Locked Down But Not Out:
Inmate Activists Strive Toward Prison Reform
By Maya Schenwar, Punk Planet
The topic of prison has been on the mouths and in the minds of the public more than ever in the past yearcontroversy has erupted around the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, major corruption has been exposed in state prison administrations in Florida, Georgia, and California, and the battle over lethal injection is still raging strong. However, this heightened awareness doesn't do much for the conditions of the 2,186,230 Americans who are currently incarcerated. The prison population has quadrupled since 1980U.S. jails now boast a higher rate of incarceration than any other country in the world except Russia. And a recent BBC expose shows that many American prisoners are subjected to intimidation and abuse by attack dogs, cattle prods, stun guns, and other torture tactics. It's no wonder that prison reform activism has been taking a new and provocative turn. The most innovative activism surrounding prison issues as of late has come from an unlikely source: inmates themselves. Despite all literal, figurative, and ideological barriers, many of today's prisoners are coming together, working to change not only their own unfair conditions, but also the big-picture injustices of America's prison system.
BODIES AS PROTEST: DIRECT ACTION BEHIND BARS
Steven Woods is a Punk Planet reader, a former bassist, and a death row inmate in Texas's Polunsky Unit, a segregated housing institution where inmates are locked in their cells for 22 hours each day. They're also denied group recreation, religious services, art programs, work programs, TVs, and contact visitseven though state policy technically allows prisoners most of these amenities. After failed attempts to ameliorate conditions through legal challenges and complaints to the administration, Woods decided that he and his fellow inmates would need to take matters to a different level: nonviolent resistance, in the form of a hunger strike. The protest, Woods and his co-inmates believed, just might be drastic enough to catch the attention of both the prison administration and the public. Plus, he says, these days, the mood is ripe.
"I think a rising number of people in prison are becoming radical in the light of prison reform," Woods says. "This was sort of inevitable. You keep locking us up and we agitate and educate and help our fellows rise above their chains. You place us in a situation where all the fuel is already there, and all it needs is a spark." As prison populations continue to skyrocket, the numbers of potential agitators increase, as well. Lately, prisoners can also cite the well-publicized abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay as fuel for their actions against the American prison complex.
The Polunsky hunger strike kicked off at the beginning of October. The last three strikers ended their fast on November 4. Woods finally consented to be fed after overhearing a nurse saying that his kidneys would soon stop functioningan ironic example of Polunsky's neglect of prisoners' medical needs. Though he was willing to starve to death, Woods was not keen on living out the rest of his days in Polunsky with serious internal organ damageespecially since only three strikers were still fasting, and it was unlikely that the prison administration would begin changing policies in response to such a small group. However, Woods says, October's strike was just the beginning. He's currently working to build a strong coalition in the prison reform community that will stand behind prisoners when they strike again. A second fast is scheduled to begin May 6.
"The biggest part of being an activist is reaching out and instilling the spirit of revolution and resistance in our fellows, to break the herd mentality," Woods says. Direct, physical actions like hunger strikes are a shock to the system: not only to the administrative system, which must come face-to-face with the effects of its policies, but to the systems of protesters themselves, who by voluntarily taking on trying circumstances, prove that they retain some agency over their lives.
Steph Turner, a writer, zine publisher, activist, and student who was released from prison in 2005 after a 12-year incarceration, points out that some inmates are carrying out direct-action protests simply by living their lives in defiance of stereotypes and rigid categorization. Responding to harsh treatment with an attitude of grace and personal morality, she says, is a protest in and of itself. While in prison, Turner focused on deepening her spirituality and developing love for herself and others, maintaining the view, "Where I exist, there are not disposable souls, for we are all connected no matter what we think or do." As a transgender prisoner, Turner faced particularly harsh conditions: prison administrators generally force trans inmates to conform to gender norms, living a life that feels constantly false and painful. Yet, notes Turner, each trans inmate's physical presence, just by existing, poses a political challenge to the prison system.
"It is my view that the transgender experience of transcending gender binarism implicitly challenges other relative divisions, including the relatively arbitrary distinction between 'guilt' and 'innocence,'" Turner says. "At some visceral level, we are a threat to the status quo of Western culture with its heavy reliance upon discrete categories. This must be an annoyance to the prison industrial complex."
Indeed, showing up the complexities of all peopleincluding those that happen to be in prisonforms a critical part of prison-based activism. And reworking the public's image of "inmate" requires a deep questioning of one automatic assumption: that people in prison are always guilty.
PRISON ROOTS: WORKING FROM THE FLOOR UP
Death row inmate Hasan Shakur was executed on August 31 for a crime for which he claimed innocence until the end: the case against him, he explained, was based on a false, coerced confession he had made when first arrested. However, beyond protesting his own sentence, Shakur founded two organizations and a web pageall still in operationwhile he was behind bars, in order to work toward the liberation of falsely accused prisoners and the recognition of the human rights of all inmates.
When he entered jail nine years ago, Shakur was confused, sad, and angry. The years of his life stretched before him, seemingly purposeless. Yet once in prison, surrounded by depression and impending doom, Shakur was hit with the urge to take action.
