metablue.jpg (14625 bytes)

August, 2000, Volume 7 Nr. 12, Issue 84,

by JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski


As you read this, one in every 140 people in the U.S. is in a cage. Two million humans in cages called state and federal prisons. Nearly 12 million are caged each year, and about five million are under direct surveillance of the system, on probation or parole. Nowhere else in the world are so many people, nor such a high percentage of people incarcerated. The most populated nation, China, has 10 times more people than the U.S. but we cage half a million more. Most of our cages hold people for non-violent offenses, such as POW’s of the infamous war on (some) drugs.

Over 3500 of the prisoners are on death row, the U.S. being one of the very few countries, and the only “Western” industrialized, “first world” nation, to still use capital punishment, better named human sacrifice. Both the dynastic princes running for president from the major, barely distinguishable parties this year, make frequent public statements in support of state killing. HRH Gee Dubya, the neighborly “compassionate conservative”, is a serial killer, having signed 135 death warrants in his short gubernatorial career. That’s 135 premeditated murders of men and women under the dread power of the Texas criminal injustice system. Same modus operandi: lock them up and tell them repeatedly that you are going to kill them, and how, over several years, then do it, often in front of their friends and family.

The “born-again Christian” Mr. Bush is praised by many famous fundamentalists who generally favor the death penalty. Human sacrifice has long been used by theists of many stripes to appease mysterious gods, i.e., the indwelling shadow material of cultures. The death penalty is just that, a shadow ritual of scapegoating, a human sacrifice. The problem is that in this metaphor-starved age, since we do not consciously create rituals to deal with our fearful shadows, we may act them out on one another with deadly seriousness. The death penalty is not deterrent, it is vengeance, which is part of the appeal for Jehovah-fearers.

The vast, vast majority of our criminally unjust “criminal justice” system is a big, expensive way of NOT dealing with crime. There are two million virtual desaparecidos, humans in cages, in the US alone. Hundreds of thousands are released from these dungeons-for-dollars every year with no support at all. That is human sacrifice, and we are all victims: the guards, the cons, the innocent, the guilty, the future victims of humans so regressed and dehumanized by the prisons.

Most Americans have not been in prison, and most do not think at all about their fellow citizens in human storage. Many people on the outside will find that reference to prisoners as their “fellow citizens” faintly obscene. If we think of them as monsters, predators, subhuman, Other, not-us, then we can rationalize their incarceration; we can believe in their encagement as a good and necessary thing, as “justice”.

For how else can we tolerate, and continue to pay for, prisons? Unless we buy the twisted lie that these are not our brothers and sisters, we will have to confront our complicity in cruelty, in brutality, in slavery.

If we say, “This is wrong”, then we are morally obligated to act to change it.  To act to undo the wrong, unlock the cages of our hearts and free the grief and love that will fuel our struggle to destroy the cages and the supposed need for cages.


When I say I am a prison abolitionist, people look at me aghast and cry “What are you, crazy? You can’t let them out, society will be torn apart, thousands of people will be raped, murdered mugged!”    They look at me and smirk, “You are such a stupid, liberal, bleeding heart do-gooder. You have no clue, get real.”  They look at me angry:”You care more about criminals than victims!”  They look at me quizically: “Well, if people are in prison, they’re there for a reason. That’s their punishment; we have to have consequences, have to punish lawbreakers.”

I am a prison abolitionist because the price is simply too high. From any angle, by any measurement, the price of prisons is too high: morally, legally, democratically, financially, psychologically, spiritually; for those both inside and out; for “criminals” and “victims”; for the elite and the rest of us.

I don’t believe prisons can be reformed to a point of acceptability. The concept of reform tears at me because, while some changes may alleviate some of the pain for some of the people in some of the cages, prison by its very nature requires brutality and contempt.

Are Americans really so desensitized to the pain of others? Perhaps they are psychologically distanced from people whom they have placed in a separate box in their mind, a box labeled “criminals” or maybe just “bad guys”, alien creatures viewed with hatred, scorn and fear.  How else can the majority of Americans stand by while Amnesty International  releases its first report on torture in the USA, torture that is a growing aspect of our police and penal practices? The indoctrination of social studies classes, bolstered by patriotic rhetoric from advertising to 4th of July parades, has soaked psyches with the assumption that, flawed we may be but we are a nation that leads the world through two centuries as a beacon of justice and goodness. This seeming instinct to patriotism is actually no instinct but a conditioned response, and it colors our collective and individual thought and action broadly.


