"People have said to me that the criminal justice system doesn't work. I've come to believe exactly the opposite -- that it works perfectly, just as slavery did, as a matter of economic and political policy. How is it that a 15-year-old in Newark who the country labels worthless to the economy, who has no hope of getting a job or affording college, can suddenly generate 20,000 to 30,000 dollars a year once trapped in the criminal justice system? The expansion of prisons, parole, probation, the court and police systems has resulted in an enormous bureaucracy which has been a boon to everyone from architects to food vendors -- all with one thing in common, a paycheck earned by keeping human beings in cages. The criminalization of poverty is a lucrative business, and we have replaced the social safety net with a dragnet."
Prisons are at once hugely expensive -- the country has spent some $300 billion on them since 1980 -- and, as Kerness pointed out, hugely profitable. Prisons function in the same way the military-industrial complex functions. The money is public and the profits are private. "Privatization in the prison industrial complex includes companies, which run prisons for profit while at the same time gleaning profits from forced labor," she said. "In the state of New Jersey, food and medical services are provided by corporations, which have a profit motive. One recent explosion of private industry is the partnering of Corrections Corporation of America with the federal government to detain close to 1 million undocumented people. Using public monies to enrich private citizens is the history of capitalism at its most exploitive."
Those released from prison are woefully unprepared for re-entry. They carry with them the years of trauma they endured. They often suffer from the endemic health problems that come with long incarceration, including hepatitis C, tuberculosis and HIV. They often do not have access to medications upon release to treat their physical and mental illnesses. Finding work is difficult. They feel alienated and are often estranged from friends and family. More than 60 percent end up back in prison.
"How do you teach someone to rid themselves of degradation?" Kerness asked. "How long does it take to teach people to feel safe, a sense of empowerment in a world where they often come home emotionally and physically damaged and unemployable? There are many reasons that ex-prisoners do not make it -- paramount among them is that they are not supposed to succeed."
Kerness has long been a crusader. In 1961 at the age of 19 she left New York to work for a decade in Tennessee in the civil rights struggle, including a year at Tennessee's Highlander Research and Education Center, where Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. trained. By the 1970s she was involved in housing campaigns for the poor in New Jersey. She kept running into families that included incarcerated members. This led her to found Prison Watch.
The letters that pour into her office are disturbing. Female prisoners routinely complain of being sexually abused by guards. One prisoner wrote to her office: "That was not part of my sentence to perform oral sex with officers." Other prisoners write on behalf of the mentally ill who have been left to deteriorate in the prison system. One California prisoner told of a mentally ill man spreading feces over himself and the guards then dumping him into a scalding bath that took skin off 30 percent of his body.
Kerness said the letters she receives from prisoners collectively present a litany of "inhumane conditions including cold, filth, callous medical care, extended isolation often lasting years, use of devices of torture, harassment, brutality and racism." Prisoners send her drawings of "four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, tethers, and waist and leg chains." But the worst torment, prisoners tell her, is the psychological pain caused by "no touch torture" that included "humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, extreme light or dark, extreme cold or heat" and "extended solitary confinement." These techniques, she said, are consciously designed to carry out "a systematic attack on all human stimuli."
The use of sensory deprivation was applied by the government to imprisoned radicals in the 1960s including members of the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, the Puerto Rican independence movement and the American Indian Movement, along with environmentalists, anti-imperialists and civil rights activists. It is now used extensively against Islamic militants, jailhouse lawyers and political prisoners. Many of those political prisoners were part of radical black underground movements in the 1960s that advocated violence. A few, such as Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal, are well known, but most have little public visibility -- among them Sundiata Acoli, Mutulu Shakur, Imam Jamil Al-Amin (known as H. Rap Brown when in the 1960s he was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Jalil Bottom, Sekou Odinga, Abdul Majid, Tom Manning and Bill Dunne.
Those within the system who attempt to resist the abuse and mistreatment are dealt with severely. Prisoners in the overcrowded Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in Lucasville, Ohio, staged a revolt in 1993 after years of routine beatings, degrading rituals of public humiliation and the alleged murders of prisoners by guards. The some 450 prisoners, who were able to unite antagonistic prison factions including the Aryan Brotherhood and the black Gangster Disciples, held out for 11 days. It was one of the longest prison rebellions in U.S. history. Nine prisoners and a guard were killed by the prisoners during the revolt.
The state responded with characteristic fury. It singled out some 40 prisoners and eventually shipped them to Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP), a supermax facility outside Youngstown that was constructed in 1998. There prisoners are held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day in 7-by-11-foot cells. Prisoners at OSP almost never see the sun or have human contact. Those charged with participating in the uprising have, in some cases, been held in these punitive conditions at OSP or other facilities since the 1993 revolt. Five prisoners -- Bomani Shakur, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Jason Robb, George Skatzes and Namir Abdul Mateen -- involved in the uprising were charged with murder. They are being held in isolation on death row.
Kerness says the for-profit prison companies have created an entrepreneurial class like that of the Southern slaveholders, one "dependent on the poor, and on bodies of color as a source for income," and she describes federal and state departments of corrections as "a state of mind." This state of mind, she said in the interview, "led to Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo and what is going on in U.S. prisons right this moment."
As long as profit remains an incentive to incarcerate human beings and our corporate state abounds in surplus, redundant labor, there is little chance that the prison system will be reformed. It is making our corporate overlords wealthy. Our prisons serve the engine of corporate capitalism, transferring state money to private corporations. These corporations will continue to stymie rational prison reform because the system, however inhumane and unjust, feeds corporate bank accounts. At its bottom the problem is not race -- although race plays a huge part in incarceration rates -- nor is it finally poverty; it is the predatory nature of corporate capitalism itself. And until we slay the beast of corporate capitalism, until we wrest power back from corporations, until we build social institutions and a system of governance designed not to profit the few but foster the common good, our prison industry and the horror it perpetuates will only expand.