"He turned from a boy into a man in prison," says his wife, Debbie Frazier. "His motivation was all the wrongdoing around him. He felt he needed to speak out and let the world know what was going on."
Shakur began to express himself via the written word, breaking through the psychological barriers that boxed in his potential, since he couldn't break through the physical ones. "With my thoughts bleeding through/ this pen attacking the lock that/ has imprisoned my brain!" he wrote in one poem. Being in prisonhaving most of his rights to speak out removedalerted Shakur to how important it was to use the few rights he did have, and he spoke out in any way he could. He began to file grievances and urged others to call and write to the prison administration about the unfair treatment and lack of legal aid given to himself and fellow inmates. He zeroed in on the small, practical points that needed to be covered in order to help other prisoners with their cases. The constant, physical reality of his incarceration kept him driven toward the priorities of the moment. Inmate activists often speak of how each small decision they make and each minute they spend immersed in service can mean life or death for someone else; this reality is much more heavily present for them than for prison reformers on the outside. Thus, Shakur took on the role of assigning outsiders tasks to further his causes.
"In practically every letter he wrote me, he would include a list of things that I needed to look up for somebody," says Shakur's best friend and co-organizer, Knut Erik Paulli. "They ranged from looking up a person or an organization, to doing a background check on an attorney, to looking up cases and laws, and even contacting family and friends of a fellow inmate to give them a push to help and assist their loved one behind bars."
Determined to plant a seed of prison reform that would continue growing after his death, Shakur founded Operation Love Inspiration Freedom and Equality (O.L.I.F.E.), a newsletter thatunlike most publications about prison issuesfeatures the words of inmates themselves. O.L.I.F.E. focuses on the corruption and injustice that is built into the legal system and the structure of prisons. The newsletter includes firsthand stories of prison life, interviews with prisoners, poetry, artwork, and legal advice. Shakur planned for the development of O.L.I.F.E. into a full-fledged organization aimed at granting prisoners help and educating the public. (According to Paulli, it's on its way.) In 2005, Shakur founded a second publication, the Human Rights Coalition Texas Branch Newsletter, with the goal of organizing the families of prisoners into a powerful lobby for prison reform.
"He knew that he would probably not live to see these changes that he worked so hard for," Paulli says. "But he stayed true to his visions and goals, and he had a hope and belief that one dayone day the change would come." This type of faith influences much prison activism: inmates know that, given the constraints of their circumstances, they can't lead a one-person revolution. They don't expect to watch the world fall in line with their dreamsbut, by continuing to dream and to act, they are contributing crucial pieces to a slow-building force of resistance.
BUILDING COMMUNICATION, FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Since prisoner-initiated activism is necessarily cooperative, inmates must work tirelessly for the right to communicate. And since phone and in-person communication is severely limited, newsletters (like Hasan Shakur's two) have become a favorite mode of spreading the word. For Ohio death row inmate, Siddique Abdullah Hasan, a newsletter has served as a vital pathway of communication between two groups of people who might never otherwise speak: death row inmates and murder victims' families. Hasan, who describes his prison cell as "just another office," dreamed up Compassion in 1991, and served as its editor until last March. Compassion's pages focus on the positive contributions death row inmates are making to society, based on the idea that the inmates, as people, are not only composed of the worst deed they've done in their lives. It also includes a "Victim's Voice" section, which allows family members of victims to express their grief. Additionally, Compassion's staffers have established a college scholarship fund for victims' family members. The fund has so far awarded more than $21,000 in scholarships. In the first issue of Compassion, Hasan noted that scholarships are not meant to attempt to erase family members' losses; they are instead a "compassionate gesture," expressing remorse for victims' deaths and showing how sympathy and kindness can arise in all peopleeven those who have committed murder.
Publishing the words of inmatesespecially when those words display true emotionis one of the most important steps that can be taken toward the reform of prison conditions and the abolition of the death penalty, says Woods, who is in the process of producing a zine, tentatively titled The Continuing Struggle of a Nail in My Coffin.
"Our writing shows we're not what 'normal people' perceive us to be, puts us on a level with them, connects us to them," he says. "How can we achieve any kind of change if we're perceived as dumb beasts, fuck-ups?" In other words, it's easy to be pro-death-penalty when you don't perceive those being put to death as people.. Additionally, writing and seeing their work distributed reaffirms inmate-activists' commitment to their causes, Woods says. And in circumstances as dire as those at Polunsky, reaffirming a commitment to one's cause also serves as an affirmation of one's own existence. "It lifts our hearts above the walls," Woods says.
Stephen Hartnett, a University of Illinois communications professor who also teaches creative writing in prisons, holds that writing a good poem can be the first step toward being a political activist. He encourages his students to share their creative work with their lawyers, to convey their identity and history.
"You have to be able to get behind those poems, support those poems," Hartnett says. "My position is that any act of expression by a person that marginalized is a political gesture; it's expanding the realm of who gets to talk in our public space."
Hartnett points out that the macho culture of male prisons often works against inmates, preventing some potential communication with the outside. The culture discourages emotional displays, yet this very type of expressionthe admission of vulnerability and compassion and the dissolution of the "hardened criminal" imageis one of the most important political tools available to prisoners, Hartnett says.
