The following is a brief but thorough statement on pris
ons and those who would contest them. It offers a broad
critique of many commonly-held assumptions and posi
tions that could characterize leftist and anarchist political
practice with regard to prison and prisoners. In particular
we chose to reprint the article here (it originally appeared
in the magazine
Fire to the Prisons #10
) because of its
poignant criticism of the prison “abolitionist” movement
which has grown in the last few years.
While we recognize that not all prison abolition
ists are the same, this movement has predominantly por
trayed itself as an attempt to “shrink” the Prison-Industrial
Complex into non-existence while gradually replacing the
prison with other less brutal (but, inevitably, state-con
trolled or sanctioned) insitutions. This means not so much
the dissapearance of prisons but the permeation of their
mechanisms (constant surveillance, the militarization of
police, etc.) throughout all of society. It indicates not
prison abolition but prison
: the removal of one
aspect of an oppressive body politic while all the struc
tures that gave rise to it remain.
Unfortunately, some anarchists have taken up not
only the rhetoric of the prison abolitionist movement, but
even its methods: policy campaigns, the negotiation of
demands, the separation of political from social prison
ers, appeals to amnesty and innocence, the avoidance of
engaging with actually rebellious prisoners on the inside.
In other words, those tactics characteristic of a gradualist
As revolutionaries, we believe there are other
options. As demonstrated by recent waves of demon
strations outside jails and prisons which declare proudly
“Free All Prisoners,” not to mention the massive strike
that shook Georgia prisons last December, or even the
repeatedly successful attacks upon immigrant detention
centers in Italy, there are other ways to attack the prison
that do not necessitate capitulation or ablation. We print
this in the hope that such methods will spread, and the
ideas behind them will find good soil in which to grow.
-the NC Piece Corps
and we demand some inmates be released early. It is unfortunate
that such a thing had to happen, they reason, but it is worth
getting our message into the media, because that will get us closer
to our goals, which we know are in the prisoners’ and society’s best
They are right that there will still be prisons. But for what reasons
do prisons persist? Is it because prisoners set fire to them, or
because insurrection is not sufficiently generalized?
The prisons are being destroyed, right now. Prisoners around the
world are taking every available opportunity to make holes and set
fires, to sabotage cameras and take guards hostage. Of course there
is also stillness, inertia, falling-into-line, but beneath the sound of
feet falling in rhythm are the odd sounds of the scratching of a
knife, the turning of pages, and the tinkering of wire against an
electrical socket; following that, the distinct sound of an electrical
spark is heard, and the scent of something burning wafts through
It is not enough–and what’s more, it is not a joyful approach–to
gradually empty the prisons of the prisoners through new social
programs and campaigns, letting their shells stand hollow. The
silhouettes of empty prisons would stand as reminders of a grave
mistake, but we would never be free. Let us seek the feeling of a
prisoner taking a sledgehammer to her cell.
There is a story that comes from the occupation of the abandoned
Alcatraz prison island by the Indians of All Tribes between 1969 and
1971. We do not know where this story came from or if it ‘really’
happened, only that it has taken root in our minds. According to
the legend, one of the people involved in the occupation had been
imprisoned at Alcaltraz in his earlier years. When he arrived
on the island, he searched through the prison for some time and
eventually came to the cell in which he’d been locked up. Taking up a
sledgehammer, the man destroyed the walls of the cell, block by cement
block. It was hard work, and he was many years in age, and by the
time he was done he was exhausted. He put down the sledgehammer
and sank to the ground, with the ruins of the old cage around him.
in systems of social control. When populations of sex workers,
people of color, and drug users are decriminalized, with assault
and property crimes managed through restorative justice, the
true criminals would come out in starker contrast–the outlaws,
the rebels, the pirates. They must be dealt with. So prison
can be abolished in such a way that the troublemakers are still
locked away in an institution that isn’t called prison, or undergo
‘treatment’ and are reintegrated into society, while the rest of us
live in a different kind of prison.
The “prison abolition movement” that is viewed as a radical
social movement today, is set to become the establishment of
tomorrow, to the extent that the Left is able mobilize its forces
more effectively than the Right and if such changes are in the
interest of maintaining or increasing production and social
control. The project is already under way, from the house arrest
and ankle GPS monitor to the Breathalyzer in the automobile, to
the decriminalization of marijuana in some states and that drug’s
establishment in legitimate markets, to the reductions in prison
populations under the stress of budget shortfalls and prison riots.
