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The Tentacles of Oppression: Isaac Ontiveros on the Prison Industrial Complex (Part I)

Posted on September 24th, 2008 in AK Allies, Happenings

As enemies of the state, anarchists are no strangers to prisons and jails. They’ve been locked up, tortured, and left to die—or murdered—wherever the state has asserted itself. But anarchists are not against carceral institutions simply as a self-defense mechanism, or a preservation reflex. We are against the economic system that manufactures poverty, the school system that teaches ignorance, the political system that fosters cynicism and apathy, and the individualistic, isolating culture that encourages us to blame ourselves when things go wrong. Our institutions are faulty, and administering the prison-industrial-complex (PIC) to “correct” the externalities of a pathological social and economic system is, well, sick.

If we’re for an economic system that produces social wealth, a school system that engenders wisdom, a political system of self-governance, and a culture of mutual aid and collective concern, then what need would we have for surveillance, policing, or incarceration? (The worry over crimes of passion or of mental illness shouldn’t stop the movement toward an incarceration-free society.) We’re for healthy, safe communities and we know what direction to head to get there. The PIC abolition movement shares these goals with anarchists and I’m happy to present this interview with a friend who has been investigating these intersections with commitment, accountability, and active engagement. No armchair radical, Isaac is engaging with these questions by participating in the intellectual and physical movement against the PIC.

Isaac Ontiveros is a former AK Press collective member. After a few years of slogging it out in the trenches of publishing and distribution he has moved on and now contributes to various Bay Area groups, including Critical Resistance (CR). This week marks the launch of Abolition Now!, co-published by CR and AK Press, at the mighty CR-10 Conference here in Oakland. We’ll be there and hope you will be too.

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Isaac, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions for us today. I was hoping we could cover some ground related to your work in the prison abolition movement and its relationship to anarchist politics. You are a contributing editor to Abolition Now!, a just-released book from AK Press and CR, and have contributed to CR’s The Abolitionist newspaper. Can you tell us a little about each project?

Abolition Now! is an anthology of writing that takes the ten-year anniversary of CR—the ten-year anniversary of the CR conference back in 1998—as an opportunity to assess the PIC and the struggle to abolish the PIC—to engage with the development of PIC abolitionist politics, to mark where we’ve been, to conjure with where we are, to figure out how we’re going to struggle forward. So, the book deals with a lot of issues and tries to represent a lot of voices—a lot of points of struggle against the PIC, lots of analysis, and hopefully also useful building blocks for the type of world we’re struggling toward. So, we have an interesting dialogue with folks who’ve been in the movement for a long time along with folks who’ve come to the work more recently; there’s work on the changing forms of the so-called “war on drugs”; political prisoner David Gilbert did a piece on war and imperialism; we have contributions that report on struggles against specific points of oppression set in particular geographies; folks from INCITE Women of Color Against Violence revisit the historic CR/INCITE statement from ten years ago and challenge us to keep struggling with the important ideas that came out of that (this is actually one of the pieces I’m most excited about because not only does it challenge the gendered violence of the PIC, but it also asks the question: how do we deal with harm and oppression coming from within our communities, on the day to day, what are our responsibilities there?). The whole thing I think is important because it doesn’t take for granted that—like in any liberation struggle—the forces of oppression are changing and responding and adapting. Often in response to resistance to that oppression. In turn then, the nature of the liberation struggle calls for constant revitalization.

The Abolitionist is a different thing. This is a (roughly) quarterly paper that we are really trying to use as a communication tool through, over, and under different points in the wire of the prison industrial complex. One of the fundamental ways the PIC keeps us down is by engendering a crippling sense of isolation. We often feel cut-off, lonely, and—worst of all—futile. It reminds me of Tantalus, from Greek mythology, whose personal hell was to be forever stuck in a pool of water with the fruits of a tree dangling just above his head. Starving and thirsty, every time he reached for the fruit they moved just out of his reach. Every time he went to drink water the pool would recede and leave him dry, forever and ever. Obviously, extreme isolation is a literal reality for millions of people locked in cages (prisons, jails, detention centers, etc.), and the gradation of lock-down expands outwards into the communities targeted by the PIC. So, The Abolitionist is a classic sort of propaganda tool. It lets us know what’s going on inside the prisons (health conditions, new laws, etc.), what folks are doing to defend against the violence of the border, how communities are responding to police violence, how the ideology of the PIC is transmitted through popular culture, what is the status of our political prisoners’ struggle to get free, etc. The Abolitionist basically attempts to map the contours of oppression and to report on how folks are organizing (and maybe gaining victory), hopefully offering itself as a way to tie together seemingly-isolated struggles, to arm the spirit, and to keep connected. Another important element of The Abolitionist is that it really is meant to be a prisoner paper. That is, we’re really focused on the getting the paper inside the prisons, jails, and detention centers and getting the words, thoughts, ideas, analyses, etc., of prisoners and people from their families and communities printed and out into the world. I think we are modestly successful too. I recently heard that prisoner subscription is about 1200 copies per issue. Knowing how information is passed around and collectively used on the inside, we can count many more readers and potential contributors.

CR is a non-reformist, non-partisan organization comprised of activists, academics, former prisoners, and families of incarcerated people. A number of these folks personally identify as anarchists. Could you explain the attraction that abolition of the “prison industrial complex” (PIC) holds for those individuals?

