Prison Abolition Essay

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Prison Reform

In today's society, we are facing many changes. Our own family, neighbors, and countrymen are afraid of many dangers which influence their lives. Although many people have fear which resonates in their consciousness and unconsciousness, the United States has a comparatively low crime rate. Despite this low crime rate, America incarcerates it's citizens five times the rate of Canada and seven times that of most European democracies.(Slambrouck, Paul. 24) Our society needs to be changed. We cannot blame the individuals involved in wrongdoing but we can blame our society who raised these criminals. Of course someone who kills another human being needs to be put away in some form; but we need to make changes. We need to…show more content…

Prison officials make confused, angry, and psychotic individuals horde into a six-by-ten cell. (Pettiinico, George. 31) People who commit crimes are the product of society. They are a tell tale sign which demands reform. We need to show them the true path to take. Denial of freedom is punishment enough, there is no need to make harsher penalties for nonviolent offenders. The only in pact that will come from that is huge costs for tax-payers and an overall more dangerous society. Although I believe there needs to be serious reform in American prisons, there are many different reasons why the system is set up the way it is. When a family is victimized by some form of crime they usually feel very afraid and vulnerable. This happens because criminals intrude into peoples personal lives. Therefor the victim wants everything the police can possibly do to put the deviant behind bars. Many people feel that the problem is solved when criminals get sent to jail. On the outside it looks like the system works and this will, in time, ease the pain the victims felt. People gain their sense of security back and fools them to thinking everything in the world is good again. Another reason politicians push for longer sentencing, harsher penalties, and building new prisons is because it helps law-abiding citizens keep jobs. The government spends millions of dollars a year on the construction of new prisons, which means a steady flow of jobs to major

 

On September 13, 1971, inmates at Attica Correctional Facility “castrated and slit the throats of their hostages.” Luckily, a government commissioned assault force quelled the violent prisoners, or at least that is the account governmental leaders choose to divulge to the public.[1] In reality, the assault force were the violent ones but, since the government has a major role in shaping public memory, the master narrative of the prison reform movement is associated mainly with violence, when thought of at all. The Attica Correctional Facility Riot is the most well-known and, to some, only known flashpoint of the prison reform movement. The unpopularity of this social movement stems from the inherently unlikable nature of the inmates. When citizens outside the prison community think of prisoners lobbying for basic human rights, they sometimes feel as though the prisoners do not deserve these rights because they have committed a crime. Commentators on the Attica Riot during its time period echoed this discrimination by saying the prisoners were “not like other people. They are uncivilized, antisocial, and if they are treated like animals, it is because they are, after all, subhuman.”[2] News and governmental reports on the riot further this sentiment by blaming inmates for the massacre, influencing the thoughts of the public. As a result, citizens watching from the outside of the movement are further distanced from prisoners fighting for their rights.

Because of the lack of relationship between prisoners and society, the master narrative of the prison reform movement is largely unacknowledged but, when it is discussed, discourse takes place through the perspective of government and political leaders. Unlike the portrayal of the prison reform movement as one of violence, the view related by the government, inmates employed many strategies of grassroots change taken from the civil rights movement and implemented in innovative ways unique to the prison reform movement.

To fully explain the master narrative of the prison reform movement, one must first analyze the public memory of the movement and its motivations. As mentioned previously, the only truly well-known event in the movement is the Attica Riot. Inmates took control of the prison on September 8, 1971 in order to achieve negotiations with Corrections Commissioner of New York, Russell Oswald, and elicit reform in the prisons.The public’s perspective of the event would say prisoners were only angry because they were in jail, not realizing the grievances were concerning basic prison conditions. For example, in the thirty complaints proposed to Governor Nelson Rockefeller, there were simple requests, such as “adequate food, water, and shelter,” freedom of religion, and “increase [the amount of] fresh fruit.”[4] After a few days of communication, Oswald, in conjunction with Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon, determined the riot and negotiations hurt the government’s reputation and subsequently sent an assault force to quell the supposed rioters. Afterward, the government stated that inmates slit their hostages’ throats and castrated them; however, after performing autopsies on the bodies, medical examiners determined the only violence of the riot stemmed from the assault force’s indiscriminate shooting of those inside the prison. Richard Clark, one of the leaders of the Attica Riot, said, “We are the only civilized men here,” referring to the violence of the assault force. Sadly, this act of concealing true events of the Attica Riot was not the only governmental action aimed to impede the prison reform movement.

