The Social Functions of the Prisons in the United States
by Bettina Aptheker
Officially it is maintained that there are no prisons in the United States.
There is a Department of Corrections, and there are "correctional facilities"
equipped with "educational programs," "vocational training" and the necessary
"psychiatric therapy." There are also no prisoners in the United States;
there are only "inmates." There are most certainly no political
prisoners in the United States; only "terrorists" and those who "perpetrate
criminal violence"--which is known in the international arena as "criminal
The semantic somersaults of the prison and State bureaucracy serve a
calculated and specific ideological function. Once we penetrate this linguistic
shield we have the key to understanding the social and political functions
of the prison system. The dominant theoretical assumption among social
and behavioral scientists in the United States today is that the Social
order is functionally stable and fundamentally just.
This is a very basic premise because it means that the theory must
then assume the moral depravity of the prisoner. There can be no other
logical explanation for his incarceration. It is precisely this alleged
depravity that legitimates custody. As George Jackson put it: "The textbooks
on criminology like to advance the idea that the prisoners are mentally
defective. There is only the merest suggestion that the system itself
is at fault..." Indeed the assistant warden at San Quentin, who is by profession
a clinical psychologist, tells us in a recent interview that prisoners
suffer from "retarded emotional growth." The warden continues: "The first
goal of the prison is to isolate people the community doesn't want at
large. Safe confinement is the goal. The second obligation is a reasonably
good housekeeping job, the old humanitarian treatment concept." That is, once the prisoner is adequately confined and isolated,
he may be treated for his emotional and psychological maladies--which
he is assumed to suffer by virtue of the fact that he is a prisoner. We
have a completely circular method of reasoning. It is a closed-circuit
system from which there is no apparent escape.
The alleged criminal characteristics of the prisoner must, in accord
with this logical sequence, arise from within the prisoner himself--the
prisoner is "crime-prone" like some people are supposed to be "accident-prone."
In the nineteenth century, leading theorists put forth the idea that the
criminal had certain physical characteristics which shaped his
destiny of crime, e.g. slanted eyes and a broad forehead. The alleged
depravity and criminality of the poor--because they are poor--is an even
older theme in class society, e.g. the ancient idea of the "dangerous
poor"; and the oft-repeated phrase of the Founding Fathers, "the rich
the wellborn and [therefore] the able." Now our leading penologists and
criminologists are much more subtle and sophisticated. They have a veneer
of humanitarian instinct but it quickly falls away revealing the racist,
Now, it is argued, the criminal may look like anybody else; but he has
acquired certain psychological characteristics which dictate his
pattern of criminal behavior. To "unacquire" these characteristics a leading
behavioral scientist, James V. McConnell, explains that: "We have but
two means of educating people or rats or flatworms--we can either reward
them or punish them..."
The treatment for what McConnell calls "brainwashing the criminals" to
ultimately restructure their entire personality is an alternating sequence
of reward and punishment (including especially so-called Shock Treatment)
until the prisoner has "learned" what the society defines as noncriminal
The source of criminality then is psychological rather than social. The
solution to the problem is obvious: quarantine the afflicted individuals;
then subject them to treatment. Hence we have correctional facilities
rather than prisons; and we have inmates (as in any asylum for
the insane) rather than prisoners.
As Herbert Marcuse has so aptly described it: "The language of the prevailing
Law and Order, validated by the courts and by the police, is not only
the voice but also the deed of suppression. This language not only defines
and condemns the Enemy, it also creates him; and this creation
is not the Enemy as he really is but rather as he must be in order to
perform his function for the Establishment..."
In this instance the Enemy is the criminal or the prisoner. The single
most important thing to understand in all of this is that the behavioralist
view of the criminal has nothing to do with breaking the law. Let
us explain this with some well-known statistics.
First, it is a matter of common knowledge that only a small number of
law violations is detected and reported. Further, even of reported violations
only a small percentage actually result in police investigations and arrest.
Second, 90 per cent of all criminal defendants in the United States today
plead guilty without a trial because they cannot afford a lawyer,
and hope for judicial leniency.
