Free our friends! And everyone else: thoughts on prison and activism

Last year saw a lot of amazing struggles. Some of them got a lot of media attention; others received very little. One of the ones which was hardly mentioned in the mainstream media, at least in the UK, was the hunger strike by thousands of prisoners in California, which I think spread to other states, but it’s a bit hard finding anything about that now. It’s now been around a year since those strikes started, and a long time since they finished, but defiance among prisoners is still strong: prisoners in Georgia have been on hunger strike since June 10th, and they’ve now been joined by over 100 prisoners in three different institutions in North Carolina. As well as general resistance to mass incarceration, there’s also the steady trickle of anarchists and other comrades into the prison system: Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, sent down for her role in the 2010 G20 protests in Toronto, has recently written a great piece about the relationship between “political” and “ordinary” prisoners, then there’s the five people who were manipulated and entrapped by the FBI in Cleveland, the five people being held for alleged anti-fascist activity in Chicago, the case of CeCe MacDonald, the ten people who’ve just been sentenced in Italy for the G8 protests in 2001… The list goes on and on. Prison is undoubtedly a big issue. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
To start off with, this situation is one where it’s hard to generalise across different countries. In the US, according to recent figures, over 1% of the population is behind bars, and adding on the number of people on probation or parole takes that to 1 in 31 of the population. In comparison, the proportion of people in prison in England and Wales is nowhere near that high. Even without taking race into account, it’s clear that people in the US are much more likely to know someone in prison than people in the UK are. Still, our prison population is at an all-time high and still growing; and, as we move away from the old European social-democratic model and toward American-style capitalism, it’s likely that prison labour, along with workfare, will be a major stick for disciplining unproductive elements of the workforce.
So much for the general picture. But that still doesn’t tell us much about what we should do about it. I have to confess that this is not a subject that I have much practical experience with. There’s a few reasons why I’ve never made prisoner solidarity much of a priority in the past: for one thing, it just didn’t seem to have much to do with my life, or the people I know. The tendency to prioritise anti-prison struggles feels like it comes from anarchist ideology, where people decide that they’re in favour of freedom and against repression, and so decide to target the biggest, most obvious form of repression they can see, rather than starting out by looking at the problems that affect them and the people they know directly. And where activists are affected by prison, it’s usually for reasons that don’t have much to do with anyone else: if you do a lot of black bloc or other militant activism, you’re quite likely to know people who’ve been sent down, but this doesn’t necessarily translate to anyone outside of activist circles, so a focus on prison issues can become yet another factor making anarchists seem weird and inaccessible to outsiders. And I fully realise while writing this how inadequate it is to talk about these issues in a colour-blind way: just saying “outsiders” fudges over the very different experiences that black and white people are likely to associate with the legal system.
At this point, I also have to admit that I’m not really sure I believe in “prison abolition” as such: no matter how free and healthy a post-revolutionary society is, I can’t believe that it won’t contain a small minority of people who act in ways that are seriously harmful to others, and that at some stage, it won’t be necessary to put those people in a place where they cannot harm others. No matter how much that institution is wholly focussed on rehabilitation, and stripped of all the moralistic focus on punishment, it will still have some features in common with a prison. In short, I think there are lots of things about this society – banks, landlords, border controls, advertising agencies, managers, queens, kings, armies, and on and on – which are wholly useless and harmless, and could not even begin to exist in a sane world, whereas the notion of putting mass murderers somewhere where they can’t do any more murdering sort of makes sense to me, and so that feeds into my reluctance to make anti-prison stuff a big priority.
I’m aware that serious objections can and should be made to all these points, and that I’m speaking from a position of white privilege here, but there’s one more issue which is a bit of a deal-breaker for me: self-organisation versus activism. I don’t want to do anything that puts me in a position of power, as the wise and benevolent activist taking action on behalf of a helpless victim; I want to help others organise themselves, so the distinction between “activist” and “other” breaks down. I’m really not sure what people outside prison can meaningfully do to help prisoners organise – writing letters to prisoners can help cheer them up, and is very definitely worth doing, but beyond that I’m not sure what we can do to help. Other people with more experience of prisoner solidarity – not to mention prisoners themselves – are probably more qualified than me to expand on this point. (EDIT: See the comments on this post, where someone involved in prison solidarity stuff discusses it. That conversation drove me to look some of this stuff up – the US Anarchist Black Cross Federation seem to have a pretty decent collection of guides on this subject, with Building PP/POW Subsistence Programs and ABCF Guide To Political Prisoner and Prisoner of War Support the two most obvious starting points.)
