Inmate slavery and the prison industrial complex: Resilience vs. docility

by Sara Maria Acevedo

I. Against ritualistic abuse: An introduction

Prisoner interracial and political solidarity

The much-publicized brutality and inhumane conditions suffered by prisoners in solitary confinement worldwide has once again sparked global debates on the unprecedented urgency of prison abolition and, by default, on the implementation of community-led restorative justice programs. Over the past two to three decades, the global penal system has turned increasingly roughshod and its practices have grown greatly abusive.

Psychological-Warfare-drawing-by-PBSP-SHU-prisoner, Inmate slavery and the prison industrial complex: Resilience vs. docility, Abolition Now! U.S. prison abolitionist groups, integrated largely by prisoners’ families and inside-outside solidarity-advocacy networks such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, the Ohio Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, and the Pennsylvania-based prison-activist organization Human Rights Coalition, have massively circulated evidence showing that female and male inmates in federal and state prisons are being subjected to the uttermost degrading treatment.

Evidence of abuse and extreme cruelty has been compiled and made public by prison solidarity groups on the outside through the circulation of correspondence, poems, drawings, medical and legal records, and collectively produced political documents containing riveting accounts by prisoners of the many forms of torture inflicted on them in maximum and medium security facilities, such as the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP) in Youngstown and Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) and San Quentin State Prison (SQSP) in Northern California.

Recent developments in cross-race solidarity movements within prisons have attracted alternative media coverage worldwide, thus giving prisoners a forceful voice. In cooperation with inside-outside advocacy networks, U.S. prison coalition movements have inspired political demonstrations throughout the world.

Using mass hunger strikes and other forms of protest, victimized inmates have further risked their physical and psychological integrity to deliver a message of resistance by means of mutual aid and cooperation. A leading example of unprecedented interracial and political solidarity – occurring simultaneously in approximately 17 of the 33 prisons in the U.S. – is the one launched by the PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Collective. This exceptionally well-organized initiative was recently solidified by a cease-interracial-violence consented resolution.

Two three-week hunger strikes in 2011 succeeded in raising local and international awareness about the psychological and physical ritualistic abuse experienced by prisoners in penitentiary facilities across the United States. The first hunger strike was launched in July and the second in September of 2011 with approximately 400 men refusing meals. Gradually, more than 12.000 inmates in prisons across the state joined in solidarity with Pelican Bay strikers.

Sentenced to life for second-degree murder in 1992 while serving a six-year sentence for burglary at Folsom State Prison, strike leader Todd Ashker has been housed at PBSP under strict solitary confinement for the past 26 years. Outrageous retaliation followed the non-violent hunger strikes and prison officials proceeded to install a plexiglass wall in Asker’s 8-foot by10-foot cell thus cutting him from all possible communication with other inmates. Ashker spends 23 hours in his cell and his visitation rights are limited to two “no contact” visits per month (Paul Elias, Associated Press, December 2012).

Although stimulating and hope-filled – given the dehumanizing conditions under which he has been kept and the kind of mass solidarity networks he has helped create – Ashker’s is but one among the many stories of cruelty and abuse that have come to light in the last decade. Hopefully, Ashker’s resilient struggle to bring prisoners together across racial divides acts as an eye-opener to the racialized logic of the U.S. penal system. Put differently, the criminal justice system indulges in practices specifically engineered to break potential bonds of solidarity among prisoners by pitting them against each other. These fragmentation strategies take many forms.

Forcing prisoners to inform on other gang members is one of the tactics. “Snitching” does not grant prisoners any benefits; rather, it prevents further torture or ill-treatment in the future. Indefinite solitary confinement is intended to break possibly “dangerous” bonds among inmates. Prisoners who have been labeled “the worst of the worst,” such as Todd Ashker, are kept in strict solitary confinement allegedly to prevent gang-related activity.

Recent reports reveal new abhorrent practices taking place in several prisons across the country. According to Aviva Shen (2012), “A group of current and former inmates filed a law suit against the St. Louis city workhouse, claiming guards forced them to fight each other in gladiator-style combat. The class-action suit claims guards took away inmates’ food and privileges and attacked them if they refused to fight. The ‘Workhouse Gladiators’ say they were also denied medical care for the serious injuries resulting from the fights, which included a broken jaw.”

Recent solidarity-related activity proves that prison officials have felt increasingly intimidated by the level of positive solidarity among prisoners. Such bonds have led to unprecedented collective action against ill treatment in several prisons across the world. Especial attention should thus be given to the immense potential for cooperation and increased resilience of prisoners acting in cohesion against an inhumane procedural justice system.

