, cruel, heartless, violent, stressful, controlling and competitive, and that stifles and thwarts the nature of parenting and the optimal conditions for the development of prosocial children. Prisons reflect the class nature of society like few other institutions. Far from addressing the nature of class society, they exist only to segregate the worst offenders against its norms into a sort of industrial apartheid.
Capitalism fails miserably to meet our emotional needs, let alone our physical ones. How to humanize an intrinsically exploitative society in which five percent exist to exploit the other 95 percent? How to make people feel safe when millions around the world die every year of starvation and wars, when the majority is powerless and propertyless and must sell itself to the class that owns the means of producing wealth? Is it so surprising that when people live without the means to secure the comforts of life for themselves and their families, they will violate the interpersonal boundaries of others without caring?
Crime is not a moral concept
But instead of confining our thoughts and energies to dealing with the problems of capitalism, socialists attempt to see the whole picture. We refuse to reduce much of what passes as “crime” merely to the moral stature of those arrested – we insist rather upon examining the social context those human beings inhabit and eliminating the source of the inequalities inherent in the capitalist economy. As revolutionaries we are tired of “politics as usual,” which does nothing to address society’s collective misery. We are sick of hearing about futile remedies such as prison reform, when it is the society based on exploitation that must be replaced by one in which we who are now merely the working majority own and control the means of producing wealth as the whole community.
Create a more socially responsible and caring society in which people feel involved, and they will behave more socially. Allow humans free access to their collectively produced wealth, eliminate the buying and selling factor, and not only will they cease to have a market to sell dangerous drugs in – the disappearance of price tags will cease to make earning a living necessary to begin with. Provide conditions for parenting that emphasize collective support and nurturance, that put children first, and children will not grow up so twisted, defiant, angry, depressed, alienated or dangerous.
A world without prisons does not mean overlooking disturbances caused by violent acting out among its citizens: it does mean finding more humane ways to manage it. Some people, at times, may indeed need to be restrained, children protected or threats averted. A democratic society will be able to find ways to meet this need for safety without exploiting or degrading the perpetrators. The entire research of clinical, social and developmental psychologists into the variables that underpin antisocial acts and into ways of helping people overcome their hostile propensities is at present ignored, when so many of the crimes are systemically caused and are so prevalent. Since most crimes are crimes of property, and class society sets its rules and norms to benefit the ruling minority, it is impossible to be sure at present what a society of common ownership might deem to be affronts to people or to the whole community. The existence of class society provides not just the greatest confounding variable for psychologists studying human behavior today, but one that is at present completely intractable. How can they test their hypotheses about human behavior or measure the efficacy of their recommendations for treatment, as long as the relations of owner and non-owner persist outside (and within) laboratory conditions?
The irresponsibility of profit
Prisoners, like workers everywhere, have a vested interest in establishing a society in which human needs come first. In a society of unfettered democratic participation, marked by the ability to freely produce and access wealth, humans can once again feel more a part of the social fabric, and less opponents of it. The “loner against society” paradigm of the criminal will likely be a thing of the past. The very idea of locking up offenders is a powerful metaphor for the antisocial community’s lack of accountability for its own problems, its myopia, its own sociopathy, so to speak. Workers both inside and outside prison must work to bring the administration of society into the democratic hands of the whole human community.
Only in such a socialist world will power reside with the entire community, which will think twice about how it treats its sons and daughters, its brothers and sisters, its fathers and mothers. Socialism will be a society without locks and keys, marked by its openness and its ability to find solutions rather than brush problems under the carpet. Without a ruling class and its economic and political interests to protect, there will no longer be a need for its state, its armies, or its prisons.
Freedom will ring in the air for all human beings, and a feeling of truly being a part of a large human family will rise from the ashes of this presently divisive and competitive society. In such an emotional climate, we believe, humans will rush to participate voluntarily in increasing the pool of wealth and the freedom to enjoy it, and the ensuing social ethic will likely be one of people working together rather than being pitted against each other. Trust will replace suspicion. Freedom will replace oppression. And “penitentiaries” will remain only as potent symbols of the larger prisons in which each day we used to lock away not only our children, but our future, our ability to care and our imaginations.