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“Isolated incidents of prison-based research before World War II formed the foundation for a practice that would become firmly embedded in the structure of American clinical research during World War II. Perhaps the most significant wartime medical research project in which American scientists employed prisoners as research subjects was centered in Illinois’s Stateville Prison. Beginning in 1944, hundreds of Illinois prisoners submitted to experimental cases of malaria as researchers attempted to find more effective means to prevent and cure tropical diseases that ravaged Allied forces in the Pacific Theater. 

In 1947, a committee was established by the governor of Illinois to examine the ethics of using state prisoners as research subjects. The committee was chaired by Andrew Ivy, a prominent University of Illinois physiologist and the chief expert witness on medical ethics for the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Medical Trial, where prison research was a salient topic. The committee pronounced the wartime experiments at Stateville Prison “ideal” in their conformity with the newly adopted rules of the American Medical Association concerning human experimentation. The AMA rules, which Ivy had played a key role in developing, included provisions stipulating voluntary consent from subjects, prior animal experimentation, and carefully managed research under the authority of properly qualified clinical researchers. Perhaps most significantly, the findings of Ivy’s committee were announced to the American medical community when the group’s final report was reproduced in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The appearance of this report in the nation’s leading medical journal both represented and reinforced the sentiment that prison research was ethically acceptable.

Publicly aired assertions that experimentation on prisoners relied on exploitation or coercion were extremely rare in the United States before the late 1960s. One criticism of medical research behind bars did, however, emerge with some frequency: prisoners who participated in research were somehow escaping from their just measures of punishment. Inmates were usually offered rewards in exchange for their scientific services, ranging from more comfortable surroundings, to cash, to early release. Perhaps the most powerful statement of the concern that convicts should not receive special treatment because they had participated in an experiment came from the AMA. In 1952, this organization formally approved a resolution stating its “disapproval of the participation in scientific experiments of persons convicted of murder, rape, arson, kidnapping, treason, or other heinous crimes.” The AMA was alarmed that some such criminals “have not only received citations, but have in some instances been granted parole much sooner than would otherwise have occurred." 

It should be noted that the use of prisoners as research subjects seems to have been a uniquely American practice in the years following World War II. The large-scale successes of prison experimentation during World War II–and the authoritative pronouncement of the Ivy Committee that prison research could be conducted in an ethical fashion–seem to have given the practice a kind of momentum in this country that it did not have elsewhere. In other countries it seems that the first clause of the Nuremberg Code was interpreted to preclude the use of prisoners in experimentation. This clause begins with the assertion that the only acceptable experimental subjects are those who are "so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice.”

It is difficult to overemphasize just how common the practice became in the United States during the postwar years. Researchers employed prisoners as subjects in a multitude of experiments that ranged in purpose from a desire to understand the cause of cancer to a need to test the effects of a new cosmetic. After the Food and Drug Administration’s restructuring of drug-testing regulations in 1962, prisoners became almost the exclusive subjects in nonfederally funded Phase I pharmaceutical trials designed to test the toxicity of new drugs. By 1972, FDA officials estimated that more than 90 percent of all investigational drugs were first tested on prisoners.

It appears that throughout the history of medical experimentation on American prisoners many inmates have valued the opportunity to participate in medical research. One must quickly add that such an observation points to the paucity of opportunities open to most prisoners. The common perception among inmates that participating in a medical experiment was a good opportunity has had an important impact on the racial aspects of prison experimentation. Because of the large numbers of African-Americans in prison (and the overt racial exploitation of the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study, in which black men with syphilis were observed but not treated), it might be assumed that minorities predominated as research subjects in prisons. The opposite has generally been true; white prisoners have usually been overrepresented in the “privileged” role of research subject. In most prison studies before and during World War II, it seems that all of the research subjects were white. In 1975, the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research carefully examined the racial composition of the research subjects at a prison with a major drug-testing program. The commission found that African-Americans made up only 31 percent of the subject population, while this racial “minority” formed 68 percent of the general prison population.

