The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

California prison riots:
A result of deteriorating conditions
– in prisons and outside

Feb 27, 2006

On Saturday, February 4, fighting erupted in Los Angeles County’s maximum-security prison in Castaic, widely known as “Supermax.” The violence was apparently planned and coordinated, as fights began in dozens of dorms almost simultaneously and along racial lines – with Hispanic prisoners attacking black prisoners. During the four-hour rampage, a 45-year-old black prisoner was beaten to death and 50 other prisoners were injured.

The sheriff put the entire prison system on lockdown, confining all the county’s 21,000 inmates to their cells. He also ordered the segregation of black and Hispanic inmates at Castaic. These measures, however, did nothing to prevent the fights from continuing and spreading to other prisons. In the end, nearly two weeks of prison fights in several of the county’s jails left two inmates dead and hundreds wounded.

The L.A. county sheriff and other officials blamed the fighting on outside influence: a conflict between black and Hispanic gangs had spilled over into the prison system, they said. This may be true. But still, it doesn’t explain why the fighting spread to so many prisons, lasted so long and involved so many inmates. Nor does it explain the fact that inmate-on-inmate attacks at Castaic have nearly doubled since 2003. Last year alone, 33 major incidents were reported, more than half of them at Supermax. In 2000, more than 100 inmates were injured during fights that went on for several weeks.

Deplorable conditions

The explanation for this violence lies in the horrible conditions that plague the prisons in Los Angeles, which has the largest prison system in the country. Above all, the county jail system is severely overcrowded. More than 4,000 inmates are crammed into Supermax alone, and the situation in other facilities in the system is not any better. The Men’s Central Jail in Downtown L.A., for example, was built in 1963 to house 3,300 inmates. Today it has more than 7,000 inmates. It’s typical for five inmates to share a four-man cell, with one sleeping on the floor, which is usually filthy. Under these conditions it’s no surprise that a drug-resistant infection known as “staph,” or MRSA, has reached epidemic proportions in the county jail system. In 2004 alone, 2,500 cases were reported.

Naturally, the overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and the absence of any productive activity for inmates cause tensions to boil over. Any fight between two inmates can easily and quickly escalate into prison-wide fighting, where the dividing line is almost always ethnic: Hispanics, who make up 60% of the county’s prison population, on the one side and black inmates, who make up 30% of it, on the other.

Rising violence in the neighborhoods

That the battle lines in the prisons are drawn according to race is hardly a surprise. It’s in fact a reflection of what has been going on in L.A.’s working-class neighborhoods. Territorial conflicts among gangs, whose membership is predominantly based on ethnicity, have become more deadly in the last two decades. And it’s not uncommon for the gangs randomly to target non-gang members who happen to belong to the rival gang’s ethnic group.

This type of violence between black and Hispanic gangs has tripled since the 1990s, raising and reflecting, in turn, interracial tensions in L.A.’s working-class neighborhoods and overcrowded public schools. Last spring there were a series of school fights, pitting black and Hispanic students against each other – not unlike the prison fights. And just like the prison fights, these school fights, and more generally the brewing inter-racial hostility in the neighborhoods, can’t be explained by gang activity alone. In fact, the formation of gangs engaging in crime and violence, in itself, is a reflection of the deteriorating social conditions for the working class.

Competing over disappearing jobs

For young workers entering the job market today, unionized jobs in the manufacturing sector practically don’t exist anymore. Instead, young workers have to compete for jobs that don’t even pay a living wage or provide benefits. As competition for jobs gets ever more desperate and in the absence of a fight against this situation, people can turn against each other. And when people turn against each other, it’s often along existing divisions.

Immigration from south of the border adds another dimension to the problem. In Los Angeles, most neighborhoods that were predominantly black a generation ago are now more than 50% Hispanic. Historically subjected to the racism of not only native-born whites but also groups of earlier immigrants, many working-class and poor blacks now feel pushed aside by and often face the same racist attitudes from Hispanic and other newly arrived immigrants.

Fueling the divisions

Those attitudes were reflected in remarks made by Vicente Fox, the president of Mexico, at a meeting with Texas businessmen in Mexico: “There is no doubt that Mexicans, filled with dignity, willingness and ability to work, are doing jobs that not even blacks want to do there in the United States.” The disgustingly racist nature of the remark was obviously not lost on black people.

On the other hand, black politicians who have no answer to give to the black population’s increasing desperation end up pointing the finger at immigrants as the cause of the problem. The anti-immigrant sentiments politicians try to tap are certainly on the rise in the working class, including not only black, but also white and already-established Hispanic workers who have citizenship.

The way out of the vicious cycle

But history shows that such divisions and infighting among workers and the poor are not inevitable. There are also times when workers come together and fight for their common interests. In the 1960s and 70s, for example, when the black population was mobilized and fighting militantly against open and institutionalized racism, Hispanics followed their lead. The reforms that were won by that mobilization benefitted not only the black population, but also Hispanics – in fact the whole working class. Not only did big corporations feel forced to open their doors to groups who had historically been denied better-paying jobs; but wages also went up for everyone. Government put more money into social programs and public schools and universities. And new social programs were started, including Medicare.

The black mobilization was also reinforced when it spilled over into the work places, pushing forward a period of widespread strikes. (Compare, for example, the year 1974, when there were 424 major strikes, to 2005, when there were 24.)

The gains of those years of struggles are rapidly being taken away and dismantled. No one – no individual, no group – can win them back by attacking other groups. If there are people ready to fight, the fight will count for something only if it goes up against the real cause of the problem – the big corporations and the wealthy who are stealing more and more of the wealth of this society.