Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: A Symposium

By Platt, Tony | Social Justice, Spring-Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Challenging the Prison-Industrial Complex: A Symposium


Platt, Tony, Social Justice


Introduction

THIRTY YEARS AGO, WORKING WITH A COLLECTIVE IN BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA, I wrote about the emergence of a leftist tendency in the United States that "has begun to challenge the hegemonic domination of the field [of criminology] by liberal scholars. The roots of this radicalism are to be found in political struggles--the Civil Rights Movement, Third World liberation struggles inside as well as outside the United States, and anti-imperialist movements--and in the writings of participants in these struggles" (Platt, 1974: 2).

The success of this "radical criminology" movement, which had a considerable influence over public debates about crime and justice, was short-lived. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon successfully politicized the issue of crime and linked widespread anxieties about racial equality to the call for "law and order." Ronald Reagan's presidency accelerated the shift to the right in criminal justice policies and inaugurated an unprecedented growth in prison construction and rates of imprisonment. By the time that the Democratic Party reclaimed the White House under Bill Clinton's leadership, the entire political establishment had united around a discourse of authoritarian populism to justify an apartheid system of justice.

During the hegemony of "law and order," a progressive viewpoint about crime and justice retained a precarious foothold within academia and a handful of nonprofit and community-based organizations continued to articulate critiques of the criminal justice system. But the public influence of the radical activism of the 1970s had dissipated by the 1990s, relegated to historical footnotes and nostalgia, or used by the Right to denounce the excesses of the New Left.

Recently, we have witnessed the revival of prison-related activism in the United States. In September 1998, the organization Critical Resistance brought together more than 3,000 people for a conference in Berkeley to explore ways of challenging the "prison-industrial complex." A special issue of Social Justice (Vol. 27, No. 3, 2000) contains several papers delivered at this conference. A few years later, at a conference on "Africana Studies Against Criminal Justice," held at Columbia University in April 2003, activists again convened to discuss the state of the new movement.

Julia Sudbury--a member of Social Justice's editorial board and currently a Canada Research Council Chair in Social Justice, Equity and Diversity in Social Work at the University of Toronto--delivered one of the keynote speeches at the Columbia University conference. This speech, which is the basis for the article that appears ahead, clearly articulates the central themes of this new round of activism and makes connections between "neoliberal globalization, U. …

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