Prison Abolition as an Ecosocialist Struggle

March 27, 2013

~by Salvatore Engel-DiMauro.

“With all our boasted reforms, our great social changes, and our far- reaching discoveries, human beings continue to be sent to the worst of hells, wherein they are outraged, degraded, and tortured, that society may be “protected” from the phantoms of its own making. Prison, a social protection? What monstrous mind ever conceived such an idea? Just as well say that health can be promoted by a widespread contagion.” (Emma Goldman 1917, 71-72)

Opened in 1989, Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP), 111 ha in the middle of the Northern California rainforest, is among the most brutal of institutions. With a capacity to sequester 2,280 people, the prison authorities have forced as many as 1,111 people, many for more than ten years, into seven-square- metre cages called SHUs, with no windows, subjected to a constant illumination by fluorescent light. Seventy-eight people have been caged there for twenty or more years. Over the past few years, conditions have further deteriorated, with cases of putrescent food served, lack of basic health provisions, and cuts to basic services. This has been occurring while the California prison system is under quite some pressure on many fronts. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has revealed horrific abuses of prisoners by Los Angeles prison officials and guards. The US Supreme Court, acknowledging an overcrowding problem, has ruled that over the next two years the state of California must reduce to 100,000 the number of prisoners (meaning that 33,000 people will have to be freed).

It is in this context of extreme violence against prisoners, financial breakdown, and legal actions, that one of the most impressive hunger strikes in history recently erupted and ended on the 13th of October 2011, quickly overshadowed – if most even noticed – by events unfolding in New York City’s Wall Street, the 15th October protests, and other actions worldwide. The PBSB strike was organised through the sort of channels typically used by incarcerated “gang”1 members, with crucial help from many activists, especially African-American women and Latina. Eventually, the number of strikers reached more than 6000, from different prisons in California and beyond. They faced and still face incredible odds, literally risking their lives. During the strike, many were threatened with or were actually punished with placement in isolation units or other privation (through absurd charges, like talking loudly in the library). In spite of malicious media misrepresentation and false accusations, the prisoners were able to carry out negotiations, with the help of lawyers, with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

At first, there seemed to be positive results and so the hunger strike was suspended in the first week of August. But the CDCR was merely biding its time and prison conditions were not being addressed at all. The hunger strike was therefore called again on 26th September and the number of strikers expanded to 12000, with solidarity actions extending at least as far Ohio. Violence and threats against strikers continued, such as denying medical assistance when most needed, reducing cell temperatures to 15°C, stopping postal service, and forced prison transfers. Despite it all, negotiations proceeded and the hunger strike ended when promises were made to consider at least some of the prisoners’ demands .

The Pelican Bay State Prison inmates’ demands are as straightforward as they are revealing of the general fraud of prisons. They seek an end to: (1) collective punishment; (2) infiltration and entrapment activities; (3) long- term solitary confinement; (4) inadequate food; and (5) overly stringent limitations on allowances, such as visiting times and number of phone calls ( Key to these issues is the “Secure Housing Units” (SHUs), widespread use of which has eventually sparked the formation of the protest movement in the first place.

This is hardly the first time that prisoners have employed non-violent means like the hunger strike as a strategy to fight horrific conditions and treatment. One might recall the 1981 self-immolation of Irish political prisoners, including Bobby Sands, struggling against British dictatorship. This is in part what inspired the Pelican Bay prison protests, including possibly the formulation of five demands (see below). What is different about it is the fact that, like the 2010 non-violent Georgia prisoners’ strike (and not a few others before it), organising overcame existing divisions among inmates – divisions often encouraged by incarceration institutions – and that it occurred across prisons within and outside California. The strikers’ demands continue to be largely ignored and it is likely that prison authorities’ pressures and violent reprisals have hastened the strike’s end, as in the case of Georgia the previous year.

This being a maximum-“security” prison, one might be led to believe that the gratuitous torture is deserved. For who knows what sort of terrible deeds such people have committed, one might think. Certainly some have committed atrocities, emphatically lesser in scale than the US military and no more gruesome than those of some murderous police officers that remain at large. However, the majority of prisoners have landed in such a horrid place through nothing but immigrant status, gang association, and non- violent drug-related activities, if not through outright political persecution by the US government. As well documented, incarceration in the US is meted out predominantly according to level of wealth and skin tone and with the intent of raising profits for the few by locking up those most impoverished by the willful creation of huge wealth disparities since the 1970s. It is the reflection of a patriarchal classist and racist system rife with sexual violence and binary gender enforcement, mirroring what happens at home and in the workplace (Coyle, Campbell, and Neufeld 2003; Davis 2003; Gilmore 2007; Goldman 1917; Gottschalk 2006; Solinger et al. 2010).

It should anyway be understood even by the most inveterate of bourgeois moralist that incarceration and torture help little in reducing “crime”2. There is no relationship between “crime” rates and the expansion of criminalised activities or incarceration rates or the existence of the death penalty. What prisons actually achieve, especially maximum “security” ones, is the reproduction and inducement of more of institutionalised patriarchal (sexist/homophobic) and racist violence and the exacerbation if not creation and proliferation of disease and health problems (including mental health deterioration), among other deleterious effects. Such outcomes imperil prisoners, prison guards, affected families, especially in racialised and criminalised communities, but also mainstream society at large with, for example, the spread of tuberculosis and more violence (Delgado and Humm- Delgado 2009; Rhodes 2005; Rosen, Schoenbach, and Wohl 2008).

