Activists demand an end to mass incarceration

W.A.T.E.R. 17 Special to the AmNews | 9/21/2012, 2:37 p.m.

A capacity crowd at Harlem's Riverside Church was on hand last Friday evening to listen to a panel of Black activists and scholars discuss the exploitive prison-industrial complex (PIC), solitary confinement's legalities and the proposed closing of upstate's Attica Prison.

"That callous disregard for human life is why we say the facility has to be shut down," said Harvard law professor Soffiyah Elijah. She described the events of the prison's Sept. 9, 1971, takeover by its inmates, resulting in 39 deaths. "Not once has anybody from New York state apologized to the families of the victims of that massacre. It is time Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo apologizes to those families and shuts down that facility so that we can leave that ugly past behind us and move forward. Shut it down!"

She also mentioned how four Attica correction officers were charged with brutality last December. "Certainly, those kinds of beatings, and efforts to cover them up, are routine practices throughout the corrections and criminal justice systems, not only in New York state, but throughout this country."

Next, MOVE Organization's uncompromising Sister Pam Africa riled up those in attendance before suggesting: "It's our job to go out and educate other people. We must rise up now and fight in every way that you can--like Malcolm said, 'By any means necessary!'"

A recorded message by Mumia Abu-Jamal was played in which he explained the mental anguish an individual endures while in the hole. "Solitary confinement is government-sanctioned torture. I have seen men driven mad by soul-crushing loneliness. Humans are social creatures, and solitary confinement kills that which is human within us. It has one primary purpose ... to destroy human beings by destroying their minds."

The audience erupted in cheers and chants of "Brick by brick, wall by wall, we will free Mumia Abu-Jamal" at the sound of his voice live over the PA system. He went on to lay out the horrors he endured during his three decades in solitary confinement, prior to being placed in general population this January.

Columbia professor Angela Davis reflected: "Many, many years ago, I was in jail myself for being involved in campaigns to free political prisoners. George Jackson, the Soledad Brothers, members of the Black Panther Party--many of us began to realize that it was not simply a question of political repression directed towards specific individuals, but the entire institution of the prisons was an institution of repression, fueled by racism. The development of this great phenomenon called the PIC has a great deal to do with global capitalism."

Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow," contended that "our system of mass incarceration is truly the most pressing issue of our time. It is the vehicle in which racial progress has literally been turned back. It is the retaliation against communities of color for the progress gained during the Civil Rights Movement. It is a political backlash that gained steam at precisely the moment that the changes in global capitalism were wreaking havoc on inner cities nationwide. We must end mass incarceration."