The public distaste for prisoners and governmental influence help to form the public perception of the prison reform movement. As previously mentioned, prisoners are not the most relatable group of people and, for some reason, this compelled society to discriminate against them. For example, an Attica guard anonymously submitted to Prisoners’ Digest International, revealing the mistreatment of prisoners. The guard related how he “felt no remorse when asked to substitute water for pain shots the doctor ordered for a convict’s pain.”[7] The government’s deceitful actions with regard to the inhibition of prison reform further this unfavorable view of prisoners, obviously harming the movement’s advancement. The aforementioned ‘violence’ by prisoners at the Attica Riot, a ploy used by the government to retain its reputation and paint a negative light on prisoners, was not the only instance in which the government hindered the prison reform movement. The year after Attica several “Attica – One Year Later” specials were released to the public, asserting that “general improvements in conditions, new uniforms, bedtime snacks,” along with other improvements, were implemented. This assertion, however, was false and simply “the state’s attempt to kill the struggle.”

In regard to the legal system, prisoners were always at a disadvantage. Because of overwhelming racism, trials brought about by innocent minority inmates took much longer than trials of whites. Given the racial distribution of prisoners, this inequality was an obvious complaint of prisoners during the reform movement. The trials themselves were also entirely unfair. In the case of the trials against the leaders of the Attica Riot, there were 26 jurors, 20 of which had associations with either prison guards or hostages taken during the riot. None, however, had any association with prisoners. Shango Bahati Kakawana, who won his trial after being accused of murder as a leader of the Attica Riot, voices this helplessness, remarking on “the difficulties involved in trying to educate a basically conservative jury to the political corruption.” Additionally, getting to trial was an inherently difficult process for prisoners and, when there, some were forced to undergo dehumanizing actions such as rectal examinations in order to proceed. Though not directly preventing justice, these actions discourage the prisoners’ fight for legal rights and assist in silencing inmates’ complaints about the prison system. As can be seen, the government paints a violent picture of inmates and inhibits their achievement of justice, serving as a direct obstacle to the prison reform movement.

With its activists confined in a prison cell or mostly restricted from society, the prison reform movement was at an obvious disadvantage in comparison to other movements. As shown previously, inmates of the prison reform movement were repressed on a social and political level for a long time, a fact not likely to change. After realizing this, inmates attempted to link themselves to the civil rights movement in order to achieve more grassroots change, because they knew change would never come from political leaders. Because of mass incarceration of racial minorities and the arrest of many civil rights activists, a prison population filled with those experienced with the civil rights movement developed. Thus, it was rather easy for inmates to replicate the civil rights movement’s strategies they observed in every-day life. However, inmates had a more difficult time in creating a positive picture for themselves in society, being convicted criminals and largely locked away from society. However, this does not mean prisoners took to violence to achieve their means; rather, they created unique approaches, some reminiscent of the civil rights movement, to achieve change in the hearts of the public, includingnegotiations, civil disobedience, literature, community action, and organization.

Before inmates realized the government was unlikely to help them achieve rights, prisoners attempted negotiations with political leaders. However, after being essentially turned down, shot, and blamed for the incident, as was the case with Attica, prisoners realized they had to, like the civil rights movement, achieve change on the local level before the national level.

To begin lobbying for local change, inmates developed strategies for reform with regard to community action. Whereas, in the civil rights movement, activists were able to openly critique society to elicit a change, prisoners had a harder time achieving such change because they were behind bars most, if not all, of the time. As a result, the few times prisoners were able to go and earn a positive reputation in the community, a reward for good behavior, were crucial. While activists in the civil rights movement were able to practice advanced strategies for change such as civil disobedience which, to some, could be seen as harming race relations, prisoners’ goal was to make a good impression on society, because they needed free citizens’ help in achieving rights. For example, Walter Taylor, while in the San Quentin Prison system, “worked as a Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Counselor” and served on several community action boards, including the Safe School Commission. In regard to his juvenile delinquency work, Taylor frequently spoke at high schools, receiving numerous letters from the principals praising his work. With these actions, Taylor successfully changed the perception of prisoners as violent and incorrigible within his community, with his specific goal being to make citizens “aware of the problems that exist because of the apathy of the community.” For his successes, Taylor received many letters of support from representatives in local and federal government; his achievement of change on the community level eventually spread to the government, likely impacting the passing of prison reform laws. Thus, although not taken directly from the civil rights movement, strategies to achieve change within the prison reform movement were definitely spurred from grassroots methods of change characteristic of the civil rights movement.

