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by Myron Payne

(The following is excerpted from a longer piece.)

Prison is a violent, malevolent, and degrading environment and historically has not been conducive to positive, meaningful human growth, or so-called “rehabilitation.” Prisoners, for the most part, find it difficult if not impossible to receive the help they need in order to become a productive member of society upon release. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but across the country and around the world imprisonment remains a suppressive, oppressive, soul-crushing environment. And, in America where racial minorities make up the majority of those imprisoned, the struggle for many of Afrikan descent began on the shores of another continent far across the Atlantic.

Many of us contend that slavery exists to this day within the confines of American prisons, where prisoners of all races and ethnicities are held as captive slaves. This concept is nothing new, it began to take form as far back as the reign of Louis XIV of France (1643-1715), when the Benedictine monk Mabillion wrote: “Penitents might be secluded in cells like those of Carthusian monks, and there be employed in various sorts of labor.”

Following the American Civil War and at the end of “chattel slavery,” vast numbers of black males were imprisoned for everything from refusing to sign slave-like labor contracts with plantation owners to looking the “wrong way” at white people. These examples of social and institutionally sanctioned racism are examples of hierarchical societal improprieties that have stubbornly persisted over time. From 1910-1950 blacks made up 23-34% of the U.S. prison population, which has only risen over the following decades.

The Reagan-era “War on Drugs” led to an accelerated rate of incarceration in this country; while the U.S. accounts for 5% of the world’s population, we house an alarming 25% of the world’s incarcerated. The “tough on crime” political and social narrative allowed prison populations to explode, leaving vast warehouses of disenfranchised persons, overwhelmingly and disproportionately people of color and urban poor.

I believe that the U.S. prison system is at a crucial stage. If it continues on its present course it will explode, leaving a minefield of demoralized and dehumanized people that may eventually result in a backlash of destruction and hatred. For the sake of humanity, a meaningful intent toward positive, productive change in the way we punish and incarcerate must be established. All reform meets with resistance; it is our job, all of us, to persist and prevail.

Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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