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The Celling of America - Z Magazine

Z Magazine, June 1, 1998.
Book Review - The Celling of America - Z Magazine

Z Magazine

The Celling of America: An inside look at the U.S. prison industry

Edited by Daniel Burton-Rose, Dan Pens, and Paul Wright

Common Courage Press; 249 pp.

Review by Helene Vosters

Incarceration is a growth industry—crime pays. Now, from behind the cell doors of America’s modern day dungeons, prisoners speak out exposing private interests that fuel, and profit from, our nations prison proliferation. In The Celling of America, editors Daniel Burton-Rose, Dan Pens, and Paul Wright present a searing indictment of the criminal justice system and the society which spawns it.

Prison Legal News, a prisoner-written and produced magazine edited by convicts Dan Pens and Paul Wright, is the source of the majority of Celling’s articles. This insider perspective along with well-informed, hard-hitting journalism lends Celling its uniquely qualified voice.
Paul Wright debunks claims of grassroots support for "citizens" anti-crime initiatives in Cellings opening article. Leading the pack of major contributors to such devastating initiatives as "Three strikes" is The Institute for Legislative Action, a political arm of The National Rifle Association. Wright points out that prisoners are not the only ones denied a say in our democracy—with big money required to put initiatives on the ballot, the poor as well, are excluded from political discourse.

Some of Celling’s most illuminating moments are when its writers step back and let the money makers speak for themselves. In "America’s Private Gulag," Ken Silverstein shares these words from a brochure for a conference on private prisons, "arrests and convictions are steadily on the rise, profits are to be made—profits from crime." The State, not to be beat, has its own marketing campaign. "Can’t Find Workers? A Willing Workforce Waits," reads a flyer distributed by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.

In "Working For The Man," Dan Pens demonstrates who’s being "screwed" by prison industry jobs—and it’s not just prisoners. States offer corporations the same incentives as Third World governments. No rent, taxes or unions. No workplace safety standards, health or unemployment benefits, and the bottom line—low wages. Pens suggests that while this may be a satisfactory arrangement for the CEO’s and stockholders of Microsoft, Starbuck’s and Costco—all of whom have used prison labor for packaging their products—"laborers might see things differently, especially when they realize that the only way they can get a job might be by going to prison."

"The Downward Spiral" places Alabama’s resurrection of chain gangs in historical perspective. When African Americans were first released from slavery special laws—"Black codes"—were enacted that criminalized "a broad spectrum of harmless behavior to assure state and private interests a continued source of slave labor," write Pens and Wright.
Inflated penalties for crack convictions act as "Black codes" of the 1990s. As part of its War on Drugs Congress passed mandatory sentencing guidelines which for the first time made a distinction between crack and powdered cocaine. Anyone convicted of possessing five grams of crack—compared with five-hundred grams of cocaine—is subject to a minimum five year sentence. "[T]he War on Drugs is in reality a racist war being waged against poor Blacks," argues Pens in Celling’s closing article.

In true grassroots fashion, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), launched a campaign to draw attention to crack/cocaine sentencing disparities. It appeared FAMM was on the "brink of victory," reports Pens, when in 1995 the Sentencing Commission ruled to recommend a reduction in crack sentences. Congress voted down the commission’s recommendation, 332 to 83. "It was the first time Congress had voted against any of the over 500 recommendations sent to it since the Sentencing Commission was established," Pens points out.

Celling pushes the reader to make connections between what goes on behind cell doors and what goes on beyond. Its prisoner journalists do more than chronicle the increasingly cruel and vindictive nature of America’s criminal justice system. By following the money they broaden the usually narrow "crime debate." But Celling is not without problems. Voices from women—America’s fastest growing prison population—are sorely lacking and Celling occasionally gets mired in its own rhetoric.

Political prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur writes, "Society reflects itself in the microcosm of prison. From a class-based, economically driven, racially motivated construct devolves life as a series of Chinese boxes—a set of boxes, decreasing in size so that each box fits inside the next larger one. I am in the smallest box." Ultimately The Celling of America is not a request for compassion, or simply a condemnation of America’s prison system. It is a reminder from those in the smallest of boxes that capitalism in one form or another imprisons us all.