Empty the Prisons

Ken Barrios

The pandemic has exposed the depth of racism embedded in US society. The Left should center the struggle against mass incarceration and #FreeThemAll as a strategic priority.


We are in the middle of a pandemic. The Coronavirus has upended everything. This moment will go down in our collective memory similar to 9/11 and the collapse of the housing bubble in 2007-8.

But there is a difference: the last two crises caught the working class off-guard. This new crisis caught many activists in the midst of activity – proactively using the organizations of electoral and extra-electoral struggle to form coalitions that can push the demands we need.

Demands like: rent and mortgage freezes, Medicare for All, immediate housing for the homeless, and emptying of the concentration camps.

In Chicago, this has been summarized in the demand for a Right to Recovery (R2R), which is a city-wide coalition of electoral and movement groups, and includes elected officials.

R2R has gone as far as to make it a point to push for a “Right to Liberty”, which includes the demand to #FreeThemAll.

This is a tremendous leap forward for legitimizing and realizing the demands of the prison abolitionist movement. But now that we have crossed this threshold, I want to push that all groups organizing around the country adopt an unapologetic position of #FreeThemAll, regardless of age, violent crime, etc.

My point in writing this article is to discuss why I think many activists initially hesitate to call for complete prison abolition, compared to more accepted calls to close all the concentration camps. It is also my hope that this article can help reinforce the idea that we should make prison abolition the priority: both for the short-term safety of the prisoners and as a long-term strategy for building anti-racist struggle and recruiting more People of Color to socialism.

But first, let’s start with how this crisis has begun to affect mass consciousness and create an opening for abolitionist politics.

Pulling Back the Curtain

The need for social distancing to “flatten the curve” of infection has pulled back the curtain on the functioning of capitalism. When no one can safely go to work, it becomes clearer that the working class is the actual driver of society.

It also revealed the absurdity of: for-profit healthcare; tying health insurance to employment; landlords and banks that expect payment when most can’t work; our stripped-down welfare state when millions need unemployment insurance and food stamps; and waiting on Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates to make donations when taxing them heavily (or seizing their wealth) would go much further to alleviate the economic crisis.

Where We Prepared and Where we Didn’t

The Coronavirus has also clarified where our hard work has paid off and where we have a lot to do. The immediate response by Chicago housing groups, like the Autonomous Tenants Union (ATU) and the Lift the Ban Coalition, has been to push for rent and mortgage freezes. Years of organizing and penetration into the political consciousness has made these demands immediately popular in Chicago’s Right to Recovery coalition.

What has been slower to formulate has been a clear and militant response to the magnified-crisis experienced by Chicago’s Black community.

As a Chicagoan, the news from home has been disgusting. Cook County Jail has become the nation’s hotspot for Coronavirus with 238 inmates and 115 staff members testing positive for the virus (though this is a conservative estimate since most of the 4,500 inmates have not been tested). Cook County’s overall prison population is approximately 70 percent Black, and 70 percent of Chicago’s COVID-19 deaths come from the Black community. Chicago’s South and West sides (which are predominantly Black) have experienced major police harassment since the Governor made the “shelter-in-place” order, such as “enforced street closures,” and including a massive street sweep unlike anything done in non-Black neighborhoods.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been activists taking action. There have been calls by groups like the Chicago Community Bond Fund to push legislators to free the prisoners. Simultaneously, various groups banded together to form a “solidarity caravan” to protest Cook County Jail and demand #MassReleaseNow and #FreeThemAll.

However, there has been hesitation around these demands. Some groups have wondered if it makes more sense to demand all prisoners be freed, or if we should push to only free non-violent prisoners. This struck me as a sharp contrast compared to our advances on demands like freeing all immigrants from the concentration camps.

Such weaknesses are also reminiscent of the holes in Bernie’s strategy.

Bernie Sanders, the Left, and the Black Community

Before going into this next section, I’d like to lay out a few things about my own relationship to the Bernie Sanders campaign. I have been a revolutionary socialist since 2006. When Bernie started his 2016 campaign, I scoffed and wrote him off. But when he was able to demonstrate that he could genuinely challenge Hilary Clinton by beating her in Michigan, I realized that something had changed in the national mood. Since then, I’ve done my best to help campaign for Bernie while also being critical of his campaigns for their inability or reluctance to openly discuss issues of oppression, such as racism.

Having said that, I was impressed with the way his 2020 campaign seemed to learn a lesson from 2016 and openly courted the Latinx community. He openly promoted his immigration platform, which read as if it was written by Immigrants Rights groups, themselves. This inclusivity helped lead to major wins in the southwest.

But we have to honestly confront the fact that his inclusion of the Latinx community stands in sharp contrast to his relationship with the Black community. In spite of a heroic 2020 campaign that was far more multi-racial than the 2016 campaign, Bernie still failed to mobilize the Black community.

It is particularly jarring when you consider that Bernie’s main opponent was the vice president for the first Black president of the US. In other words, it was obvious that Bernie needed to have an open strategy to appeal to the Black community. As pointed out in The Grio, there should have been a plan for this all along and there were activists that pushed for it. But they went unheeded.

This failure was one component that led to major losses in states with large Black electorates, particularly once the Democratic Party leadership coalesced around Biden.