The abolitionist argument, “look how the prison population has
grown in the past thirty or forty years” has already become obsolete
as states begin to cut back their prison populations to balance
their budgets. It is one thing to resist the growth of prisons; it is
another to desire their destruction even while they are shrinking.
Abolition is framed, like all social movements, by quantitative
goals–capacity building, prisonreduction campaigns, and the
abolition of prison as achievable in so many years. Campaign
goals include decreased sentences, early release programs,
decriminalization, alternative justice models. Steps in the right
direction. Small changes that reduce total prisonpopulations. The
logic is that we can numerically reduce prisons out of existence, or
on the flip side, that we can numerically build a movement that is
large and efficient enough to abolish them.
The same quantity-driven movement would claim that the
destruction of a prison by fire is not effective. The prisoners will
be transferred, the dormitories rebuilt, there will still be prisons.
Instead of creating concrete solidarity through outside revolt,
activists would willingly use the prisoners’ riots as a means to an
end. They say, see, this riot shows that the prisons are overcrowded
Take your Mark, Get Ready, Ablate:
by August O’Clairre
There are no political
prisoners, only prisoners of war.
“I am not a crook.” — Richard M. Nixon
Between the realm of criminality and that of the political there is
a wide chasm. Politicians make the law, criminals break it. In this
context, the idea of the political prisoner emerges as a contradiction
in terms. In fact, the contradiction is so fundamental that it forms
the basis for many appeals for the liberation of political prisoners.
The argument is made that political prisoners are a special class of
prisoner who are not criminals at all, but people who engaged in
legal political action.
This is one understanding of a political class of prisoners–they
have not infringed upon the law, but rather the law has been
wielded against them in order to prevent their political activity.
The reason political prisoners exist is because revolutionaries are a
threat to the law as it exists, and the law imprisons them out of its
own self-interest. This understanding is most applicable prisoners
who are clearly innocent–Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal; in
the United States, the list is not long.
But while the image of innocence is appealing to those who love
the law, and although the air of innocence is routinely deployed
in campaigns to defend comrades who have committed crime,
this notion of innocence makes no stab at the law which decides
innocence and guilt. The law not only acts in its own defense, it
also ensures that revolutionaries commit crime. So revolutionaries
outline a theory of illegal morality–in order to change the law,
one must break the law. Criminality, then, is not an inherent
desire of the revolutionary, but a condition placed upon her by the
state. Political prisoners are not only composed of the innocent,
but also of people who broke the law for the “right” reasons. They
sentences,’ even if the everyday beatings of prisoners are replaced by
sly agreements and assimilated by correctional policies in accordance
with the ‘human rights’ model, even if the ‘white cells’ turn ‘pink,’ and
heroine gives way to methadone we will remain forever enemies of any
structure that denies us our freedom.” — anonymous
The argument has been made that prison cannot be abolished
without the abolition of the entire system of law, production,
control, and so forth. If we define prison in its totality, the
argument stands not only as true but as a truism, since prison
includes all of those. But the abolition movement defines the
prison as if it was a blot on the perfect society, a cancerous tumor
that could be cut away. We seem to come together on the common
urge to do away with prisons, but in actuality the foundation is
being laid for a betrayal. If to abolitionists prison is only a place,
then prisons can indeed be abolished separately from the rest, like
slavery, at least in name.
If the abolition movement succeeds we may see a world without
prisons, in which we are yet locked up. Imprisonment will have
changed form, changed name; like slavery, we will say that it does
not exist anymore, but control must be established nevertheless.
How could this be managed? Social control would be deployed
through advancements in surveillance, policing and architecture-
-essentially, the mechanisms of the prison diffused through all
sectors of the metropolis–while the prison population would
be drastically reduced by decriminalizing certain crimes and
instituting alternative sentencing. People who had spent the last
ten or twenty years behind bars would be released into the streets,
only to find that the world outside appears and feels more like
prison than it used to. Eerily, George Orwell’s 1984 describes a
society without prisons–that is to say, a society existing as a single
And yet, even the subjugated population has its outliers. The
main character of Orwell’s narrative is arrested, and instead of
imprisonment he faces a process of politicization. So it must be
with the ‘abolition’ of prison. As the general population comes
under greater control and decriminalization, overseen by nicer
police and friendlier government bodies that facilitate a restorative
justice process between parties, there will still be a sector of
humanity who make war on society and refuse to participate
The social order changes things as it sees fit. Free a few thousand
prisoners to reduce the overcrowding that can lead to riots. Build
a new jail. The budget is tight, though, and it is expensive to
maintain prisons. There will be a focus on rehabilitation and
restoration more than punishment; meanwhile, prisoners will be
transferred to privately-owned facilities, because the government
can pay a corporation less per head than they do to run their
own prisons, while the prison owners still turn a profit. Certain
substances will be decriminalized. The sentencing for ghetto
drugs will remain harsher than for their white suburban forms.
