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The Celling of America - LiP Magazine

LiP Magazine, June 15, 1998.
Book Review - The Celling of America - LiP Magazine

LiP Magazine

The Celling of America:
An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry
Edited by Daniel Burton-Rose

Reviewed by Brian Brasel

Though many people believe otherwise, slavery has never been outlawed in the United States.

The Thirteenth Amendment included one very simple exemption: "...except as punishment for crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted," an exemption which allowed the "black codes"—laws governing the behavior of newly-freed African-Americans—to criminalize a broad spectrum of mostly harmless behaviors, thereby assuring state and private interests of a relatively uninterrupted supply of slave labor. As the editors of The Celling of America point out, this slave labor provided much of the work of "modernizing" the South after the Civil War. In 1871, the Virginia Supreme Court made matters even clearer when it remarked that prisoners were "slaves of the state." 126 years later, those same slaves have assembled a powerful, eloquent, comprehensive and ultimately damning collective indictment of how our society treats those least able to defend themselves.

Prison Legal News, from which the source material for The Celling of America was culled, is a remarkable publication. Founded in 1990 by Dan Pens and Paul Wright, PLN has given voice to hundreds of prisoners and provided, in the near-total absence of responsible and constructive coverage by the mass media, lucid accounts of individual and systematic abuse within the penal system, as well as a considerable amount of critical analysis of the prison industry as a business sector. That this is written almost entirely by prisoners who generally abstain from invective and bombast in favor of measured fact, reason, and a keen sense of history makes the weight and value of this project even greater.

"Crime as a political issue was first exploited to good effect by Richard Nixon, who used it as a 'wedge issue' in the 1968 Presidential elections... [His success] at the polls helped to propel the crime issue as a political propaganda tool in every campaign since," begins the introduction to Part One. While pointing out that the increasingly sophisticated "propaganda machine of the corporate class" has taken less than 20 years to install the hobgoblin of crime at the forefront of public concern (compared to the 50 years it took to create pervasive anti-communist hysteria), the authors give us a detailed analysis of several specious anti-crime initiatives in Washington State that served as blueprints for similar legislation that was to follow.

Initiative 590, a 1992 "Three Strikes" Initiative that failed to win passage in the legislature, was almost entirely organized and funded by the gun lobby, an organization called "Citizens for Justice (CFJ),' and individuals who later went on to careers in the state legislature where they acted as professional prison-bashers." In this $42,252 "citizens" campaign, a mere $747 came from individual citizens. The obvious lack of public support didn't deter CPJ and their backers, however. They returned in 1993 armed with more "gun lobby blood money" and an almost identical initiative, I-593, which spent $210,616 and was passed into law with 76 percent of the vote.

Later sections of the book discuss the corporate media's relationship to prisoners and the prison industry, pointing out how "if it bleeds it leads"-style journalism distorts reality and escalates public hysteria at a time when violent crime in the United States is on a steady decline. Noelle Hanrahan, director of the Prison Radio Project, recounts the censorship by NPR (which apparently stands for National Police Radio) of Mumia Abu-Jamal's commentaries in response to pressure from the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police and discusses the threat of a well-spoken, articulate and incisive voice like Abu-Jamal's to the expansion of one of the U.S's "largest growth industries: human storage and slave labor."

Reading the detailed accounts of the corporate media's overwhelming pro-prison bias, which denies coverage to prisoners and generally parrots Department of Corrections/Bureau of Prisons press releases, one might be surprised at the efforts to limit or ban media access to prisoners. The problem, it seems, is that there are journalists and writers—many of whom are themselves prisoners—who still take quaint notions like compassion, human rights and radical social change seriously. Prisoncrats can't afford to have their burgeoning slave population humanized in the public eye. It's bad for business.
Also bad for business is thorough and responsible coverage of the increasingly draconian measures or neglect prisoners are subjected to: chain gangs, "Sudden In-Custody Death Syndrome" (no joke), outrageously deficient medical care, involuntary drugging, a tacit support for prisoner rape and violence, physically abusive and sometimes murderous prison guards who go unpunished and are otherwise encouraged by lack of action to continue their abusive ways, and the steady increase in state executions.

It's revealing to examine how easy it's been, during a period when the fortunes of most Americans have grown considerably worse, to peddle the snake oil of cruelty and a "hell on earth" as deterrence in spite of overwhelming evidence that violence only breeds more violence. In Chapter Three, the authors make the somber observation that "It has reached the point where the denial of basic freedoms is no longer considered a punishment: a fair bit of unpleasantness, preferably bordering on the cruel and unusual, should be thrown in for good measure.

As long as the public's attention is focused on the conditions of prisoners, and they are made to feel that prisoners "have it too good," their own drop in living conditions can be made to seem less intolerable by comparison."

The Celling of America includes a thorough examination of prison labor, and provides a clear understanding of the history, structural realities, current and past profiteers, rebellions and possible future of chattel and wage slavery in the United States. An excellent piece on the March 4th, 1996 Oak Park Heights Prisoner Work Strike points to the power of prisoner solidarity across racial and religious lines when it's coupled with strong "outside" political cohesion that includes organized labor.

Given labor's historical role as possibly the most vocal and effective opponent of prison-labor, it is curious that, except for a brief mention of the AFL-CIO's role in the Oak Part Heights struggle and Dan Pens' report on the expanding California Correctional Peace Officer's Association (CCPOA), the book has precious little to say about the ominous implications of labor's silence. Is it possible that labor, seeing opportunities for careers, and not just jobs in the booming prison-industrial complex, has effectively abandoned its traditional role and decided to jump on the gravy train in this maximum security democracy?