It is important to dwell on this point because there are already sections of the new Left that are taking the wrong lessons. Authors like Dustin Guastella have argued for the need to break with “fringe issues” – code for the need to drop all non-economic issues, such as fighting racism. (If this is not what was meant, Guastella is welcome to respond to me publicly to refute this and explain what he meant by “fringe” issues).

It should be noted that this position is politically well to the right of Bernie Sanders, who included a point in his platform demanding we cut the national prison population in half.

Now is the perfect time to make up for the lack of action on abolition and anti-racism.

However, the issue of mass incarceration was rarely discussed and never discussed as an anti-racist position. Toward the end of his campaign, when the coronavirus had become a full-blown epidemic, Bernie seemed to be learning from his mistakes and hosted a digital-roundtable on the topic of “Coronavirus and the African American Community.” This approach was a move in the necessary direction. But it was too little, too late.

The crisis of the coronavirus has reminded the Left that crises can be opportunities as well. With abolitionist organizations leading the way to #FreeThemAll, and the recent lessons of what happens when the Left doesn’t take anti-racism seriously, this seems like a perfect time to make up for our lack of action on abolition and anti-racism.

From Slavery to Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow

Let’s take a step back. I’ve tried to describe the current moment. But none of it explains how we got to the current moment. So, let’s quickly recap some US history.

This country was built on slavery. Slavery justified and provided racialized free labor. When slavery was abolished (through violent, civil war) it was replaced with a brief experiment in Black Democracy (The Reconstruction of 1865–1877). But when the ruling class had enough of that,Jim Crow was implemented (with maximum violence) to re-empower the old slave-owning class against the Black population.

The struggle of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 60s made open racism difficult to maintain. As a result, the US ruling class leaned on the police, the prison system, and the under-developed class consciousness of US workers to legitimize a “justice” system that would target the Black community: the New Jim Crow.

Instead of police and prisons being understood as tools of bourgeois social control, our politically stunted society promoted them as forms of impartial justice against crime. Instead of being recognized as part of a system of class exploitation and oppression to subjugate the working-class (and divide it along racial lines): they would be framed as “color-blind” tools for public safety.

In 2014, Black Lives Matter (BLM) stepped in to resist this system, particularly its unhinged police violence against the Black community. But the valuable lessons learned from the BLM movement were largely confined to BLM itself. In my opinion, this is due to the way in which a racist society segregates people geographically. This spatial segregation also manifests as organizational and political segregation.

The confinement of these lessons is apparent in various ways. But most recently, it appeared in the ways discussed above regarding the analysis of the Sanders campaign and its failures. Now it is also manifesting in hesitation to call for freedom of all prisoners during the coronavirus, regardless of whether they were convicted of violent or non-violent crimes.

It is time we considered some important questions:

  • What has it cost us to leave anti-racism and prison abolition on the periphery of mainstream Leftist politics?
  • What has it cost us to fail to build a worker’s party that could put forward class analysis that framed the police and prisons as tools of class oppression?
  • What has it cost us to fail to connect class and race, particularly in regards to our “justice” system?

Gulag Earth

Avoiding the questions above has led the US to have the world’s largest prison population. The United States is Earth’s Gulag,with one in five of Earth’s prisoners being US prisoners. To put this in perspective, the population of China is 1.385 billion, while its prison population is 1.7 million. The population of the US is 321 million, while our prison population is 2.3 million.

Take this in for a moment and think about how it ties into all other questions of US society: racism, gun violence, absence of a Worker’s Party, austerity programs, the “Overton Window,” gutted welfare state, declining unionization, etc.

How can we build a better world when the Left, the working class, and working-class people of color are all under the constant threat of incarceration? How are the time, energy, and money that are funneled into police and prisons deforming and degrading all other aspects of society – regarding the government, economy, and our personal lives?

To summarize: the US ruling class has kept its position as the main super power by deliberately stunting the class consciousness of US workers, and accomplishing this with inter-connected racism and normalization of mass incarceration. This is why the population of the US is less than 25 percent of China’s, but we have 135 percent of China’s prison population, and it is predominantly Black (±33 percent).

Seize the moment

There are an inspiring number of people, publications, and organizations that are finally getting behind abolitionist politics. While groups are pushing for radical solutions as common sense during this Coronavirus crisis, we have to make sure we push prison abolition to the forefront. #FreeThemAll has to be at the center of our calls to action because the prisons are currently the center of viral transmission.

The Coronavirus has put the class divisions and antagonisms of our society in sharp contrast.

#FreeThemAll has to be at the center of our calls to action because the prisons are currently the center of viral transmission.

With the Black community and the overlapping prison population at the epicenter of this epidemic, it reminds us that we need to address race and class, together.

We can’t downplay anti-racism and abolition to be more politically appealing. Politics, especially socialist politics, is about the hard work of organizing the working class and winning it to see every section of itself as critical to our collective power. Writing off the Black community has allowed our class to be divided, which has prevented us from forming strong, class-conscious unions. Which has prevented us from building the mass organizations that could have coalesced into our own Worker’s Party (in contrast to all other industrialized countries).

Writing off the Black community has turned the US into the world’s prison. Let’s #FreeThemAll, regardless of what they’ve been convicted of. Let’s storm the prison and build a mass, beautiful, multi-racial Left. Let’s build an anti-racist, abolitionist socialism that can fight for a Worker’s Party and true Democratic Socialism.

Ken Barrios is a revolutionary socialist. He is a member of the DSA and 33rd Ward Working Families.