The mixing of personal and political is key to promoting prison reform from the inside. When the public begins to tune in to the emotions of prisoners, those prisoners become people instead of statisticsand inmates themselves, who have tuned out their own emotions over years of conforming to the standards of machismo, begin to view themselves as people, as well.
Brandon Gatson, a recently released Michigan prisoner and political poet, echoes Hartnett's sentiment, noting that writing can become a form of inner activism. Channeling strong feelings into words instead of into violence is a choice that defies the rigid stereotypes and assumptions of the prison system, he says. It also provides a calm mode for thinking through ideas for larger-scale social change.
"Whenever something's in my mind now that bothers me, I can just write about it," he says of discovering poetry. "People don't tend to deal with thingsI do, by writing about them. I get that stuff off my shoulders." Getting that stuff is off one's shoulders, Gatson says, is a humbling experience; but it also helps prisoners gain a new respect for self. And recouping a sense of self-worth while in prison is itself a brave act of protest.
MAINTAINING CONNECTIONS: ACTIVISM FROM THE OUTSIDE IN
For prisoners who developed activist roots while inside, the spark usually doesn't die easy. In fact, some of the most important allies for inmates working to improve their conditions and reform the prison system are fellow inmates who've been released. Former political prisoner Ed Mead is a prime example. Incarcerated for 18 years, he spent his time in the Washington State Penitentiary organizing a Men Against Sexism group, writing, and contemplating the prison-industrial complex. Once out, he immediately began sending money to political prisoners who were still locked up. After awhile, Mead's pocketbook was hurting, and he was itching for a way to help prisoners help themselves. So he created the site Prison Art ( prisonart.org): both a moneymaker and a political tool.
"I figured that if I put up a website where prisoners could sell their arts and crafts, they could make themselves some money and create consciousness-raising art at the same time," Mead says. He expected political prisoners to be the main participants in his program, but this wasn't the casein fact, most of the artists who've contributed to Mead's site aren't in prison for political reasons, but have developed an activist streak while inside. Prison Art provides them with a canvass for that streak, and Mead himself provides them with an example of continued activism upon release. In addition to Prison Art, he's founded the Mark Cook Freedom Committee (which lobbied for and achieved the release of a co-defendant), organized the Seattle Mumia Defense Committee, and served as vice president of the Seattle chapter of the National Lawyers' Guild.
Like Mead, Brandon Gatson developed an activist drive on the inside that has fueled his efforts and dreams since his recent release. Though he experienced a major bout of depression when first incarcerated, Gatson eventually became involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), an Ann Arbor-based organization that provides prisoners with opportunities to explore art, creative writing, music, theater, and dance. Gatson discovered both a love of poetry and a revolutionary spirit. He decided that his mission, while in prison, would be to improve conditions for less fortunate inmates.
"I didn't expect to change the whole prison system; but I did change individuals' lives," Gatson says. "I wanted to make life more comfortable for the people who have to be in there for the rest of their lives."
Since a passion for language transformed Gatson's own life, he aimedand continues to aimto introduce that love to other prisoners. Gatson created a series of vocabulary classes for his fellow inmates: he found a dictionary and selected a list of complex words each week, then copied and passed out the lists to others in preparation for periodic quizzes.
Now that he's out, Gatson lends his firsthand experience to help others become better prison activists: he occasionally visits classes at the University of Michigan, sharing his knowledge and views on what students can do for inmates. He emphasizes the importance of votingsince inmates are disenfranchised, everyone on the outside has the opportunity to advocate for inmates simply by going to the polls and voting in their interest. Gatson also continues to write poetry that challenges the prison system. He writes in "I'm Too Much": "No form of imprisonment can hold me captive/I'm too much/Liberation is a cycle of fate/Regardless of how long I've been captured/I'm too much/Your forces are not enough to keep me remanded/Your chains of bondage shall I escape/I'm too much."
For those of us on the outside who want to assist incarcerated activists, perhaps the best place to turn is to people like Gatson, Mead, and Steph Turner (who continues to run a prison-based zine, communicating regularly with her co-writers inside). These folks know the prison experience: its hardships and its loopholes; the cracks in its exterior that allow for the possibility of change. To connect would-be reformers with the prisoners they aim to aid, Daniel Sturm and his wife Angela Jancius, prison reform activists in Ohio, recently set up Prisonersolidarity.org, a website that publishes news and views by prisoners and their allies. Its goal: to bolster the inside/outside connection, helping the "concerned public" lend a hand to activists behind bars.
"We wanted to give prisoners a microphone to tell their story," Sturm says. "It's a powerful strategy, to seek an analogy with journalism, to 'let the people's voices speak for themselves.'"
Interested in helping to amp up the people's voices? Check out the following sites for volunteer opportunities:
-Prisoner Solidarity: prisonersolidarity.org
-Prison Activist Resource Center: www.prisonactivist.org
-Prison Penpals: www.cellpals.com
-Books to Prisoners: www.books2prisoners.org