Prisoners of Capital Fight Back

From our comrades in the Internationalist Workers’ Group

December 9th, 2010 saw the start of the largest prison strike in the history of the United States. The strike was organized by the prisoners, where they made contact through illegally acquired cell phones (sold to the prisoners by underpaid and corrupt prison guards). While the strike appears to have died down, there is still a strong willingness to continue the struggle. The strike action took place in at least six different prisons. (1) The strikers organized across racial lines, amazing considering the racial strife within American prisons, often encouraged and protected by prison guards so the race-based gangs can dish out punishment and maintain order so they don’t have to. The transcendence of race in favor of a unifying class identity is one of the largest obstacles that hinder the American working class. Most importantly (and most frightening to the bourgeoisie) was a unifying set of demands that recognize a common class interest. (2) Unsurprisingly, the strike has been totally ignored by the bourgeois press.

When it is discussed, it is framed around how to best end the possession of cell phones by prisoners (a January 3rd 2011 article on the Los Angeles Times website prominently features a picture of Charles Manson).

There have been reports of physical abuse by prison guards during the non-violent strike, as well as solitary confinement. Correction authorities have been transferring strikers to other prisons in an attempt to hurt morale. One inmate, interviewed by the website Black Agenda Report, asserts the class character of the strike and the attempts to stifle it:

They want to break up the unity we have here. We have the Crips and the Bloods, we have the Muslims, we have the head Mexicans, and we have the Aryans all with a peaceful understanding, all on common ground. We all want to be paid for our work, and we all want education in here. There’s people in here who can’t even read... They’re trying to provoke people to violence in here, but we’re not letting that happen. We just want our human rights (3).

Prisons: Instruments of Capitalism

We are told that prison is a place reserved for the most hardened of criminals, people who are too dangerous to live amongst society. After a fair trial, a guilty verdict sends the convicted to a far away place where he or she can’t harm anyone. Thus, prison is necessary for public safety.

However, even a cursory observation of the data blows this justification out of the water. A look at the incarceration rate from the past couple of decades speaks for itself. Up until the beginning of the 1980s, the incarceration rate remained largely the same (with whites making up the majority of the prison population, and blacks and latinos making up one-third). Since the 1980s, the number of prisoners has skyrocketed - increasing over 450%.

The United States, the world capitol of capital, has the honor of having the most people behind bars (both in raw numbers and adjusted for population). (4) Did Americans one day collectively decide to start behaving criminally and reckless? That goes beyond idealism and into the fantasy realm to think we have become more immoral and criminal as a society. Using the marxist method, we can pull the cloak off prisons to reveal their true purpose as an instrument of capital.

The targeted enforcement of the War on Drugs on poor communities, especial the inner city, has a giant share of the blame. Also, the introduction of mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses and petty theft, keeping prisoners behind bars for longer. We are still left with the question, why the need for such draconian measures? What is the root cause? The root, which blossomed into the increased ghettoization of ethnic urban communities, the drop and stagnation of real wages, the skyrocketing of corporate profits, and the flight of industry to “third world” nations was the capitalist response to the fiscal crises of the 1970s. All the aforementioned effects (which causes social alienation, where drug abuse plants its seeds) had to be dealt with.

The trickle-up economics of the 1980s was creating more poor (along with drastic cuts in social welfare) and more unemployed. These measures had a drastic negative impact on the working class as a whole. The bourgeoisie, with their instruments of social control, went with warehousing of the decommissioned soldiers of the industrial reserve army.

Prison is a tool of capitalism to manage the effects it unleashes upon society.

Prison still serves this function in the present day. The use of unpaid prison labor, both by the state and contracted private business, form a wage-depressing mass that offsets potential for wage growth. The lack of educational opportunities and skill training in prison guarantees a return to prison and its slavery (often the only programs available are for religious ministry).

Reformist Cheerleaders are in the Service of Capitalism


This struggle must spread to be of any success. In Ohio, a few prisoners have gone on hunger strike to demand better living conditions. There isn’t any evidence that this was organized with the knowledge of the Georgia prison strike, but it is proof that the struggle maybe at a tipping point with the potential of more militant action.

However, a collection of familiar faces have attached themselves to the strike movement in an attempt to narrow its scope and retard its growth. Former Black Panthers now in “progressive” parties for a gentle capitalism like the Green Party, the NAACP, the Nation of Islam, and advocates for prison “reform” have leant their support and approval to the strike.