In broad strokes, the emergence of interracial solidarity as a political force can be traced back to the early 1990s. The launching of this solid interracial solidarity movement, which was spurred by increased abuse and inhumane living conditions in prisons across the U.S. galvanized politically conscious prisoners such as the renowned Lucasville Five to take collective action against a severely biased genocidal system.

Integrated by two men affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood racist prison gang and three African American men – all on Death Row – the Lucasville 11-day uprising resulted in an automatic death sentence for all five men. Following their conviction, the five men were transferred to the Ohio State Penitentiary supermax in 1998. Inmates on Death Row in OSP live in restricted solitary confinement awaiting execution while their cases are appealed (Williams 1992; Lynd 2004).

II. A politics of death in the era of privatized punishment: The prison industrial complex

It is by narrating the horror stories of modern society’s most vicious institution, the prison system, that one can begin to understand the kind of epic resilience, interracial solidarity and cooperation taking place in U.S. penitentiary facilities today. What has led the penal system to turn so obscenely cruel? What are the real social and economic causes impinging on the basic human liberties of prisoners? What has led us, as a society, to turn a blind eye on each other’s suffering? What is it that has made us so arrogantly passive; so acutely indifferent?

A productive and humane answer to these questions arises from a close examination of the capitalist world system and its role in the production of bodily technologies seeking to morph human anatomies into codifiable machines. Put simply, in the wake of the global capitalist crisis, tremendous efforts have been invested into seeking new sources of brute workforce. Not incidentally, the world’s penal system has witnessed the disproportionate growth of inmate population. In the United States, inmate population increase is most revealing in women’s prisons, where, from 1977 to 2004, the number of women in state and federal prisons increased by 757 percent.

Given the highly punitive orientation of our criminal justice system today, we find that more and more state penitentiaries are being built in the United States each year. According to Tom R. Tyler (2006), “America could perhaps best be characterized as a highly ‘punitive’ society. The focus of public attention has been on the need to punish rule-breakers, and support has been high for harsh punishments, including the death penalty and life in prison” (p. 307).

It goes without saying that under an industrialized criminal system of this nature, the rapidly proliferating construction of correctional facilities proceeds and the need to populate them with new slave-laborers comes second. A genuinely simple idea or question underlines the complexities of “criminality” in the age of thanatopolitics (the politics of death in the age of capital): What makes a criminal? The answer is equally simple: The market makes the criminal.

At this point, it becomes clear that some would enquire about the technicalities of conviction. Although convictions may not always be staged and convicts are not always innocent, any crime committed in the last 500 years is very likely to have sprung from capitalist-led oppression: extreme poverty, gendered or classed inequity, racial violence, discrimination, segregation, ableism, poor health care, malnutrition, land expropriation, state neglect and acute abuse, among others.

Let us not be fooled, for under capitalist rule, prisons are yet another profitable market; and to keep the market afloat, new laborers must be brought on board – at any cost. Prisoners are indeed low-wage slave laborers whose identities have been deprived of all humanity and whose bodies have been turned into monster-machines. In reproducing a gothic inspired image of modern prisons using the monster/machine duality, I show the psychological and physical transformation intended for individuals “recruited” by the penal system today.

This process is twofold. First, criminalization agendas are set in motion by the different social and cultural institutions deploying nationalist discourses that legitimize exclusionary policies. For instance, as scholar and activist David Graeber (2009) argues, the so-called “war on drugs” has been widely used as a criminalizing strategy and has resulted in mass incarceration over the past decade (p. 349).

More disturbing is the fact that mainstream society rarely questions this kind of pantomime – much in the same way that society rarely questions racial profiling leading to wrongful convictions. Racial hatred leading to the massive wrongful conviction of African Americans and Latinos in the United States reproduces what Angela Davis (2003) describes as “the historical resonances of slavery, colonization, and genocide [that] should not be missed in these proliferating images of [prisoners of color] in chains and shackles.” (p. 77)

Second, once recruits, individuals are subjected to emotionally degrading interventions, and attired with what feminist and prisoner abolitionist Angela Davis calls “repressive paraphernalia.” These processes are engineered to deprive persons of any trace of personal identity or dignity. Let us consider for instance that male prisoners commonly have their heads shaved; according to the European Court of Human Rights (2007), “Shaving is in principle an act which may have the effect of diminishing their human dignity or may arouse in them feelings of inferiority capable of humiliating and debasing them” (p. 211).