Third, 52 per cent of all people in county and city jails have not been
convicted of any crime; they simply cannot afford bail. Many will spend
months and even years in jail, awaiting trial.
Fourth, between 30-50 per cent of the prisoners in various cities and
states are Black and Brown, while Black people, for example, constitute
about 15 per cent of the total population. In the State prisons in California
there are 28,000 prisoners, 45 per cent of whom are classified as "non-white."
It should be perfectly clear that thousands upon thousands of people
presently in jail and prison have broken no laws whatsoever.
The conclusion from all of this is apparent. Professor Theodore Sarbin
of the University of California criminology department put it very well:
"... membership in the class of people known as 'law-breakers' is not
distributed according to economic or social status, but membership in
the class 'criminals' is distributed according to social or economic
Example: the ten executives of the General Electric Company convicted
in 1961 of price-fixing involving tens of millions of dollars are law-breakers,
and some of them actually served some months in prison. Still, the society
does not consider them criminals.
By way of contrast, a Chicano or Black youth alleged to have stolen ten
dollars from a grocery store is not only considered a criminal by the
society, but this assumption allows the police to act with impunity. They
may shoot him down in the street. Chances are it will be ruled justifiable
homicide in a coroner's inquest.
What then is the political function of the criminal and the prisoner
as they are created and described by the bourgeois penologists and criminologists?
Consider penology as one aspect of the theory and practice of containment
on the domestic front, that is consider penology as the confinement and
treatment of people who are actually or potentially disruptive
of the social system.
In an increasing number of ways the entire judicial and penal system
involving the police, the courts, the prisons and the parole boards has
become a mechanism through which the ruling powers seek to maintain their
physical and psychological control, or the threat of control, over millions
of working people, especially young people, and most especially Black
and Brown young people. The spectre of the prisons, the behavioral psychologists,
the Adult Authority, the judicial treadmill, haunts the community.
Examine for a moment the operations of the Adult Authority. In California
roughly 97 per cent of the male prisoners are eventually released from
prison--all of them via parole. A man is sentenced to a term in prison.
In addition to whatever time he actually serves in prison, he is released
on parole for five, even ten or more years. The conditions of his parole
are appalling. For example, he can be Stopped and searched at any time;
his house can be entered without a warrant; he needs the permission of
his parole officer to borrow money, to marry, to drive a car, to change
his job, to leave the county, and so forth. If parole is revoked the prisoner
is returned to custody without trial to complete his full sentence. Members
of the Adult Authority are appointed by the Governor. They are answerable
to no one. This, combined with California law which allows "indeterminate
sentences" for felony convictions, e.g. one year to life imprisonment,
gives the parole board incredible powers.
This entire complex is a system of tyranny under which an ever-increasing
number of working people--again especially Black and Brown people--are
forced to live. As such, it is a prelude to fascism. Indeed, Professor
Herbert Packer of the Stanford Law School is exactly right in his conclusion
that "... the inevitable end of the behavioral view is preventive detention..."
For once you accept the behavioralist view of the criminal as morally
depraved or mentally defective it is perfectly logical to preventively
detain all persons who manifest such tendencies and are therefore
potential criminals. Thus, in April 1970 a leading physician and
close associate of President Nixon proposed that the government begin
the mass testing of 6- to 8-year-old children to determine if they have
criminal-behavior tendencies. He then suggested "treatment camps" for
the severely disturbed child and the young hardcore criminal.
Even more consequential in terms of their potential political impact
are the proposals of Edward C. Banfield, a professor of Urban Government
at Harvard, and the chairman of President Nixon's task force on the Model
Cities Program. Professor Banfield has recently written a book entitled:
The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of Our Urban Crisis.
Banfield's analysis of the urban crisis exactly coincides with the behavioralists'
view of the criminal. That is, the cause of the urban crisis lies with
the existence of what Banfield calls the "lower classes" who are poverty-prone.
