Academics, One More Effort to be Materialists: On Mass Incarceration and the Movements Against It

A reply to an article in Jacobin on prison abolition, attempting to set out a materialist approach to understanding prison struggles. This article first appeared on It's Going Down.

Submitted by R Totale on February 18, 2018

Jacobin magazine recently published an article by Roger Lancaster on mass incarceration and strategies to end it. It’s an in depth, thoughtful piece of writing, and a full reply would take much more time and energy than I have at the moment, so I’ll just concentrate on the element which has attracted most controversy (not helped, I suspect, by the Jacobin account trying to summarise its argument within the ludicrously constrained space offered by twitter), which is its criticism of prison abolitionist rhetoric and insistence that “prison reform” is a more helpful way of framing the issue.

What’s objectionable about this piece of writing is not so much the things it says, but far more the things it doesn’t say. For one thing, it was published immediately before the August 19th Millions for Prisoners march, the largest mobilisation in support of prisoners in recent memory; a specific critique of the organisers’ tactics, rhetoric or strategy would have been entirely fair game, but to overlook the event altogether feels like someone not doing their homework.

This omission wouldn’t be so bad if it was an isolated oversight, but the article as a whole seems to only deal with “the prison movement” in terms of the discourses that outside activists use to talk about the issue, and skips entirely over the much more interesting question of the actual revolts that have taken place against the prison-industrial complex in recent years. For anyone who’s interested, texts like Incarcerated Workers Take the Lead and The Fire Inside set this story out in much more detail, but in brief, there’s a wave of revolt that can be traced back at least as far as the 2010 mass work strike in Georgia and continuing through the mass hunger strikes in California in 2011 and 2013.

This movement was hugely reinforced by events in Alabama, especially at Holman, and the formation of the Free Alabama movement, which in turn helped catalyse the nationally co-ordinated work stoppage in September 2016. This story is somewhat hidden from view, given that the key protagonists are incarcerated and tend to be somewhat cut off from media access, but it’s certainly possible to trace if you’re interested.

For someone to discuss mass incarceration and the movement against it, but totally neglect the actual self-activity of incarcerated people struggling against the conditions of their daily life, often on a mass scale, would seem to suggest a view of inmates as being solely passive victims, a view that is totally at odds with the reality of the events that have been unfolding behind bars. Instead, Lancaster’s approach seems to view the ideas and language used by left activists as being of more interest than the actual activity that’s taking place to challenge the day-to-day working of the carceral state. This is like if someone tried to write a history of work and capitalism, but considered resistance solely in terms of whether socialist and anti-capitalist thinkers saw themselves as being reformers or wanting to overthrow the system, while giving no consideration at all to the actual workers’ struggles that shaped and reshaped the workplace again and again.

He says that “[w]hat we really need to do is fight for measures that have already proven humane, effective, and consistent with social and criminal justice”, but if we approach mass incarceration by treating it as the site of contestation and conflict that it actually is, then surely the more urgent task is to do what we can to support and amplify the struggles that are already taking place within the prison-industrial complex. Or, to put it another way, I’m less interested in whether the people who took part in the Vaughn Rebellion this year saw themselves as contributing to a reform effort that would make the prison into a safer, more humane environment, or as taking a step towards the abolition of prison altogether, and more interested in the fact that they were able to take over a building, and in the possibilities that might be opened up by that.

It’s striking that, even when Lancaster criticises the ideas and rhetoric of prison abolitionists, this criticism itself tends to focus on the plane of ideas, rather than analysing material conditions. He dismisses the comparison that gets made between forced labor in prison and slavery, but he does so on the grounds that the rhetoric and ideology used to justify mass incarceration sounds different to that which was used around slavery. But surely no serious attempt to understand the world can begin and end with the stories people tell about why they do things. If it’s true that the institution of mass incarceration really doesn’t have anything in common with slavery, then it should be possible to show this by considering the economic function played by this vast workforce of unfree labor, and showing how that differs from the economic role of the slave plantations.

Perhaps the strongest part of Lancaster’s critique is the point that restorative justice systems are currently nowhere near sufficient to take over from the existing state justice system. But that’s only the damning blow he seems to think it is if you have an incredibly gradualist, idealist view of change, akin to thinking capitalism can be toppled once there are enough functioning, well-run co-ops. As long as mass incarceration continues to play a useful role for the state and capital, and as long as its regime is able to function smoothly, it will continue no matter how good the alternatives might be; conversely, if that system is no longer able to maintain itself – if situations like the breakdown of order caused when the rebellious mood among Holman inmates led to a wildcat by staff can be generalised to the regime as a whole – alternatives will be found, and they will be made to work, no matter how unlikely they may seem at present.

Ultimately, Lancaster’s approach is flawed because it’s a top-down view of history, an analysis of mass incarceration that has plenty of room for scholars and policymakers, but where incarcerated people themselves seem to disappear. His basic error in perspective is the same one that was skewered many years ago, in Brecht’s classic “Questions from a Worker who Reads”:

“The young Alexander conquered India.

Was he alone?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.

Did he not even have a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.

Was he the only one to weep?”