America Is the Prison

America Is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s

LEE BERNSTEIN
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807898321_bernstein
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  • Book Info
    America Is the Prison
    Book Description:

    In the 1970s, while politicians and activists outside prisons debated the proper response to crime, incarcerated people helped shape those debates though a broad range of remarkable political and literary writings.Lee Bernstein explores the forces that sparked a dramatic "prison art renaissance," shedding light on how incarcerated people produced powerful works of writing, performance, and visual art. These included everything from George Jackson's revolutionarySoledad Brotherto Miguel Pinero's acclaimed off-Broadway play and Hollywood filmShort Eyes. An extraordinary range of prison programs--fine arts, theater, secondary education, and prisoner-run programs--allowed the voices of prisoners to influence the Black Arts Movement, the Nuyorican writers, "New Journalism," and political theater, among the most important aesthetic contributions of the decade.By the 1980s and '90s, prisoners' educational and artistic programs were scaled back or eliminated as the "war on crime" escalated. But by then these prisoners' words had crossed over the wall, helping many Americans to rethink the meaning of the walls themselves and, ultimately, the meaning of the society that produced them.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0404-6
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-18)

    Writing just after his acquittal as part of the New York Panther Twentyone, Zayd Shakur reflected a consciousness that prisoners were broadly representative of racism and inequality in the country. Drawing on insights developed by Malcolm X, Shakur, deputy minister of information for the New York branch of the Black Panther Party, declared that “all of America is a prison where the people are being held captive by the real arch criminals.”¹ This insight underscored the high proportion of African Americans in prison, relative to other ethnic groups, and the ongoing racism and inequality pervading U.S. society. This view held...

  5. CHAPTER ONE WE SHALL HAVE ORDER THE CULTURAL POLITICS OF LAW AND ORDER
    (pp. 19-50)

    During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon made Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark, a target of his “law-and-order” campaign strategy. In accepting the GOP nomination at his party’s national convention in Miami, Nixon exhorted that whomever he nominated for attorney general would “open a new front against the filth peddlers and the narcotics peddlers who are corrupting the lives of the children of this country.”¹ Once in the White House, Richard Nixon made the law-and-order rhetoric of his campaign a cornerstone of his first term, naming his campaign manager, John Mitchell, to the post formerly held by Clark. Mitchell...

  6. CHAPTER TWO THE AGE OF JACKSON GEORGE JACKSON AND THE RADICAL CRITIQUE OF INCARCERATION
    (pp. 51-74)

    During the late 1960s and early 1970s, conservative politicians steered the national debate regarding criminal justice policy toward increasing repression. At the same time, the culture of American prisons became increasingly radical. Influenced by the New Left, the civil rights movement, and revolutions in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, a growing number of inmates interpreted the convergence of liberal and conservative criminal justice policies as the evolution of an increasingly reactionary, repressive, and neocolonial state. If Richard Nixon saw himself as the standard-bearer of a return to order that would protect the civil rights of “decent citizens,” many prisoners would...

  7. CHAPTER THREE WHAT WORKS? REFORM AND REPRESSION IN PRISON PROGRAMS
    (pp. 75-98)

    As the culmination of their immersion in radical political theory and prison activism, the Attica Brothers reacted to and amplified the goals spearheaded on the West Coast. In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, correctional authorities made Attica a living hell for its inmates. The uprising left eleven employees of the facility and twenty-nine inmates dead. Despite the creation of an official state commission, the only short-term change at Attica was the erection of new gun towers.¹ Over time, the uprising left another legacy: the correctional facility met several of the inmates’ demands, particularly those that affected cultural and educational...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR WE TOOK THE WEIGHT INCARCERATED WRITERS AND ARTISTS IN THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT
    (pp. 99-128)

    During the 1970s prison rehabilitative efforts seemed to narrow to the point where trying to scare people straight was the most visible prison program in the country. At the same time, alternative visions of prison life found numerous venues for expression and distribution. The work of prison writers appeared in small distribution publications like the Fortune Society’sFortune Newsand Joseph Bruchac’sGreenfield Review. Some found their work picked up by specialty houses like Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, major university presses, and even some trade publishers. Perhaps the greatest incubators and benefactors of prison culture during the 1970s, however, were...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE CELL BLOCK THEATER ENTERTAINMENT, LIBERATION, AND THE POLITICS OF PRISON THEATER
    (pp. 129-150)

    In the spring of 1979 the Center for the Advanced Study in Theatre Arts (CASTA) at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center held a conference on theater in prison.¹ The event featured a spirited and divided debate about the goals of theater programs by the founders of many of the key programs then in existence, including the heads of the Theatre for the Forgotten, Cell Block Theatre, the Family, Geese Theatre Company, and the New York City Street Theatre Caravan. Stanley A. Waren, a professor at City College and the director of CASTA, summed up the varying and...

  10. CHAPTER SIX RADICAL CHIC JACK HENRY ABBOTT AND THE DECLINE OF PRISON PROGRAMMING
    (pp. 151-172)

    On a Wednesday evening in 1970, ninety New Yorkers gathered in a Park Avenue apartment for an event that would presage the decline of prisoners’ cultural influence. George Jackson had not yet been killed or the Attica rioters massacred; Angela Davis had not yet been put on trial or Miguel Piñero’s play staged at Lincoln Center. Already, however, concerns that twenty-one members of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party might face violations of their civil liberties in their upcoming trials led Felicia Bernstein to organize a fundraiser for their legal defense. Unable to make bail on conspiracy...

  11. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 173-184)

    In 1924 Huddie Ledbetter played a concert at the Sugar Land Prison Farm for the governor of Texas. Ledbetter, who would go on to international celebrity as “Lead Belly,” was doing time as “Walter Boyd,” the name he assumed after escaping from a previous prison. This time, Ledbetter was arrested after he murdered a relative during a fight in 1917, receiving a sentence of seven to thirty-five years at Sugar Land, a former plantation near Houston. Ledbetter cut sugar cane on the prison farm and entertained other inmates and the prison staff with ballads and blues songs. Ledbetter was particularly...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 185-214)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 215-224)