Despite this relative omission, there simply isn't enough space in this review to do justice to the pieces compiled for this section. The tortured logic of those who justify prison labor as a" rehabilitation" or "vocational" program is addressed in detail, and attention is drawn to state incentives and loopholes that constitute "welfare capitalism where private business is getting a handout from the state at taxpayer expense"

What becomes apparent with each successive article is that prison industry and the commodification of prisoners has been around in a largely static form for a very, very long time. The persistence of those who profit from imprisonment cannot be attributed merely to individual greed. Today, in addition to contractors who profit directly by employing prisoners at outrageously low wages and often in hazardous conditions, those profiting from imprisonment include "the Wall Street bond houses which underwrite prison construction; multinational corporations that build prisons; phone companies that extort high rates from prisoners' families; [and] security companies that arm and equip the guards." Surveying the evidence, it becomes increasingly difficult not to see America's Gulag" as a logical extension of an economic system which, riding a strong white-supremacist undercurrent, reduces human beings to their ability to produce and consume.

Proponents of prison expansion often contend that their actions are economically benefical to the general public. As the authors make abundantly clear, this is a ridiculous argument unless you're defining "economically justifiable" as "whatever lines the pockets of prison-related private business at taxpayer expense" The case of California's economy provides a telling case history. The desiccated corpse of what was once the crown jewel of the American education system lies in sharp juxtaposition against costly prison expansion programs and "get tough laws" that one RAND Corporation study predicts will inflate the corrections budget from 9 to 18 percent of all state expenditures, requiring "total spending for higher education and other government services to fall by more than 40 percent over the next eight years."

Perhaps nowhere in The CeIling of America is the appeal to those of us on the outside more wrenching than in Chapter Seven: "Permanent Lockdown: Control Unit Proliferation and the Proliferation of the Isolation Model." Designed to contain organized dissent and resistance through "isolation, separation, controlled movement in restraints, limited communication, and the selective use of violence,)" control unit prisons cage a disproportionate number of activists, political prisoners and "prison lawyers." The merest pretense of rehabilitation as a goal of incarceration is abandoned. As a 1997 survey by the National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons found, 40 states, the federal prison system and the District of Columbia have control unit prisons. Their exorbitantly high cost of operation makes them extremely attractive to the burgeoning prison-industrial complex.

Adrian Lomax's "Report From the Hole," wherein he recounts his placement in 368 days of solitary confinement for daring to publish an article about an abusive guard at a prison in Wisconsin is truly harrowing. Ray Luc Levasseur, indicted as one of the Ohio 7 and now serving a 45-year sentence in USP Marion for charges stemming from the bombing of United States military contractors, General Electric offices, and the South African consulate, writes:

Worst of the worst is when the illusion clashes with the reality The
illusion—that the criminalization of poverty, and the isolation and the degradation of prisoners provides an effective humane response to social ills and The reality—that crimes begin at the top with predatory capitalists profiting grotesquely while the results of their activities mire the rest of us in economic and social rot... For years, prisoncrats raved about the deterrent effect of Marion. If it works so well why hasn't it put itself out of business? Marion/ AVX didn't deter the October '95 uprisings—the most widespread and destructive in the federal prison system's history... They didn't deter USP Atlanta from grabbing headlines with its high level of violence. They have not deterred prisoners transferred to other prisons or released to the streets from picking up new charges. Control unit prisons are not the solution. They are the problem. By any financial measure, statistic or body count, the prison system is an abysmal failure.

The collection ends with struggle. Prisoners have always rebelled, in the face of brutal retaliation, against their captors. Many of the rebellions discussed have been militant and bloody, such as Attica in 1971, the Lucasville Easter Uprising on April 11, 1993, and the numerous uprisings that followed an October 18, 1995 vote by the U.S. House of Representatives to overrule a U.S. Sentencing Commission recommendation to end the racist sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine offenses. Other struggles have utilized work strikes, hunger strikes, and various forms of sabotage. Competing opinions are aired about the efficacy of violent versus non-violent resistance.

While conceding that improvements in prison conditions have occurred as a result of violent uprisings, Adrian Lomax contends that "every act of violent protest by prisoners strengthens the correctional administrators' hand, [leading to] increased funding, more oppressive security measures and the construction of maximum-security prisons." Yet Lomax acknowledges that nonviolent protests are often squelched before they happen by ruthless prison administrators who will not tolerate prisoners who organize nonviolent protests. What's worse, the prison administrators have the law on their side: "The Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners have no constitutional right to organize collective protests."

A frighteningly rapacious agglomeration of prisoncrats, capitalizing on the country's descent into an ever crueler era of social vengeance, is drooling all over itself about the fabulous re-emerging growth industry of human storage and slave labor. The writing is undoubtedly on the wall for anyone who agrees to read it. The editors and inmate commentators who contributed to The Celling of America have carved up that wall, some while locked in lightless cells the size of an average bathroom 22-24 hours a day. They have presented us here with a testimonial to the human spirit, assailing us with clear-eyed analysis and reporting, brutally honest accounts of individual and systematic abuse, and a far-reaching grasp of the reality of the society we share with them. The problems are enormous, and the solutions aren't always obvious, but surely anyone reading these words with an open mind will be moved to deep concern if not outright disgust for a nation that seems to have temporarily taken leave of its senses, not to mention its humanity.