These lower classes are of course working people, and Black and Brown
people in particular. They are, Banfield would have us believe, morally
depraved and mentally defective. For example, Banfield describes people
of the lower classes (quoting from different passages in his book) as:
"feeble... suspicious and hostile, aggressive yet dependent... no attachment
to community neighbors or friends... lives in the slum and sees little
or no reason to complain... does not care how dirty and dilapidated his
housing is... nor does he mind the inadequacy of such public facilities
as schools, parks and libraries... features that make the slum repellent
to others actually please him... prefers near-destitution with out work
to abundance with it... the morality of lower-class culture is preconventional,
which means that the individual's actions are influenced not by conscience
but only by a sense of what he can get away with...."
Banfield's description of the lower class is in fact a description of
the criminal. And it is precisely at this moment when the description
of the lower class and the description of the criminal coincide
that we have a central aspect of the ideological basis for fascism and
genocide. This is exactly Banfield's program.
Summarizing the most salient points in Banfield's program we find these
proposals: that the government avoid all rhetoric holding out high expectations
for resolving the urban crisis or any of its aspects; that it try to reduce
unemployment by eliminating all minimum-wage laws and by repealing all
laws which give trade unions "monopolistic powers," e.g. the closed shop;
that the government abolish all child labor laws and cut compulsory education
from 12 to 9 years; that it change poverty definitions from those which
encompass relative standards of living to a "fixed standard" and that
it encourage or require all persons who fall into this fixed poverty standard
to live in an institution or semi-institution; that the government institute
vigorous birth control measures for the incompetent poor and send their
children to public nurseries; that the government intensify police control
and specifically permit the police to 'stop and frisk' and to make misdemeanor
arrests on probable cause; that the government speed-up trials and the
punishment process; and that the government "abridge to an appropriate
degree the freedom of those who in the opinion of a court are extremely
likely to commit violent crimes..."
This is a fascist program. It is a genocidal program.
Aspects of it are already to be found in Nixon's Organized Crime Control
Bill signed into law in October (1970). For example, this bill provides
for a special category Of 'criminals' known as "special dangerous offenders."
Such a person is defined, in part, as an offender who has been convicted
of two or more offenses of a kind punishable by death or imprisonment
for one year, one of which offenses occurred within the past five years
and for one of which he has been imprisoned. As the New Republic's
columnist, TRB, noted: "That's a curious juxtaposition--'punishable by
death or imprisonment for more than one year.' Quite a range, eh?" The
"special dangerous offender" can be imprisoned for 20 years at the discretion
of the judge, regardless of the prescribed punishment for the original
offense for which he was brought to trial.
Here then lies the final significance of a mass political movement to
expose the prisons and free the prisoners. The issue is not only reform,
but also to mount a struggle to abolish the present functions and foundations
of the prison system, an effort which can finally succeed only with the
abolition of capitalism. For, as Engels observed more than a century ago,
the prison system under capitalism is overwhelmingly a repressive institution,
an appendage of its state apparatus employed to maintain exploitative
and oppressive social conditions. Of course, what reforms can be won in
day-to-day battle on the legal and political front will be important concessions.
But the point is to attack the whole foundation--all the assumptions--involved
in maintaining a rehabilitative prison system which must assume the moral
and mental defectiveness of its victims, in the midst of a morally bankrupt,
racist, defective and generally deteriorating social order. To do this
now is to launch a front-line offense against the increasingly fascistic
thrust of the present administrations in Washington and Sacramento.
For the movement to abolish the present functions of the prison system
attacks a basic ideological pillar of fascism at its root.
It is on the basis of these realities that we in the radical and revolutionary
movements must broaden and develop our concept of the political prisoner.
For the prison system and its various appendages such as the Adult Authority
is increasingly used as a political instrument of mass intimidation, subversion,
manipulation and terror against working people and the Black and Brown
communities, as a whole.
In this regard we may consider four groupings of prisoners who are prisoners
by virtue of their political views and activities or are specially victimized
on the basis of class, racial and national oppression. First, of course,
there are those who become effective political leaders in their communities,
and therefore become the victims of politically inspired police frame-ups.
They are not imprisoned for any violations of law; but for their political
beliefs. Such political prisoners include Bobby Seale, Ericka Huggins,
Reies Tijerina and Angela Davis. There is a second, though similar category
of political prisoner; that is, those who have committed various acts
of civil disobedience, or refused, for example, to be inducted into the
Armed Forces. They are in technical violation of various laws, but their
violations were clearly political acts, and they are political prisoners.