One Sunday in June, I drove home by a different route so I could pass the huge human warehouse called Great Meadows, a pastoral name for a medieval fortress with a medieval-modern purpose. Crossing the New York State Canal into Comstock, a tired looking tavern, Sebastian’s Sports Lounge, is on my left, owning the same sad air of any rural neighborhood bar, with bright beer ad neons washed out in the late spring sunlight.  Across Rt.22 stretches a mile of fence, the outer perimeter of the compound that is the prison. There are fences inside of fences, and further in, the scarier the fences are, bristling with high voltage possibility and glittering with coiled razor wire. Guard towers, tiny windows, tons of brick and steel, this is an enormous structure, with stolid adjacent buildings and hodgepodge extensions growing out of it.

The haphazardness of the outgrowths resembles cancer, and so I realize that the treatment course may be similar: Excision (excarcerate, decarcerate), Chemotherapy (massive doses of medical care, including psychiatric treatment, cognitive therapy, addiction treatment),  Nutrition (feed everyone with food, jobs, justice, education),  Prevention (a healthy society), Community (to belong to and to give to) , Love (self-love and love of others), re-evaluation of Purpose (turn the prison into a school, a factory, a library, a theatre, a museum and a gym; turn the outbuildings and warden’s mansion into affordable housing).

Slowly I cruise by, first one way then the other. I park in Sebastian’s until the tears clear and I can see to drive. How many men “live” in that monolith? How many years, lives, minds, artists, lovers, fathers, sons, citizens, slaves, tears, rages are wasted here? As I drive south on 22, a white van passes north, and I wonder if it’s one of the white charter vans that ferry visitors to the prison. These vans and buses are usually carrying women of color, mothers and wives and girlfriends from the boroughs of New York City. It is ironic that when a young “white” man from the metropolis says he’s going “upstate”, it is usually to college at RPI or Cornell or St.Lawrence or any of the many schools scattered in the hills of the Empire State. Yet if a young man of color says he’s going “upstate”, it often means to prison at Comstock or Dannemora or Monroe or any of the many prisons scattered in the hills of the Empire State.

Not far from Great Meadows I passed a home business sign, “The Yellow Ribbon”. I have no idea what the business is, but I remember how yellow ribbons around trees are signs of hope and welcome to released prisoners. I hope the place is a halfway house and not a hair salon.

From sparse high branches, a bald eagle lifts out and tracks south along the highway. It is an adult, bearing the classic plumage that stirs well-learned associations of patriotism. For good or ill, my reaction to those associations is colored by my knowledge; I see this strong and stunning bird, bastardized into an icon of ideological empire. The awareness that his image actually inspires in many Americans an honest hope and belief in freedom and democracy only heightens my cynicism as he soars high enough to see the prison. I fantasize that he is a spirit bird, or a vehicle for some local Mahican shaman, his clear and concise gaze informing a mind fully aware of the irony and tragedy of the tableau. Where might a poem about a bald eagle flying above the prison lead? With little force, and little art, one could write a hopeful verse, to inspire prisoners and democrats alike with noble sentimentality. But I know that if I let the poem in this picture carry itself, without the force of my hopefulness, simply stating its own honest lines, that I will be depressed to the place flatter than tears.


"This type of statute does not render justice. This type of statute denies the judges of this court, and of all courts, the right to bring their conscience, experience, discretion and sense of what is just into the sentencing procedure, and in effect, makes a judge computer, automatically imposing sentence without regard to what is right and just." Judge Franklin Billings, Senior Judge for the District of Vermont, on mandatory minimum sentences (MMS).

"What you are saying is that the law is not fair and you are right. The law is not fair. The Sentencing Reform Act that created these guidelines and the minimum sentences that Congress has put into effect are outrageous." The judge continued, "It offends me deeply to have to follow the law and I never thought that I would have to say that. But I must follow the law. I am sworn to do that. If I don’t follow the law, these lawyers will take the case to the Court of Appeals and make me follow the law. I don’t feel that I have any choice under the Sentencing Reform Act."  Judge Norman Black, District Court Judge for the Southern District of Texas , on MMS.

“We must destroy the prison, root and branch. That will not solve our problem, but it will be a good beginning…Let us substitute something. Almost anything will be an improvement. It can not be worse. It cannot be more brutal and useless.” Frank Tannenbaum, 1938.

“The American prison system makes no sense. Prisons have failed as deterrents to crime. They have failed as rehabilitative institutions. What then shall we do? Let us face it! Prisons should be abolished.

The prison cannot be reformed. It rests on false premises. Nothing can improve it. It will never be anything but a graveyard of good intentions. Prison is not just the enemy of the prisoner. It is the enemy of society.” John Bartlow 1954.

