The Celling of America
and Paul Wright
Common Courage Press; 249 pp.
Review by Helene Vosters
Incarceration is a growth industry—crime pays. Now, from behind
the cell doors of America’s modern day dungeons, prisoners speak out exposing private
interests that fuel, and profit from, our nations prison proliferation. In The Celling
of America, editors Daniel Burton-Rose, Dan Pens, and Paul Wright present a searing
indictment of the criminal justice system and the society which spawns it.
Prison Legal News, a prisoner-written and produced
magazine edited by convicts Dan Pens and Paul Wright, is the source of the majority of Celling’s
articles. This insider perspective along with well-informed, hard-hitting journalism
lends Celling its uniquely qualified voice.
Paul Wright debunks claims of grassroots support for
"citizens" anti-crime initiatives in Cellings opening article. Leading
the pack of major contributors to such devastating initiatives as "Three
strikes" is The Institute for Legislative Action, a political arm of The National
Rifle Association. Wright points out that prisoners are not the only ones denied a say in
our democracy—with big money required to put initiatives on the ballot, the poor as
well, are excluded from political discourse.
Some of Celling’s most illuminating moments are when its
writers step back and let the money makers speak for themselves. In "America’s
Private Gulag," Ken Silverstein shares these words from a brochure for a conference
on private prisons, "arrests and convictions are steadily on the rise, profits are to
be made—profits from crime." The State, not to be beat, has its own marketing
campaign. "Can’t Find Workers? A Willing Workforce Waits," reads a flyer
distributed by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
In "Working For The Man," Dan Pens demonstrates who’s
being "screwed" by prison industry jobs—and it’s not just prisoners.
States offer corporations the same incentives as Third World governments. No rent, taxes
or unions. No workplace safety standards, health or unemployment benefits, and the bottom
line—low wages. Pens suggests that while this may be a satisfactory arrangement for
the CEO’s and stockholders of Microsoft, Starbuck’s and Costco—all of whom
have used prison labor for packaging their products—"laborers might see things
differently, especially when they realize that the only way they can get a job might be by
going to prison."
"The Downward Spiral" places Alabama’s resurrection
of chain gangs in historical perspective. When African Americans were first released from
slavery special laws—"Black codes"—were enacted that criminalized
"a broad spectrum of harmless behavior to assure state and private interests a
continued source of slave labor," write Pens and Wright.
Inflated penalties for crack convictions act as "Black
codes" of the 1990s. As part of its War on Drugs Congress passed mandatory sentencing
guidelines which for the first time made a distinction between crack and powdered cocaine.
Anyone convicted of possessing five grams of crack—compared with five-hundred grams
of cocaine—is subject to a minimum five year sentence. "[T]he War on Drugs is in
reality a racist war being waged against poor Blacks," argues Pens in Celling’s
In true grassroots fashion, Families Against Mandatory Minimums
(FAMM), launched a campaign to draw attention to crack/cocaine sentencing disparities. It
appeared FAMM was on the "brink of victory," reports Pens, when in 1995 the
Sentencing Commission ruled to recommend a reduction in crack sentences. Congress voted
down the commission’s recommendation, 332 to 83. "It was the first time Congress
had voted against any of the over 500 recommendations sent to it since the Sentencing
Commission was established," Pens points out.
Celling pushes the reader to make connections between what goes
on behind cell doors and what goes on beyond. Its prisoner journalists do more than
chronicle the increasingly cruel and vindictive nature of America’s criminal justice
system. By following the money they broaden the usually narrow "crime debate."
But Celling is not without problems. Voices from women—America’s fastest
growing prison population—are sorely lacking and Celling occasionally gets
mired in its own rhetoric.
Political prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur writes, "Society reflects
itself in the microcosm of prison. From a class-based, economically driven, racially
motivated construct devolves life as a series of Chinese boxes—a set of boxes,
decreasing in size so that each box fits inside the next larger one. I am in the smallest
box." Ultimately The Celling of America is not a request for compassion, or
simply a condemnation of America’s prison system. It is a reminder from those
in the smallest of boxes that capitalism in one form or another imprisons us all.