America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s

America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s

America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s

America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s

Synopsis

In the 1970s, while politicians and activists outside prisons debated the proper response to crime, incarcerated people helped shape those debates though a broad range of remarkable political and literary writings.

Lee Bernstein explores the forces that sparked a dramatic "prison art renaissance," shedding light on how incarcerated people produced powerful works of writing, performance, and visual art. These included everything from George Jackson's revolutionary Soledad Brother to Miguel Piñero's acclaimed off-Broadway play and Hollywood film Short Eyes. An extraordinary range of prison programs--fine arts, theater, secondary education, and prisoner-run programs--allowed the voices of prisoners to influence the Black Arts Movement, the Nuyorican writers, "New Journalism," and political theater, among the most important aesthetic contributions of the decade.

By the 1980s and '90s, prisoners' educational and artistic programs were scaled back or eliminated as the "war on crime" escalated. But by then these prisoners' words had crossed over the wall, helping many Americans to rethink the meaning of the walls themselves and, ultimately, the meaning of the society that produced them.

By the 1980s and '90s, prisoners' educational and artistic programs were scaled back or eliminated as the "war on crime" escalated. But by then these prisoners' words had crossed over the wall, helping many Americans to rethink the meaning of the walls themselves and, ultimately, the meaning of the society that produced them.

Excerpt

Prisons are really an extension of our communities. We have people who are forced
at gunpoint to live behind concrete and steel. Others of us, in what we ordinarily
think of as the community, live at gunpoint again in almost the same conditions.
The penitentiaries, as they call them, and the communities are plagued with the
same thing: dope, disease, police brutality, murder, and rats running over the places
that you dwell in. We recognize that most of the militant-dissatisfied youth are
off in the penitentiaries. Eighty percent of the prison population is black, brown,
and yellow people. You look around and say, “what happened to my man. I haven’t
seen him for along time,” then you get busted, go to jail, and there he is. Prisons are
an extension of the repression. In these penitentiaries are the Malcolms, Cleavers,
Huey P. Newtons, Bobby Seales and all other political prisoners. Now the inmates
are moving forth to harness their own destinies. They’re not relying on lying, dema
gogic politicians to redress their grievances. Of course, the courts didn’t redress
their grievances in the first place, so there’s no sense in relying on them either.
There’s very little difference between the penitentiaries in California and those in
New York, New Orleans, Alabama, or Chicago. It’s the same system—America is the
prison. All of America is a prison where the people are being held captive by the
real arch criminals.—ZAYD SHAKUR, 1970

Writing just after his acquittal as part of the New York Panther Twentyone, Zayd Shakur reflected a consciousness that prisoners were broadly representative of racism and inequality in the country. Drawing on insights developed by Malcolm X, Shakur, deputy minister of information for the New York branch of the Black Panther Party, declared that “all of America is a prison where the people are being held captive by the real arch criminals.” This insight underscored the high proportion of African Americans in prison, relative to other ethnic groups, and the ongoing racism and inequality pervading U.S. society. This view held great currency during the late 1960s and early 1970s. After her capture in 1970, Angela Davis wrote that “our enemies find themselves . . .

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