U.S. and World Politics

Year of the Plague: A Capitalist Disaster in U.S. Prisons

By Chris Kinder

The capitalist structure in the U.S. is in crisis, facing multiple challenges to its right to exist as it is. Masses are in the streets day after day, and around the world, attacking the U.S. ruling class for its racist police murderers, and proposing radical reforms up to and including abolition of the police. This is an uprising of unprecedented extent in the post-World War II environment in the U.S. It is an existential challenge to the system, and all in the context of a world-wide pandemic.

The capitalist state specifically is in crisis, as the official head of state has lost the confidence of a good portion of the ruling class, despite the favors he has heaped on them. Trump is under attack from many sides. Knowing he is in danger of losing his reelection bid, Trump openly eggs on a reactionary, racist minority of armed thugs, white supremacists, and conservatives generally; while his Republican toadies are accelerating a long-standing plot to steal elections through many forms of voter suppression chiefly aimed at Black and Brown urban communities, and now including efforts to prevent mail-in ballots right in the midst of the pandemic. Trump actually said that Republicans would “never” be elected again if it was easier to vote!

Mass protest movement
demands change

Hundreds-of-thousands of protestors in the streets every day since the sickening, outright murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on the 25th of May have not only changed the dialogue considerably, but led to talk of reforms at local and state levels—some even being implemented—such as banning choke holds and preventing police from hiding their disciplinary records from public scrutiny.

On June 19 dock workers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union—shut down all 29 ports on the West Coast to demand an end to police murders of Black people, and honor the memory of Juneteenth, the day in 1865 that the slaves of Texas had finally been freed. This powerful show of workers’ power was accompanied by ten-to-15,000 militant protestors (very rough estimate) in a march and caravan—led by the ILWU motor cycle squad—from the port to the Oakland police headquarters and a rally at Oscar Grant Plaza (at City Hall).

Protestors add prisons
to their agenda

Throughout the protests, many identify capitalism itself as the core of the problem that needs to be done away with. And prisons, like police, are an integral part of the capitalist state. And not just the capitalist state. The French Revolution, which overthrew the feudal nobility and their monarchy, began with the assault on the Bastille, a horrific dungeon/prison in Paris, on the 14th of July 1789. This revolution marked the coming to power of the capitalist class in Europe, but it did not mark the end of prisons!

Prisons are a product of any class society that must exploit and oppress the peasants (in older societies) and working classes, as well any minorities which might be “expendable” or a challenge to class rule. The U.S., as the imperialist monster extending its tentacles throughout the world and seeking “full spectrum dominance,” is also the most backward of the major capitalist nations. The U.S. has more incarcerated people per capita than any other country, and they are all in incubation centers for a highly contagious virus.

Prisons are a petri-dish paradise for the virus

There are more COVID-19 cases in some U.S. prisons than in entire countries. According to one report, as of the early weeks of June, there were over 1600 clusters of 50 or more cases of the coronavirus across the U.S., in prisons, nursing homes, meat packing plants, etc. The largest clusters were centered in either prisons or meat processing plants—which most meat packer workers see as entirely too similar to prisons. Overall, fewer people contracted coronavirus in the countries of Cyprus, Jamaica, and Iceland than they did in the Smithfield Foods pork processing facility in Sioux Falls South Dakota, the source of 1,098 cases.

U.S. prisons are over-crowded hell holes. They have no ability to physically distance inmates, and they have inadequate supplies for hand washing, little or no personal protective materials, inadequate healthcare, and no way to deal with an expanding pandemic. The only solution for this is mass releases of prisoners, with provisions for places to live, get healthcare, food, and the other requirements of life, as well as adequate measures for safety among those who remain incarcerated. This includes obvious things like soap, sanitizing facilities, frequent showers, and personal protection such as masks and vinyl gloves.

The virus threat to prisoners

Prisons throughout the country have, predictably, produced virus outbreaks which threaten to grow even further out of control. The Ohio State Prison in Marion had 2,439 cases as of the 12th of June, representing about 80 percent of the prison population. That is more cases than the countries of New Zealand (1,504), Slovenia (1,490) or Iceland (1,807). (Quartz Daily Brief, June 12th)

The screws (prison guards) often have high numbers of cases, as they travel between different areas of the prison, and bring the virus into the prison, as they exit and enter daily. The infamous Rikers Island Jail in New York City reportedly had 360 cases among inmates as of the 20th of May, and 1300 cases among Corrections staff. (

Avenal prison atrocity protested

The Avenal State Prison in California had 908 cases as of June 15th, which is about half the prison inmate population; and the California Institute for Men (CIM), a prison in Chino California, had 801 cases. (statistics from the CDCR). Overall, the U.S. prisons have produced more than 43,000 recorded COVID-19 cases, over 500 of which were fatal (as of June 12th.)

The Families United to End LWOP (life without the possibility of parole) (FUEL) have conducted caravans to and rallies at Avenal State Prison to bring attention to this urgent need for mass release of prisoners.