In addition, inmates are robbed of all possessions – including emotionally charged items such as photographs, as well as personal items such as clothing; they are thus forced to wear matching bright-colored uniforms that identify them not as human beings with rights, but as criminal “others” deprived of all judicial protections. (Orange is the color of choice in many U.S. penitentiaries). In this sense, modern day prisons mirror state of exception provisions, in which constitutional rights are indefinitely suspended, and subjects must exist under the unlawful status of non-citizenship (Agamben, 1998; 2005).

III. Beyond docility: Punishment and resilience

It is of particular interest to me that the one method supposed to inflict the most torturous kind of emotional punishment – that of identity erasure – re-emerges for modern prisoners as a locus of identification. This improved sense of shared personhood awakens an instinct for mutual protection which is in turn further galvanized by a feeling of unity.

Indeed, and certainly unwillingly, an essentially punitive prison system has revamped the politics of mutual recognition among racialized, gendered and functional “others.” In like manner, the experience of shared oppression has sprung a sentiment of mutual validation and fired up an inherent will for association and collective organizing across state-sponsored divisions.

Finally, increased punitive practices in prisons in tandem with ever-narrowing onsite rehabilitation and correctional programs – whose successful completion will often lead to a reduction in sentence – has gradually activated a “survival mode” feeling among prisoners who are now starting to become increasingly aware of the correlation between extreme cruelty and their power of assembly. Overcrowding , “gladiator warrior” combat and “snitch or torture” are all strategies specifically designed to break prisoners’ will of association and/or to decrease inmates’ numbers by intentionally breeding epidemic diseases or by promoting acute violence among them.

IV. The neoliberal slave machine

Why is it that the world needs more prisons? Is it the fact that markets have been so utterly successful in their expansion that they need more people to work in confinement – “sweatshop”-style – in order to increase productivity? Or is it rather that corporations and financial elites are terrified of workers’ increased awareness and power of organized struggle?

Could it be that people of color and people with disabilities have gained increased control over their cultural histories to know that “deficiency” and “inefficiency” are socially constructed categories and that, to all legal effects, their work power is as functional as white able-bodied labor is. Is it the elite’s intense fear that this kind of knowledge and power can potentially galvanize yet another fight for fair employment rights? Imminent fear surrounding the women’s liberation movement is that powerful women, including women of color and women with disabilities, have learned the value of their bodies to enhance reproductive labor power and, by extension, the damage that their collective resistance can do to capital’s imperialistic logic.

The capitalist world system, with its ambitious expansion plans, has morphed organic human tendencies towards justice, association and mutual recognition into a material culture of extreme individuation and egocentrism. Activist anthropologist David Graeber (2009) argues that the imminent crisis of the capitalist world system has led to unduly harsh sentencing and to the disproportionate growth of inmate population – especially among women.

His argument goes deep into the murderous world of corporate capital and unveils the dangers of political-party reform as a path towards deep societal change. The anthropologist is not the first to shed light on the machinations of the Prison Industrial Complex. His perspective is nevertheless unique insofar as it can be ascertained as arising from post-direct action reflection in the form of activist ethnography.

As he notes, “more and more products in the U.S. are manufactured by convicts, and corporations who employ prison labor almost invariably also provide massive campaign contributions to political candidates in favor of maintaining harsh sentencing guidelines” (Graeber, 2009, p. 439).

Having briefly discussed inmate population increase among women, exhibiting explosive growth rates, my intention is to further expand on this topic in a future article. In the era of women-led community regeneration, especially organized by women of color, the neoliberal apparatus feels empowered to destroy association and solidarity by harshening sentencing and constructing new cultural, ethnic, functional, racial, gendered and sexualized pathologies. Women are turning increasingly dangerous to the system; their wombs need to be policed, their bodies brutalized and their identities erased by means of mass incarceration.


Agamben, G. (2005). “State of exception.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Davis, A.Y. (2003). “Are prisons obsolete?” New York: Seven Stories Press.

Elias, P. (2012). “California prisons revamp isolation cells policy.” Daily Democrat/AP.

Graeber, D. (2009). “Direct action: an ethnography.” Edinburgh: AK Press.

Lynd, S. (2004). “Lucasville: the untold story of a prison uprising.” Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mowbray, A. R. (2012). “Cases, materials, and commentary on the European Convention on Human Rights” (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shen, A. (2012). “Inmates Forced into Gladiator-Style Fighting by St. Louis Jail Guards.”

Tyler, T.R. (2006). “Restorative Justice and Procedural Justice: Dealing with Rule Breaking.” Journal of Social Issues, 62(2), 307-326.

Williams, G. (2003). “Siege in Lucasville: The 11 day saga of hostage Larry Dotson.” (Special 10th anniversary ed.). Bloomington, Ind.: 1st Books Library.