The Guardian • Issue #2064

The US Prison in film: A Marxist View

Prison cells.

Photo: – public domain.

In the “land of the free,” millions languish in prisons in the name of law and order. The prison, as an institution, is used by the capitalist state as a weapon against the proletariat. A crime occurs when a law is broken, but these laws are written by the government of the bourgeoisie to support its political and social power. What is a crime, and how the judicial system responds, is rooted in capitalist class interests. The bourgeoisie criminalises any act that provokes social unrest, endangers property and its possession, or politically challenges the status quo. Under the prison system the criminal is punished to be turned into a productive element of the national economy.

Lenin described the modern state as the bureaucratic and repressive apparatus of the bourgeoisie. The “law” is used to enforce the interests of the state, so that the ruling class keeps other classes in a disadvantaged position, through a process of criminalisation. An analysis of US conviction rates shows inequalities in the way the law is applied, according to race, gender, and class. It is also witnessed in the conviction rate according to class, and race, such as when a white wealthy person is charged by the police.

Marxism sees a parallel between the emergence of factories as the main sites of capitalist production and prisons as the main institutions of punishment. As American capitalism grew so did the prison system. From the 1960s to the present, the number of people locked in prisons, jails, or on parole or probation, increased from 800,000 to eight million. Mass incarceration is the most visible manifestation of the Prison-Industrial-Complex, which plays a multifaceted and highly dynamic role within American capitalism.

An examination of the political economy of punishment reveals the structural relationship between economic transformations and changes in the penal system. There is a direct correlation between high incarceration rates and unemployment rates, poverty levels, welfare regimes, and limited labour markets. Ruth Wilson Gilmore in her Golden Gulag (2007) argues that mass incarceration was never a response to drug epidemics, or an increase in the crime rate, it was a political-economic strategy used to alleviate economic crises. Surplus labour, land, capital, and state capacity was used to produce “the biggest prison building project in the history of the world.” Mass incarceration targeted the poorest of the proletariat, the lumpen-proletariat, with more than 20 per cent of the US population now having some kind of criminal record.

It is within this analysis that the Prison-Industrial Complex, as portrayed in American films, can be viewed. Prisons are a common theme in American popular culture, whether in films, television, old radio shows, video games, plays, songs, documentaries, comic books, or comedies. They are an important fabric of American society and economy.

Since the silent film era (before 1927) prisons have been portrayed as places of violence, with prisoners cramped into unhygienic living conditions, with bad food, corrupt brutal guards, and most of all, boredom. The prisoner is dehumanised and alienated from productive society, which under Marx’s theory of alienation means the prison is a demeaning place of restricted creativity. The system crushes the spirit. The prisoner is punished and broken. Only bad people go to prison. However, the reality is starkly different.

The audience assumes the judicial and legal system is racially unbiased and honest, as portrayed by the elected sheriff, the police, the judge, the FBI, and the government spokesperson. In the 1990s, police departments implemented zero-tolerance policies in response to minor offences. Nearly half of those killed by police, and 40 per cent of those incarcerated, are diagnosed with a mental illness or with a cognitive disability. Rather than going to mental health institutions these people are sent to prison.

The history of the United States is a history of class struggle. The prison system is systemic and institutionalised racism, sexism, and classism. The prison sector acts dialectically both as a Band-Aid for the economic crises that capitalism generates, and as a means of reproducing racialised subjectivities in the working class.

Cinema created a prison mythos of punishment and deprivation. Punishment is more than the loss of liberty; prisoners must endure brutal traumatic conditions while trying to survive the prison system. Limited public oversight allows for widespread abuse. The American prison culture is a cycle of harm and trauma, which overwhelmingly falls upon Blacks, Latinos and First Nation peoples.

US prisons have three goals: to punish; to act as a deterrent against further crimes; and to rehabilitate prisoners. The audience assumes that inhuman treatment will reform the prisoner, yet very few films show a rehabilitated prisoner going back into society and doing well. Their past catches up with them, forcing them back into a life of crime.

Prison is sometimes shown to be a redemptive experience as in the classic Birdman of Alcatraz or The Shawshank Redemption. The prisoner learns from adversity and turns their life around if guilty, or becomes a better stronger person if innocent. Assault from guards and other prisoners is usually not questioned, but is accepted as a fact of life. 

Prison comedies such as Stir Crazy or Naked Gun III also tend to assume that wrongful imprisonment, brutal mistreatment, and violence and assault from other prisoners are unchangeable aspects of prison experience, rather than a choice that capitalism in the US has made.

Prisons serve capitalism and the US prison system needs to change. Marxists argue that economic power is translated into political power with the general disempowerment of the majority of those who live in the modern state. The bourgeois control immiserated and recalcitrant workers, through the mechanisms of containment, exploitation, and stigmatisation. Marxists fight for the overthrow, dismantling, and complete replacement of the core institutions of the capitalist state, including the police, prisons, military, and courts. These elements of the state can only be abolished through revolution.

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