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The Tentacles of Oppression: Isaac Ontiveros on the Prison Industrial Complex (Part II)

By Zach | September 26, 2008

[To see the first part of Zach's interview with Isaac Ontiveros, please go here]

Can you differentiate between prison abolition and prison reform?

Sure. We want to abolish the PIC. We do not want to reform it. It is in the same way that slavery abolitionist saw the only solution to slavery was its complete dismantlement. There was no way to construct a humane slavery. There is no way to build a way to more humanely cage people, to police them, to exploit them, etc. It is not only analogous but instrumental to apply the same abolitionist analysis to such things as white supremacy and capitalism. Can you reform capitalism? Can you reform white supremacy?

What does this look like though? I think my friend and CR co-founder Rachel Herzing has a great way to struggle with the reform v. abolition question. She says, “We don’t want to build anything up that we’ll have to knock down later.” And this is truly challenging. As we talked about earlier, the PIC, like capitalism, like its capitalist element, is all about subsumption—it will gladly accommodate and incorporate all sorts of reforms. It will gladly use the language developed by abolitionist and abolitionist-related struggles. As we noted above, “gender-responsive” imprisonment and policing is just one case. We can see all kinds of rhetoric coming from the PIC around “family-friendly” jails and detention centers. On the uprise is the trend of the PIC incorporating the ideas of restorative justice. Now, you have police, in police uniforms, “working with the community” to find so-called alternative solutions to particular “crimes”—as if that armed and badged individual is not acting as a constant reminder of imprisonment and violence if the “alternative” doesn’t work out.

Another arena where the struggle around reform plays out is with the privatization of prisons. This is real tricky territory. Sure, it is obvious that the privatization of prisons (and the concomitant privatization of police and military) is a disgusting and terrible thing. Unfortunately, there is a very dangerous logic at play in the majority of the anti-privatization movement. It says that private prisons are bad because, like the privatization of oil or water, it takes something that is supposed to be a public resource and makes it a for-profit enterprise. But if we unpack this a bit, we have to ask ourselves what we’re asking for here. Are we saying that imprisonment should be a public resource? A public “good”? If we look at the numbers, we find that less that 10% of all prisons and jails are private. The rest are public. The vast majority of the millions of people locked in cages are in public facilities. The abolitionist politic says “no” to this thinking. We want to abolish the prison industrial complex not because it is a corrupted, malfunctioning, corporate enterprise; not because it is a system that is broken; but because it is a system that works—a system that works very, very well at what it sets out to do.

All this said, when we find ourselves doing work “on the ground,” we find ourselves, as abolitionists, engaging in all sorts of reform struggles, maybe engaging mostly in reform struggles. But this is the nature of the contradictory system in and under which we live and struggle. A good example of this is a campaign we are working on right now in Oakland called Ban the Box. CR, along with All of US or None (an organization made up of formerly incarcerated people who struggle for the civil rights of formerly incarcerated people and their families and communities; and struggle to get people back on their feet once they are back on the outside…), is part of a coalition called Plan for a Safer Oakland. Now this is a real basic coalition that has a real basic program that says: People getting out of jail and prison need support and resources and shouldn’t be further-criminalized; local resources should go to sustainable community programs like education and meaningful work instead of towards more and more police and jails; and that we must stop criminalizing young people. This is basic, no-brainer stuff. So of course getting the municipality to respond to these simple demands can feel like boxing a glacier. The Ban the Box campaign says that the box on city employment applications that must be checked if the person going for a job has been convicted of a crime is used to discriminate against formerly incarcerated people and therefore should be removed (this has been successful in San Francisco and Boston). Now, this is a reform struggle. We are petitioning the city government, asking the local sources of power for a concession. This is reform. But I think it is also abolitionist or at least it works toward abolition. If we can get a few more people some stable employment, some jobs, some food to eat, some breathing room, then those can be stronger people who can contribute towards pushing the struggle forward. If, within the framework of an issue-based campaign that speaks to the everyday needs of a large part of the community, we can build a movement, if we can assess and build our strength, if we can take the leadership of those most affected by this sort of oppression, if we can build momentum and claim some victories, we’ll be able to move forward, hopefully toward more revolutionary goals.