Such political prisoners include the Berrigan Brothers, and many thousands
of draft resisters. Moreover, there are many in the liberation movements
who engage in specific acts of resistance or armed self-defense--both
within and outside the prisons--which may constitute violations of law.
These actions are politically conceived and engendered by the overt acts
of brutality, terror and suppression inside the prisons, and in the ghettos
Third, there are many thousands of originally nonpolitical people who
are the victims of class, racial and national oppression. Arrested for
an assortment of alleged crimes, and lacking adequate legal or political
redress they are imprisoned for long years, in violation of fundamental
civil and human rights though they are innocent of any crime.
Finally there are many in prison who have committed various offenses,
but who, in the course of their imprisonment, and due to the social conditions
they experience, begin to develop a political consciousness. As soon as
they give expression to their political views they become victims of politically
inspired actions against them by the prison administration and the parole
boards. They too may become victims of politically inspired frame-ups
within the prison. There are today many who were either never guilty of
any crime at all, or were guilty of some offense, and later developed
a political consciousness. These include the Soledad Brothers, Ruchell
Magee, and the Folsom Strikers.
The intensification of the oppressive functions of the prison system
and the emergence of the liberation movements on a new level in the Sixties
create the basis for a change in the political consciousness of people
in the Communities. More and more people have begun to understand the
practical consequences of the prison-police-judical apparatus. It is this
fact which now offers us new Opportunities to secure greater and greater
mass opposition to the frame-ups and jailings of all political prisoners.
Further, it is precisely this intensification of the socially Oppressive
function of the prison system, and the stunning rise of the liberation
movements, that creates the basis for a political consciousness among
the prisoners as a whole leading to individual acts of resistance
and other forms of struggle, including mass political work stoppages by
the prisoners and temporarily taking over prison facilities. The greatest
achievement of this movement is its growing awareness of the class
nature of the prison system. In this way it has been able to unite Black,
Brown and white prisoners around specific demands such as we saw in the
magnificent Manifesto of the Folsom Prisoners.
The development of a mass movement to free all political prisoners represents
the emergence of another front--another aspect--of the growing coalition
of all oppressed and exploited peoples against capitalist rule.
If we begin to grapple with some of these developments; if we begin to
see the relationship between the prison system and fascist ideology and
program; if we begin to see that we must develop our concept of the political
prisoner; and if we begin to see the relationship between containment
at home and counterinsurgency and aggression abroad--then, we will have
opened up whole new avenues for legal and political defense involving
many thousands of people which will, in fact, constitute an important
part of a peoples' offensive against the Nixon-Reagan-Agnew axis.
Seize the Time!
- [back] George Jackson,
Soledad Brother, Bantam Books, New York, 1970, p. 29
- [back] See the especially
good article by Jessica Mitford, "Kind and Usual Punishment: The California
Prisons," The Atlantic Monthly, March 1971.
- [back] James V. McConnell,
"Brainwashing the Criminals," Psychology Today, April 1970, Vol.
3, No. 11.
- [back] Herbert Marcuse,
Essay on Liberation, Beacon Press, Boston, 1970, p. 74.
- [back] Time
Magazine, "U.S. Prisons: Schools for Crime," January 18, 1971.
- [back] Theodore R.
Sarbin, "The Myth of the Criminal Type," Monday Evening Papers #18,
Center for Advanced Studies, Wesleyan University, 1969.
- [back] Herbert L.
Packer, "Crimes of Progress," New York Review of Books, October
- [back] Edward C. Banfield,
The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of Our Urban Crisis,
Little, Brown, Boston, 1970, pp. 53, 62, 112 122, 163, and 211, respectively.
See the review/essay of this book by Herbert Aptheker, "Banfield: The
Nixon Model Planner," Political Affairs, December 1970.
- [back] Ibid,
- [back] See Susan
Castro, "Line of Defense Against Fascism," People's World, June
1970, p. 10.
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