But, despite all the doubts I’ve just spelled out, this isn’t meant to be an argument against prison solidarity, more an attempt to feel my way around various different sides of the issue. If I’m making any argument at all here, it’s that prison solidarity is both necessary and deeply problematic. At a very basic level, starting off from our own position as people in some way engaged in the class struggle, it’s going to become more and more vital simply as a form of self-defence; the student rebellion of 2010, the protest on March 26th last year and the August riots all left prisoners in their wake, and more will follow from any similar upheaval; although the anti-fascists sent down last year are all out now, the increasing trend for street confrontations with the EDL, Infidels and other groups makes it pretty much certain that more anti-fascists will end up inside soon; and if we do see any real workplace struggle, the laws against industrial action will see militant workers sent down for picketing and occupying. Beyond that, it’s also the case that, while prison might seem like a far-away abstraction to many white people, it’s a lot more relevant to people from ethnic minority or “underclass” backgrounds. The existence of these divisions within the working class pose a real problem for revolutionaries. From Bakunin onwards, some sections of the anarchist movement have tended to romanticise “that great mass, those millions of non-civilized, disinherited, wretched and illiterates”, while many socialists, and the union movement in particular, have tended to talk about the most skilled and comfortable workers as if they represented the class as a whole. But the point is not to celebrate one specific section of the working class, even the most oppressed sections, but to try and generalise and spread revolt among all those who have something to gain from the end of this society.
This might all seem a bit abstract, so here’s a concrete example: last August, some people, a very small minority of those who are fucked over by this system, took to the streets and rioted, and other people, mostly also people who are fucked over by this system, didn’t join in, and even actively supported the police against the rioters. The point of talking about this is not to condemn the rioters for acting too soon, and rioting instead of joining a trade union or voting for socialist candidates, and it isn’t to condemn everyone who didn’t join in the rioting for being hopelessly brainwashed reactionaries. It’s to think about ways we can overcome these divisions, and move towards a revolt that would draw in big enough numbers to be truly uncontrollable.
So, a lot of rambling, and not much in the way of real conclusions. I could probably go on contradicting myself all day, but instead I’ll sum up with a few points:
1. Prisons cause a lot of unnecessary harm and suffering. This means that, no matter what you think a post-revolutionary justice system might look like, the prison system as it exists now is mostly a negative thing, and we should support revolts against it.
2. Prisons cause more harm to some sections of the working class than to others. This means that focussing a lot on prisons will make us more relevant to some people, and less relevant to others.
3. There isn’t actually that much we can practically do to encourage self-organisation amongst prisoners most of the time. But, having said that, revolts like the current hunger strike in Georgia and North Carolina do happen, and are likely to become more frequent in the future. It’s worth thinking about how we can support those revolts when they do happen.
4. The law-and-order mentality is still quite strong among many people, and championing prisoner solidarity is not a short cut to popularity. But it’s still important, and we need to do it – both for our comrades who end up inside for class-struggle activity, and for the vast numbers of petty thieves, drug addicts and others who end up locked up for being poor (and often for not being white).
5. Owing to the many different factors that lead to different people having widely different experiences of the legal system, it’s hard to draw up a general strategy here. In general, where anti-prison attitudes exist, that’s a good thing and we should do what we can to encourage them; where support for “law and order” is strong, it might be more strategic to prioritise other issues – workplace, housing, benefits, etc. If we can organise effectively around them, it might win us respect, which would then make it easier to get a hearing for our more unpopular views; and either way, whenever people start to organise to improve their own lives, they’re likely to run up against the legal system in one way or another. No amount of anarchist propaganda can discredit the state as effectively as a first-hand encounter with the cops.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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4 Responses to Free our friends! And everyone else: thoughts on prison and activism

  1. B says:

    I’ll be back in a bit to comment on your other statements, but in reference to “There isn’t actually that much we can practically do…” I have to emphasize that the hunger strike in NC came directly out of anarchists in NC (including some slagged as “lifestylists” by Brits with no context) working extremely hard to establish a dialogue about anarchism with them, get resources to them, and enable communication between prisoners in different prisons, which is otherwise nigh impossible. Please do not erase this out of ignorance–this is the product of hard organizing work by anarchists as well as other sectors of the population. Hence Prison Books, in Chapel Hill, NC, being the main group to break the story.

    • Cheers for that, that’s really good to know. Sorry if anything in the article pissed you off – as I say, it’s really not meant to be arguing against prison solidarity work, and I am writing from a position of ignorance (and white privilege) here. Anyway, sounds like you’re doing really good stuff, keep it up, and if there’s anything you think people in the UK can usefully do to support the hunger strikes, let me know and I’ll be happy to help publicise it.

      • B says:

        I appreciate how honest and humble you are about your distance from the issue, and it’s commendable that you would take the trouble to write about this subject when you don’t feel yourself to be an expert on it. One can also find people in the US who have as little immediate exposure to the reality of the prison-industrial complex as you say you have, although it’s becoming more and more central to the experience of many sectors of our society. I have just a moment to share a few disordered thoughts here in the midst of a very busy time.

        I want to drive home the implication of my earlier comment: there is plenty we anarchists can do to connect our own struggles with prisoners’ struggles, in order that they amplify each other. There are many things that cannot be specified in this forum, but despite anarchists’ many failures to engage with the imprisoned, anarchist efforts are intimately interlinked with the recent revolts. This connection is the only reason you even heard about the NC hunger strike, and it goes deeper than that.

        Prisoner support is not glorious work–it takes draining consistency and can be even more depressing than you’d expect. But for many of us here–specifically, I mean predominantly poor US anarchists–we’re related to the prison system whether we like it or not, and by several vectors:

        -our comrades inside–and all with whom they have to coexist
        -our neighbors and fellow poor people, many of whom also have family members inside
        -other prisoners we interact with via social programs, etc.
        -the constant threat posed by the police and prison system to anyone who gets out of hand (whether that be in political action, or simply in day-to-day survival struggles).

        If we don’t engage proactively with the prison system, our fear of the threat it poses will permeate the rest of our actions, severely limiting what we can do. Delegitimizing the prison system and supporting those inside in their attacks upon it must therefore go hand in hand with any insurrectionary struggle. Otherwise, we’ll be unprepared for the second act which inescapably follows any confrontation with the state. This may sound like “ideology” for those with a comfortable life–something very difficult for me to imagine having, myself–but it is viscerally obvious for many of us in our day-to-day lives.

        Prison is invisibilized. I bet that you have more connections than you realize to people who are imprisoned, and that these would come to light if you focused on anti-prison efforts; in that regard, it’s similar to the issue of sexual assault. It’s not just a matter of “which sections of the working class” we want to connect with (though it’s obvious enough to me which are more potentially unruly)–but also what we want to reveal about the state and about our subjection under capitalism via the process of struggle. Focusing attention on the prison system shines a light on all the forms of repression that are otherwise glossed over as social peace, and opens connections between everyone who would otherwise be isolated by this repression. That isn’t just prisoners, but all of the disobedient and/or poor.

        One more comment on this–I strongly disagree with you about prison abolition. Based on my experience in poor and anarchist communities, both of which have more than their share of problems, I can’t think of one situation in which locking someone up in a coercive institution would have actually improved things rather than just hiding the problem, trying to “make it go away.” It seems to me that foggy endorsements of incarceration usually come from those who don’t have extensive experience with imprisonment; I think the impulse to keep the option of prison open for anarchists generally comes from a desire to avoid the conflicts and challenges that we’d otherwise have to muster the courage to face head on. I can imagine a similar mentality causing people to say “but we have to have nursing homes in some form, right?”

        Thanks for reading. Back to work.

  2. Thanks for all that. I appreciate it is really difficult to have this conversation across the Atlantic, cos I think that, while the UK’s prison population is definitely growing, prison still doesn’t play quite as central a role in British life as it does in America. I totally agree with you about how we need to be prepared for prison as a weapon that will be used against us, and it sounds like what’s happening in the North-West right now really brings home how important that is. At the same time, it does still seem like something that’s a few degrees abstracted and removed from my life in a way that, f’r instance, landlords, the welfare system, debt, and shitty casual jobs with no security really aren’t. And, as you say, “it takes draining consistency and can be even more depressing than you’d expect” – I think that’s also true of fighting employers, and fighting landlords, and all the other bastards that we need to be fighting, and it’s tricky cos I think that to do even one of them well you’re inevitably gonna have to neglect some others. This shit is complex, and I find it hard to come to an neat conclusion one way or another.

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