Can We Be Free While the Prison-Industrial Complex Exists?
- The US has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost 25% of the world’s prisoners.
- The US has more than 2.4 million people behind bars, while China (with four times as many citizens) has 1.6 million people in prison.
- African-Americans constitute 12.7% of the US population but make up 48.2% of adults in prisons and jails in the US.
I begin with these facts because I believe too many people in the US are allowed to remain ignorant of them. Although statistics in themselves mean little, it’s facts like the three above that make me stop cold and ask hard questions. Why does the US have a full fourth of all people imprisoned in the world? Why is China’s government viewed as repressive and anti-human rights, when US citizens are six times more likely to be imprisoned by their own government? Why are Black men incarcerated at a rate more than six times that of white men? Questions like these drew me to join Prison Justice Working Group at the University of Oregon during 2012.
One of the first things the Prison Justice group did was organize Abolition April through the Survival Center, a month of theater, film showings, readings, and discussions focused on the prison-industrial complex. Critical Resistance defines the prison-industrial complex (PIC) as the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems. One of my favorite events during Abolition April was a van trip to the Law and Disorder Conference at Portland State. My friends and I attended a panel entitled “Towards a Queer and Trans Prison Abolition Politic” which focused on queer, trans, and feminist resistance to the PIC. I got to meet activist lawyer and my huge crush, Dean Spade! Another really awesome part of the conference was the discussion led by PDX Copwatch about the white supremacist police system in the US. Law and Disorder was a really great time with my friends and fellow activists hanging out in Portland, eating free vegan food, and having awesome, critical discussions!
Next Prison Justice held a campus demonstration against solitary confinement and the PIC on May Day outside the EMU amphitheater. We constructed a life-size prison cell and asked passersby if prison makes them feel safe. This was a really good learning experience for me about engaging with people about prison’s role in society.
Why should you get involved with Prison Justice? There are lots of good reasons! Prison is linked to every other social justice struggle that we face. Prisons operate along racist, sexist, classist, transphobic, homophobic, and incredibly violent axes. Prisons are a tremendous force of harm and inequality. As such, there is a lot of work to be done and a lot to talk about! You get to learn about really cool and fun books with long names, like Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California and Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. You’ll also get to join an amazing, compassionate, revolutionary community. My friends in Prison Justice really inspire me, and I’m hopeful about the many kinds of work we’ll be able to do together in the coming year. Join us in the fight against mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex!