No one wants to be locked up in a prison. It is a punishment, an absurd medieval form of punishment that’s really quite primitive. In some prisons, violence, abuse and threats — among guards, prison gangs and individuals — are notorious and systematic. All prisons are not equally violent, but all prisons lock up inmates in a “total institution” that controls every little aspect of their life, 24/7. Therefore, all inmates are — without exception — disciplined, humiliated, deprived, socially isolated and exposed to a meaningless life of “killing time.” In this way, prisons dehumanize everyone involved, those carrying keys and those who don’t.
Ironically, prisons are believed to deter and diminish crimes, but they are utterly ineffective. Overwhelming research shows that instead they create criminal identities, cultures and a virtual “schooling” of crime as a way of life. When it comes to political prisoners, we fit that same trend, for other reasons, and are of course not “reformed” either. Quite the opposite: politically motivated criminals’ determination typically increases alongside their stronger identity as dissidents, while often gaining fame and street cred within activist communities.
Despite prisons being inherently violent and total institutions of discipline that clearly do not “work,” they are basically unavoidable if you do resistance. To any resistance movement trying to fundamentally change society and transform existing power relations, prison is part of the reality.
It is simply unfeasible to imagine revolutionary change or a serious challenge to dominant elites without some being incarcerated. It has been part of radical movements throughout history, and it will continue as long as prisons exist.
For radicals like Rosa Parks, Emma Goldman, Emmeline Pankhurst, Gandhi, Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr., prison was part of the struggle; they all spent time inside and it was a constant risk. They were radicals precisely in the sense of not letting that threat stop them.
The real prison inside of us and our culture operates when we decide not to rebel against systemic injustice and exploitation.
Thus, all movements striving for fundamental social change will challenge very powerful vested interests; without risking prison time for some people and, at some stage, they will be unable to achieve their goal without risking prison time. If sometimes change is possible without prison, that is unique and great. When the risk is there, a movement cannot give in.
Even if activists are creative and innovative, finding forms of tolerated actions, using highly sophisticated means against surveillance and arrests or choosing to operate underground, the reality of prison is unavoidable.
It is simple in a way. If you resist you take the risk. As a logical consequence, prison must be part of our movement strategies and preparation as individuals. We need to figure out how to survive it, how to utilize it within our struggle, even if we hope and struggle to one day abolish it.
Of course there is a bigger risk, that movements will face much worse threats of repressive violence, like disappearances, torture, terrorist attacks and assassinations. Alternatively, there are far more sophisticated forms of repression, such as cooptation, fabricated accusations, planted evidence, infiltrations, smear campaigns, character assassinations, large economic punishments and black-listings. We know these risks also exist.
For example, during the U.S. civil rights movement it is clearly documented that Martin Luther King was a victim of an FBI campaign, implying that he was a womanizer. Simultaneously, other civil rights activists were executed in cold blood — sometimes while sleeping in their beds — during police raids under the pretext of a “shoot-out.”
A very different and recent example is Spain’s antimilitarists who have met a state sanctioned “social death”; their loss of all civil rights, the right to employment, study and welfare.
When we embark on a revolutionary struggle, the repression we will face is uncertain. The type and degree of repression varies considerably, depending on factors like the state, the elite interests being threatened and the political conditions. What differs with imprisonment and puts prison in a special category is its universal adoption by states as their main institutionalized means of punishing behavior that is deemed criminal — and incarceration is seen almost universally within all broader societies as a stigma. Therefore, it normally deters mass involvement in illegal political activism. This seems to be the key reason why prisons endure and are widely seen as “working.”
As someone who has spent time in prison for taking political action, I’ve written a lot about the everyday life I encountered and the things that happened inside, mainly to describe how it can be for those people that have never experienced it. My stories are like all other stories; my personal experience of a particular place, written from my perspective, and from a person positioned as a white, middle-aged, physically healthy and strong, educated, and politically well-connected person. I knew why I was there, why I was not an obvious target of racism or exploitation, and that if I was violated, I had lots of contacts within the media, legal system and political circles that I could mobilize.
Still, I experienced threats, dangerous situations, discrimination, humiliations and lots of boredom. Yet, as I’ve tried to show in in my writings, life inside also took on a normality of routines, friendships, joy, pleasures and learning; a life similar to other lives inside a (very) particular community, with its unique blend of injustices and solidarity.
A politics of resistance against prison by the privileged going to prison
Based on this idea that prison is a companion of resistance and all revolutionary struggle, unsurprisingly, some of us take one step further and view prison as part of a resistance strategy, not just a necessary risk. Particularly if you belong to a privileged group in society, you might afford, find the opportunity, or perhaps experience the ethical-political obligation to treat your resistance as also a resistance to the prison system. This is seemingly an odd resistance that uses prison as a means to that end.
This approach is based on the assumption that the main reason for prisons’ universal popularity is that, despite their limited deterrence or curative effect, they are actually highly effective against ordinary law-abiding citizens, particularly those born into the privilege of economic or cultural capital, or other groups with something to lose. While their official function is seriously defunct, even counter-productive, their unofficial function is nonetheless very effective.
