The Undisciplined and Punishment

In the past several years a lively list serve has evolved that addresses issue of incarceration and justice in the United States. Each night I log on to messages that range from desperate pleadings for someone life to cautious discussions of what the slogans should be on the posters for the next Mumia march. There are technical descriptions of prison architecture and quests for herbal cures to cell block bronchitis epidemics. It is the underside of what is one of our leading industries: locking people up.

Prisons are a big business here: construction of cells, outfitting of facilities, training and equipping guards are some of the expenses of an industry that is sapping state and local funds for education and welfare. In the past seven years California has increased prison spending by 500 per cent, while scaling back higher education by 25 percent. In the state capital of Sacramento, the prison guard union is the biggest lobby force, out-flanking tobacco and agribusiness. The prison contractors, law enforcement suppliers (stun guns, barbed wire, restraint suits, etc) and the guards' union were able to join forces to pass the Three Strike Law to ensure long terms and full cells. The US has more people per capita behind bars than any where on earth.  At present almost two million people are behind bars: five million are in the system if you include those awaiting sentencing or on parole. Women are the fastest growing sector. And especially women of color. Finally equal justice under the law.

Prisons have become a key source of labor, with many transnational corporations contracting with states to manufacture goods and set up telemarketing stations. TWA and Eddie Bauer Sporting Goods use prisoners to work their phone reservations and orders. Microsoft Windows 95 was packaged, shrink-wrapped and shipped by incarcerated workers. The State of California put it this way: "Why go abroad, when you can have a disciplined workforce here at home?" in a video to entice more corporations to join the "Joint Ventureship Program" of placing factories in prisons. As more and more U.S. businesses become entwined in this booming industry, it seems harder and harder to reverse this trend, even though crime rates are low every where but on television.

However, in response to these conditions there are a variety of resistant activities that range from grass roots demonstrations to full page ads in the New York Times to save Mumia Abu Jamal. Abu Jamal is the first internationally recognized U.S. Death Row prisoner since the Rosenbergs were executed during the Cold War ( For many in the United States, Mumia is The Voice of the Voiceless (the title of a radio show which he hosted before his arrest), the symbol of those masses behind bars, and a figurehead for the broad movement of those who are resisting the prison industrial complex.

The counter prison movement is perhaps the most focused and viable of activist groupings in the U.S. at the present time. The people involved are ex prisoners, families of prisoners, Quaker and other religious peace activists, victims for reconciliation, human rights workers, Vietnam vets, the Bruderhof (a Christian Communist network of communities numbering several thousand), academics from sociology to geography to cultural studies, philosophers, lawyers, parole officers and guards. For this diverse crew the internet has become a major tool.

There are countless web sites for individual prisoners and pages for organizations and coalitions. A clearing house in Berkeley, The Prison Activist Resource Center, has been a central node ( in much of the activity, maintaining both a list serve and a web site with numerous links. The Center was one of the central organizers of the successful Critical Resistance Conference in Berkeley in September, 1998, a gathering of over 4,000 prison activists and spokespersons.

Prisons are usually located in rural areas, far from the urban centers where most of their population is from. A growing trend in incarceration is a move to having private corporations contract with states and cities to house prisoners. One of the results of the increased privatization of prisons is the fact that many states contract for the housing and care of prisoners across state lines. So someone arrested in Missouri could end up in Texas, where the cost of maintenance is lower, and access to legal aid and human rights may be harder to come by. One way that prisoner's families use the web is by creating individual prisoners pages with personal histories, art work, poetry and addresses. Usually posted by parents or spouses and friends, these sites become a virtual presence of the loved one who is often far from home. Although many prison families do not have personal computers, they can log in at the local library, school or cyber cafe. There is an anecdote that a cleaning woman in a large New York law firm logs on in the evening not only to activist sites, but to on-line law journals and case records to work on legal strategies for her husband's case. (

A mother's site is at A site for high end machines is Lacresha Murray Watch out, it crashed my computer with all its streaming video and graphic arpeggios. It's an amazing story of an eleven year old child who has been sentenced to twenty five years.

The web can also be a way to keep tune to the latest in instruments of repression. There are many industry sites where you can order handcuffs and pepper spray. ( There are counter cop sites such as

Hundreds of service organizations are posting sites: activist against unjust sentencing ( the Bruderhof Christian radicals (

There are many artists web sites addressing these issues. The graphics collective, Third World War, has posted a series of comic style drawings and texts. David Thorne and others have created a series of posters which are posted on line. ( Various political prisoners have posted drawings of their cells. Many sites have prisoners drawings and paintings. There are many prison poems and drawings on the Deep Dish site. ( A web page of the Critical Resistance Conference is archived there on line. I worked with Gina Todus, Chris Burnett and members of Paper Tiger San Francisco to stream audio from that conference and post cultural material and statistics from the conference. The site has been accessed by thousands of users and is still being up-dated.

An overview site is posted at
And one on the maximum security units is at shu
Many black nationalists see the U.S. prison system as genocide, and compare it to South Africa under apartheid:

A list serve with postings of thirty or forty messages a day is maintained by the Prison Activist Resource Center. For some the list serve is literally a matter of life and death. The most desperate messages are the pleas from mothers or wives or children trying to enlist help to beg for pardons as the execution date nears. There are currently almost 4000 people on Death Rows awaiting executions. Email campaigns have been used successfully to get medical attention for sick prisoners, or to obtain eye glasses, and there is always hope that a flood of messages will startle a governor or member of the state supreme court to take notice and review a capital case. The list serve is the center of many controversies. One very active member is Cayenne Bird who is said to the wife of an inmate who was killed by guards. She is quite patriotic and her site has billowing American flags as a background. She has been critical of the fact that former Black Panther and ex-Communist Party USA member Angela Davis has emerged as one of the main leaders of the prison activist community. Cayenne does not consider herself a radical and spends much of her time trying to register voters.

Cayenne has many on-going arguments with other list members. For a very brief period of time, a volunteer at the server (The Institute for Global Communication) tried managing the site and editing the mail. The hue and cry that ensued was deafening and worse than all the on-going spats. He quickly apologized and the site continues in its free form and often cantankerous manner.

At its best the list serve is a true life line for the thousands of prison activists and families of prisoners out there waging what has been lonely battles against powerful state and corporate apparati and the peculiar form of state slavery that has evolved in this post Cold War World. The prison movement for many of us battle scarred lefties is the final battle: one which looks at the true end stage of "free market" capital.

We are looking at the face of fascism in America.
We are the enemy.

DeeDee Halleck, University of California, San Diego
February, 1999