The Prison Industrial Complex and Political Prisoners

By Hans Bennett
Z Magazine,
February, 2009

2008 marked the ten-year anniversaries of both the prison abolitionist Critical Resistance (CR) conference in Oakland, CA that coined the phrase “prison industrial complex” (PIC) and the National Jericho Movement’s march in Washington DC that demanded the release of all US political prisoners and prisoners of war. To commemorate the 1998 events, the CR10 conference was held in Oakland in September, and Jericho organized a march to the United Nations in October.

These two important events in 1998 successfully re-energized the prison-activist and political prisoner support movements rooted in the 1960s and 1970s. However, while recognizing this accomplishment, three new books document how the prison industrial complex has actually grown bigger and stronger since 1998, while the post-911 climate has further escalated political repression. While recognizing this frustrating reality, these new books look honestly at both the accomplishments and shortcomings of the last ten years.


Let Freedom Ring


Let Freedom Ring: A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free US Political Prisoners, is an epic 877-page compilation of both pre-existing documents and original articles. Explaining the context of its release, editor Matt Meyer cites the recent persecution of the San Francisco Eight, who are former Black Panther Party (BPP) members being charged with a 30-year old crime. Beginning with the 2006 grand jury, “the state threw down a gauntlet. When it became clear that the investigations were reopening cases based on evidence obtained primarily through torture, the message was unmistakable: Be afraid, be very afraid, and don’t even think of fighting back. When these same men stood strong, firm on the principle that they would not take part in a new, government sponsored witch-hunt, they sent a counter-message on behalf of us all: we will not allow our communities, our struggles, our communities, our very lives to be criminalized by a corrupt and racist criminal justice system.” This spirit of resistance to state repression flows throughout Let Freedom Ring.

The book’s many sections focus on a wide range of US political prisoners, featuring both facts about their case, and actual writing from the prisoners themselves. One particularly interesting section is titled Resisting Repression: Out and Proud, which includes the classic 1991 interview “Dykes and Fags Want to Know: Interview with Lesbian Political Prisoners,” featuring Laura Whitehorn (released in 1999), a well as Linda Evans and Susan Rosenberg, who were both pardoned by President Clinton in 2001. Also notable is a 1991 speech given by former BPP political prisoner Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, who was released after 19 years. Considered a groundbreaking speech from a Black Muslim revolutionary, Bin-Wahad declared that “we can not build a new society if we premise that society on the oppression of other people.” Continuing the legacy of BPP co-founder Huey P. Newton, he argued that fighting the oppression of women and GLBTs is inseparable from the fight against capitalism, racism, and all oppression. Also featured is a tribute to the late Kuwasi Balagoon, who died in prison of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1986. In the words of poet Walidah Imarisha, Balagoon “was an anarchist in a Black nationalist movement, he was queer in a straight dominated movement, he was a guerrilla fighter after it was ‘chic,’ and he…demanded to be seen not as a revolutionary icon, but as a person, beautiful and flawed.”

An entire section focuses on death-row journalist, MOVE supporter, and former BPP member Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is currently asking the US Supreme Court to consider his case for a new guilt-phase trial. Abu-Jamal’s death sentence was somewhat overturned in 2001 when the US District Court ruled that he needs a new sentencing-phase trial if the DA still wants to execute. The US Third Circuit Court affirmed this 2001 ruling in March, 2008, but Abu-Jamal has still never left his death-row cell, and the Philadelphia DA is appealing this 2001/2008 ruling to US Supreme Court. If the DA wins their appeal, Abu-Jamal could then be executed without a new sentencing-phase trial. A decision from the Court on whether it will consider these two appeals is expected in early 2009.

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