The shift in public opinion against the use of prisoners as research subjects, which began in the late 1960s, was no doubt tied to many other social and political changes sweeping the country: the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the patients’ rights movement, the prisoners’ rights movement, and the general questioning of authority associated with the anti-Vietnam War protests. But, as has been common in the history of human experimentation, scandal galvanized public attention, brought official inquiry, and resulted in significant change. A major scandal in prison experimentation came when the New York Times published a front-page article on July 29, 1969, detailing an ethically and scientifically sloppy drug-testing program that a physician had established in the state prisons of Alabama. Even more sensational was Jessica Mitford’s January 1973 Atlantic Monthly article. In this article, Mitford portrayed experimentation on prisoners as a practice built on exploitation and coercion of an extremely disadvantaged class.[66] When the article reappeared later in 1973 as a chapter in her widely read book critiquing American prisons, she had come up with an especially provocative and suggestive title for this section of the book: “Cheaper than Chimpanzees." Mitford, and most of the growing number who condemned experimentation on prisoners during the 1970s (and after), offered two arguments against the practice. First, prisoners were identified as incapable of offering voluntary consent because of a belief that most (some argued, all) prisons are inherently coercive environments. Another line of argument was based on a principle of justice that stipulated that one class–especially a disadvantaged class such as prisoners–should not be expected to carry an undue burden of service in the realm of medical research.”

– “Chapter 9.4 History of Prison Research Regulation,” Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, Final Report. US Department of Energy Office of Environment, Health, Safety and Security Search, 1994.

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Department of Justice
Federal Prison Camp, Tuscon, Ariz.

$50.00 — REWARD — $50.00

CALVIN HOMES – Reg. No. 1959-TA – FBI Number – Unknown

Escaped from Federal Prison Camp, Tuscon, Arizona, on September 18, 1939, at approximately 9:00 p.m. in company with Stockton Darneille, Reg. No. 2149-TA.

ESCAPE WAS MADE IN GREEN CHEVROLET SEDAN, 1937 MODEL, LICENSE No. B-7411.

(Calvin Johnson Holmes – only known alias)

Sex: Male
Age: 46
Eyes: Blue
Hair: Turning Grey (Receding Forehead)
Color: White
Complexion: Light
Height: 69″
Weight: 178
Build: Stocky
Mustache: None
Nationality: American
Occupation: Salesman

Scars and Marks: None noticeable.

Residence: Terre Haute, Indiana.

Relatives or Friends:
Sister: Mrs. Art Taugaw, R. R. #3, Box 373, Terre Haute Indiana.
Brother: Mr. Kirk Holmes, (Last Known address) 601 Mary St., Evansville, Indiana.

At the time of escape he was wearing blue and white checked denim trousers, white shirt, black oxfords.

Received at Federal Prison Camp, Tuscon, Arizona, on August 4, 1938, on transfer from Federal Correctional Institution, La Tuna, Texas.

Crime: Armed Robbery, Post Office.
Sentence: 25 years.

Reward of $50.00 (Subject to the conditions of Bureau of Prisons Circular No. 2689, amended March 1, 1937).

If apprehended please notify any of the following: Superintendent of the Camp; Director, Bureau of Prisons, Washington, D.C., U.S. Marshal nearest to place of apprehension; or F.B.I., El Paso, Texas, by wire, collect.

C. T. GLADDEN
SUPERINTENDENT

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Expanding the Carceral State
While the federal government was no more willing to step into state prisons on behalf of Muslim prisoners than it was in Albany, Georgia, on behalf of nonviolent protestors, the activism of the Muslim Brotherhood continued to receive attention from the state capital in Albany, New York. The writ-writing campaigns of prisoners had helped prompt a national response and the attention of the courts, but it also caused an arm of the state to reach deep into incarcerated communities. Wardens and state corrections officers authorized prison surveillance and, in some cases, even dedicated a staff member to internal supervision of the Nation of Islam. This surveillance was meant not only to absorb and report but also to disrupt and subvert. It also provided the raw material for state knowledge production that could quell prison activism. Prison officials soon emerged as arbiters of religious orthodoxy, determining who and what constituted legitimate Muslim practice.

As they looked to Muslim religious practices such as eating, prayer, and use of Arabic for markers of identity and political agitation, prisoners turned to informal strategies of daily resistance to combat state intrusions. Through its intervention, the state also assigned political meaning to religious practice, further politicizing incarceration and the practice of Islam within prison walls. State surveillance began with prison officers, who had the most daily contact with prisoners. One institution devoted an officer to keeping a list of all active members, searching their cells, and confiscating any literature relating to the Nation of Islam. Seizing materials slowed the spread of conversions and were a source for state intelligence. An area of concern was prisoners’ use of Arabic. The language not only served a cultural and religious function but also flummoxed prison security. For example, Bratcher gave specific instructions in his letter to Malcolm X: his mother would write him of the minister’s reply in red

ink with “three lines of Al-Fatihab” (referring to Al-Fatiha, the first surah in the Qur’an). One state report noted that it “would seem doubtful if the majority of the prisoners can rea[d] and write Arabic but if notes are picked up that seem to contain no meaning maybe they would bear investigating.” Several months later, six pages of Arabic to English and English to Arabic translation were confiscated. 