A crucial component of abolition is the construction of healthy, accountable, and safe communities. Tell us about the crossroads between anarchist approaches to these questions and the commitment of groups like CR to seek the same.

I think a strong relationship between abolition—the commitment of groups like CR—and a serious anarchism is the inherent thinking about how the methods, the means, of effecting change is related to the “goal”—liberation, a better world, etc. That is, when we look at serious anarchist practice historically, we see that the goal of self-management is struggled for by using the methods, the means, of self-management. Regarding our struggle to abolish the prison industrial complex, we struggle for healthy, accountable, free communities, and while we struggle for this we try to envision and realize, in the here-and-now, a practice of sustainable healthfulness, constructive accountability, and a true practice of freedom. I think this is what Buenaventura Durruti meant when he talked about carrying the new world in our hearts. So, ideally, abolition becomes both the end and the means. This plays out in obvious ways, like in the structure of an organization like CR being non-hierarchal, by it using collective decision-making processes, etc., but also in other, possibly more subtle and challenging ways. We struggle with how the ideologies perpetuating and perpetuated by the PIC infect our thinking around such ideas as safety, accountability, and justice. We struggle with building new social relationships under conditions dominated by forces whose role is to prohibit those new ways of being. So this obviously becomes very challenging. Vision becomes something not be taken lightly or half-heartedly when the very means (the language, the idea of what is possible) of visioning are under attack.

Similarly, what lessons have you learned from working with folks in this movement that have informed your views as an anarchist?

To continue with the intersections of anarchist and abolitionist approaches around the construction of healthy and accountable communities, something that’s been key to thinking about abolition is to think about the idea of who is pushing the struggle forward, who is leading the struggle. Now, unfortunately this idea of leadership has, I think, been put down by many anarchists—definitely to the detriment of anarchist struggle. This knee-jerk distrust of leadership I think at its worst ends up as bourgeois individualism that does little other than to serve the perpetuation of capitalism and other forms of oppression. Luckily, if we study anarchist history and practice, we find that this poverty of thinking is not what has been dominant when it comes to serious anarchist practice. In the same way that we would say those who do a given job—say field workers, or mail carriers, or nurses—ought to be the ones who are in charge how their labor is organized, so should those most affected by the prison industrial complex be the ones who lead the struggle to abolish it. And this has been a strong, driving element to the work. Dorsey Nunn, one of the co-founders of All of Us or None, said that one of the successes of abolitionist thinking and practice in the past ten years has been to take a once obscure and academic term—“prison industrial complex”—and make it part of a real and every-day understanding for those who are doing the work of building their communities, supporting their loved one, etc. amidst the onslaught. It has been the leadership of those most affected by the PIC—former prisoners and their families; current prisoners; political prisoners; immigrants struggling against the violence of the border; trans people struggling for their health inside the jails; young people; etc.—that has pushed the politics forward, that has given it a sharper analysis, that has expanded its dimensions.

The disproportionate oppression heaped onto communities of color and working-class communities by the PIC is well documented, as is the increasingly gendered nature of policing, imprisonment, etc. You situate much of this dynamic in the context of “genocide.” Can you please explain your analysis and how you came to it?

Well, unfortunately if we look at history, the scale, the scope of the PIC, it is hard not to label it genocide. If we look at how the PIC oppresses targeted communities, if we look at the make-up of those communities (that they are overwhelmingly poor communities of color), and we think about the “official” definitions of genocide, we must be compelled to think in these terms. The prison industrial complex forcibly cages millions of people, taking them from their communities, while at the same time economically devastating these communities, terrorizing these communities through militarized policing, denying these communities access to healthcare and meaningful education, imposing various degrees of second-class citizenship, and using the most brutal means imaginable to retaliate against any attempt of these communities (or member of these communities inside the jails and prisons) to struggle against their oppression or enact any degree of self-determination. When the state forcibly denies the ability of a people to perpetuate itself, its culture, its language, its relationship to land, its means of subsistence, this is genocide. When you attempt to destroy not only the flowers, but the roots of a community, this is genocide.

