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

By Lee Bernstein | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

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.”1 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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America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Illustrations viii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter One - We Shall Have Order 19
  • Chapter Two - The Age of Jackson 51
  • Chapter Three - What Works? 75
  • Chapter Four - We Took the Weight 99
  • Chapter Five - Cell Block Theater 129
  • Chapter Six - Radical Chic 151
  • Conclusion 173
  • Notes 185
  • Index 215
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