UW News

November 24, 2014

Black prison activism, organizing explored in new book ‘Captive Nation’

UW News

CaptiveNationCover_smDan Berger is an assistant professor in the UW Bothell School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and author of the new book, “Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era.” He answered a few questions about his book.

Q: What is the main concept of this book and how did it come about?

A: “Captive Nation” tells the story of the role black prisoners played in the civil rights and Black Power movements and the role those movements played in generating concern for the health and safety of people in prison between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s. These activists, both in and out of prison, recognized poignant connections between the fate of prisoners and the treatment marginalized communities experienced in cities and towns around the country.

The book reveals the pernicious foundations of mass incarceration to be not just an outcome of the war on the drugs but a bludgeon against black radicalism and other social justice initiatives in the decades after World War II.

Q: Would you tell a bit about your methods? What research went into this book?

A: When I began this book I knew I needed to conduct oral histories to understand what people in prison did and thought, since prison systems do not gather such information.

I was surprised at how much of a paper trail exists. I studied 11 university and institutional archives and several independent collections containing countless documents and audio or visual documentaries of prison conditions, often from the perspective of people in prison.

I also conducted two dozen oral histories — in the process, I hope, creating a new archive of voices of current and formerly incarcerated people and their family members and supporters. Their voices are critical to understanding incarceration, activism and alternatives.

Book event 4:35 p.m. Monday, Nov. 24
Dan Berger will read from and discuss his book at the Art Institute of Seattle, 2323 Elliot Ave. The event is free and open to the public.

Q: You note that George Jackson, a California prisoner who became an activist and author, “stands at the center of ‘Captive Nation,'” and that “even death could not erase his political legacy.” What is that legacy, and how did it continue after his death?

A: Many people in prison see in Jackson an exemplary figure who bettered himself despite the limitations of his surroundings.

He was arrested at 18 and because he had been arrested several times as a juvenile, received a sentence of one year to life. In prison, he read, studied and became published. Supporters organized protests, petitioned the United Nations, and called for independent investigations into the mysterious circumstances of his August 1971 death, when he was shot by San Quentin prison guards during a riot.

To prison officials, especially in California, Jackson’s legacy justifies a variety of punitive and censorious policies that seek to keep people in prison incapacitated and separated from both individuals and ideas.

In some California prisons, possession of books by Jackson is enough to get someone placed in solitary confinement. To many, however — including people in prison who still manage to read his writings — Jackson remains an inspiration.

Even today, Jackson remains a controversial touchstone of prison politics. In 2005, then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to grant clemency to Stanley Tookie Williams because the former, repentant gang leader had dedicated one of his books to Jackson; Schwarzenegger said it was proof that Williams had not been rehabilitated.

Dan Berger

Dan Berger

Q: You write that black prisoners “connect the dots, conceptually and practically, of late-twentieth-century political transformation in ways few other groups can … they speak not only to the conditions of their age but to subsequent generations as well.” In what way do they speak to future generations?

A: Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, black prisoners were at the forefront of antiracist activism. Figures such as Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, George Jackson and others articulated imprisonment as a subset of a larger captivity, a microcosm of the racism that every day saw black communities overpoliced, underemployed and disproportionately denied access to nutritious food, quality health care and education, stable housing and personal safety.

Drawing on their own experiences, imprisoned intellectuals offered prescient analyses of growing inequality. Because they were working-class black men and women with criminal records, few people listened to their warning signs. Yet in the decades since, much of what they feared has come to pass: black communities were hardest hit by the foreclosure and unemployment crises, are frequent victims of police violence, and remain incarcerated at grossly disproportionate numbers.

Q: You write that the courtroom was used as a “theater of black politics,” and that prisoners’ letters and articles were read on-air by sympathetic journalists at a radio station. Where are black prisoners finding an external voice now? Who is listening?

A: Prisoners looking to draw attention to their conditions or otherwise connect with the outside world have a much harder time now than they did decades ago. Prisons do not allow Internet access and have byzantine rules governing what books or publications can be sent in. Meanwhile, although several online sites report on prison conditions, there are fewer print publications for people in prison to read or write.

As popular attention faded from prisons, the theater of the courtroom is reserved more for celebrity scandals than social justice initiatives. At the same time, conditions inside prisons are often more dire. As a result, prisoners have more recently adopted dramatic tactics to call attention to their plight. Since 2011, California prisoners have waged three hunger strikes that, at their height, had 30,000 participants refusing food in protest of long-term solitary confinement and related abuses.

Q: What would you like the reader to take away from this book?

A: For starters, I hope readers take seriously that prisoners and other disenfranchised people have both a stake and a voice in debates about culture, politics and society.

Then there is the enduring issue of prison and police violence. In many ways, conditions have worsened in the last three and a half decades through ever-widening wars on crime, drugs, and now terror.

And yet, in the course of researching and writing this book, I learned a great deal about the indomitable nature of the human spirit. The work needed to undo today’s prison industrial complex is daunting in scale and scope. But I hope, paradoxical as it may sound, that readers of “Captive Nation” walk away thinking that such sweeping change is, in fact, possible.

Watch a video of Prof. Berger talking about “Captive Nation” and its meaning to current events: