Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era
By Dan Berger
University of North Carolina Press, 2014
With over 2 million people in jail and prison and nearly 5 million more under some form of criminal justice supervision, the United States has been called the world’s first prison society. While the majority of Americans may never be locked up, the “peculiar institution” of the prison — and the attendant collateral consequences of conviction, such as the loss of access to public housing, ineligibility for student loans, difficulties finding employment and deportation — have come to structure social relations, much as slavery did in the antebellum South. Prisons have become central sites in reproducing and reinforcing the contemporary racial hierarchy and domination that civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander calls the “new Jim Crow.”
The #blacklivesmatter movement has focused its still-inchoate energies on the racialized presumptions of guilt and dangerousness that have played a central role in the endemic police violence against communities of color. This violence recently manifested in the killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Walter Scott, among others, although the problem goes back to the days of slave patrols. Protesters have largely focused their energies on creating a narrative in which these men are viewed as victims rather than predators or perps. But left out of the picture have been those prisoners sentenced to a living death in the nation’s penitentiaries, out of sight and seemingly out of mind. This is understandable, if unfortunate. Given the massive dragnet operated by the police in poor communities of color, criminal suspects are a far larger and more sympathetic group than prisoners. Many people have been pulled over for a traffic infraction and been stopped and frisked or arrested; in comparison, relatively few people have served hard time.
Captive Nation captivatingly chronicles a moment when prisoners played a central role in the black radical imaginary. Historian Dan Berger starts the story with the civil rights movement, when going to jail became a central rite of passage for those agitating for freedom. From the revival of slavery under another name with convict leasing to the massive arrests of protesters, jails and prisons served as citadels of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” exemplifies how a stint in jail lost its stigmatizing power and in fact became a badge of moral courage.
The heart of Berger’s story, however, is the role that black convicts played in organizing and inspiring the Black Power movement. Prisoners played a leading role in 1960s organizations such as the Black Panthers, whose references to “brothers on the block” encompassed the cellblock as well as the corner.
Black prisoners played a powerful role in building a critique of “AmeriKKKa,” articulating the continuity from slavery to the present day on the one hand and a continuum between the maximum-security confinement of prison and the “minimum-security” confinement of black ghettos on the other. With few outlets for their time, inmates who often came to prison illiterate became autodidactic intellectuals, feverishly studying the roots of their oppression and discussing radical ideas and literature. Indeed, the black nationalist impulse found few adherents as loyal as those serving time, who managed to spread this ideology in radical newspapers despite being locked up.
Radical prisoners carved out a prominent position in the Black Power movement, laying claim to a vanguard role by dint of their position as the wretched of the earth. Eldridge Cleaver, the Panthers’ Minister of Information, wrote his best-known book, Soul on Ice, while in Folsom State Prison. And George Jackson became a leading figure in the Panthers while serving a sentence of one year to life — intended to symbolize California’s commitment to the rehabilitative ideal, in practice such “indeterminate” sentences meant that obeisance was the price of release. While Jackson was killed in San Quentin during an alleged escape attempt in 1971, this only burnished his name: Soledad Brother, a collection of letters he wrote from the prison of the same name and a key text of the Black Power movement, continued to circulate widely. On the other side of the country, the short-lived rebellion of inmates at New York’s Attica Prison against the conditions of their confinement was an inspiration to other prisoners as well as movement militants on the outside.
The story has a tragic coda. As Black Power groups on the outside fell prey to organizational splits, power struggles and predatory behavior, so did those on the inside. The Black Guerilla Family, for example, which was formed as a black nationalist prison outfit by veterans of the Panthers, is now more of a prison gang with ideological trappings. And as organizations crumbled, there was a revanchist backlash. Instead of responding to prison unrest with improved conditions, prison systems revived solitary confinement, abandoned rehabilitation as a goal and built new supermax prisons. Prisoners vanished from the national conversation even as incarceration rates soared.
Captive Nation reminds us of the oft-obscured role of those who were literally in the belly of the beast in fighting for freedom during the 1960s and ’70s. The exclusion of prisoners from the public eye since then likely has to do with their role as a sort of bogeyman in the politics of fear and retribution — or “law and order” — that have been dominant since Nixon started bloviating about the “silent majority.” But there now appears to be an opening for a new kind of conversation around criminal justice reform. There is an emerging consensus that mass incarceration is untenable — riddled with racial disparities, unnecessarily punitive and far too expensive. It is telling that while Bill Clinton interrupted his presidential campaign in 1992 to preside over the execution of an intellectually disabled prisoner, candidate Hillary Clinton recently gave a speech about the need to end mass incarceration. Captive Nation is a powerful reminder of how compelling the voices of those most affected by the prison-industrial complex can be in making the radical case for mass decarceration.
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