A Marxist view of the prisons

By Berta Joubert

I believe it was Comrade Sam who coined the expression "prisons are concentration camps for the poor." This slogan is a scientific expression of what imperialist prisons really are. Sam’s formula flowed from his profound understanding of the nature of the state and his deep concern for the national question.

Thirty years ago there were 278,000 prisoners in this country. Now there are more than 1.5 million. Most are from the Black and Latin communities, victims of the criminalization of poverty and arbitrary drug laws.

Sam was instrumental in setting up the Prisoners Solidarity Committee to deal specifically with the struggles of prisoners. Our paper and our Party still devote much time and effort to promoting solidarity with prisoners.

This has been recognized by the prisoners themselves. During the Attica rebellion, one of the most heroic uprisings of oppressed prisoners in the history of this country, the prisoners themselves asked the Prisoners Solidarity Committee to be the voice of the prisoners to the outside world.

Comrade Sam underscored the point that prisoners are the most oppressed of our class, victims of an economic system that puts profits before people.

Our slogan "Tear down the walls" may seem ultraleftist, romantic or impractical to some. But when we explain the nature of prisons—the role they play in propping up the capitalist state, as warehouses for the army of unemployed and now, more than ever in the age of high tech, as a source of cheap, slave labor—then the slogan becomes a practical guide for the masses.

It is their communities that should have custody of the prisoners, and judge their transgressions and need for re-education—not the capitalists who have exploited, oppressed and then imprisoned them.

History has validated our position. From the storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution to the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, the revolutionary impulse is to free the prisoners.

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