Another surveillance strategy that relied heavily on prison officers was the scrutiny of Muslim eating habits. The refusal to eat pork in prisons recalls Malcolm X’s own imprisonment in the late 1940s when he and other prisoners protested its prevalence in prison diets. At Attica Prison, Bratcher wrote to Warden Walter Wilkins asking for permission to carry food from the mess hall to his cell so he and other Muslim prisoners could eat after sundown during Ramadan. One prisoner was even charged with wasting state food for throwing away his bacon and refusing to eat it. Daily political acts such as throwing away bacon even escalated to more formal strikes. In Milan, Michigan, where Elijah Muhammad had once been incarcerated for draft resistance, prisoners took part in a three day hunger strike against pork, which eventually resulted in Muslim-prepared food and a separate dining section. 

These actions were challenged by prison officials who quickly seized on dietary restrictions as a way to monitor and challenge the legitimacy of a prisoner’s religious beliefs. “In order to check the authenticity of the Muslims,” Woodward’s memo noted, “each officer has been required to submit to the principal keeper’s office a report on whether or not the particular prisoner in question is eating pork. The members who are eating pork will be … included in next month’s report.” Another institution itemized prisoners’ eating when pork was served in the mess hall: “Of the above total [of 70], 30 prisoners either refused their ration or gave it to another prisoner, and additional 16 prisoners took their ration to their cells and only two were actually observed fasting.” By monitoring prisoners’ eating, writings, and literature, prison officers acted as foot soldiers in the state’s surveillance of the Nation of Islam. 

From this narrow base of day-to-day surveillance, reports on Muslims in prison also radiated outward to the state and federal levels. The success of the NOI’s organized prison litigation continued to trouble prison officials. The first to present on the NOI at the ACA’s annual conference was the noted penologist Donald Clemmer, who authored his foundational study The Prison Community in 1940. By 1963, topics such as “The Black Muslims and Religious Freedom in Prison” and “The Black Muslim in Prison: A Personality Study” surfaced at the conference. The academic communities of penology and criminology emerged as part of the state’s developing knowledge production about the NOI. 

The 1960s also marked a shift from rehabilitative strategies to psychological warfare and new technologies of violence, and Muslim prisoners were often the first subjected to these new experimental practices. As Alan Gómez notes, bibliotherapy was replaced with isolation, sensory deprivation, and brainwashing; Muslim prison litigation helped “propel this shift.” Edgar Schein, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a paper in 1961 to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons entitled “Man against Man: Brainwashing.” Bertra S. Brown of the National Institute of Mental Health responded by contacting prison administrators and suggesting that they “do things perhaps on your own—undertake a little experiment of what you can do with Muslims.” As Gómez persuasively argues, the ascension of Control Units, Special Housing Units, and Adjustment Centers, were all outgrowths of the experimental use of excessive solitary confinement by prison officials during the late 1950s and early 1960s. These punishments and techniques, he concluded, were “initially experimented with on Muslim inmates [but] later used en masse on political activists [and] became the model for the entire prison regime.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 90-93.

Photos are from Ann Arbor Times, September 6, 1966.

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“The economic exploitation of prisoners doesn’t end when they’re released. In 49 states, inmates are charged for the costs of their own incarceration.

The way this works varies. In some states, formerly incarcerated people are sent bills, and in others they are charged fines (sometimes called legal financial obligations, or LFOs). Some states collect the cost of incarcerating someone through windfall statutes, grabbing any inheritances, lottery winnings or proceeds from litigation.

There’s no way to pay these bills ahead of their due dates or work these charges off while in prison, no matter how hard you work. No inmate can earn enough inside to cover the costs of their incarceration; each one will necessarily leave with a bill. The state of Florida, which pays inmate workers a maximum of $0.55 per hour, billed former inmate Dee Taylor $55,000 for his three-year sentence. He would have had to work 100,000 hours, or over 11 years nonstop, at a prison wage to pay for his three year incarceration. Even as a free man working at Florida’s minimum wage of $8.25, he would have to work more than 6,666 hours ― more than three regular work years ― and not spend a penny on anything else to pay it back. 

