A Country Called Prison: Mass Incarceration and the Making of a New Nation

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The PLRA enacted a strict exhaustion requirement, stipulating that jailhouse lawyers had to first attempt to remedy their complaints through administrative measures before they could file in court. Just as the PLRA made it harder for prisoners to use the courts as a venue through which they could demand better treatment, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of also imposed more stringent standards on state prisoners, particularly those on death row, seeking to raise issues regarding their case in federal court.

While prisons had briefly been a key site of political activity and public engagement, these changes increasingly helped to shield these institutions from outside engagement, effectively returning them to the margins of society. As stable as this system of mass incarceration might seem, much of what the National Prison strike helped to reveal is the degree to which it is also beset by crises.

While far from a house of cards teetering on the edge of collapse, it is one increasingly defined by the distance between expectations and reality. This distance, and the crisis it engenders, is best reflected in three key areas: institutional legitimacy, fiscal constraints, and demographic pressures. While they have emerged in succession, these three crises have increasingly overlapped with one another and their management will help to determine how the US criminal justice system functions in the future.

The first of these crises to emerge has been the crisis of legitimacy, as the general purpose of incarceration has been called into question. Critiques of the place of prisons in US society that might have once been dismissed as radical have increasingly found their place in public conversation. Much of this shift has been a result of studies undertaken by policy experts, legal advocates, and professional academics. To some degree, this crisis of legitimacy has called attention to the human cost of this decades long build-up of the prison system, a costs increasingly exposed not only by radical scholars like Angela Davis and Christian Parenti, but also more mainstream figures like Michelle Alexander and William Stuntz.

Beyond the realm of intellectuals, this shift is increasingly reflected in the theater of public opinion, as the tough-on-crime rhetoric that was once politically popular has lost much of its traction.

In most parts of the country, capital punishment has been left largely indefensible. The use of DNA tests to exonerate hundreds of wrongfully convicted prisoners has challenged the way many now talk about guilt and innocence. Overlapping with this legitimacy crisis has been a fiscal one as various states have found it increasingly difficult to bear the costs of managing the prison systems that they spent several decades expanding. And as the general public has slowly become more open to those voices calling into question the purpose of mass incarceration, the percentage of county and state budget allocations it absorbs has become less publicly palatable.

And in the wake of the financial crisis and the recession that followed it, this fiscal crisis has hit hard as the prolonged decline in economic growth widened state budget deficits. As revenue declined, state officials were less inclined to float bonds to fund the construction of new prisons as well as pay for the administration of existing facilities as budget pressures have led to cuts in prison staffing and programming.

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These cuts have been felt particularly hard across the Sunbelt, and even though the broader economy has grown out of the recession, its effects still linger. Breaking out on the evening of April 15, , the Lee riot left more than seven prisoners dead and a dozen more wounded, making it the deadliest prison disturbance in recent memory.

And as South Carolina has failed to allocate more money to hire new guards, provide rehabilitative programming, and improve other aspects of prison life, the number of prisoners killed more than doubled in from the year before and quadrupled from two years prior. As men and women behind bars have been made to bear the brunt of these fiscal pressures, some have taken the violence of their conditions out on each other. This sort of prisoner-on-prisoner violence has obscured the development of a third, demographic crisis.

For several decades, mass incarceration has been premised on holding larger numbers of people behind bars for longer periods of time—typified by mandatory minimums, gang enhancements, and life sentences without the possibility of parole. While politically popular at the outset, this highly punitive sentencing structure failed to anticipate the mounting costs state and federal prisons systems would face as those convicted under these laws increasingly began to age into their senior years in institutions unprepared to meet their growing physical needs, as well as the costs associated with increased mental and medical health services.

Through the course of the twentieth century, the prison movement encompassed a broad range of efforts to advance the human rights of incarcerated people, often through active collaboration with outside supporters. While at times radical and visionary, prison activism has usually been from outside seen as fractured and episodic, much of this attributable to the highly repressive character of prisons themselves.


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During the first decades of the twenty-first century, US prisons and detention centers have witnessed a sharp rise in strikes, building takeovers, and other forms of protest. On December 9, , prisoners in Georgia launched a statewide work strike after secretly coordinating their efforts by using contraband cellphones. Planned as a one-day strike, this protest caught officials by surprise.