However, internal issues within the prison system, where inmates had no incentive to impress, allowed prisoners to practice strategies more directly inspired from the civil rights movement. Whereas civil rights activists were able to execute sit-ins, inmates, being mostly locked away from society, were forced to create innovative ways to practice civil disobedience. The civil disobedience of Martin Sostre is probably the most direct reference to the civil rights movement. Sostre, after being arrested in 1973 on fraudulent charges, was held in solitary confinement at Clinton Prison in Buffalo, New York, on the grounds of “violating rules of personal hygiene for his ¼ inch beard,” even though the prison doctor said his beard was hygienic.[15] This, although discriminatory, gave Martin a chance to achieve social change through civil disobedience. Sostre refused both to cut his beard and submit to rectal exams and, as a result, was beaten severely by guards each time. Remarkably, he never fought back, attempting to protest the injustices of the prison system through civil disobedience and show what “proof of the power of the spirit of one man in the struggle for human rights.”[16] Sadly, when Sostre protested his unfair treatment through the judicial system, he was met with discrimination in the form of unfair legal treatment. However, his acts of civil disobedience were effective in achieving change because they, through published literature, successfully brought to light injustices of the prison system.

In order to further establish their link with the civil rights movement, prisoners, or their supporters, published literature compelling civil rights activists and the public to support their plight. Unlike civil rights activists who could publish speeches to elicit change, prisoners had to disseminate literature in more innovative ways to affect a change. However, inmates still employed overarching themes of the movement, writing poetry concerning topics such as freedom, slavery, and racial injustice. One such excerpt from a poem written by an anonymous Attica inmate deals with contradictory feelings of freedom and being chained in a prison:

“You have trapped me

In my freedom.

I look at my feet and

See the chains…”

This poem, and many others, are compellingly reminiscent of the civil rights movement. Other examples of writings include ‘Attica News’ and the ‘Prisoners’ Digest International,’ newspapers which published racial injustices within the prison system, such as the case of Martin Sostre, and ask for either donations or publicity. This action served two purposes: to extend the prison reform movement’s link with the civil rights movement and popularize its current issues. In order to achieve social change, prisoners had to invent ingenious ways of publicizing their injustices, such as through newspaper articles and poetry, a method of grassroots change inspired directly from the civil rights movement.

In regard to organization of the prison reform movement, Walter Taylor created “Community Concern for Prisoners,” a program which served to elicit a more favorable view of prisoners in society.[20] This organization mirrors those of the civil rights movement, such as the Black Panthers, in that it provided a way for activists to achieve change through community action. Thus, Community Concern for Prisoners pays homage to the civil rights movement’s organization in its goals and sophistication. Project Threshold was another such organization which, by helping promote positive images to high school age youth, bettered the view of inmates in the eyes of society. The organizations formed in regard to the Attica trials were also effective in eliciting a response from the public. While the government attempted to blame prisoners for the massacre, organizations such as the Attica Defense Committee and Attica Brothers Legal Defense Fund worked to keep injustices in the minds of the public. The Attica Defense Committee released pamphlets calling “upon the conscientious citizens of America to assist [them] in putting an end to” the injustice faced in the prison reform movement. The pamphlets also included pictures of men making symbols of the black power movement in order to strengthen the relationship between the prison reform movement and civil rights movement. The Attica Brothers Legal Defense Fund employed similar methods of disseminating information to the public, releasing booklets such as “Attica is All of Us,” which gave insider looks within the Attica Riot and blamed racism and discrimination of political leaders and the government. This mode of activism combines organization, literature, and links to the civil rights movement, which was a recipe used frequently for achieving grassroots success within the prison reform movement.

A main aspect of the master narrative for the prison reform movement lies in the evaluation of its success. From the public’s view, only perceiving the government’s portrayal of the Attica riot, the answer is no. However, through lawsuits generated by a combination of grassroots strategies analogous to civil rights activism, inmates were able to achieve successes. Furthering the legal accomplishments brought about by the civil disobedience of Martin Sostre, a prisoner in Texas, David Ruiz, won a landmark trial drastically improving the conditions of prison systems. Although suffering through an 8-year lawsuit typical of racial discrimination, a judge finally ruled in his favor in 1980, bringing about better healthcare facilities, more legal access, and improved treatment. Additionally, Wilson v. Deukmejian, a 1989 California court case generated in San Quentin prison and inspired by the accomplishments of aforementioned activist Walter Taylor, represents another legal achievement of the prison reform movement. Through legal means, prisoners improved the general conditions of California prisons and, as a result, achieved a major success of the prison reform movement.