These debts are impossible for the even hardest-working people to pay off. Most people enter prison poor, and half of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed six months after they leave custody. Those who find jobs after prison will earn very little; the median income for people within one year of their release is $10,090 ― only 55 percent had any earnings at all. This makes paying any type of bill a challenge. The bills for one’s prison time compete with active and essential living expenses like housing, food, utilities and transport. Ex-offenders in the United States owe about $50 billion for various criminal justice costs like pretrial detention, court fees and incarceration costs. It’s estimated that as much 60 percent of a formerly incarcerated person’s income goes toward “criminal justice debt,” even for those who have ostensibly paid their debt to society.  

These debts can make it even harder for a returning citizen to rebuild their life after incarceration, because in 46 states, failure to repay them is an offense punishable by yet more incarceration. A Georgia man named Thomas Barrett pleaded guilty to shoplifting a $2 can of beer and was fined $200 and sentenced to probation, supposedly so he could avoid jail. That was a futile hope, since he was eventually incarcerated after he failed to pay over $1,000 in fees attached to that $200 fine. In Rhode Island from 2005 through 2007, failure to pay court debt was the most common reason that individuals were incarcerated, which means that, in a state that routinely spends around $200 million on corrections every year, the most common reason for incarcerating people there was something other than crime.”

– 

Chandra Bozelko and Ryan Lo, “You’ve Served Your Time. Now Here’s Your Bill.Huffpost, September 16, 2018.

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“As the five men waited for the SaMarion case to reach trial in the summer of 1962, they planned a hunger strike protesting solitary confinement. The prisoners claimed that Bratcher’s segregation was “an excuse by the warden . . to make him seem that he was crazy concerning this trial that was coming up.” Writ writing had exacerbated fears among prison officials and became one of the most successful strategies for Muslim prisoners. The Nation of Islam successfully flooded the courts with writs across the country. Between 1961 and 1978, sixty-six reported federal court decisions were made on suits fled by prisoners affiliated with the Nation of Islam. In California the number of habeas corpus petitions rose from a mere 814 in 1957 to nearly five thousand by 1965. At San Quentin in 1965, prisoners were churning out almost three hundred petitions per month. As Judge Brennan noted at one trial, these were not “cases where uneducated, inexperienced and helpless plaintiffs are involved … these applications are part of a movement.” Prison litigation became the “peaceful equivalent of a riot” by catalyzing public support and bringing national attention to the otherwise-hidden struggles of prisoners.

One of the largest structural challenges to prison organizing was physical isolation from the outside world. Activists relied on what Berger has called “a strategy of visibility” to make their struggles known. Testifying has its political roots in slavery and has been carried forward through the black feminist tradition. As Danielle McGuire points out in her work on the role of the struggle against sexual violence in the civil rights movement, “testimony must be seen as a form of direct action and radical protest.” Black prisoners saw the courts as political pulpits, a breach in the walls allowing them to take their claims before the world outside. As James Jacobs wrote, “it is as if the courts had become a battlefield where prisoners and prison administrators, led by their respective legal champions, engage in mortal combat.” Sostre later wrote that the “court is an arena. It is a battlefield—one of the best. We will use these same torture chambers, these same kangaroo courts, to expose them.”

Nowhere was this more evident than during Malcolm X’s testimony during the SaMarion trial. Bratcher realized that the state would be mobilizing witnesses to testify against the Nation of Islam’s standing in the Muslim world and wrote to the minister that the “‘Key’ witness I am depending on to ‘seal’ our victory is ‘You’ Minister Malcolm ‘X.’” This set the stage for a four-day showdown between Malcolm X and the state’s witness, the Columbia University professor Joseph Franz Schacht. While Malcolm X admitted openly in court that he had an eighth-grade education, no formal theological training, and could not speak Arabic, Schacht had a “masterly knowledge” of the language, and his book Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, which argued for the historical development and sociological implications of Islamic law, was considered a seminal text in the Western study of Islam. Yet Malcolm X weaved around the meritocratic probing of the state. When asked if he had a degree in theology, he noted that if “my understanding of the word ‘theological’ is correct, the study of God, the science that deals with religion and the study of God, I studied theology in that sense under the Honorable Elijah Muhammad about our God.” When pressed on the length of his education, he replied: “I am still studying.” When interrogated on whether or not he was ordained or had a written certificate that permitted him to proselytize, he reminded the court that “Jesus sent his disciples forth with no written certificate or anything but his approval.” Malcolm X’s

testimony was so convincing that when Schacht took the stand and listed his membership in the Royal Netherlands Academy, the Arabic Academy in Damascus, and an honorary degree in Law from University of Algiers, the judge responded: “I don’t think it is quite thoroughly clear at this time to qualify him as an expert.” 

