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COLUMN: Vaughn Rebellion and the Case Against Prisons

By Juan McFarland, Contributing Writer
Posted 5:30 PM EST, Sat., Feb. 11, 2017

On Feb. 1, prisoners at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware organized an uprising, leaving one correctional officer dead and another vaguely injured. It was the 152nd anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which legalizes slavery as a punishment for crime.

The siege began around 10:30 a.m., with four guards and several inmates being held captive inside the prison. At approximately 1:00 p.m., an unnamed inmate spoke with the Wilmington News Journal over the phone, outlining the cause of the rebellion and revealing the demands of the prisoners.

“We know the institution is going to change for the worse [sic],” the man said, insisting that President Donald Trump will likely encourage harsher prison conditions. “We got demands that you need to pay attention to, that you need to listen to and you need to let them know. Education, we want education first and foremost. We want a rehabilitation program that works for everybody. We want the money to be allocated so we can know exactly what is going on in the prison, the budget.”

According to Stephen Hampton, a civil rights attorney who has represented many of these inmates, complaints about treatment from guards, substandard medical care, and poor record-keeping had increased within the last year, underscoring the violent and dehumanizing conditions that exist in many of America’s federal plantations.

Ironically, the Vaughn Rebellion transpired just four months after the commencement of a nationwide prison strike that protested many of the same issues, and the release of Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, which illuminates the horrifying realities of mass incarceration, enslavement, and the use of prison labor in this country.

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With the institution of incarceration gaining attention in the mainstream media, many liberals have pushed for prison reform in the U.S., believing that they are doing an actual justice to the oppressed, whose voices they have often contributed to silencing behind steel doors. However, more liberal reform of the prison industrial complex is not what is needed, but complete abolition of the entire institution itself.

Think about it: What is the purpose of our prison system in America? Does it function to rehabilitate criminals? If so, then we should be funding more rehabilitation programs and centers that circumvent recidivism instead of funneling money into spaces that force inmates to provide cheap labor to large corporations like Whole Foods and Victoria’s Secret. Are prisons meant to reduce crime by taking away the actors, leaving the factors that induce criminal activity, such as a poverty and mental illnesses, very much in place?

The truth is, prisons are not for rehabilitating criminals or reducing crime — they are a means in which the state maintains its racist and classist social order, erasing those who engage in what the people in power view as “illegitimate” forms of capitalism.

One cannot help, but be reminded of the infamous Attica rebellion of 1971 in upstate New York, where 1,281 prisoners held 39 correctional officers hostage for four days before being brutally executed in an indiscriminate hail of fire from submachine guns and tear gas. When the smoke cleared, and all the gunfire came to a halt, 10 hostages and 29 inmates had been killed, and 89 others were critically injured. The inmates in Attica were also calling for prison reform.

The year is now 2017, and American citizens are still being haunted by the specters of Gestapo police forces, prison-based slavery, racism and classism. The people are resisting every day, and revolts are becoming much more normal. The only question that lies, both in the prisons and outside, is when the smoke clears again, in which direction will we veer? Reform or revolution?

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