The brutal and real violence of prisons is combined with their colorful mythology, which is nurtured not only by repressive states but arguably primarily by the mass media and cultural fiction professionals — through crime stories and moral panics by news media, the “infotainment” of “reality” shows, novels and the movie industry, as well as former inmates’ dramatic stories.
In a deep-seated way, this all adds up to make most people fear prison and stigmatize prisoners. Therefore, prison prevents crime and cures criminals in a very particular sense, by making the vast majority of society afraid of committing a crime.
The prison system is effective when we obey the law of a system that is robbing our children of their future.
On the other hand, prison is ineffective against those perceiving crime as a necessity for survival in a harsh reality, an attractive lifestyle full of treasures and opportunities, or a political means toward revolution. Ultimately, the walls of prisons are not physical, and it has nothing to do with the actual prison buildings. Instead, they are cultural, psychological and political walls permeating our societies. This imaginary network of walls makes people afraid to resist as victims of abuse, injustices and crimes upheld by powerful elites.
This perspective — as held by radical intellectuals such as Foucault, Deleuze, Hardt and Negri — suggests our societies are prisons or societies of discipline; “prison” is merely a symbol that maintains the disciplinary function.
The real prison inside of us and our culture operates when we decide not to rebel against systemic injustice and exploitation. It operates when we — who think and vote progressive, left or radical, who are privileged and middle class, as well as those living in poverty, unemployment, and with dire health care — allow the police to brutalize a Black person on the street without any reason.
It also operates when we tolerate the 1 percent, their mega corporations and big banks, to enjoy extreme affluence while exploiting ordinary people and our nature to the point of normalizing endemic poverty, creating climate collapse, and transforming our environment into toxic wastelands. The prison system is effective when we obey the law of a system that is robbing our children of their future.
Every time we accept injustices, humiliations, discriminations and immoral behavior — just because it emanates from people in power — without fighting back and standing up in solidarity, we are indeed already locked up in the prison society.
People like the brothers Dan and Phil Berrigan — who, together with other anarchist Catholics in the 1980s, initiated the U.S. plowshares movement — have argued that to openly face the risk of prison is an essential part of resistance, since it is necessary to break the obedience that comes from our fear of prison. In this way, resistance is primarily a matter of breaking such fear and obedience, thus primarily a resistance against prisons.
Although it is important in itself to engage in the illegal direct actions of destroying the state’s mass-murder weapons, the plowshares movement’s actions are seen as a means towards a greater end; destroying the prison society that paralyzes our creativity, captivates our communities and diminishes our lives.
If even we who belong to a privileged class in society can go to prison and survive, potentially even creating a tolerable life with some little joy, we can break the real walls of prisons, and ultimately break their political function of repressing rebellions against systemic injustice.
If the masses of a revolutionary movement enter prison and continue to mobilize inside and create solidarity links with those inside and outside, prisons will be exposed for what they are: means of repression of all citizen.
When you resist prisons and their repressive function you also enter the prison community, the life inside jails. Those that tend to forcibly end up in prison belong to groups deemed outcast or criminal cultures, mainly Black, Indigenous, and people of color, or BIPOC. By definition, disproportionately few from privileged groups end up there.
Therefore, for people from privileged backgrounds, it can be a radicalizing experience, a very different political education presenting the reality of injustice, a chance to socialize in the everyday with people from marginalized communities. It is then a unique chance to learn from the experiences of marginalization.
The risk with this kind of system-critical approach to resistance that puts prison in focus, is of course that it emanates from a very privileged place — it might even appear to romanticize prison. That is seriously delusional, since it then becomes the opposite of a radical prison critique; an idealization of prisons’ inherently violent and brutal dehumanization, primarily against non-privileged people. Such a distorted perspective clearly comes not only from a privileged place, but also a politically naïve one, from those confident that they do not risk prison simply because they are not BIPOC within a white racist society.
Therefore, the point I make is the opposite of romanticizing prison. Prisons are inherently violent systems of humiliation that contribute to certain societal groups’ marginalization and stigmatization, in branding non-privileged cultures or people “criminal.” My point is that the reason we still keep these seriously insane institutions is because they keep the vast majority of law-abiding citizens in line: productive and obedient.
This highly effective function of the prison system only works if those who are critical of the society, but come from a privileged position, continue fearing prison. It is in itself an expression of privilege to believe that you can really challenge elites and vested interests in society and still avoid incarceration. If the masses of a revolutionary movement enter prison and continue to mobilize inside and create solidarity links with those inside and outside, prisons will be exposed for what they are: means of repression of all citizens by exploitative elites.
Thus, although it might sound absurd, doing resistance is both about resisting injustices in society, and about tearing down prison walls, by accepting to go to prison for something you believe in. Privileged people doing time is key to destroying the cultural fear of prison. Ultimately, this is necessary, since in order to be truly human and create the Beloved Community sometime in the future, we must liberate ourselves from our morally corrupting obedience to injustice, especially those of us who benefit from the existing system through our privileges.
Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.
Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.