While Henderson had, in effect, apologized for and excused his racism in the same remark, his open respect for Malcolm X’s opinion shifted the tenor of the case. As Griffin recalled, Henderson was “impressed by Malcolm and his testimony … [and] respected Malcolm for his clear statements and responses.” Bresnihan, likely attempting to curry favor with the judge, then began adopting the phrase the “American Black Man” in his questioning. Malcolm X’s use of the courtroom as a political stage reveals the importance of testimony as a form of nonviolent resistance. His testimony lasted three days, and was over 20 percent of the two-week trial transcript, successfully compelling the judge to rule that the Nation of Islam was a religious organization. But more importantly, Malcolm X’s  political views took center stage and fundamentally altered the rhetoric and discourse of the case.

The case at Attica Prison also underscores the important role that the jailhouse lawyer played in organizing legal challenges from prison. Knowing that most prisoners were not qualified to draw up their own legal challenges, prisons such as Attica maintained rules prohibiting legal assistance. For example, “rule 21” at Attica stated: “Prisoners are prohibited except upon approval of the warden to assist other prisoners in preparation of legal papers.” This strategy was reproduced nationally as a means of combatting prison litigation efforts. In Texas, administrators employed a similar strategy, forbidding writ writers from possessing the legal materials of a fellow prisoner. In California this was known as Rule D-2602. Even if a prisoner wanted to use another’s paperwork as a template, officials concluded that any legal material in a cell not pertaining to that prisoner was evidence of prison lawyering. Just as grandfather clauses and poll taxes worked as state mechanisms to disfranchise southern black voters, rules governing legal access and jailhouse lawyering sought to curb legal literacy and prisoners’ access to the judicial system. Thus, when Sostre wrote to Walker, he urged him to copy the writ into his notebook, then flush it down the toilet, but not to “let this lay around. This is dynamite.” He then listed the “most essential weapons in fighting Shaitan” (Arabic transliteration of “the devil”): legal paper, an ink eraser, one dollar of postage stamps, a loose-leaf binder, and a ball-point pen.

Trough cases such as Pierce v. LaVallee, SaMarion v. McGinnis, and later, Cooper v. Pate, the NOI brought about judicial oversight such that, by 1974, the Supreme Court declared that no longer was an “iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.” Yet, while the Supreme Court strictly forbade any “direct or indirect interference by prisons or state authorities” in prisoners’ access to the courts, prisons obstructed court access through measures such as rule 21. They also limited legal advice, intimidated writ writers, and disrupted the legal process through solitary confinement.

Despite these attempts, Muslim prisoners were more organized than the often uncoordinated strategies of local prison officials and state policy makers. In one example in California, San Quentin Prison officials set up a small office where three prisoners transcribed writs onto standardized forms and processed them on a duplicating machine. Meanwhile, the California Department of Corrections attempted to clamp down on writ writers by prohibiting access to law literature and court decisions. 

But Sostre’s letter to Walker in solitary confinement also revealed another strategy pointing toward the concurrent tactics of prison organizing and the broader black freedom struggle. Prisoners appropriated the principal mechanism of prison repression—solitary confinement—as a tool of organized protest. Recognizing that most of Attica Prison’s Muslims were already in solitary confinement, Sostre urged Walker to not be sent back to general population. According to Sostre, they “made a pact not to go down until the religious persecution of the Muslims cease[s].” If Walker was sent back, he was told to threaten to bring contraband literature out of his cell and be sent back to solitary. They reasoned that each time the warden “snatch[ed] an aggressive Muslim out of population, he would send one down from the box and send another one up from population. In other words, he kept manipulating the brothers like monkeys on a string.” Yet Sostre astutely noted that when “the box ceases to work, the entire disciplinary and security system breaks down.” The take-over of solitary confinement was an example of prisoners creatively adapting the methods of prison control as resistance. NOI members filled solitary confinement until the box no longer was an effective form of punishment. Wardens were then faced with the decision of creating hotbeds of activism in segregation or undermining the arbitrary rules they had worked so hard to justify and enforce. 

