Civil Rights



By Mary Getlein

Eugene Debs said it best: “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison I am not free.” This quote was used in a political poster to help create the movement against the criminal justice system in the United States.

Posters combating the prison industrial industry have been assembled by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. The posters show the misery in prisons and the horrible conditions prisoners have to live with.

The U.S. has 3% of the world’s population, but we have 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Black men are incarcerated four times more often than any other group. One out of 3 Black men, 1 out of 6 Latino men, and one of 17 White men will be in jail at some point in their lives.

Between 1980 and 2010, the number of women in California prisons grew from 15,118 to 112,797, which represents a 646% increase. The number of women in prisons has increased at nearly 1.5 times the rate of men. Most of these women have histories of physical and sexual abuse, HIV, and substance abuse.

Almost two million children have a parent in prison on any given day. As one poster asked, “Have women become that much more dangerous?”

California locks up more people than any other state in the country. They want to build more prisons and spend billions of dollars on the prison structures. Between 1984 and 2005, California built 22 prisons, but only one addition to the University of California, and three to California State University. California is #1 in prison spending but 50th in education spending.

The posters represented in Prison Nation show the conditions inside the prisons. They show the economic and racial inequities of those most caught up in the criminal justice system.

Since 1980, prisons have been filled to double capacity. Most of the people occupying the prisons are people of color, the poor, the illiterate, the mentally ill, youth, immigrants and women. This incredible growth in the rate of incarceration is due to the war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentencing laws, conspiracy laws and the criminalization of youth. Other reasons are: Gang injunctions, inadequate legal representation, no employment, and the slashing of social services. A big reason is investors in multinational corporations, like Corrections Corporation of America, GEO, and AECOM, are planning, building, servicing – and profiting from – the prisons.

An old poster from the 1960s shows prison slave labor conditions that are still in place. Peg Averill’s 1980 poster states “Capital Punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.” Inmate pay is about .38 cents an hour. The posters show ongoing struggles but they also record victories that come about by years of grass roots organizing. In 1991, the Mothers of East LA succeeded in preventing the construction of a prison in their community. As of January 1, 2013 the shackling of imprisoned pregnant women is illegal in California.

The posters in Prison Nation cover many of the social issues around the system of mass incarceration including: the death penalty, the Three Strikes Law, racism, access to education and health care. Other reasons include: the growing rate of incarceration, slave labor, divestment, privatization, torture, and re-entry into the community. The posters show how important art is to advocate for social change.

Prison Nation is all about change. On the inside pages of the paper are many prisoner groups that have sprung up around the nation and the state of California. There are a lot of groups dedicated to helping prisoners while they are in prison, and when they get out. The recidivism rate is 80% , due to stupid rules by the Parole Board. If you’re caught, you go back to prison for some more time. Mass incarceration is a stain on our moral culture. It’s like knowing about what they did to the Jews in Nazi Germany and pretending you don’t know. The conditions people have to live under, while the profits go directly to one of these huge multi national companies … It is time for it to STOP!

Today, the “No More Jails Coalition” is demanding the Board of Supervisors to stop the expansion of existing prisons, including 1100 prison cells meant for women. L.A. County is the world’s largest jail system in the world.

Some of their demands are to stop construction of the women’s jail complex and reject $100 million from the state. They want to put money into the community, not the Sheriff’s Department. They want to find and expand alternatives to locking someone up. They also want to stop all jail construction in L.A. County. I can’t help but agree. To see these posters, go to the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. #323.653.4662.

Before January 2013, women were still shackled in jail if they were pregnant. This is the status of women in America. It’s not a matter of how much money you have, it’s how they are going to treat you once you are arrested.

Most crimes are bogus, but it means time spent in jail, under horrendous conditions. It has been declared a Human Rights violation. Jerry Brown put an end to the practice in January 2013.