If we understand the PIC to be a genocidal dynamic, indeed if we relate its perpetuation, along with what it is perpetuating, to the continuance of the ongoing genocidal processes of the extermination of the indigenous population, the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, the slaughter on the border—elemental pillars in the development and perpetuation of the US state itself—the term abolition as a means and end ring all the louder. If we are struggling against genocide, this should inform the urgency, depth, and organization of our struggle. If we engage with the PIC as genocide, then we are forced to center the bodies of those affected by, and struggling against, genocide. We are forced to view the struggle to build sustainable communities, to stay connected, to live vibrant lives—or to be in solidarity with people doing this work—as a struggle not simply to build something better, but also a struggle against systematic eradication. The struggle to not be “ground into dust,” as Audrey Lorde once put it. To elaborate a bit more on the history of genocide in the US mentioned earlier, by framing the abolitionist struggle as a struggle against genocide, we put ourselves in an historical lineage of resistance to genocide—a path blazed and travel by the centuries long fight of indigenous people, insurrectionist slaves, immigrants, and all their decedents. This also speaks to the reform question. We cannot reform genocide. And in order to stop a genocidal process, we must abolish its motors—in this case, white supremacy, the state, capitalism, etc.

One thing that is obvious about working with communities directly affected by the PIC (and working in solidarity to help build those communities’ capacity for self-organization and defense) is the class nature of this constituency. What are your thoughts about the class nature of the anti-PIC movement and its role as an anti-Statist strategy?

We can only strengthen the abolitionist politic by, as noted before, taking the “complex” part of the PIC seriously. And I think this definitely means to think about how the imperatives of capitalism in this country—and therefore worldwide—have worked through the PIC. As mentioned before, the whole idea of community and its material expressions and base have been attacked. The ties that bind working communities have definitely been targeted by the development of the PIC in the past decades. People’s social and economic lives have been seriously brutalized. People are broke in many more ways than one.

When we look at the PIC’s interrelationship with immigration we find a dynamic that automatically criminalizes immigrants (most of those targeted being workers from Mexico, Central, and South America, but also including Southeast Asian, Arab, and African workers, among others…) by deeming them “illegal.” Enter ICE—Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The policing, militarized raids, and subsequent imprisonment and deportation of immigrant workers (and their families) serves multiple purposes. It attacks whole communities. It attacks organized labor. It keeps wages low—for both “illegal” and “legal” workers. It pits working people against each other. It feeds racist hysteria—both by demonizing “illegals” who “steal all the jobs” and by demonizing the poor and unemployed (usually of the Black and Latino community)—that keeps politicians in office and police on the streets. It militarizes the border and condones the death by starvation, thirst, exposure, and or the outright extra-judicial murder of people simply trying to cross the border into the US (often because US imperialism has ravaged their homeland). It distorts the arena of discourse around “legalization” by proposing “solutions” that endorse “guest worker programs” that amount to little more than the indentured servitude of workers who would have no rights whatsoever, not even the right to demand rights—serving to maintain labor flow and the globalized accumulation of capital.

Here in Oakland, we of course have the history of the Black Panthers but also the history, and therefore present, of the outright counterinsurgency warfare waged by the state. We see this in the flood of drugs onto the streets. We see this in the lack of health services. We see this in the gutting of public education and the creation of the school-to-prison pipeline. We see the vicious criminalization of youth (youth of color) with the result of rampant arrest and imprisonment rates. We see people who come out of prison—who’ve served outrageous sentences in relation to their so-called offenses—with “a record” and thus are denied employment (in an area already suffering crippling unemployment), attacking people’s ability to earn a living, let alone live vibrant lives.

If we look at Appalachia, we find poor white communities who’ve been exploited for generations by coal and other energy corporations. We see communities flooded with Oxycontin (an opiate no doubt useful to quell the pain derived from mining and other hard labor) and the sweeping arrests of people who are addicted to the drug. We see coal mining corporations use mountain-top removal techniques that are absolutely devastating to the ecosystems of the area (and thus the communities) and then we see the construction of a Red Onion supermax state prison, right on the top of toxic waste dump of a mountain-top-removed site.

