USA Today Magazine

Critical Resistance South: Challenging The Prison Industrial Complex

By Rachel Herzing and Melissa Burch

(Note: The November Coalition's Journey for Justice attended the CR South Conference in New Orleans. Pictures from our Journey Archive are available here.)

An unprecedented event took place April 4-6, 2003. Over 1500 people converged in the historic Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana -- one of the first neighborhoods built and inhabited by free people of color in the United States -- to address a crisis in their communities, and to strategize solutions. Joining the forces of local community members, advocates, former prisoners, prisoners' families, students, activists, young people, people of faith, immigrants, and others, Critical Resistance South provided an environment for fighting the monster we have come to call the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC).

The Crisis

In the past twenty years, the prison and police systems in the U.S. have expanded to a size and scope never before seen in this country. From 1980 to 2002, the number of people imprisoned in the nation's prisons, jails, juvenile facilities and detention centers quadrupled in size --from roughly 500,000 to 2.1 million people. The U.S. now has the largest prison system in the world and its impact influences the social, economic and political life of all regions and sectors in the U.S. Along with the United States' 2.1 million people behind bars, 2.2 million individuals are now employed in policing, corrections and courts, overshadowing the 1.7 million Americans employed in higher education, and the 600,000 employed in public welfare. With 6.6 million people in prison and jail, or on probation and parole, there are now 8.8 million people either under the control of the correctional system or working in the criminal justice sector in the U.S. The zeal to lock people in cages does not affect crime rates, however. West Virginia had one of the largest increases in its rate of imprisonment during the 1990s, and also saw an increase in the state's violent crime rate. Alabama's violent crime rate dropped 77% more than Georgia, even though Georgia's rate of imprisonment rose at a rate 47% higher than Alabama's. A comparison of the Southern states to New York and Massachusetts reveals an even starker contrast: The two Northern states experienced larger crime drops with much more modest increases in incarceration than most of the states in the South.

While prisons have multiplied across the U.S., the results have been particularly striking in the South. The South's history of slavery, convict leasing, and Jim Crow segregation created the context for the use of imprisonment and the especially brutal definition of justice delivered in the South.

Today, the Prison Industrial Complex fills the role previously played by slavery, convict leasing and the Black Codes. We describe the prison industrial complex as a multifaceted system, maintained through cooperation between government and industry that designates prisons as a solution to social, political, and economic problems. Like the systems of brutality that preceded it, today's prison industrial complex criminalizes a target population based on race and class, providing a means of social control of those deemed undesirable, and provides a source of cheap labor for the state. The prison industrial complex represents the government's primary "answer" to the problems created by slavery's historical legacies: social, economic and political problems, such as poverty, drug addiction, under education, racism, unemployment and dissent, bringing with it under-funded educational systems, lack of quality healthcare and inadequate affordable housing as its byproducts.

Today, the South leads the nation in incarceration rates for both youth and adults and holds more people on death row than any other region in the country.

The Event

Critical Resistance South, a conference held April 4-6, 2003 in New Orleans, Louisiana, was held in response to this crisis. At Critical Resistance South, people from across the South came together to discuss, debate, and formulate strategies to rid the South and the nation of the prison industrial complex. Attendees gathered to consider the impacts of policing, surveillance, state repression, and what a nation without 2 million prisoners might look like. By exploring the scope of the problem and developing community strategies in a collective setting, the organizers of, and participants in Critical Resistance South helped us move closer to realizing our vision.

Critical Resistance South was a year and a half in the making, brought about through a collective process coordinated by Critical Resistance, a national grassroots group that fights to end this nation's reliance on prisons, police, and surveillance as an answer to social, political, and economic problems. Work groups made up of community organizers from across the South (from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia) joined together to organize everything from site logistics, to outreach, lead-up events, written materials, a media strategy and a wide-ranging program.

Organizers from grassroots groups as diverse as Appalshop, a community based media organization in Kentucky, to Citizens for Quality Education, who push for radical education reform in Mississippi, to Project South which focuses on popular education and anti poverty work across the South, and Florida Prison Legal News providers of legal support for prisoners and their families in Florida, came together via conference calls, face-to-face meetings and endless email discussions to make the vision of Critical Resistance South a reality.

The organizing committee for CR South identified 7 major goals for the conference at the original planning meeting held at the historic Highlander Center in Tennessee. Those goals were to:

  • Draw attention to issues of the PIC in the South
  • Help to build a movement against the PIC, expand existing networks, and combat feelings of isolation
  • Focus on communities most affected by the PIC
  • Bring new people into the work and increase the level of organizing against the PIC in the South
  • Inspire and motivate
  • Focus on the South and create an event that was southern in content and style

A local elementary school served as the centerpiece of the conference. Its three story high brick walls bore 100 or so 4 by 6 foot banners, featuring paintings by students depicting their family members and friends who are in prison. A photo of the school's facade appeared on the front page of the local section of the New Orleans Times Picayune. "To open this news conference, we have a question we need to ask of this country," demanded one speaker at a press conference which opened the conference, "Why are so many people we love behind bars?"

As the weekend unfolded, the answer to this question -- as well as proposals for how to collectively resist this nation's reliance on prisons, policing and forms of surveillance -- were explored and debated through over 100 workshops, caucuses, performances, films, exhibitions and informal discussions. The program was jam-packed, and was ambitiously scheduled throughout the Treme Community, in two community centers, three neighborhood churches, all three floors of the elementary school and the adjacent Louis Armstrong Park. Workshops ranged in topic from increased surveillance of communities of color since September 11th, to police brutality, ability-tracking of kids as a pathway to prison, community-based responses to interpersonal violence, the impact of the criminal justice system on women, children and families, abolitionist strategies, family members of prisoners supporting each other, prison journalism, young people as targets of the PIC, rural organizing against new prisons, political prisoners and the connections between militarism and prisons.