These are games to them. They are playing with our lives, moving
us around like pieces on a chess board. They carefully consider
every move, not because they care, but because they want to win
One and a half centuries ago, slavery was abolished by the United
States government. This followed an enormous social struggle
over abolition–wars were fought between pro-slavery elements
and abolitionist elements. There were slave revolts and armed
uprisings. The government intervened. And the Thirteenth
Amendment ever-so-neatly includes a loophole allowing for the
enslavement of prisoners (“except as a punishment for crime
whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”). Moreover, the
economic system of chattel slavery was replaced with indentured
servitude and industrial wage labor–which the Northern
capitalists were struggling to proliferate. So today, we have slavery,
although slavery has been abolished. The structures of society that
required slaves have remained intact. And in one hundred years,
prisons may be abolished, but we will still have prisons as long as
capitalism remains intact.
So if we learn a lesson from this, we should not struggle for another
Emancipation Proclamation, for abolition granted by the state.
Many abolitionists would deny that that is what their struggle
aims for; others would openly admit it is–they say, “I am not an
anarchist, but an abolitionist.” The repetition of old gestures is
executed with precision.
“Even if prisons were transformed from human storerooms into luxury
hotels, even if the prisoners of all prisons are satisfied with ‘reduced
are prisoners of war. Defined in this way, the list of prisoners of
war remains small–one hundred prisoners in the United States,
give or take. One half of one hundredth of one percent of the
The categorization of political prisoners as revolutionaries who
have committed moral crimes does not appeal to those who love
the law, but it resonates with individuals who take sides in a war
to change the law. The demand for the release of a prisoner of
war cannot be based on innocence, and so it is based on amnesty.
Amnesty is the process of releasing of prisoners who have been
taken hostage during a war between states, after the war has
ended. It is remarkable how easily the practice of amnesty can be
translated to prisoners of a war within a state, particularly when
the prisoners considered themselves a different nation or sought
through revolution to establish a new government. Although the
revolutionary war is a civil war, it is fought between two states–
one established, and the other in attempted uprising.
Political conflict is always fought between states that are either
existent or revolutionary. A conflict in which the insurgents are
not a government-in-rising themselves–if we can imagine such
a conflict–would not be called political conflict, but social war.
Social war is the expanded form of class war; class no longer marks
the limits of social struggle, if it ever did.
Amnesty is an inherently defeatist position to take, one that is
contingent upon surrender. In order for prisoners of war to be
released, the war must be over, the prisoners no longer combatants,
and they must be released into a climate of social peace, a peace
their comrades will maintain.
The approaches of innocence and amnesty shouldn’t draw a knee-
jerk criticism, but rather should be placed in the context of the
politics from which they are derived–a politics that appeals to
those who love the law, and a politics of war between different
forms of government. Without passing judgment on the former
approaches, let us say that they fit their positions, and then
consider our own position. Specifically, we should look again at
the distinction between political conflict and social war.
“Al Sharpton… You’re… a little more political, and that just means
you’re a little more unhuman, than us humans. Ha!” — ‘Lil Wayne
‘Lil Wayne said it best–to be political is to be a little unhuman.
That is nothing to be particularly ashamed of, for it is a pervasive
condition in society. Capitalism makes us all unhuman, to be
a man is to be a little unhuman, to be a woman is to be a little
unhuman, to be white, to be a worker, to be a homosexual. The
social order is constructed so that we each have our place, our
roles, identities. These are political formations. It is a political
formation that the anarchist exists as an identity and, therefore, as
a tiny segment of society.
Politics is the discourse of power. Perspectives and tactics vary
widely, but it is the same discourse that contains them. The
political individual, then, is a person with a plan for society.
Plans and programmes may threaten the existing power form,
but they are not a serious threat to power itself. In the event of
social upheaval, the politicos can be counted upon for a platform,
leadership, and ultimately the restoration or maintenance of state
and capital. When the existing politicians are unpopular, different
ones are on hand, and if the social upheaval is radical enough, there
will be some radical politicians who become well-positioned for a
grasp at power as the vanguard or representative of the people.
