Down But Not Out:
Inmate Activists Strive Toward Prison Reform
By Maya Schenwar, Punk Planet
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
AS PROTEST: DIRECT ACTION BEHIND BARS
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
ROOTS: WORKING FROM THE FLOOR UP
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
COMMUNICATION, FROM THE INSIDE OUT
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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,
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.
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.
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.
CONNECTIONS: ACTIVISM FROM THE OUTSIDE IN
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.'"
in helping to amp up the people's voices? Check out the following
sites for volunteer opportunities:
-Prisoner Solidarity: www.prisonersolidarity.org
-Prison Activist Resource Center: www.prisonactivist.org
-Prison Penpals: www.cellpals.com
-Books to Prisoners: www.books2prisoners.org