Challenges for Global Solidarity
Until now, the US prison abolitionist movement against mass incarceration and police violence has focused on US prisons, only recently broadening their scope to address the detention of undocumented migrants by ICE. Few connections have been made with activists defending political prisoners in China, Russia, the Middle East, and North Africa; or with those organizing in solidarity with the over 70 million refugees and displaced people in camps around the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic compels us to create a global prison abolitionist movement that addresses the connections between prisons, refugee camps, racism, sexism, imperialism and the inhumanity of the capitalist system.
Opposing the carceral system demands taking a stand against all forms of authoritarianism and oppression internationally. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, author of Golden Gulag (2007) and a leader of the US prison abolitionist organization Critical Resistance, has analyzed both the relationship not only between economic crises and the rise in incarceration in the US; and the role of prisons as an instrument of social control to legitimate the power of the capitalist state globally. In a speech to a recent gathering of Critical Resistance in Los Angeles, she emphasized that “reforms will not end prisons. Abolitionism has to be Green, Red, and Internationalist.”
What is holding us back?
Erich Fromm, a socialist humanist theorist from the Frankfurt School, has written about the ways in which the carceral and police system displace mass anger from social and economic conditions and toward prisoners.
While this may explain why broad layers of the popular classes acquiesce to the growth of incarceration, what are the factors impeding coordinated efforts among prison abolitionists and socialist solidarity activists on an international scale? We want to point to four issues:
- There are real distinctions between political prisoners, and “common prisoners” who have been jailed for petty crimes rooted in poverty. However, these differences do not justify a political strategy that focuses exclusively on only on political prisoners. We cannot accept a “class distinction” among prisoners, but most oppose the carceral system itself.
- US prison abolitionists recognize the profoundly racialized character of the US prison population where two thirds of the current prison population of 2.3 million and many of the millions on parole are poor and working class Blacks and Latinos. Middle Eastern and North African activists have also highlighted the repression and incarceration of the Kurdish national minorities in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Unfortunately, the same solidarity is often not extended to the over one million Uighur Muslims in Xinxiang province who are imprisoned in the Chinese government’s forced labor/“re-education” camps. We also need to extend our solidarity to the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and the Black population of Darfur, Sudan or of Brazil.
- Although the population of women prisoners around the world (officially 714,000) is smaller than the male prison population, women’s imprisonment is growing at a much faster rate than men’s imprisonment. While some are political prisoners, the majority are in prison because poverty led to their being trafficked, forced to become sex workers, to use or sell drugs, or because they defended themselves against or were held responsible for the debts of abusive partners. Transgender prisoners are also facing severe abuse around the world.
- Finally, there is a tendency among some on the global left to ignore or defend authoritarian rulers who claim to be against US imperialism. This selective anti-imperialism refuses to defend political prisoners in countries such as Syria, Iran, Russia, China, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua even if they oppose all imperialist powers and religious fundamentalism. Of the over 100,000 political prisoners in the brutal Assad regime’s dungeons, the majority are not jihadists – they are youth, Kurdish, labor, and feminist activists who dared to participate in the uprising against the Assad regime in 2011 and after. The millions of Syrian refugees who are being bombed by the Assad regime and their Russia and Iranian allies suffer in refugee camps in the region.