From the perspective of the social order–which is to say, not the
specific forms of power that come in and out of dominance, but
of power itself–the revolutionary politician is a last line of defense,
a fail-safe in upheavals that would otherwise be most devastating.
Discourse. A bomb is placed at a building of the Federal Bureau
of Investigations, but its blast does not speak for itself, because
its engineers also crafted a message and sent it to the media
outlets, denouncing the evils of the agency and making demands.
As an action, one might say, nothing could be more radical
than a bombing; yet the action remains within the context of a
negotiation with power. Indeed, the political dialogue between
parties that makes up the social order could hardly exist without
some fringe groups planting bombs, so close are negotiation and
violence to its heart. The fringe group does not have access to
the political spectacle enough to proliferate its messages that
way, and so it makes a spectacle of itself. It is unable to stand
within the halls where formal negotiation takes place and routine
violence is deployed, so it deploys spectacular violence as informal
Prison cannot be
abolished, only destroyed.
“Burn, baby, burn” — rioters in Warkworth Canada shouting as their
former prison went up in flames
Without resorting to prophecy, it is arguable that the state could
abolish prisons in a way that would not only continue its existence
but restore its health.
Let it not be said that what follows is a critique of abolition as
reformist; the thrust is something altogether different. Here
is what can be said of the old dichotomy between reform and
revolution. In place of the claim that reform prevents revolution,
it would be more accurate to propose that there is normality,
and then there are cracks that appear across its surface. In each
insurrection we know of, the so-called revolutionaries did as
much to contain, police, squash, or seek to lead the insurrection
as any reformist. That is not to say that individuals who desire
insurrection cannot open spaces of insurrection, but that in the
process, we must confront ‘revolutionaries’ along with ‘reformists’.
It is said, “shit happens”; well, reform happens. Let us be clear:
if the state offers the abolition of prisons, or the release of a few
thousand prisoners, no one is going to lock himself back up in
his cell. To do so would be stupid. We’ll take what we can get.
Shorter sentences, longer chains, food that almost resembles food.
Lovely. Only a fool would reject reforms.
But we would reject prisons. We do not intend to spend our
lives asking for things from the ones who took everything from
us. It is not only against the interest of our jailers, it is not even
in their power to give us what we want, because we want our lives
back. We will get what we can take. Only a fool would accept
confinement, the hole.
No matter where one is located in free society, with some rare
exceptions made for the powerful, one exists under the threat of
prison. Prison is a Judgment Day which, like the trumpet of the
archangel, could be sounded at any time, but feels nearest during
acts of sin. We are controlled through the existence of prisons
because we are not in them. With the threat of incarceration
comes a sense of the precarity of one’s freedom, which can invoke
the desire to carpe diem. And so the escaped convict lives wildly
in freedom while her risk of imprisonment is highest; and so the
prisoner with a life sentence feels he has nothing left to lose. But
the majority occupy a space that is neither the heaven of being on
the lam nor the hell of being condemned, but a pale grey limbo
in which the desire for somebody to do something is constantly
felt and constantly deferred. This is the total incarceration of the
The mechanisms of prison creep across the metropolis. Through
architecture, psychology, and technological force, prison has
perfected the control of movement, the management of time,
the neutralization of threats, the universalization of surveillance,
the separation of public and private space, the breaking up of life
into a series of functions deemed essential–sleep, consumption
of food, physical exercise, work, religious practice. These have
become familiar to ‘free’ individuals. We do not need to rely on
experts and research, for we know prison all too well.
After a recent prison riot, the experts published a study declaring
the prison food was the cause. We know that it is not food, but
hunger that causes prison riots.
There are other names for the pervasive condition of incarceration.
Capitalism: a system of social relationships through which life
is reproduced into deadness, or non-life. On the physical level
it produces commodities from living beings and the earth;
temporally, it turns life into labor (“Capital is dead labor” – Karl
Marx); on the level of relationship it creates the spectacle from
the ‘unity-of-life’ (“The spectacle in its generality is a concrete
inversion of life; and, as such, the autonomous movement of non-
life.” – Guy Debord). Politics: the discourse of power that makes
us less than human. Politics, prison, and capital: agents in the
production of deadness.
negotiation. Its demands may be wildly improbable and far too
radical for the platforms of government, and yet it has “made its
voice heard.” The tactics we employ, from discussion to bombing,
are irrelevant compared to a question of what they aim towards–
the restructuring of power or its dissolution?
