Walls & Bars

Prisons And Prison Life In The "Land Of The Free"

by Eugene V. Debs
with an introduction by David Dellinger
Publication date: January 2000

<blockquote><i>Capitalism must have prisons to protect itself from the criminals it has created.</i> -Eugene V. Debs </blockquote> <p>EUGENE DEBS (1855-1926), the best-loved socialist agitator of his time, is to this day one of the best remembered radicals in U.S. history. More than anyone, he brought the emancipatory zeal of the Abolitionists into the workers' movement. His liberating message reached a larger portion of the U.S. population than any revolutionist ever reached, before or since. Debs's passion for freedom and his unshakable confidence in the ability of working people to create a better world inspired millions. </p> <p> Few are aware that this popular and influential radical wrote one of the most insightful books on prisons. Debs's only full-length book, Walls and Bars (first published in 1927) is a lively memoir as well as a stirring critique, drawing on his own prison experiences. He served time for his leading role in the Pullman Strike in 1894, and was sent to the penitentiary again in 1919 for opposing World War I. In 1920, as Convict No.9653, he ran for President on the Socialist ticket and received a million votes. </p> <p> Debs explains in this book why prisons don't (and can't) reform or deter anyone, and how prisons in fact create criminals. He discusses prison labor and the links between prison and militarism. Above all he exposes the class bias of the entire U.S. criminal justice system, showing that "the prison problem is directly co-related with poverty." His conclusion: "Capitalism and crime have become almost synonymous terms." </p> <p> Arguing that prison "should not merely be reformed but abolished," Debs called for a socialism of solidarity, freedom and love, firmly rooted in industrial democracy, without which political democracy is a sham. Only with the advent of such a social revolution, in Debs' 5 view, can society succeed in "taking the jail out of man as well taking man out of jail." </p> <p> This new edition of Walls and Bars includes an important introduction by David Dellinger-himself a life long revolutionist who, because of his opposition to imperialist war and his devotion to the cause of civil rights, has spent a good deal of time behind bars, as chronicled in <i>Revolutionary Nonviolence</i> (1970), his autobiography, <i>From Yale to Jail</i> (1991), and other books. Dellinger discusses various changes that have taken place in the prison system since Debs's time, and emphasizes that this decades-old book is very much a book for today. </p>