These groups, no matter how hard they try to posture themselves as “radical”, will do nothing except weaken the opportunity for this action to grow and spread. As already mentioned, their intentions are to narrow the scope of the strike by removing its class character. For example: Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther who is now a Green Party activist, attached herself to the strike right at the beginning and has been speaking on behalf of the striking prisoners to all media that will cover the story. She is “outraged” that her calls to the Congressional Black Caucus (an effort to remove the strike off the class terrain) have fallen on deaf ears.

Each of the reformist groups have different ways to stymie the growth of the strike. The main threat is to stop talking about class but focus entirely on racial politics. Make no mistake, the “justice” system is inherently racist, but it is communists who have the facts and analysis that can effectively combat racism. Racism is inseparably linked to class in that it prevents the working class from struggling together, which would strengthen their power as a whole. Racism not only divides the working class, but it subjugates a section of the workforce as well. It impossible to talk meaningfully about race without talking about class. These groups will focus on identity politics that has not gone forward a single step in ending systemic racism, precisely due to its reformist nature. They will not only avoid but actively suppress support for a common identity that not only unifies but is a vehicle to change the world: working class identity.

Another threat is the pleas and demands of the prisoners being used by prison “reform” advocates to rally in favour of changing their conditions through law. These groups, along with those who tow the line of old racial politics, miss a very important aspect that we have gone through at length.

The conditions within prison, and prison itself, are creatures birthed by capitalism. Prison is the bourgeoisie’s way of managing capitalism’s contradictions on society. It isn’t an aberration in the system, it is the system’s way of handling it’s problems.

The prison system is dialectically linked to the capitalism, and we will see no change unless we fight against this rotten mode of production.

What these tactics do is separate the strike action from having any connection to the wider working class movement. These reformist elements will only hold it back from spreading and connecting it to the struggle against bourgeois domination.

It isn’t because they don’t know any better, but rather they are deliberately protecting capitalist society. Calling for “humane” imprisonment is like calling for “humane” pillaging or “humane” slavery. These groups are in the service of defending the interests of the bourgeoisie.


Almost totally ignored in the mainstream media, the Georgia prisoner’s strike has no doubt frightened the bourgeoisie, and they are doing everything they can to prevent it from spreading. Most scary to the bourgeoisie, and most important to communists, is that the prisoners were united in a common class identity, fighting for their basic class interests. Rather than being a “spontaneous” uprising, the prisoners themselves organized the strike well in advance and planned to the best of their restricted abilities.

It is important to study the lessons learned from this strike, and important to remember that the prison system is a normal aspect of our decrepit capitalist society.


(1) Baldwin, Hancock, Hays, Macon, Smith and Telfair State Prisons.

(2) The demands are as follows: A living wage, educational opportunity, decent health care, an end to cruel and unusual punishment, decent living conditions, nutritious meals, self-improvement and skills training exercises, access to families, and just parole decisions.

(3) Dixon, Bruce A. GA Prisoner Strike Continues a Second Day, Corporate Media Mostly Ignores Them, Corrections Officials Decline Comment.

(4) Drugs: The Other Global War. Revolutionary Perspectives 55.


Perhaps some "progressive" reformists truly believe they are pushing for progress, but they act within the judicial and legislative framework allowed by bourgeois "democracy". As such, the attempt is castrated from the start, because one cannot fundamentally change the status quo by the means permitted by the status quo. The attempts by honest idealists (as opposed to conscious charlatans) may be driven by their belief that it is only possible to ameliorate the situation piecemeal. What they may fail to see is that sometimes (in revolutionary periods) it is easier to change everything at once. Their failure or refusal to see this is what stymies radical change when it is possible.

Perhaps it is desirable to try to engage the honest among those we consider to be wrong and point out the contradictions in their reasoning rather than declare them the class enemy.

Anonymous, i think it is good to distinguish these so called "honest idealists". The class enemy is capital, and anyone that defends capital is to be concidered so. Don't forget that honest revolutionaries have been killed by socialdemocracy in revolutionary periods: just remembering the Spartakists.... I'm afraid it is deadly wrong to giustify reformism as to be simply a wrong decision, or an error: it is the properly the class enemy's politics. We are actually the "error" in this system, as we work for the abolition of private property and exploitation.

Those calling for prison reform may genuinely want progressive change, but they don't understand that the conditions within prison are a product of something with a much deeper root - capitalism. While they may truly be disgusted about the prison system, their politics don't challenge it's foundations. Their politics are defending capitalism. This goes for Trotskyists, Stalinists etc. Many Trotskyists genuinely consider themselves socialist and are opposed to capitalism. But the politics of Trotskyism is bourgeois.

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