On the one hand, there is the question of power and how it ought
to be structured and maintained, and on the other there is the
question of whether it ought to be structured and maintained
at all. Political individuals engage in the former question–the
discourse of power and political struggle. Everyone is involved
in the latter question–the discourse of biopower and social war.
Biopower is the intersection of power with our bodies, resulting
in their subjugation, management, and control. Its discourse,
then, is not of the kind heard in the halls of Congress, but that
between ourselves and police, politicians, activists, managers,
lawyers, judges. Also in the spaces between our bodies, our bodies
and machines, our bodies and the school, hospital, prison and
“All prisoners are political.” – various
There exists a third definition of political prisoners. As the
movement for prison abolition has grown on the Left, there
has been a tendency to radically expand the bounds of who are
designated as political prisoners. And a radical new phrasing has
been inscribed in the pages of the Leftist Bible: “All prisoners are
political.” It is a kind gesture, but only because it is made by people
for whom the label ‘political’ is a compliment. Perhaps we should
have first asked the prisoners if they wanted to be political. What,
and stop saying ‘bitch’? What word could be more degrading than
‘political’ to apply to people without their consent?
This tendency seems to overlook that the original reason for
describing some prisoners as political was to illuminate our bonds
of affinity–to identify prisoners of a war that we are fighting on
the same side of. There are Nazis behind those walls. Let them
free, certainly–the better to crack their skulls–but surely we can
express our desires without expressing solidarity with our enemies.
“Any movement that does not support their political internees … is a
rediscovering our bodies and living energy. Insurrection will never
be the political activity of revolutionaries, for it is the criminal
activity of becoming human.
There is no prison,
“Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country,
all of ‘real America’, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there
to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal
omnipresence, which is carceral).” – Jean Baudrillard
“Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks,
hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” – Foucault, Discipline and
Prison is not a discrete place; its force and logic are distributed
across the metropolis. Put another way, there is a place that is
prison, and then there is a tendency, a way of managing life,
that is prison. The place and the tendency are not two, but one.
Macrocosm, microcosm. To speak of prisons as if they were
separate from the rest of society is to equivocate. What we call
prisons are a node in the prison-metropolis that are indicative of
how the metropolis functions as a whole, and without which the
rest could not function. Prison is a totality–something that one
cannot escape from, but only shift positions within.
One’s position in society corresponds to vastly different degrees
of freedom. There is the difference between being in prison or
being free. Differences in probation and parole status, differences
in citizenship and documentation, social class, gender, race.
Meanwhile inside theprison there are power relationships between
inmates, guards and other authorities, there are hierarchies of
every sort, and there is the “prison within the prison”–solitary
sham movement” — Ojore N. Lutalo, anarchist and former prisoner
And now we come to the crux of it. The recognition that
prison is bad for our friends, the disgust and anger we feel at the
incarceration of people we care about, is the grounding for any
desire to do away with prisons entirely. Underlying the various
classifications of “political” prisoners is an urge that is human and
natural–the urge to support our imprisoned comrades, as well as
the recognition that they are often treated more harshly by the
state because of their position in war. We have no shit to sling
at solidarity, only at the hordes who have wrung that word dry
of every drop of meaning it once had, and at the idea that this
practice is inherently radical.
In fact, solidarity has nothing to do with what side one is on, and
everything to do with the understanding that one is on a side-
-that is, at war. For anyone who comes to life as in a state of
war, there is nothing more natural than to support their comrades
in prison. While some anarchists are regrettably devoid of a
practice of solidarity with their imprisoned comrades, that serves
as a reasonable indication of their position toward war as well
as friendship. Either they witness no war, or they do not seem
themselves in it, or they do not see prisoners as their comrades.
So it goes.
There are many prisoners of war, and their nations have their backs
as a matter of course. From the POW/MIA flags one sees flying
at veterans’ posts across this nation, to the revolutionary solidarity
with prisoners of the Irish Republican Army, to the Cuban Five
freedom campaign, to the prison support networks of the Nazis
and the mafia, everyone supports their family, their nation, their
Some of us, however, are fighting a different kind of war. One in
which we are not fighting for a nation, an ideology, or political
power, but in a struggle to destroy all of those. A war that is
qualitatively distinct. The only war that could not only free our
own prisoners of war, but destroy the prisons.
In the war against all that, we do not perceive criminality as
the infringement of just law, nor as a necessary and just means
to revolution. Crime is anti-political desire, our engagement in