Review: Broken On All Sides

“While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” Eugene V. Debs


Review  Broken On All Sides: Race, Mass Incarceration, & New Visions for Criminal Justice in the US

by John Leslie

Broken On All Sides, a film by Philadelphia community activist Matthew Pillischer, is a powerful indictment of the prison industrial complex. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  But why is this?

Institutionalized racism is at the root of the mass incarceration of millions in this country. Pillischer used interviews with academics, activists, religious communities, a former prisoner and a former Mayor of Philadelphia, John Street, to illustrate the origins of this set-up and how it operates.

The so-called war on drugs, which was conceived by the Reagan administration, is responsible for the huge increase in prisoner population over the last 30 years. While there has been no significant increase in the crime rate, the number of prisoners has ballooned to more than 2 million.  This is more a symptom of racial politics than of any real  threat to society.

African-Americans make up 12.4 percent of the US population but are more than 38 percent of the total prison population. Incarceration rates are out of proportion for Latin@s as well.  Michelle Alexander, author of the book, the New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,  says in an interview in the film:  “People who are living in ghetto communities today experience tremendous frustration, because not only are they being targeted in clearly biased ways by law enforcement,  in countless ways they experience the discrimination, and  often brutality of our criminal justice system.”

The New Jim Crow is a conscious policy by a white racist ruling class to criminalize African-Americans while preserving the fiction that racial discrimination died with the end of formal segregation.  The “war on drugs” and the “tough on crime” rhetoric of politicians keeps racial politics alive by appealing to the racist attitudes and prejudices of whites, all the while holding up the pretense of a colorblind society.

From the film:  “We as a nation become blind, not so much to race, but to the existence  of racial caste. We have become blind to the existence of a group of people who have become locked into a second-class status and become indifferent to their suffering.”

Ex-offenders are plagued by high recidivism rates, which are reinforced by patterns of racial discrimination and lack of educational opportunities both in the community and in prison. States have cut vocational training in prison systems just as they have cut school budgets.

According to Michelle Alexander, “So many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era  are suddenly legal again once you have been branded a felon.”  Ex-prisoners also quite often lose their right to vote, again reinforcing their second class.

Addressing the problem of the prison industrial complex is an urgent task for  progressive  activists in the US. We can’t simply rely on moral appeals to politicians or  lawsuits.  The only way to break this system down is to build a mass social movement that links together communities, churches, organized labor and students around a program demanding justice, jobs, education funding and an immediate end to the war on drugs.

A true defense of public education cannot be achieved without understanding that the prison system, a multi-billion dollar business, is draining the resources we need to rebuild our schools and educate youth.

The defense of our unions, and the living standards of working class people, cannot be waged without understanding the roots of the prison industrial complex in a predatory capitalist system that is incapable of creating living wage jobs and locks millions of unemployed workers away in a for-profit prison  system. The call for an end to mass incarceration, linked to a call for jobs at union wages for all workers, is a crucial demand for working people.

Good political documentaries don’t exist merely to inform us; They exist to move us to action.  Broken On All Sides is just such a film. It’s difficult for me to say just how much I enjoyed this excellent, well constructed, film without giving too much of it away.   I urge the reader to  buy a copy of this film and  use  it  as an organizing tool.  Organize a showing in your church, school or union hall. If your community organization, school or union has the resources, host the filmmaker and organize a discussion of what can be done to end the  New Jim Crow.

Copies of Broken On All Sides: Race, Mass Incarceration, & New Visions for Criminal Justice in the US can be bought from the web site,   The web site also has ideas and suggestions on how to organize in your community.  Contact the director, Matthew Pillischer, at

watch the preview here


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