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America’s Prison System is a Moral Abomination


On Sunday night, the deadliest prison riot in decades took place at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. Seven men were killed, and more than a dozen more were hurt. Guards waited four hours to respond to the violence. The best coverage you’re likely to see of it was on Democracy Now! this morning, where Amy Goodman interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning author-activist Heather Ann Thompson. (I will come back at the end here to why I post a video link rather than a newspaper article.)

I study police, not prisons. The two are obviously related, but are also distinct and I cannot claim expertise on the latter. But even if someone knows very little about either, it is not at all hard to understand how people confined in the world’s most sprawling and punitive prison system end up lashing out — especially when they are housed in conditions like this:

To the degree that American penal institutions ever were interested in “rehabilitation,” that pretense has completely slipped away in recent generations. The prison system now is effectively nothing more than a system of human caging and human cruelty — one that disproportionately and relentlessly targets the poor and people of color.

This past September, as part of my role as Director of African American Studies at my university, I brought Angela Davis to campus for a public talk. The bulk of her speech was devoted to the abolition of prisons. Multiple colleagues and students have approached me since then asking how prison abolition could possibly be implemented or how a society without prisons could possibly be safe. My response? I don’t know, but moral people have, at the very least, an obligation to begin the work of reimagining — dramatically — the size and contours and basic inhumanity of our police and prison systems. It is incumbent on all of us both individually and collectively.

I also know that the media has done little to help us here. The Times has since updated their story that Thompson links to in this Tweet, in a way that has eliminated some of its vilest representations of incarcerated people. But it and most other media’s initial coverage of what happened at Lee was terrible, and talked about incarcerated people as thought they were animals. Journalists and citizens alike have a moral obligation to take seriously (and talk about compassionately) the fundamental humanity of incarcerated people, as well as to take seriously (and condemn robustly) the fundamental inhumanity of America’s system of human caging. That is a very basic first step.

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