“The prison, as now tolerated, is a constant threat to everyone’s security. An anachronistic relic of medieval concepts of crime and punishment.; it not only does not cure the problem, it perpetuates and multiplies it. We profess to rely on prison for our safety; yet it is directly responsible for much of the damage that society that society suffers at the hands of offenders. On the basis of my own experience, I am convinced that prisons must be abolished.”  Ralph Benay 1955 (formerly in charge of the psychiatric clinic at Sing Sing).

“I am persuaded that the institution of prison probably must end. In many respects it is as intolerable within the United States as was the institution of slavery, equally brutalizing to all involved, equally toxic to the social system, equally subversive to the brotherhood of man, even more costly by some standards, and probably less rational.” Federal Judge James Doyle 1972.

“We need to create an atmosphere in which abolition can take place. It will require a firm alliance between those groups, individuals and organizations which understand that this will not happen overnight. Just as the slavery abolitionist movement extended over decades, we must be prepared to struggle at length. But we must start, we must fuel the fires…” John Boone 1976 (former Commissioner of Corrections, Massachusetts).

“One of the most difficult and one of the most ignored of our social problems is the problem of prisons- a problem which might be ameliorated through drastic prison reform, but which can be solved only through the abolition of prisons….The advocacy of prison abolition implies simply that other courses of action, including, sometimes, doing nothing at all, are preferable to imprisonment.” David S. Greenberg.

                “There ought to be no jails; and if it were not for the fact that the people on the outside are so grasping and heartless in their dealings with the people on the inside. There would be no such institutions as jails…the only way in the world to abolish crime and criminals is to abolish the big ones and the little ones together. Make fair the conditions of life. Give men a chance to live…Nobody would steal if he could get something of his own some easier way. Nobody will commit burglary when he has a house full. The only way to cure these conditions is by equality. There should be no jails. Hey do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you could wipe them out there would be no more criminals than now…They are a blot upon any civilization, and a jail is evidence of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the jails and fill them with the victims of their greed.” Clarence Darrow 1902 (Address to the prisoners in Cook County Jail, Chicago).

“After a single night at the Nevada State Prison, for example, 23 judges from all over the U.S. emerged ‘appalled’, shaken by the inmates ‘soul-shattering bitterness’ and upset by ‘men raving, screaming and pounding on the walls.’ Judge E. Newton Vickers (Kansas) summed up, ‘I felt like an animal in a cage. Ten years in there must be like 100 or maybe 200’ Vickers urged Nevada to ‘send two bulldozers out there and tear the damn thing to the ground.’ Time magazine, “The Shame of Prisons” Jan 18, 1971.


I cannot speak for all abolitionists, but I will here present some widely held notions that drive and inform the prison abolition movement. There is a list of books, links and organizations for further study and action.

  • Prisons must be abolished; they are morally indefensible. This is an ideal, indeed, but one which can be realized, and in our lifetimes. A century and a half ago, even many people opposed to and appalled by slavery in this nation assumed that abolition was too idealistic, socially and economically unlikely. Abolitionists were those who continued to think outside the huge, powerful structure of slavery, that behemoth that is today a shameful, distant history. Prison abolition is actually an extension of that movement and of all such efforts to restore people to full humanity; to break the shackles of both criminal and victim so they can each have lives of integrity and dignity, so they can each be part of a caring community.

  • Language, words, are how we conceptualize, therefore we must use honest language.  Reality is served with accurate language, not jargon and misplaced terms that deliberately obscure or lie about prison.  For instance "corrections" as a euphemism for punishment; "inmates" or "residents" for prisoners; "room" for cage.   The system dresses itself up, wearing a mask that the wider culture may believe if we don't look too close.  Abolitionists strip off the mask that the wider culture may believe if we don't look too close.  Abolitionists strip off the mask, the fancy words and mystifying concepts; we undress the system.  What remains is the reality: cage and key.  Such clarity allows and demands challenge to the shapes of power and coercion we have unmasked.

  • Reconciliation is the proper response to criminal acts.  At present the focus is to punish someone, an unexamined ritual of projection which cares little or not at all about the victim's loss or the criminal's need.  Restoration to and reconciliation with a caring community, for both parties, is the moral and the rational response.

  • DECARCERATION: releasing as many people from cages as possible; MORATORIUM on new prison construction, so that we take time to develop alternatives; EXCARCERATION: stop putting people in cages, (by changing some categories of crimes, such as decriminalizing victimless crimes, by eliminating pretrial detention, by using community probation, creating mediation centers, options for direct restitution to victims and/or the community...); RESTRAIN THE FEW who may be dangerous to others, with the least restrictive, most humane means, monitored with the assumption of eventual full return to freedom, and with community membership even during the period of restraint; CARING COMMUNITY must be built, with services, jobs, health care, the right to vote, safe housing, education and art available to all.