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Organizers issued to a set of nine demands, including a living wage for work, increased educational opportunities, decent health care, decadent living conditions, vocational training, greater access to family members, and more just parole decisions. Despite these initial plans, the strike would continue for six days, as prison officials responded by locking down entire prisons, cut off hot water, confiscated cell phones and transferred suspected strike organizers to different facilities.

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  • In several cases, guards pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed strikers indiscriminately, then beat those who were ultimately identified as strike leaders. Other strikes and uprisings would break out in prisons and immigrant detention centers in Alabama, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, Washington, West Virginia and elsewhere. There, prisoners staged three hunger strikes between and protesting long-term solitary confinement.

    The strike yielded a legal settlement that removed almost all California incarcerated people from long-term isolation. It also produced a historic statement calling for multiracial unity, itself produced by Black, Chicano, and white prisoners who authorities claimed constituted leaders of rival gangs. Their success undermined the historic racial divisions of California prisons, suggesting new opportunities for unity among incarcerated people. On September 9, , an estimated 24, prisoners began what would become the largest prison strike in US history.

    Called for by the prison-based Free Alabama Movement FAM , and scheduled to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the Attica rebellion, the strike would quickly spread to more than 29 prisons across 12 states. In the years prior, FAM organizers had cut their teeth by leading a series of strikes, hostage takings, other protests that shaken the Alabama prisons system and prompted calls for prison reform. Rather than a cohesive list of demands, grievances driving the national prison strike varied from state to state, and strike activities continued for up to three weeks. While several key prison organizers would be targeted for repression, this strike demonstrated the emergence of a movement seeking to engage prisoners and outside supporters on a national scale.

    This push for both national scale and outside support would be reflected in the call for this latest national strike. In the wake of the bloody riot at Lee County, JLS organizers announced the strike as a way to redirect the attention of both incarcerated people and the general public to the underlying systemic issues that sparked the tragic loss of life.

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    In an effort to avoid the sort of targeted repression faced by the organizers of previous strikes, JLS organizers explicitly refused to personally identify themselves to the public. And while it did not spread as broadly as the first national strike, this latest protest garnered significant mainstream media attention, shedding considerable light on the struggles breaking out behind bars as well as their key demands, including the repeal of the PLRA.

    Even after the end of the strike, incarcerated people and their allies are continuing to press their ten demands, with a view that reforms on these individual issues would push forward the broader movement towards bringing an end to mass incarceration and ultimately winning the goal of prison abolition. Toussaint Losier is an Assistant Professor in the W.

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    Losier holds a Ph. Mass Incarceration as a Backlash to Prison Organizing This relationship between prison organizing and mass incarceration is a significant and often overlooked point. The Crises of Mass Incarceration As stable as this system of mass incarceration might seem, much of what the National Prison strike helped to reveal is the degree to which it is also beset by crises.

    If those currently incarcerated in the US prison system were a country, it would be the nd most populated nation in the world. Aside fromlooking at the numbers, if we could look at prison from a new viewpoint, as its own country rather than an institution made up of walls and wires, policies and procedures, and legal statutes, what might we be able to learn?

    The Best Documentary Ever - The American Prison System

    In A Country Called Prison, Mary Looman and John Carl attempt to answer this question by proposing a paradigm shift in the way that American society views mass incarceration. Weaving together sociological and psychological principles, theories of political reform, and real-life stories from experiences working in prison and with at-risk families, Looman and Carl form a foundation of understanding to demonstrate that prison is a culture, not purely an institution made up of fences, building, and policies. Prison continues well after incarceration, as ex-felons leave correctional facilities without legal identification of American citizenship, without money, and often return to impoverished neighborhoods.

    Imprisoned in the isolation of poverty, these legal aliens turn to illegal ways of providing for themselves and often return to prison. This situation is unsustainable and America is clearly facing an incarceration epidemic that requires a new perspective to eradicate it. A Country Called Prison offers concrete, doable, and economicalsuggestions to reform not only the prison system, but also to help prisoners return to a healthier life after incarceration"