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Repression Breeds Resistance: Reflections on 10 Years of the Prison Industrial Complex

Isaac Ontiveros and Rachel Herzing
Date Published: 
March 11, 2011

Five years ago, one of us wrote an introduction to a series of pieces on the prison industrial complex (PIC) in Left Turn’s fifth anniversary issue. There, the police shootings of Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima, the horror of the US prison population topping 2,000,000 people, the heightened surveillance following September 11, 2001, and the rapid construction of a police state in post-Katrina New Orleans were the context for the discussion. In the five years that followed, the PIC has continued to grow and adapt to the shifting terrain of a country at war abroad and with itself. On the domestic front, attacks on immigrants and the poor through increased criminalization, surveillance, imprisonment, and detention have driven growth in all areas of the PIC even as US war and empire building abroad export the logic of control and containment used so successfully at home.

In what follows, we lay out the surface contours of the PIC in the US over the past 10 years and the resistance against it. While the system is much too expansive and complicated to portray adequately here, we hope to give you a taste of what we are up against and what we are obligated to eradicate if we have any hopes for self-determination. Repression breeds resistance, and while the system continues to expand and adapt, so does the movement against it.

Broke in America

The financial crisis of 2007-2009, fueled by debt, speculation, and the catastrophic impacts of prolonged capitalist resource extraction, has dragged us to a tipping-point of global ecological collapse. Across the board, the brunt of the crisis is being borne by working-class and poor communities, particularly communities of color. As the core contradictions of capitalism become both more apparent and vulnerable, we also witness those in power employing all methods of violence available to them to maintain control.

The most pitched moments of this current crisis generated the collapse of major financial institutions and unprecedented state interventions on behalf of capital. At the same time that banks were being bailed out to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, millions of homes were foreclosed upon, and unemployment and underemployment reached their highest rates since the Great Depression. 

The changes and machinations of capitalism prop up and are propped up by the PIC. The communities suffering the highest rates of unemployment, slashes to education, healthcare, and other social programs are also the most heavily policed, surveilled, and imprisoned. As politicians from Obama down talk about sacrifice and belt-tightening, at the same time they are committing untold billions of dollars toward more prisons, jails, and police. Even under the heavy surveillance so many low income people face, organizations such as Los Angeles Community Action Network and POOR Magazine are keeping up the fight against so-called redevelopment efforts that only lead to displacement, homelessness, and further poverty, using a combination of direct action, journalism, and grassroots organizing.

Over two million

In the past ten years, one of the most significant developments in the PIC has been the US prison population tipping the two million mark in 2002—tripling the imprisoned population from 1987, according to the US Department of Justice. Prison-related trends then spiral out from there. The Pew Charitable Trust has found that currently at least 1 in 100 adults living in the US is imprisoned.  For Latino males between the ages of 20 and 34 the number is one in 36; for Black males the number is one in nine. The number of women imprisoned has skyrocketed. Adding the numbers of people who are locked in prisons, jails, or are on parole or probation, brings the total to about seven million. These numbers do not include the at least 400,000 people caged in immigrant detention centers or the nearly 93,000 young people locked in juvenile facilities, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics and Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 

Yearly federal spending for imprisonment is in the tens of billions of dollars. State system spending varies from the hundreds of millions to the billions of dollars. A recent California state prison building project resulting from the passage of Assembly Bill 900 is projected to cost at least $12 billion for construction of 53,000 additional prison beds, making it the largest single prison building project in world history. Rampant prison expansion has allowed organizations such as Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) to build a broad-based coalition connecting previously disparate struggles including migrant farm workers, academics, prisoner family support groups, and environmental justice organizations.

Conditions inside prisons continue to deteriorate, with at least one death per week caused by overcrowding-related health impacts within the California system, for instance. While squalor prevails for prisoners, millions are being spent on state of the art surveillance and containment systems within prisons. The increased use of “supermax” prisons and special housing units (SHU) employing sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, and physical and psychological torture techniques adds layers of imprisonment within prisons inflicted not only on political prisoners but against anyone agitating or organizing their fellow prisoners.

While many are familiar with the consistent organizing by political prisoners, protest remains a constant feature throughout prison systems worldwide. In 2010, US prisoners went on strike across the state of Georgia, which was the largest prison strike in the history of the country, and a hunger strike in Lucasville, Ohio, for instance, to protest their conditions of confinement. These imprisoned people employed new forms of organizing, including the use of cell phones. Looking internationally during the same period, there was also a strike in the Greek prison system.

Many of the same technicians and theoreticians that have built up the prison system inside the US have also contributed to developing systems at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and other secret facilities worldwide. The connections between prison technology within the US and systems used at the edges of the US empire are not metaphorical. Organizations such as the Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association (ADDAMEER) have centered the importance of international solidarity in fighting colonial occupation by highlighting the relationship between the Israeli prison system and those of its imperialist allies in Europe and the United States.

