The Moral Economy of Prisoners and the Detained in the 21st Century


Guest Blog by Tomas A. Madrigal, Ph.D.

The longest hunger strike to take place in Washington State began on March 7, 2014 at the Northwest Detention Center and was advanced by Ramon Mendoza-Pascual, Paulino Ruiz, J. Cipriano Rios Alegria, Jose Moreno and many others who were detained on civil hold at the Detention Center.

This hunger strike lasted 57 days and the hunger strikers suffered retaliation in the form of two hunger strikers being held in solitary confinement, and one hunger striker being transferred across the country to another detention center. These internally organized detainees would exercise two more consecutive hunger strikes, where their list of demands would grow. Among the most common demands in the waves of hunger strikes that have occured since at the detention center, food has remained a consistent factor.

In 2017, I wrote “the role of the hunger strike in the context of food justice will perhaps be the most difficult connection for most readers to make. In the simplest terms, the food-chain cycle ends the moment you place your eating utensil in your mouth. A hunger strike by an organized group of people disrupts the final stage of the capitalist food system supply chain…the hunger strike seeks to change production relations within the closed-circuit economy of the capitalist food system” (Peña et al 2017, 254).

On November 7, 2018 about 43 prisoners at Clallam Bay Correctional Center exercised a 3-5 day hunger strike over a change from hot meals to sack lunches. On October 7, 2019 prisoners at Clallam Bay Correctional Center once again exercised a hunger strike adding five more demands to their demand around food. Two days later, 37 prisoners were transferred to another correctional facility to be placed in solitary confinement.

Even though there are many demands generated during a hunger strike, food and rising prices of commissary and services remain a consistent factor in breaking the “moral economy” of incarcerated populations.

In 1971, Marxist Historian E.P. Thompson, wrote “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” as an allegory of why people rebel against “rising prices” or the withholding of quality goods in a Capitalist marketplace of the eighteenth century via mob violence. He chose the English crowd as a case study as it was a closed-corporate community, much like the prisoners and detainees that I describe above. What Thompson’s essay frames is a lineage of rebellion based on indignity, that at times may be obscured by “wantoness and excess;” but that deep down is about a community engaged in “acts of courage, prudence, justice, and a consistency towards that which they profess to obtain,” another version of a Moral Economy is known to many as Dignity.

We can learn so much from these struggles for dignity, as they point in the direction of another way of relating, another way of being, and making that moral economy a reality, is the path of Abolition.

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