Surprising few but angering many, Jeff Sessions has used his post as attorney general to pull the Department of Justice away from enforcing civil rights. Sessions has sought to end federal lawsuits against or investigation into local police departments, instructed federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible sentences in their prosecutions, rededicated the DOJ to the War on Drugs (especially marijuana), and pushed for mandatory minimums. Lest anyone doubt the racist intent of his actions, Sessions’s move to amplify the drug war has largely excluded the opioid crisis in predominantly white rural areas. He insists crime rates are rising, despite evidence to the contrary, as part of his push for more police and longer sentences.

“After four decades of untrammeled carceral expansion, the last decade has witnessed growing critiques of America’s large prison system.”

These moves harken back to the “get tough” policies that had largely fallen out of favor in political rhetoric if not substantive policy.1For a history of “getting tough” as a turning point, see Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017). After four decades of untrammeled carceral expansion, the last decade has witnessed growing critiques of America’s large prison system. The critiques have been fiscal as well as moral; locking up so many people for so long is expensive, if nothing else. Much fanfare greeted the bipartisan coalition of the Koch Brothers and the ACLU, of Newt Gingrich and Van Jones, demanding a reduction in the number of people imprisoned. The election of Trump generally, and the appointment of Sessions particularly, would seem to reverse the already modest criminal justice reforms launched in the Obama era.

That even tepid reforms could be so quickly reversed suggests the shallowness of inside-the-Beltway commitments to change. Yet, rather than a departure from the new spirit of reform, this moment starkly illustrates the limited vision and spirit of prison reform itself. Notwithstanding Obama’s late-term commutations, then attorney general Eric Holder’s deprioritization of some low-level drug offenses, and the millions of dollars flowing from both liberal and conservative foundations to confront mass incarceration, prison reform has not dented America’s role as the world’s leading jailer.

Rather than see these reform efforts as undermined by the rightward push of Sessions and Trump, we might better understand them as twinned projects of racist state violence. That was certainly the argument coming from inside American prisons at the onset of mass incarceration. George Jackson, among the most perceptive imprisoned intellectuals of the twentieth century, was killed in 1971—two years before the US incarceration rate began its hefty four-decade climb. Yet Jackson astutely parsed the degrading violence at the core of American punishment. Prison was not a foreign country: it was the suffocating air that racism and capitalism breathed. His posthumously published book Blood in my Eye demonstrated the primacy of the state in any consideration of racism, capitalism, and social change.2Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1990 [1972]More Info → Further, it outlined the limits of reformism to contend with the obstacles at hand.

Rehabilitation and other forms of violence

“Jackson was writing in a different era of punishment, a time when ‘rehabilitation’ was a driving ethos of imprisonment.”

The problem of prisons exceeds what prominent reformers have thus far been willing to entertain. The task requires a step-by-step rethinking of US ideas of order. As Jackson wrote in Blood in my Eye, “The ultimate expression of law is not order—it’s prison.”3Jackson, Blood in my Eye, 99. Written in a San Quentin isolation cell and published in 1972,4The book was published after Jackson was gunned down by prison guards during a bloody takeover he staged in the prison’s isolation unit that killed five people. the book is a sharp indictment of the US state as the iron fist of racial capitalism exemplified in what we would refer to as the carceral state. Jackson was writing in a different era of punishment, a time when “rehabilitation” was a driving ethos of imprisonment—especially in California. After his death—in part because of his death—California traded rehabilitation for incapacitation: the point of prison was to get rid of bad guys, plain and simple.5→Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
→Keramet Reiter, 23/7: Pelican Bay and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

Yet for Jackson, who went to prison at age 18 for a petty robbery and spent eleven years locked up before his death, the liberal ideal of rehabilitation was daily undone by the illiberal violence of imprisonment. “Anyone who can pass the civil service examination yesterday can kill me tomorrow,” he wrote, as much in memoriam for the prisoners he had already seen killed as in fear of his own possible fate. “Anyone who passed the civil service examination yesterday can kill me today with complete immunity.”6Jackson, Blood in my Eye, 7. Imprisonment was yet another manifestation of antiblack racism. “The question I’ve asked myself over the years runs this way: Who has done most of the dying? Most of the work? Most of the time in prison (on Max Row)? Who is the hindmost in every aspect of social, political, and economic life?”7Ibid., 123. The experience soured him on the nature of liberal reform itself. “But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for all to understand,” Jackson wrote of fascism, “that word would be ‘reform.’”8Ibid., 118.

