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Critical Resistance workshop on the prison-industrial complex

“Breaking Down the Prison Industrial Complex,” a workshop put on by the Oakland Critical Resistance chapter in the Student Union, sparked discussion about the prison-industrial complex among Mills students on Nov. 14.

The prison-industrial complex refers to the rapid expansion of the inmate population in prisons in the United States, the for-profit private prison agencies and the way people of color are targeted in the justice system and exploited for cheap labor in prisons. Critical Resistance is a grassroots organization geared towards the abolition of the prison industrial complex.

Mills Senior Yesenia Solorzano began attending Critical Resistance’s volunteer nights in May 2017. She started interning for them shortly after and became a volunteer member in October. Solorzano helped to organize the workshop at Mills.

“I helped to figure out what Mills specifically would benefit from and what people would like to learn,” Solorzano said.

Mills Senior Rachel Houser attended the workshop to learn more about Critical Resistance and the prison-industrial complex and what she could do to help fight it.

“I was interested in learning more about Critical Resistance,” Houser said. “Specifically because I wanted to know about more ways I could actually do something, rather than just sitting back and acknowledging that these things are happening without actually engaging in it in any way.”

During “Breaking Down the Prison Industrial Complex,” Development Director at Critical Resistance Jess Heaney introduced Mills students to the term “prison-industrial complex,” and discussed Critical Resistance’s vision of abolishing it. She explained that the prison-industrial complex is a method of control used by the government.

“The prison-industrial complex is the state’s answer to what are social, political and economic problems,” Heaney said. “It’s a method of social control.”

The workshop consisted of three videos and student discussions, where the students broke up into four smaller groups to discuss the questions that Heaney provided. Houser thought the discussion portion was very informative.

“I liked being able to have small group discussions where we got to hear different perspectives from different people and it wasn’t just one person lecturing us,” Houser said. “A lot of people brought up things that I personally wouldn’t have thought of, and I thought it was really helpful.”

The groups discussed each question, applying what was said in the videos. Heaney was impressed by the complexity of the ideas that the students shared out with the whole group after the smaller group discussions.

“They were great, they had great talking points,” Heaney said. “People were really sharp.”

Throughout the workshop, Heaney emphasized that the prison-industrial complex is not a broken system.

“The prison-industrial complex is not broken,” Heaney said. “It is designed to do something that it is doing very well.”

During her time volunteering at Critical Resistance, Solorzano learned the importance of understanding that the prison-industrial complex is not broken.

“The biggest thing I’ve earned is both that it’s not a broken system, it’s built exactly how it’s supposed to work, and it’s not only the visible institutions like prisons themselves or the court system,” Solorzano said. “It’s everywhere, it’s in everything, it’s in us and how we’re socialized.”

Houser believes that the prison-industrial complex is an important thing to discuss at Mills because it is not just present in prisons or the justice system.

“I think it’s important to bring the discussion to Mills because the prison-industrial complex is very pervasive,” Houser said. “It appears in academia even if we don’t think of that.”

Solorzano said she hopes the workshop educated Mills students on the presence of the prison-industrial complex, and also how they can get involved in fighting it.

“It is a system that is all around us, it’s at Mills, it’s around Mills, and there are ways to get involved,” Solorzano said. “I know a lot of times it can be very bewildering, feeling like you want to get involved with something but not knowing where to start, but Critical Resistance is right here and linked to a bunch of other organizations.”