Well, the prison industrial complex is capitalist. It is statist. It is white supremacist. It is imperialist. It is misogynist. It is heterosexist and gender oppressive. The PIC runs, and is run by, connects, and is connected by, so many types of oppressions, that it is possible that people from seemingly disparate struggles end up being drawn together to the abolitionist struggle. As far as anarchists struggling against the PIC, I think its kind of a no-brainer. We see in the PIC the most violent and present forms of state-and-capital oppression. We see the most brutal of oppressive hierarchy. It is stark. We also see the way out, the way through and forward, the way of both building the movement and the vision of the better world, as being community control, self-determination, self-management, collectivity, real health, real sustainability, etc.—the hallmarks of any viable and worthwhile anarchism. Speaking for myself, and working within CR, we’re doing meaningful work, very much on a local level, while having the larger, systemic, analysis.

Please define the PIC and tell us how it serves both capitalism and the state. Also, how has your recent work built upon or departed from traditional anarchist notions of the State?

I like the “official” CR definition because it is well-thought-out, collectively derived, and the product of years of inter- and intra-organizational dialogue. It goes:

Prison industrial complex is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems.

It goes on to elaborate:

Through its reach and impact, the PIC helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic, and similar privileges. There are many ways this power is collected and maintained through the PIC, including creating mass media images that keep alive stereotypes of people of color, poor people, queer people, immigrants, youth, etc. as criminal, delinquent, or deviant. This power is also maintained by earning huge profits for private companies that deal with prisons and police forces; helping earn political gains for “tough on crime” politicians; increasing the influence of prison guard and police unions; and eliminating social and political dissent by people of color, poor people, immigrants, and others who make demands of self-determination and reorganization of power in the US.

I like that definition because it stabs at and illustrates the PIC as a tentacled oppression. The PIC is economic; it is social; it is ideological. (Given the “complex” part of the phrase, the PIC is economic; therefore it is social; therefore it is ideological…) I think, like the PIC itself, our definitions need to reflexive, flexible, and ever-expanding—a constant, constructive, sort of redefining of terms too, like: What does “safety” really mean and look like? This could also go toward including language around reform, conjuring with the notion that the PIC itself is reformist. So we need to struggle with terms that are coming from the PIC like “gender-responsive” prisons and policing, or the fact that here in California we have the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That word, rehabilitation, was tacked on in 2005. On the Bureau of Prisons website, there is a link to “faith-based and community organizations,” etc.

As far as traditional anarchist notions of the state, I think it applies—if we think of the state as the consolidator, protector, and perpetuator of the interests of a “ruling” class; as the arbiter of coercive power; an instrument of oppression; the keeper of “order,” etc. When we think of prisons, borders, policing, legal systems, militarism, imperialism, ideological indoctrination, genocide, etc., we think of the state. And through this lens we can also think about the prison industrial complex.

One way to push forward the traditional anarchist notion of the state is to engage with how it is not only something that is but also something that happens, that does, that is active, on the day-to-day. Like capitalism, indeed along with capitalism, the state is a social relationship. I sometimes get uncomfortable with a less-than-rigorous anarchist analysis of the state as “evil,” as a sort of boogieman, something that is monolithic and absolute, existing outside of a given context—outside of history, outside of a global relationship. I don’t know how useful this almost religious sort of thinking is to our struggle against the state. I think that if we can locate places where state power is concentrated in a particularly oppressive way, and be able to engage with its specific contours, we can be better equipped in our fight for liberation.

We need to take seriously the role of the state as it relates to the prison industrial complex, to oppression and oppressed people, and to the liberation struggle. Are we prepared to take on the task of large-scale healthcare? Are we prepared to protect one another and our communities? Are we prepared and able to respond to harm and disaster in a rapid and effective manner? Are we prepared to organize our education and work? These are all things that the state claims it does. Now, we can have the analysis that in the end the state does none of these things—and in fact prohibits their most vital and sustainable manifestations—and we’d be backed up by many, many historical examples. But, at the same time, we need to be real with ourselves and our level of organization when it comes to responding to people’s real needs around health, sustainability, meaningful work, meaningful education, communication, etc. The rhetoric of “smash the state” becomes irresponsible if we aren’t ready and/or willing to be organized in how we make a revolution and build a better world. In this regard, I think we can draw on the historical predecessors of abolitionist politics, so obviously anarchism, but also indigenous struggles and black liberation struggles, to name just a couple. I think we can draw important lessons from these struggles because of their relationship to and experience of state repression. I think there is much to learn from the historical idea of self-determination as it played out in liberation struggles here in the US—and of course elsewhere—in past decades. Not least of all because of the direct relationship to the development of the PIC in reaction to, indeed as a counterinsurgency method for the neutralization of, these communities’ struggle for self determination.

I think another strong contribution to our understanding of the state from an abolitionist perspective is its analysis of white supremacy. It should be obvious to us that white supremacy is not simply a matter of sociology, a matter of “backward” interpersonal attitudes that can be overcome by combating ignorance. White supremacy is an institution; it is an active state ideology. Indeed, looking at the US, we can see that white supremacy is among the foundational principles of the development of this country’s sense of self—politically, legally, economically, and geographically. The Black Panthers, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, and other organizations had a very cogent analysis around this, linking their struggles to the then-worldwide struggle against capitalism and imperialism, saying “it is true that our struggle is to overcome capitalism and imperialism but we must understand the particularity of our struggle here in the US to include a struggle against white supremacy.” White supremacy is a very stark element when we examine the PIC. That is, it is very materially evident. We need only look at the percentage of people of color being locked up, murdered by police, economically devastated, deprived of healthcare, etc. We can view the PIC as a continuation of the white supremacist project that has been interwoven into the fabric of the development of the US state itself. And we don’t need to look very hard to see this clearly.

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To be continued on Friday!