The oppressive contract

Blood in my Eye is a difficult book. It is the opposite of Jackson’s first, Soledad Brother, his 1970 book of letters, which remains better known and more widely read. Whereas Soledad Brother is tender and evocative, almost hopeful, Blood in my Eye is bleak and aggressive. It is a call to arms—not just against prison but against the society that would create such citadels of violence. The book’s militarism and machismo, present from the first page, can be hard to encounter. Its dedication, to “black Communist youth” and “their fathers,” pledges to “criticize the unjust with the weapon.”

“Whether the rationale was about rehabilitation or incapacitation, the solution was the same: more police, more prisons.”

Much of the book is an elegy for his 17-year-old brother, who died in August 1970 while raiding the Marin County Courthouse. Yet, by the time the book had been published, it functioned as a last will and testament for its author as well.9For Jonathan Jackson’s death, see Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 121-129. For George Jackson, see ibid., 133-156, passim. A small-time armed robber turned proponent of communism and revolutionary violence, Jackson was the right-wing boogeyman personified. Ronald Reagan, William Buckley, and other conservatives wasted no time in turning Jackson’s death into a call for greater toughness. Before they were “superpredators,” Black working class youth like Jackson were “criminals,” “thugs,” and assorted bad guys. Whether the rationale was about rehabilitation or incapacitation, the solution was the same: more police, more prisons.

Therein lies the rub. Jackson’s proposed remedies are jarring: the book calls for merciless, immediate, and unceasing armed revolt as the antidote to white supremacist capitalism. Yet Jackson astutely diagnosed imprisonment as the frontline of attack by a racist state. Misguided as a strategist, Jackson’s diagnostic skills account for the book’s enduring value. In a time when even criminal justice professionals opined about the coming abolition of prisons, Jackson documented the state’s seemingly limitless capacity to repress.10Berger, Captive Nation, 190-191. While white and middle class elements enjoyed the benefit of a social contract that allowed for economic advancement and political participation, Black and other colonized people faced what Jackson called “the oppressive contract.”11Jackson, Blood in my Eye, 179. Racial capitalism defined the governing pact. “The economic nature of racism is not simply an aside.… Racism is a fundamental characteristic of monopoly capital. When the white self-congratulatory racist complains that the blacks are uncouth, unlettered; that our areas are run-down, not maintained; that we dress with loud tastelessness (a thing they now also say about their own children), he forgets that he governs.”12Ibid., 183.

Inequality, degradation, and (carceral) statecraft

Questions of governance and of state formation preoccupied Jackson. What scholars have begun theorizing as the carceral state Jackson described as the racist capitalist state itself. Its capacity for repression grows in tandem with its need to maintain inequality. Racism and capitalism cannot be reformed without remaking the state itself. Structured in inequality, the American state could only grow more repressive to its most unruly subjects. The context of Blood in my Eye is telling. Jackson wrote in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights reforms that had upended the segregationist state, offering new opportunities to African Americans and others. Yet he observed such changes from a prison cell, from which he was annually denied parole. The legal system that had implemented the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, that had rendered miscegenation and housing discrimination illegal, kept a growing number of Black and Latinx people in prison. Juridical change brokered no grand dreams of freedom.

“By the time the overall incarceration rate began its unprecedented four-decade climb in 1973, American prisons were vanguard institutions in the reproduction of white supremacy.”

