In the late 1990s and early part of this century I worked as a researcher and writer for the journal Southland Prison News. This small journal usually ran about thirty pages and was sent out to prisoners incarcerated primarily in the US South. Edited by an inmate in Virginia, each issue contained a digest of articles concerning prisoners and prisons along with a feature or two, some book reviews, some prisoner poetry and art. I stopped working for the journal when the funding dried up. Before that work, I had never spent much time working on prison-related issues. Sure, I had attended forums and rallies supporting various political prisoners and prisoner rights ever since the uprising and massacre at Attica prison in 1971, but my political work usually did not involve prison issues. Perhaps this came from a distaste acquired through various brushes with the law and the subsequent days spent in jail here and there.
The same cannot be said for Nancy Kurshan and the people whose work she so artfully chronicles in the recently released book Out of Control: A Fifteen-Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons. Kurshan, a lifelong political activist, (among other things, she is one of the founders of the Yippies) is an ardent opponent of the US prison system, especially those prisons known as control unit prisons. Her book tells of the genesis and growth of these units throughout the United States and of the battle to oppose them.
It is not a tale with a happy ending. According to the text’s introduction, over 80,000 prisoners are currently locked away in control unit prisons in the United States. What this means is that over 80,000 prisoners exist in a world controlled almost completely by prison architecture and the guards those prisons employ. Living in cells smaller than many suburban bathrooms, the walls are painted white, lights are on most of the day, no windows or even bars, hardly any exercise, no reading materials and no visitors; that is the life of most prisoners in these units. Sometimes there are even further restrictions. Rarely are there fewer. These units are constantly watched by prison video feeds and prisoners are often beaten at will by the guards. If this doesn’t bother you, then you probably shouldn’t bother reading the rest of this review.
There are over 2,000,000 people locked up in the United States. That is more than any other nation in the world. Furthermore, the rate of incarceration in the United States is higher than that of any other nation. According to the NAACP, African American and Latinos comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though they make up approximately one quarter of the US population. This is not because Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be criminals. It is because US laws and the police that enforce those laws target these demographic groups. This fact alone lends credence to the argument made by the activists in Out of Control that there is a calculated plan to imprison black and Latino men in the US. The history of the US is one that required control of its Black population, even after slavery. Indeed, even more so after slavery. Prisons are part of that plan. It is with this as a fundamental part of that understanding that Kurshan tells her story of a movement (Movement to End the Marion Lockdown) built to oppose that calculation.
The reader is presented with detailed descriptions of the meetings, protests, legal campaigns, and other work the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown undertook over the fifteen years of its existence. This group was composed of leftists, religious clergy and laity, families of prisoners and other concerned humans. There are small victories and many defeats, primarily because of the complete lack of regard for prisoners’ humanity displayed by the Bureau of Prisons, most politicians and other officials. There are also the small victories. After years of demanding a new water source be built for the Marion prison, headway was finally made. Occasionally, even a prisoner gets freed. Throughout, the narrative is told with a warmth and humanity that exists in direct contrast to the tales being told. Her description of the development of a friendship between her family and the Reverend Bruce Wright, whose book Black Robes, White Justice was one of the first books to discuss in plain terms the role the US justice system plays in continuing the racism of US society, is the story of a friendship between unsung warriors.
Many of the procedures used in control unit prisons began in the 1960s when the United States government started locking up leftist revolutionaries and others as part of its COINTELPRO program. This time period is also when leftists began to consciously focus on prisoner rights, in part because their leaders were being locked up. This work helped them to understand that prisons are the final point of confrontation between the state and those who act against it. Indeed, this is precisely why prisoner struggles for human rights are components of the greater struggle for those rights.
As pointed out before, there are now over 2,000,000 people incarcerated in the United States. Prison construction and maintenance is often one of the larger elements of government budgets. This is despite the fact that crime has consistently gone down in the past decade. These facts make it clear that prisons are not so much about fighting crime as they are about controlling segments of the population. As austerity takes a greater hold on the US economy, one can be certain that more working and poor men and women will be sent to prison while the real thieves run the country further into the ground.
Besides being a detailed and inspiring account of a group of human rights activists, Nancy Kurshan’s Out of Control is a useful resource for discussing the realities of prison in the twenty-first century United States. It is also the tale of a particular part of the movement opposed to that reality.