“You’re still in prison” – Malcolm X and the US prison industrial complex

This article is a version of a talk given by Cecily Nicholson at a celebration of the life of Malcolm X, on the 50th Anniversary of his assassination. The event was held on February 21st at the Heartwood Community Café in Vancouver, and organized by members of Colour Connected Against Racism (UBC), Vancouver Critical Muslims, West Coast Sheen, and No One Is Illegal.


This February 21st communities gathered to honour the legacy of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Malcolm X, on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. “Don’t be shocked when I say I was in prison,” he often told his audiences. “You’re still in prison. That’s what America means: prison.” So begins Dan Berger’s Al Jazeera article drawing on Malcom X’s 1963 speech, “Message to the Grassroots.” Malcolm X spent several years in prison for a series of robberies before he became an activist. Like many black men of that era, he “came to consciousness” when he joined the Nation of Islam while in prison.

It is critical for us on the outside to consider our lives as bound up with those criminalized and incarcerated. Their bodies are not entirely separate from ours. Those incarcerated in Canada are disproportionately Indigenous, racialized migrant and black people, their situation worsened by conditions of class, health and gender—inseparable conditions of oppression. People in prison–those people–our people–are also disproportionately excluded from secure wage labour jobs. The means of survival they are left with are stigmatized, surveilled, criminalized, and they are institutionalized.

Prisons hold extensions of our communities and families. This division between our communities inside and outside prison impacts radical education, our networks, arts, and thinking about social justice. As professor Deena Rhyms has commented:

“Facility 492,” from Josh Begley’s art series of Google map views of US prisons

Few people might look upon the prison as a site of profound political change (…) Fewer still might recognize the prison as a transnational space where prisoners enter into a shared consciousness with their “brothers” and “sisters” serving time in other countries. Yet, in their writing and activism from prison, Indigenous prisoners have helped shape the political blueprint of Indigenous peoples in Canada since the late 1960s.

Since the 1960s, the conditions priming incarceration have worsened. Mass incarceration has been described as the “new Jim Crow” laws (Michelle Alexander’s recent book title). After ‘Reconstruction’ at the end of the slavery system until they were overturned by the Civil Rights movement, Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation between Blacks and whites in the US South. Although the laws have officially been struck down, their legacy lives on in the fact that there are more black men in prison in the United States than ever were enslaved. The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world and close to half of all those in the cage are black.

Canada is in line as our incarceration rates also expand and include vulnerable populations of racialized migrants. Refugees displaced from ancestral and traditional lands as the result of extraction industries, climate disaster, war and occupation in which our government and corporations are complicit, are incarcerated alongside general prison populations. Detainees, including children, are being held in limbo. In fortress North America increasing privatization also means that immigration detention and incarceration generally is a growth industry.

The effort of belonging, Malcolm X realized, was not a matter of choice. In a racist police state it is always a matter of struggle. Even now as the Harper administration seeks to further criminalize dissent, we look to the shining examples of resistance and resilience that bloomed in Ferguson and for Black Lives that Matter across the United States. Idle No More, a time of consciousness has come. We listen for and will lift up the knowledge of our families imprisoned and institutionalized. On this 50th anniversary marking the loss of a giant, Malcolm X: all power to the people…

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