Elevate Difference

Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: Activism, Arts, and Educational Alternatives

As a feminist concerned with social justice, in the past year or so I’ve become convinced that dismantling the prison-industrial complex should be a top priority amongst feminists.

This anthology, Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex, edited by Stephen John Hartnett, argues as much, stressing that this very goal “should be at the head of a new human rights agenda for the twenty-first century.” In making this argument, the anthology is comprised of two sections of essays: “Diagnosing the Crisis” and “Practical Solutions, Visionary Alternatives.” The anthology further incorporates artwork and poetry by those who know the dehumanization and injustice of the system firsthand – those incarcerated – in an attempt to “remind readers that the prison-industrial complex does not house monsters but humans.”

The first section addresses how the United States of America has become a “punishing democracy.” That is, a democracy that spends more on prisons than on public education and spends more on punishment than on rehabilitation. In “Diagnosing the Crisis,” the authors note how we became a country with countless prisons and a swelling prison population. Several authors cite the “war on drugs” as a historical policy shift, one which paved the way for zero-tolerance policies which heavily affect – and actually target – communities comprised of poor and working class people of color.

Other essays in this section address how the defunding of public education and social programs works to benefit the prison-industrial complex. I especially appreciated Rose Braz’s and Myesha Williams’ essay “Diagnosing the Schools-to-Prisons Pipeline: Maximum Security, Minimum Learning,” which clarifies how the term high school “dropout” is misleading. They suggest replacing it with “pushout” – a term that more accurately conveys how the current public education system (due to issues of defunding and racism) betrays students of color from at-risk communities and practically ensures their entry into the criminal justice system.

The second half of Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex offers hope and ideas for change through activism and the arts. Essays underscore the need for educational opportunities in prisons, as university professors take it upon themselves to offer college-level courses, GED preparation courses, and college entry exam courses to inmates. Several essays also demonstrate the empowering effects of offering creative workshops and classes to inmates.

These essays detail the hard work, tribulations, and results of providing playwriting workshops in prisons as well as enlisting inmates to stage Shakespearean plays. Such activism provides opportunities for inmates to reclaim their humanity and their voices, as well as provides communities a glimpse into the prison-industrial complex and the people caught up in the system.

The inmates’ artwork and poetry are powerful additions to this anthology. As with any academic text related to social justice, there is the possibility of elevating so-called experts’ thoughts and voices on an issue while simultaneously silencing or absenting the voices of the very people affected the most. Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex seeks to create a balance between the two, in which voices of those both inside and outside the system work in tandem to convey a greater realization of what is happening in our schools, in our communities, and in our prisons.

Ultimately, the conversation surrounding dismantling the prison-industrial complex needs to be happening outside the walls of academia. This is an issue that relates to racism, classism, immigration reform, youth, budget spending, the militarization of our police forces, racist and inaccurate media coverage, the privatization of prisons, physical as well as sexual violence within our prisons, and the disenfranchisement of entire communities across the country – just to name a few. Feminists should be taking an active role in this fight. Abolishing the prison-industrial complex should be routinely discussed and debated on feminist blogs and in feminist publications alongside our efforts to end sexual violence and our fight for reproductive rights.

Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex provides a framework for this discussion as well as steps to dismantle the system. We should all heed the authors’ warnings and advice and work together to reimagine a new democracy.

Written by: Kristen Lambert, April 27th 2011