To return to Emma Goldman’s analogy, contagion may literally be, at least in part, what prisons are designed to achieve, raising human misery to deliver a steady flow of profits during times of economic downturn. The analogy could not be more apt today. The health of capitalism is promoted by widespread contagion, of all sorts, including violence and disease. The prisoners’ actions at PBSP and other prisons are part of a fight against general state repression and the prison-industrial complex. Perhaps they can even be turned into the prospect for the abolition of prisons, at least in California, beset as it is with bankruptcy and draconian budget slashing in education and social services generally.

But the struggle is also much more than that. It is at the same time an environmentalist struggle. It might seem at first far-fetched to connect prisons to environmental degradation. In fact, only recently have activists, and then only a few, begun to see connections between prisons and environmental concerns. This has been by way of understanding the manifold manifestations of racism, as two ways in which many communities are being attacked and undermined systematically by capitalist institutions, stealing and poisoning lives (Braz and Gilmore 2006).

Crime is such an ambiguous term as to be nearly devoid of meaning, for it alludes to whatever is decreed by a government at a given time. The most obvious example is the production and sale of alcoholic beverages in the US, which was made into a crime in 1920 and then somehow it was no longer a crime after 1933. There is more to it than a mere linkage among movements, however. As Ruthie Gilmore succinctly puts it, “Prisons and other locally unwanted land uses accelerate the mortality of modestly educated working people of all kinds in urban and rural settings and how economic and environmental justice are central to antiracism” (Gilmore 2007, 247). Sentencing people to prison, millions of them, as in the US, is to condemn them to live in degraded and often toxic environments, with long-term dire health effects and lives cut short for those managing to survive and leave prisons. In this sense, prisons should also be viewed, studied, resisted, and destroyed as socially constructed physical environments that often replace life-enhancing ecosystems, like Northern California rainforests, and that, as part of purposefully inflicted violence, are designed to expose people to pathogens, toxins, inadequate nourishment, and mentally debilitating sensory and social deprivation.

It could not be more obvious, then, that the struggle for the abolition of prisons is intrinsically an ecosocialist struggle. One way to begin understanding anti-prison struggles as ecosocialist is to extend the insights already offered by the likes of Angela Davis, who writes: An abolitionist approach … would require us to imagine a constellation of alternative strategies and institutions, with the ultimate aim of removing the prison from the social and ideological landscapes of our society. In other words, we would not be looking for prisonlike substitutes for the prison, such as house arrest safeguarded by electronic surveillance bracelets. Rather, positing decarceration as our overarching strategy, we would try to envision a continuum of alternatives to imprisonment – demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance. (Davis 2003, 107)

There could be many ways in which an ecosocialist approach could assist prison abolitionism achieve the above-described ends. One could be in showing and fighting against the wastefulness and environmental destruction implied by building prisons and all the materials extracted and marshaled in the infrastructure that subtends the prison-industrial complex (all the resources used by the network of “correctional communities, transnational corporations, media conglomerates, guards’ unions, and legislative and court agendas”, Davis 2003, 107). Another could be studying the prison as an ecosystem, with all its interspecific interactions, physical environmental variables, and population dynamics, as an ecosystem intentionally produced socially to cripple and murder and that is hence best removed from the biophysical as well as the social and ideological landscape. Industrial hygienists, physicians, and ecologists could all contribute to such an endeavor and some actually are, unbeknownst to them, through various reports and publications. Yet another could be in identifying and exposing the linkage between imprisonment and the racist and classist denial or pollution of basic means of life to many communities, including pauperised Euro-American ones (racist and classist hazardous waste siting, soil pollution, diversion of water courses to privilege Euro-American farmers and agribusinesses, etc.).

These are no easy tasks, but connecting decarceration to ecosocialist objectives is well worth the effort. The prison is a main fulcrum of capitalist domination and simultaneously a form of environmental degradation, especially the incarcerated. The challenge before ecosocialists is therefore to grasp the simultaneously capitalist and environmentally destructive aspects of prisons and to become relevant to the prison abolitionist movement.


American Civil Liberties Union. 2010. Cruel and unusual punishment. How a savage gang of deputies controls LA county jails.

Braz, R. and C. Gilmore. 2006. Joining forces. Prisons and environmental justice in recent California organizing. Radical History Review 96: 95-111.

Coyle, A., A. Campbell, and R. Neufeld, eds. 2003. Capitalist punishment. Prison privatization & human rights. Atlanta: Clarity Press.

Davis, A. 2003. Are prisons obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press.

Delgado, M. and D. Humm-Delgado. 2009. Health and health care in the nation’s prisons. Issues, challenges, and politics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gilmore, R.W. 2007. Golden gulag. Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goldman, E. 1917/1969. Anarchism, and other essays. New York: Dover Publications.

Gottschalk, M. 2006. The prison and the gallows. The politics of mass incarceration in America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rhodes, L.A. 2005. Pathological effects of the supermaximum prison. American Journal of Public Health 95 (10): 1692-1695.

Rosen, D. L., V. J. Schoenbach, and D. A. Wohl. 2008. All-Cause and Cause- Specific Mortality Among Men Released From State Prison, 1980-2005. American Journal of Public Health 98 (12): 2278-2284.

Solinger, R., P.C. Johnson, M.L. Raimon, T. Reynolds, and R.C. Tapia, eds. 2010. Interrupted life. Experiences of incarcerated women in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.