How Is a Prison Like a War?

Published on Global (first on War is a Crime), by David Swanson, Nov 13, 2014.

The similarities between mass incarceration and mass murder have been haunting me for a while, and I now find myself inspired by Maya Schenwar’s excellent new book Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. This is one of three books everyone should read right away. The others are The New Jim Crow and Burning Down the House, the former with a focus on racism in incarceration, the latter with a focus on the incarceration of youth. Schenwar’s is an overview of incarceration in all its absurd and unfathomable evil — as well as being a spotlight leading away from this brutal institution.  

Locked Down, Locked Out is both an incomparably put together report incorporating statistics and studies with individual quotations and anecdotes, and a personal story of how incarceration has impacted the author’s own family and how the author has thought through the complex issues.

Yes, I did recently write an article specifically criticizing the widespread habit of calling everything a “war,” and I do still want to see that practice ended — but not because the linguistic quirk offends me, rather because we make so many things, to one degree or another, actually be like wars. As far as I have seen, no other practice bears remotely as much similarity to war as does prison. How so?

Let me count the ways.

  • 1. Both are distinctly American. No other nation spends as much on its military or its prisons, engages in as many wars or locks up as many people.
  • 2. Both are seemingly simple and easy solutions that don’t solve anything, but seek to hide it away at a distance. Wars are waged thousands of miles from home. Prisoners are stored out-of-sight hundreds or thousands of miles from home … //
  • //
  • … 27. Restorative justice is the essence of the solution to both war and prison. Diplomacy and moderated reconciliation are answers to the common problem of writing an enemy off as unreachable through words.

I might go on, but I imagine you get the idea. Huge numbers of Americans are being made seriously worse citizens, and almost all of them will be back out of prison trying to survive. And, if that doesn’t do it for you, consider this: when incarceration is this widespread, there’s every possibility that it will someday include you. What if you’re falsely accused of a crime? What if somebody puts a link on a website to illegal pornography and you — or someone using your computer — clicks it? Or you urinate in public? Or you use marijuana in a state that legalized it, but the feds disagree? Or you blow the whistle on some abuse in some branch of the government that you work for? Or you witness something and don’t report it? Or you work so hard that you fall asleep driving your car? An injustice to one is an injustice to all, and injustice on this scale is potentially injustice to every one.

What to do?

Californians just voted on their ballots to reduce prison sentences. Get that on your ballot. For the first time ever, this week, a prosecutor was sent to prison for falsely convicting an innocent person. We need a whole reworking of the rewards and incentives for prosecutors who have long believed that locking people up was the path to success. We need activist resistance to prison expansion, divestment from for-profit prison companies, and educational efforts to begin changing our culture as well as our laws. Locked Down, Locked Out provides a terrific list of organizations to support, including those that can help you become a prisoner’s pen-pal. Schenwar explains that there is nothing prisoners need more, as long as they are locked up. Those not receiving mail are seen as the easiest targets for abuse by guards and other prisoners. And our receiving their letters may be the best way for us to learn about the hidden world in our midst.

(full text).


Bill Black and Marshall Auerback Discuss: Why Economists and Regulators Don’t Use “Fraud”, on naked capitalism, by Yves Smith, Nov 15, 2014;

World’s only superpower pledges ironclad commitment to Asia Pacific at G20 summit, on Russia Today RT, Nov 15, 2014;

Abraham Lincoln and the road to despotism, on Real-World Economics Review Blog, by David Ruccio, Nov 14, 2014;

Reconnaissance de l’Etat de Palestine: L´Espagne pourrait suivre l´exemple de la Suède, dans Le Temps d’Algérie, Nov 14, 2014;

US Navy deploys laser weapon to Persian Gulf for first-ever combat mission – VIDEO, on Russia Today RT, Nov 14, 2014; (also on YouTube, 1.05 min);

France/Beauvechain: et si la base aérienne fermait? dans L’, par Arnaud HUPPERTZ, Nov 14, 2014;

Détenir de l’immobilier quand on est expatrié, dans MyImmobilier/Blog, Nov 12, 2014;

Income inequality and tourism in New Orleans – Live chat, on The Times Picayune, Greater New Orleans, by Robert McClendon, Nov 12, 2014;

Digital Labor: comment répondre à l’exploitation croissante du moindre de nos comportements? dansnInternet, par Hubert Guillaud, Nov 12, 2014;

Maribor, Slovenia – Conference: “UBI in Europe – Promoting civil society,” 19th-20th March 2015, on Basic Income Earth Network BIEN, by Karl Widerquist, Nov 12, 2014;

Life in the US Navy – video 1, 12.11 min, uploaded by Brandon Bryant, April 14, 2013 … with today 14 other videos – on life in the US Navy – in autoplay.

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