The Issues

For example, several workshops at the conference focused on the racism that pervades the criminal justice system and the incarceration crisis in the South. The prison and jail populations of the South account for 4 out of 10 imprisoned people in the U.S. In 2001, the South's prison and jail populations represented 1 out of 11 prisoners in the World. The South as a region and most Southern states individually have significantly higher rates of imprisonment than the national average, and all Southern states had rates of imprisonment that were higher than 63% of the countries in the world. If Louisiana and Mississippi were countries, they would have the highest incarceration rates in the world. As is the case nationally, people of color suffer disproportionately under the PIC. In every Southern state, Blacks were locked up at least at 4 times the rate of whites. In West Virginia, Blacks were imprisoned at 17 times the rate of whites. Despite the fact that the criminal justice system often skews its numbers by counting Latinos as white, every Southern state in the region imprisoned Latinos at a higher rate than whites.

Other workshops looked at the ways in which women are also increasingly affected by the PIC. In 2001, the South had the highest regional rate of imprisonment for women in the country--17% higher than the national average. While women were locked up at higher rates than men around the country, the increase in imprisonment of women in the South was 40% higher than the national average. Other than Florida, every state in the South increased imprisonment of women at a faster rate than men. Women were added to prisons at double the rate of men in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Attendees who's local work is focused on the crisis in affordable housing, quality education and community health, met to address skewed spending priorities in southern states. Despite a nationwide fiscal crisis, states have been slow to make cuts to corrections, and the South is no different. As states fail to fund health care, welfare, education, and transportation, while simultaneously raising taxes to close their budget shortfalls, the continued growth in state corrections spending is extraordinarily stark. In some states, the increase in spending on corrections between 1985 and 2001 represents between 27% (North Carolina) to more than 90% (Georgia) of the fiscal shortfall these states have struggled to close. Rising corrections budgets represent large new annual costs that often force communities to choose between funding libraries, schools, vital public services, or cellblocks. Many workshops addressed the economic side of the PIC. For example, there were strategic discussions about how to make alliances with rural communities that are increasingly targeted for new prison construction, as more sustainable opportunities for economic development in rural America have diminished.

Along similar lines, there were discussions about how state employment in policing and corrections have grown at higher rates than employment in higher education or public welfare (including jobs working with the elderly, disabled, or the poor). In Tennessee, for example, employment in policing and corrections grew at 3.9 times the rate of higher education, and 7.8 times the rate of the public welfare sector. The same is true in states throughout the South. In 2000, 27.3% of state public sector workers in Florida worked in the justice system (corrections, police, and judicial)--the highest proportion in the country. Other workshops focused on economics focused on ways to resist the growing number of private firms that have a vested interest in seeing more and more people locked up.

Finally, many workshops addressed the long-lasting, collateral consequences of mass incarceration, particularly on communities of color. For example, throughout the weekend, former prisoners and felons met with each other to build a new civil rights movement to address the myriad of ways that former prisoners and felons are disenfranchised, often long after their sentence has ended. Former prisoners are often punished for life through a variety of consequences that affect the 13 million people who have felony convictions in this country. Depending on the state or jurisdiction, ex-prisoners and people with felony convictions are currently subject to bans on receiving public assistance, public housing and college financial aid. In many states, former prisoners are also prohibited from accepting a wide spectrum of public sector jobs. Additionally, of particular concern to southerners who fought so hard for the right to vote, in many states, people convicted and imprisoned for felony offenses lose their right to vote while under criminal justice control (and in some cases, long after their sentence has ended.

The Results

By all accounts, CR South was a tremendous success. An incredibly diverse group of people came from all over the region, many from communities directly impacted by the PIC.

People were inspired and motivated to work more closely together and left feeling they were part of a larger movement with which they could continue to access and collaborate. The conference organizers succeeded in creating a space where information and resources were shared effectively, and most importantly, relationships built that have the potential to form the fabric for a renewed movement against the PIC in the South.

On the national level, about 130 major dailies carried stories about the conference and a report on the southern prison crisis by the Justice Policy Institute -- about eighty of those stories were in major southern dailies such as the Miami Herald.

Between the media coverage and the power of word-of-mouth on the streets of New Orleans, the conference really created a buzz, successfully competing with the Final Four college basketball tournament that was taking place the same weekend in New Orleans.

Finally, the conference organizers have heard that the movement was radicalized by the conference and its focus on PIC abolition. From the introduction of abolition on Friday night, to the well-attended workshops on abolitionist organizing strategies, and other workshops that approached the ideas less directly, finding ways to create community safety without relying on prisons, policing and surveillance, was central to the agenda throughout most of the weekend.

Since the conference, people from several states, including Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas have begun building local chapters of Critical Resistance. In other states, people are hosting meetings to follow up on the connections made and information gained at the conference and see where they want to take their work locally. Although all in beginning stages, a lot of important, concrete alliances emerged from the conference, and the organizing work that results will be progressing in coming months.

The convergence at Critical Resistance South of so many people of varying races, generations and focuses in community work was reminiscent of past movements for justice led by southerners. Framing the issues in their historical contexts emphasized the sentiment that the movement against the prison industrial complex in the South is in essence a continuation of unfinished movements for justice, equality and power. At the same time, there was an inspiring energy present at the conference that has remained since, that seemed to mark the beginning of a renewed commitment to collaboration around radical demands. It felt like a world without walls was possible and that those present had the determination and power to work toward that vision.

All of the statistical information in this article was taken from the Justice Policy Institute's report: Deep Impact, Quantifying the Impact of Prison Expansion in the South. The full report can be accessed at:

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