Last month marked the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica prison revolt. At the outset of the four-day takeover, the prisoners released a list of practical proposals, the first of which read: "Apply the New York State minimum wage law to all state institutions. STOP SLAVE LABOR." The all-caps demand asserted a continuity between slavery and incarceration established by the Thirteenth Amendment: While abolishing slavery, the amendment also allows for its continuance, provided that the individual in question is being punished for a crime.
Today, the notion that mass incarceration amounts to one of the biggest travesties of American life has reached a perplexingly bipartisan consensus. A 2015 Brennan Center report on criminal justice reform included a strange alliance of Republicans and Democrats, with contributions by Senators Cory Booker and Ted Cruz, Governor Scott Walker, and both Clintons. This election cycle, the Democratic Party Platform offered a multi-page criminal justice reform agenda, citing the disproportionate incarceration of people of color among the injustices it aims to address. And on August 18, the Department of Justice declared that it would cease federal contracts with for-profit prison corporations. Everyone, it seems, knows that prisons are a problem.
Despite this landscape, news from inside prisons rarely reaches anyone on the outside. Journalists who want to cover prison conditions are obstructed by legal walls designed to keep incarcerated people out of sight and cut off from the public. As the movement against racist policing continues to galvanize popular protest in the wake of police killings of black people, the violence and inhumane conditions inside prisons remain hidden—they're rarely captured on video—an absence that reinforces the prison as a black box system. While some atrocities—like Terrill Thomas's death by dehydration in a Milwaukee jail, which was ruled a homicide last month—are reported on, the experiences and organizing efforts of incarcerated people are largely absent from discussions of racism and the criminal justice system.
In recent months, a coalition of organizers within and outside the prison system—led by FAM (Free Alabama Movement) and IWOC (Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee)—took up the Attica prisoners' demand, staging a strike that began on September 9, the anniversary of the rebellion. Widely underreported, and now approaching its fifth week, the effects of the strike remain unclear, with only sporadic reports emerging from prisoners with contraband cell phones. The call to "let the crops rot in the plantation fields" reconfigures the Attica prisoners' proposal to end slave labor in jails. In ceasing to contribute to the continuing operations of the prison, the strikers aren't merely demanding better compensation and institutional reforms—they're posing a radical challenge to the institution itself.
This short list, which consists of classics in prison abolitionist writing as well as recent histories of anti-prison actions, is a brief introduction to a movement that extends the work of Attica to the present day.
Released just weeks in advance of the forty-fifth anniversary of the uprising, Heather Ann Thompson's Blood in the Water is the most comprehensive study of Attica to date. Thompson's narrative compiles a vast range of source material to tell the story of the conditions that precipitated the riots, the takeover of the prison, its murderous suppression by state troopers, and the violence that continued during what Governor Nelson Rockefeller privately called "the mopping up" in the days that followed. Most significantly, the material unearthed by Thompson demonstrates the extent to which the state has covered up its responsibility for the thirty-nine people killed when the police stormed the prison.
George Jackson spent his entire adult life in prison. Arrested at eighteen and sentenced to one year to life, he remained incarcerated until his death at age twenty-nine—three weeks before the Attica uprising began. Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye are collections of Jackson's letters, and offer both a fierce first-person account of his imprisonment and an influential and militant analysis of the prison's function within the racist capitalist state. Jean Genet's involvement in the publication of Soledad Brother, which he called "a weapon of liberation and a love poem," helped popularize the collection among leftist intellectuals across America and Europe. Both volumes remain essential documents of anti-prison theory and protest.
These two collections edited by Joy James, an abolitionist and professor of humanities and political science at Williams College, compile writings by anti-prison activists, many of whom have been, or are, incarcerated. In her introduction to Imprisoned Intellectuals, James writes that "the analyses of imprisoned intellectuals both deconstruct dominant ideologies and reconstruct new strategies for humanity." Including essays by Assata Shakur, Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, Little Rock Reed, Philip Berrigan, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, the two collections provide crucial dissections of the prison system from a diverse range of perspectives.
Beginning with an account of prisoner demands that migrated from San Quentin in 1970 to Attica in 1971, Berger provides an instructive overview of the breadth of midcentury American prisoner organizing. Covering the 1950s through to the '80s, Berger's book elucidates the genesis of critique within anti-prison organizing, offering what amounts to an intellectual history of American prisoner activism. In this volume, Berger teases out distinctions between the most prominent threads of postwar American social movements and the more radical claims of the prison organizers, whose work points "less toward securing rights than toward a critique of the state."
Angela Davis achieved national notoriety for her involvement in Jonathan Jackson's (George's younger brother) attempt to negotiate the freedom of the Soledad Brothers in 1970. After being charged with murder, kidnapping, and criminal conspiracy, she was imprisoned—and eventually acquitted of all charges. Through it all, Davis has remained a leading figure in anti-prison organizing, and her role as a public intellectual has helped spread concepts like the prison industrial complex and prison abolition to a wider audience. Are Prisons Obsolete? examines the genesis of the American correctional system, its gendered structure, and the relationship between prison reform and the expansion of the prison system. Davis's arguments for a complex analysis of the prison industrial complex simultaneously deepens the abolitionist stance and begins to answer the question that invariably follows the demand for an end to prisons: What comes after incarceration?