We have untold millions of people whose lives are wrapped up in this system, who have intimate experiences with and of it. Now, we can understand the oppression as tentacled and having the effect of profound isolation and alienation. And we can understand the ideologies at play that teach us to support—or to support by looking the other way—the very systems that are destroying us and those who live around us. But the fact is that we have millions of people who are living through this, who know it, who feel it, who have a consciousness around and within it. And we have many, many people who are organizing to fight against the PIC and for a better life. As is usual, the people doing the work—often tedious and unglamorous—are working people; they are the people who are most affected by the PIC.

The abolitionist struggle becomes the struggle for working people to regain control of their communities, and this means in no small part the struggle of working people to determine the organization of their labor. I think the abolitionist struggle, as a struggle for self-determination is intertwined in a very real way a struggle for worker self-determination. And as we see how white supremacy is being challenged, how gender oppression is being challenged, etc., how the challenging of one aspect of oppression serves the strength to challenge others, we see that all this struggle is being theorized, spearheaded, and practiced by working people, in working communities.

As a clear anti-statist strategy, abolition offers us a very, very tangible and material striking point against the state. Because when we strike against the PIC, when we organize for this struggle, we can’t help but to start getting at the core of the issue—we strike at the heart of capitalism, of white supremacy, of gender oppression. And our points of entry are right in front of us. There is real work to be done here and now. If we view the oppression of the PIC as tentacled, that is, wreaking havoc at multiple but interlocking locations, we can also view resistance to the PIC as having an opportunity to be in greater solidarity with one another, and have those points of resistance be just as multiple and interlocking, and a real force. If the movement could continue to grow and be built, if the leadership of all those people living through this continues to be fostered, respected, and organized, the possibility for some serious and radical change is greater and greater. And with all that blooms from this momentum also blooms our hope.

I think this is why this upcoming CR10 conference has so much potential to be something really great, to be more than a conference, to be a dynamic jumping off point for building the movement and furthering the struggle. We are going to have together in a concentrated location for a concentrated duration of time all sorts of different people from all over the place who are doing real and important work. And CR10 will hopefully be a place to sharpen strategy, and maybe to consolidate momentum, while at the same time respecting—indeed using to our advantage—the sovereignty, the autonomy, of these myriad struggles.

Could you list the best resources for readers to check out relating to prison abolition, State power, and building healthy communities?

If folks are at all able to make it, they should come out to CR10—it’s free, there will be children’s programming… there will be a lot to do and learn. Check out for details.

Also check out CR as an organization. At the CR website is a link to all kinds of resources and articles.

As far as reading about the PIC, I am very happy Abolition Now! is out. Also folks should subscribe to The Abolitionist paper (not least of all because your paid subscription goes to getting the paper in free to prisoners). I also like Golden Gulag by Ruth Gilmore. The Southern California Library did a special journal called Without Fear: Claiming Safe Communities Without Sacrificing Ourselves that is really good. Forced Passages by Dylan Rodriguez is really good, too. Freedom Archives has a great cd called Prisons on Fire that tells the history of the Attica rebellion and of George Jackson; they also put out Legacy of Torture—which tells the story of how COINTELPRO lives on these many years later, still attempting to destroy liberation struggles, and Voices of Three Political Prisoners is really good too, and also their documentary on Charrise Shumate (all Freedom Archives stuff is good, and folks should check out their Robert F. Williams cd for some great history on the struggle for Black self-determination). Instead of Prisons is a classic. The history of the Black Panther Party is important when we think about building what we want while fighting against what tries to keep us down—I like Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party. Also the struggles of indigenous people here in the US (and elsewhere of course). I like Ward Churchill’s stuff when it comes to thinking about state power and genocide (Agents of Repression). I am interested in reading Inventing the Savage by Luana Ross. Stuff on the Spanish Anarchists is essential when we think about specific anarchist struggles against the state….

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