The prison reform movement is a largely ignored social rights movement which society, when acknowledging it, sees as violent and undeserving. Inmates are presented as criminals who work violently for rights they do not deserve and, in the end, do not receive, which is a result of the trickery and influence of the government and political system. Through further examination of the movement, one can see the public history is largely incorrect. Prisoners were not inherently violent; rather, they protested and attempted to achieve social change in peaceful ways comparable to civil rights activism. Additionally, as another counter to the master narrative, inmates achieved many successes through legal means, even with the discrimination present in the political system. As a result of grassroots activism and, later, legal action, inmates were able to achieve “work release, medical release, contact visits.” In some respect, the prison reform movement continues to evolve. In recent years, people have become interested in prison conditions in regard to overcrowding from mass incarceration of racial minorities which, at some level, brings the movement back into discussion.


Morrison, Derrick and Waters, Mary-Alice. Attica; Why Prisoners are Rebelling. (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972.), page 6.

Oswald, Russell G. Ed. Campbell, Rodney. Attica–My Story. (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.), page 118.

“A Guard’s Perspective: How We Treat Them.” Prisoners’ Digest International, Volume III, November 1973, page 3. Jomo Joka Omowale Papers,

1969-2008 – Box 11.

“Attica – One Year Later.” Attica News, December 1972. Jomo Joka Omowale Papers,

1969-2008 – Box 11.

“The Atmore-Holman Brothers & the IFA.” Pamphlet. December 1971. Jomo Joka

Omowale Papers, 1969-2008 – Box 4.

“Attica – One Year Later.” Attica News, December 1972. Jomo Joka Omowale Papers,

1969-2008 – Box 11.

Buffalo Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Amerikan Justice.

November 20, 1973. Jomo Joka Omowale Papers, 1969-2008 – Box 4.

“Martin Sostre Brutalized; Facing Life Sentence for Opposing Rockefeller’s

Dehumanizing Policies.” Letter. 1974. Jomo Joka Omowale Papers, 1969-2008 – Box 4.

“Martin Sostre Beaten Again-Assaulted by Sixteen Prison Guards!” Letter to Trial

Defense Committee. Buffalo, NY. December 3, 1973. Jomo Joka Omowale

Papers, 1969-2008 – Box 4.

Ed. Tisdale, Celes. Betcha ain’t; Poems from Attica. (Detroit: Broadside

Press, 1974.)

“Attica – One Year Later.” Attica News, December 1972. Jomo Joka Omowale Papers,

1969-2008 – Box 11.

Buffalo Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Amerikan Justice.

November 20, 1973. Jomo Joka Omowale Papers, 1969-2008 – Box 4.

“Walter Taylor Elected to the San Quentin Inmate Advisory Council as

Representative.” Newspaper Clipping.Walter J. Taylor Papers, 1934-2000 – Box 1. February 4, 1969.

DiLeo, Petrino. “Legacy of the Attica rebellion.” socialistworker.org. March 17, 2011.

April 15,2013. http://socialistworker.org/2011/03/17/legacy-of-the-attica-rebellion.

Works Cited

“A Guard’s Perspective: How We Treat Them.” Prisoners’ Digest International, Volume III, November 1973.

“Attica – One Year Later.” Attica News, December 1972.

Buffalo Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. Amerikan Justice.November 20, 1973.

DiLeo, Petrino. “Legacy of the Attica rebellion.” socialistworker.org. March 17, 2011.

April 15,2013. http://socialistworker.org/2011/03/17/legacy-of-the-attica-rebellion.

Ed. Tisdale, Celes. Betcha ain’t; Poems from Attica. (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974.)

Exerpt from Poem in Jomo Joka Omowale Papers, 1969-2008 – Box 8.

“Major Cases & Achievements.” Prison Law Office. http://prisonlaw.com/cases.php

“Martin Sostre Beaten Again-Assaulted by Sixteen Prison Guards!” Buffalo, NY. December 3, 1973.

“Martin Sostre Brutalized; Facing Life Sentence for Opposing Rockefeller’s

Dehumanizing Policies.” Letter. 1974.

 Morrison, Derrick and Waters, Mary-Alice. Attica; Why Prisoners are Rebelling.(New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972.)

Oswald, Russell G.. Ed. Campbell, Rodney. Attica–My Story. (Garden City, N.Y.:

Doubleday, 1972.)

Rubac, Gloria. Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement. Historic Prison Activist David

Ruiz Dies. November 27, 2005. http://www.workers.org/2005/us/david-ruiz-1201/

“Shango Acquitted!” Newspaper Clipping. June 27, 1975.

The Atmore-Holman Brothers & the IFA. Pamphlet. 1971.

“Walter Taylor Elected to the San Quentin Inmate Advisory Council as Representative.”

Newspaper Clipping. February 4, 1969.

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