  • There is a distinction between charitable “helpers” and prisoner allies.  Charity creates dependency, paternalism, pity. It may lead to tendency to romanticize or infantalize or proselytize the prisoner, which steals more of his individual humanity. Charity may relieve some of the pain of prison, but does not alter or question the conditions that give rise to the suffering. A prisoner ally works with the prisoner to change the culture; it is a mutual vocation, so no “thank you’s” are needed. Such an ally knows that she or he or ze will be changed by the work, not expecting to impose his own assumptions on the prisoner, but treating them as a peer in the work of justice.


These are just single examples of the endemic injustices of the PIC (Prison-Industrial Complex) Tales of real people behind the shocking statistics. At the end of each is a link for more information on the general topic of the story.

“LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Marvin Johnson was a diabetic who needed insulin to live. What he got inside a Little Rock jail was a brush-off that amounted to a death sentence. Despite his pleas for help, jailers and employees of Correctional Medical Services denied Johnson his life-sustaining shots for more than 30 hours... The nursing supervisor, according to reports obtained by the Post-Dispatch, accused Johnson of "faking" his condition. Johnson landed in jail for driving an acquaintance's red Ford Escort without permission -- a misdemeanor charge of unlawful use of a vehicle. No one paid his $500 bond. On July 29, 1995 – what would have been his third day in the Pulaski County jail – Johnson died at the age of 28. An autopsy found that he died of "diabetic ketoacidosis," from which victims can lapse into a coma and die for lack of insulin. In his 30-hour wait for insulin, Johnson told three nurses and six sheriff's deputies that he was an insulin-dependent diabetic and needed medicine, according to an investigative report. CMS was under contract with the Pulaski County sheriff's office to provide medical care to jail inmates.” From the St. Louis Post Dispatch 1998 series Death, Neglect and the Bottom Line/ HMOs Behind Bars; FMI:

“(In December 1995),Omega Pacific, which manufactures carabiners (D shaped metal rings used by climbers to secure ropes) laid off 30 workers earning $7 an hour plus benefits and moved to the Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane. Omega Pacific owner Bert Atwater told the Spokane Spokesman Review that he moved to prison because of the rent-free quarters where "the workers are delighted with the pay; [where there are] no workers who don't come in because of rush hour traffic or sick children at home; [and where] workers...don't take vacations. Where would these guys go on vacation anyway?" Atwater was also pleased that he doesn't "have to deal with employee benefits or workers' compensation." From Paul Wright, Profiting from Punishment, Prison Labor News March 1997 FMI:


Gary Tucker #44024-019
Steve Tucker #44026-019
Joanne Tucker $44025-019
Sentences: Ten year mandatory minimums

Gary Tucker, his brother, and his wife were the owners of a hydroponic garden store. (Hydroponics is a high-technology method for growing plants indoors without soil.) The DEA began surveillance of the store because some of their customers were growing cannabis with the merchandise they purchased there. The DEA asked to install surveillance cameras in the store and asked for the names and addresses of customers. The Tuckers refused, and the DEA began following customers home and raiding their houses. Some of the people who were caught, who were facing long prison sentences and forfeiture of their homes, cooperated with the government by testifying against the Tuckers. They said that the Tuckers had helped them grow their marijuana by giving them advice. The Tuckers say that these witnesses were intimidated into giving false testimonies. At least one defendant concurs, saying that even though he told the prosecutors that the Tuckers knew nothing about the marijuana he was growing, they still wanted to charge them with it.

The Tuckers were indicted for conspiracy to manufacture marijuana and were forced to forfeit their home, automobile, and savings. Gary Tucker says, "...we were found guilty of manufacturing over 1000 plants...even though we were found with no plants, no marijuana on our person, no controlled buys, and no taped conversations of `giving advice'." The Tuckers' lawyer, Nancy Lord, wrote in Perceptions Magazine:

"The Tuckers and their customers were easy targets for DEA agents. Nobody fought back. There was not a single episode of violence in the whole investigation. All vehicles were registered, and many of those investigated were homeowners. Unlike hard-drug users, these were hard workers who had accumulated assets -- ripe pickings for forfeiture." FMI: Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) , for many more stories and pictures, for analysis and history of the MMS laws and their adjuncts such as civil forfeiture of assets, which, under “zero tolerance” laws, don’t have to be returned even if the accused is found not guilty.

  2000 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN

Return to Homepage