In some states, such as California and New York, governors Newsom and Cuomo, have, with some delay, taken needed measures to control the Coronavirus in general society. But the survival of prisoners has been at the bottom of their lists, if it was there at all.

Newsom’s neglect

In California, this isn’t everything the Governor is neglecting. In San Quentin, there are innocent prisoners such as Kevin Cooper, a Black man who was falsely convicted of the brutal murder of a family in San Bernardino in a frame-up by the local sheriff’s department. This corrupt and racist police operation involved the destruction and concealment of ample evidence which could have freed Cooper, as well as false planted evidence to help convict him, and the reprehensible manipulation of a child witness (the only survivor of this massacre.) Governor Gavin Newsom has before him a fresh analysis of the evidence, and a plea to open a new investigation as to Cooper’s innocence, but he has taken no action on this.

It is noteworthy that Newsom, who has said he is against the death penalty has not moved to abolish it but has instead put it on hold “on his watch.” Yet his ignoring of the vital need to order a mass release of prisoners is condemning both the innocent and the guilty to a death sentence without ever entering the death chamber! None of these prisoners has done anything deserving of a death sentence, a sentence which Newsom says he will not carry out, but which his actions will implement anyway for the most vulnerable.

Caravans to San Quentin

In California, the Labor Action Committee To Free Mumia Abu-Jamal (LAC), together with many other groups and individuals, have focused on San Quentin prison, the oldest California prison, and the only location for state executions. San Quentin escaped attention by the virus until June this year, perhaps because both the prison and the “village” of housing for staff occupy one restricted-entry compound. But that didn’t last.

On May 30th, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) transferred 121 incarcerated inmates from the CIM in Chino—a hotspot of COVID-19 cases (over 500 at that time) and 15 deaths—into San Quentin, without testing them first! The CDCR’s own graph shows the result: a very sharp increase in cases at San Quentin, 30 cases to date of the 15th of June. And this is no doubt an undercount, since, as in every other sector of U.S. society, there is no where near enough testing.

The LAC and friends were ahead of the curve on this. We knew that San Quentin, like other prisons, would soon be a hotbed of infection, due to the crowded conditions of confinement, lack of sanitary supplies, etc. On the 9th of May we organized a car caravan and rally at San Quentin, focusing on a drive-by of the West entrance to the prison compound, and a rally in front of the entrance, with speakers and physical distancing. Some 85 cars were in the caravan. And then, on the 20th of June, a day after the Juneteenth ILWU port shut-down march and rally, we did it again at San Quentin. Our unifying slogan for these caravan/rallies was: “No State Executions by COVID-19”

The rally/caravan on the 20th was even bigger than the first one, with some 250 people and 125 cars in the caravan. Union workers in yellow vests, employees of the ferry company, were mobilized to help organize the cars in the ferry parking lot into neat rows, and direct them out to the street for the drive past the prison entrance. One worker told this reporter that they were “glad to help” with what we were doing. During the caravan driving, several supporters got out of cars at the West Gate entrance to the prison, and held up signs, all the while maintaining safe distancing.

These actions brought emphasis to the need to immediately release the elderly, sick or immune-compromised, and all those who are close to their parole date, at the very least. Several rally speakers called on Newsom to “free ’em all!” The real urgency of these demands was underscored when one speaker reported that “just as of today [the 20th], 90 more COVID-positive cases were reported” at the prison: a disaster happening before the eyes of the world!

The capitalist class rules,
but revolution looms

The real culprit of all this is the capitalist system. The system’s U.S. president is expendable, as much of the mainstream press now seems to promote. But the system will go on unless it is overthrown. The lords of big capital, the billionaires and their hangers on—and their guns-for-hire “government”—have an ability to adjust to the times, as long as their control of the means of production and distribution remains intact. Reforms can come, and reforms can go.

In the U.S. today, the “New Deal” reform of social security is under attack, unemployment payments have become utterly insufficient, healthcare is more expensive than ever, and the right of workers to organize in unions has been undermined by shipping production enterprises, factories, etc., to other countries where U.S. imperialism makes sure that poverty wages prevail.

Reforms will not do what we want

Police “reform?” Decades of training and re-training and consent decrees are so much crumpled paper for today’s killer cops. And prisons? The incarceration regimen is not much better than it was in the Bastille in 1789, except for the odd case of an imprisoned elite person, who will get the country-club version of “prison.” Even in the bastille, Marie “let them eat cake” Antoinette, the wife of the late King Louis the sixteenth, got a special room with a writing desk to herself before the Jacobins chopped her head off!

As retired ILWU longshoreman, Jack Heyman, said at the Juneteenth rally in Oscar Grant park, abolition of the prisons, and of the police, is of course what we want. But it cannot be done by reforms under capitalist rule: it is not possible. But with the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society, anything is possible. Long live the workers revolution!

Chris Kinder is an Oakland activist and co-founder of the Labor Action Committee To Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.