Criminalize and militarize

The past decade has seen shifts in US policing. While in recent years many local police forces, like many other municipal and county agencies, have seen decreases in numbers of employees and expenditures, federal police forces have increased by about 60 percent.  The increase is based in part on US-led wars, the reorganization of border and customs enforcement, and, in large part, on the expansion of new offenses being added to the federal criminal code.  According to the Justice Policy Institute, between 2000 and 2007 at least one new offense was added every week, dramatically increasing the number of activities for which a person might be criminalized.

What have remained static, however, are the targets of policing. Poor people, communities of color, youth, and queer and gender-queer people continue to suffer the effects of policing disproportionately.  The particularly egregious profiling legislated through Arizona’s SB1070, for instance led to a wave of similar state legislation across the country that will formally cement the use of racial profiling as the primary tool for policing and surveillance. One hopes that the tremendous mass mobilizations during the summer of 2010 against SB1070 will pave the way for continued resistance to these policies being passed.

The early part of the decade saw an explosion of federal policing as the US government used the September 11, 2001, attacks to fast track the PATRIOT Act, create the Department of Homeland Security, and consolidate a number of governmental departments under the authority of the US Attorney General. From 1996 to 2004 there was a 100 percent increase in border patrol and 75 percent increase in customs and immigration inspectors. In 2004, three of four federal cops working outside of the armed forces were employed either by the Department of Homeland Security (41 percent) or the Department of Justice (36 percent), according to Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers. Federal block grants such as those earmarked for drug and gang enforcement have also become a mainstay of local policing funding streams, further increasing the reach and power of federal influence on all levels of law enforcement.

The 2000s also saw the continued specialization and militarization of policing in the US. Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams, for instance, have steadily increased over the past two decades to the point that most communities, including those as small as 25,000 people, have SWAT teams. A recent Justice Policy Institute report notes that over the past 20 years the US has seen a more than 1400% increase in SWAT team deployments. School cops, community policing forces, and natural disaster-related law enforcement have all become commonplace in many communities across the country during the past decade. In an effort to document the variety of approaches that groups across the country are taking to opposing police repression, Rose City Copwatch produced a booklet highlighting some of the developing alternatives to policing with a view to making policing itself obsolete.

That the US is fighting wars both abroad and at home is clearly illustrated by the continued militarization of law enforcement. The pervasive nature of suppressive policing tactics from stop and frisk to no-knock raids and enforcement of civil gang injunctions, coupled with the increased use of supposedly less lethal weapons such as stun guns and tasers, as well as the use of armored vehicles and helicopters for regular policing activities amplifies the nature of police as occupying forces geared toward maintaining order and suppressing dissent. A strong and growing movement against the use of civil gang injunctions is rejecting the use of these militarized tactics and demanding long-term, sustainable community-based solutions for addressing street violence. The Youth Justice Coalition and the Stop the Injunctions Coalition are just two of many examples of groups involved in this work.

Always watching

During the last 10 years the technology and application of surveillance have greatly expanded. For instance, by 2007 three in five local police departments had video cameras in their cars. Wiretapping, surveillance cameras, and security guards remain among the mainstays of surveillance and have become so pervasive as to be completely naturalized parts of our landscapes. The past decade, however, has seen an explosion of internet surveillance, both participatory—the steady stream of self-reporting via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs—and through regular internet monitoring by law enforcement. Despite a consistent lack of evidence that surveillance prevents harms from happening, science and technology writer James Vlahos estimates that there are more then 30 million surveillance cameras rolling across the US, documenting more than four billion hours of footage every week. Face recognition technology, body scans and similar technologies coupled with data mining systems allow security specialists in both the public and private spheres to see nearly everything from nearly anywhere.

The greatest increase in surveillance activity has been justified in the name of antiterrorism efforts.  Increased numbers of Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) officers, increased scanning, physical searches, and bag checks at airports are some of the surveillance practices that have become commonplace during this period with very little public resistance. Full surveillance programs aimed at migrants and immigrants have also emerged, such as the Secure Communities (S-Comm) program that feeds the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fingerprint information from local and state sources. This information in turn can be used to begin detention and deportation proceedings against undocumented people and can be activated by as little as a routine traffic stop. Immigrant, migrant communities, and their allies, including the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, however, are organizing across the United States, pressuring local governments to not participate in the program.

Around 90 percent of police forces serving communities bigger than 25,000 use the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS), one of the largest biometric databases in the world. IAFIS allows local, state, and federal law enforcement forces to share fingerprints from arrests as well as voluntary background checks. The system also shares scar and tattoo photos, mug shots, and physical characteristics such as height, weight, and hair and eye color while the US-VISIT database, tracks similar characteristics of non-citizens, making it easier and easier to drive bodies into cages.

The militarization of policing and surveillance, rabid criminalization, and mass imprisonment remind us that the US is at war. Even as the movement against the PIC is hard at work, present conditions necessitate the need to strengthen our fights in the US and our ties with movements around the world to go all-out against the PIC. Drawing connections between these points of resistance and organizing outfit us with better tools for dismantling the things that keep us down, changing the conditions that hold us back, and for building a better world.

Isaac Ontiveros and Rachel Herzing are members of Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to abolishing the prison industrial complex.