Jackson was incarcerated in 1960s and killed in 1971. Over those eleven years, the demographics of incarceration shifted while the rate of incarceration remained roughly the same. In California, Illinois, New York, and other states, increasing numbers of Black men were imprisoned while fewer white men were. The casualties of deindustrialization and hyperpolicing—of economic marginalization and political repression—this cohort of Black prisoners entered prisons that were racially segregated and witnessing their own variant of massive resistance to civil rights. By the time the overall incarceration rate began its unprecedented four-decade climb in 1973, American prisons were vanguard institutions in the reproduction of white supremacy.13On shifting demographics of state prison systems in the 1960s, see
→Berger, Captive Nation.
→James B. Jacobs, Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).
→Garrett Felber, “‘Shades of Mississippi’: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing and the Rise of the Carceral State,” Journal of American History, forthcoming.
→Khalil Gibran Muhammad, “Where Did All the White Criminals Go? Reconfiguring Race and Crime on the Way to Mass Incarceration,” Souls 13, no. 1 (2011): 72-90.

The degraded treatment of racialized bodies preceded and coconstituted mass incarceration. At the time Blood in my Eye was published, the United States held approximately 250,000 people in all of its prisons and jails. Today, there are 206,000 people serving life sentences alone—about one-tenth of the 2.2 million people imprisoned around the country. Mass incarceration is more than the exponential growth in the number of people in prison. It is about the increasingly repressive nature of American political life. Part of Jackson’s insight, like those of other imprisoned intellectuals of the era, was the recognition that prisons were a concentrated expression of state priorities: what happened there would happen to the rest of society sooner or later. And so the growth in repression can be mapped across a series of vectors: employment, housing, education, health care, and more. The criminal justice system is at the fulcrum of an expanded American brutalism that has of late been most evident in the frequent killing of Black people by police.

“Imprisonment is an aspect of class struggle from the outset,” Jackson wrote. “It is the creation of a closed society which attempts to isolate those individuals who disregard the structures of a hypocritical establishment as well as those who attempt to challenge it on a mass basis.”14Jackson, Blood in my Eye, 107. The problem, then, was not the size of incarceration, its mass-ness, but the scale of degradation that the state enforced. “I refuse to make any argument with statistics compiled by the institutions and associations that I indict. Yet it is true that even official figures prove the case against capitalism. … These statistics [of crime and incarceration] conceal the living reality.”15Ibid., 97.

Quoting a letter from his brother, Jackson insisted that “repression exposes,” it educates.16Ibid., 23. Decades of domestic warfare against communism, crime, drugs, gangs, and terror have indeed instructed the American populace. For decades, politicians have harvested this education to support a dramatically conservative vision that has ultimately brought us “career racist” Jeff Sessions as the nation’s top law enforcement official. Yet listening to the victims and survivors, the refugees and orphans, of these home-front battles offers other paths. Between his fevered fantasies of violent vengeance, Jackson dreamed of a broad coalition—a united front—to take on “realistic day-to-day issues like hunger, the need for clothing and housing, joblessness,” and imprisonment.17Ibid., 42. Such a united front would eradicate racism at its root: in the vicissitudes of statecraft and the capitalist political economy it upholds. Jackson died likely having never heard of Jeff Sessions or Donald Trump. But he knew their agenda, and he knew the terms of engagement: repression versus redistribution, degradation versus dignity.

Posted on July 11, 2017

References:

1
For a history of “getting tough” as a turning point, see Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
2
Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1990 [1972]More Info →
3
Jackson, Blood in my Eye, 99.
4
The book was published after Jackson was gunned down by prison guards during a bloody takeover he staged in the prison’s isolation unit that killed five people.
5
→Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
→Keramet Reiter, 23/7: Pelican Bay and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
6
Jackson, Blood in my Eye, 7.
7
Ibid., 123.
8
Ibid., 118.
9
For Jonathan Jackson’s death, see Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 121-129. For George Jackson, see ibid., 133-156, passim.
10
Berger, Captive Nation, 190-191.
11
Jackson, Blood in my Eye, 179.
12
Ibid., 183.
13
On shifting demographics of state prison systems in the 1960s, see
→Berger, Captive Nation.
→James B. Jacobs, Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).
→Garrett Felber, “‘Shades of Mississippi’: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing and the Rise of the Carceral State,” Journal of American History, forthcoming.
→Khalil Gibran Muhammad, “Where Did All the White Criminals Go? Reconfiguring Race and Crime on the Way to Mass Incarceration,” Souls 13, no. 1 (2011): 72-90.
14
Jackson, Blood in my Eye, 107.
15
Ibid., 97.
16
Ibid., 23.
17
Ibid., 42.