The prisoners’ strategy of filling solitary confinement mirrored, and in fact predated, the developing civil rights strategy of “Jail, no bail” in the South. …

The prisoners’ strategy of taking over solitary can be traced back to Clinton Prison when the men were reported by the prison officer as discussing the tactics (over a year before the Friendship Nine employed this strategy). While civil rights organizers in the South and prisoners at Attica appropriated forms of state control, Chief Pritchett in Albany was able to mobilize a larger network of police and jails just as wardens at Clinton and Attica Prisons were able to transfer prisoners to other state prisons when their much smaller segregation units became filled with politicized prisoners. Both movements also attempted to garner national attention and press for federal intervention. As Len Holt

of the Congress of Racial Equality explained, “if we go to jail by the hundreds and thousands, the hearts of those who would maintain the old order will be inundated with the guilt necessary to bring about change.” For prisoners at Attica, solitary confinement and the loss of good time were crucial to their claims in state and federal courts. As Sostre wrote: “We have taken over the box and he is anxious to get us out of the box, especially with the big trial coming soon. So don’t let him clean up, for we are living proof of the religious oppression complained of in our writs.” Filling solitary confinement not only

undermined prison security but also built a case for trial and dramatized prisoners’ struggles before the courts and the nation.

But in both cases, appropriation of state repression had unintended consequences. As Berger argues, “mass arrests of political activists provided a dry run for mass incarceration, especially when joined with the economic transformations wrought by mechanization and migration. The civil rights movement gave states an early taste of what it would mean to arrest, prosecute, and imprison large groups of people.” In the case of Muslims at Attica Prison, it coincided with intensified surveillance and monthly reports on the group. Despite their similarities, the “Jail, no bail” strategy has its place in the annals of civil rights history as a heroic confrontation with southern Jim Crow through nonviolent direct action; meanwhile, the take-over of solitary confinement by Muslims at Attica Prison has gone unremarked. At best, the Nation of Islam has been depicted as a reluctant political participant, pulled toward the struggle by Malcolm X. At worst, it is portrayed as an apolitical religious sect that was marginal, or even antithetical, to such movements. Such disparate historical treatments raise important questions about what are seen as legitimate politics, legible activists, and visible sites of resistance in histories of the black freedom movement.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 84-90 

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‘Our great embarrassment as a civilized nation’

In the purported “land of the free” and “home of the brave,” we have to end our horribly destructive, dysfunctional reliance on physically and psychologically ripping our people apart from their friends, family, and communities – often setting them up to return to prison again, later, in a maddening, self-perpetuating, defeating cycle, to serve even harsher, more punitive sentences.

(Federal judge Raymond J. Dearie, formerly the United States Attorney in Brooklyn, once aptly lamented: “Why this love affair in this country with lengthy incarceration, to our great embarrassment as a civilized nation?”)  

No longer can we tolerate the pervasive rehabilitative deprivations and despicably inhumane living conditions that define our penal system.

As a Norwegian prison “governor” and clinical psychologist eloquently and pragmatically cautioned in a 2014 piece exploring “Why Norway’s prison system is so successful”: “In the law, being sent to prison is nothing to do with putting you in a terrible prison to make you suffer.

The punishment is that you lose your freedom.

If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings.”

We must follow the sage advice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in demanding an end to racial discrimination in 1963, famously articulated the “fierce urgency of now”; for it is that same unrelenting, unquelled urgency that no less characterizes our nation’s long-lagging need for meaningful, far-reaching prison reform.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Reverend King poignantly observed that “[t]here comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men [and women] are no longer willing to be plunged in the abyss of despair.”

It is this dark and ominous feeling that currently dominates morale inside America’s prisons today; danger is the foreseeable consequence.  

Outside of our too numerous prisons, with their too crowded confines, the need for people with integrity to speak up and to act out on behalf of achieving prison reform is every bit as pressing.

For as Dr. King elegantly concluded in his book “Why we can’t wait”: “The bell of man’s inhumanity to man does not toll for any one man, it tolls for you, for me, for all of us.”

– Stephen Cooper, “America must face and fix its unjust prison system.” Tennessean. September 8, 2018.

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“PHILADELPHIA – On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) continued its near-total lockdown of state prisons, confining most people in the department’s facilities to their cells 24 hours per day and prohibiting mail and visitation. According to the DOC, some facilities had some restrictions lifted over the weekend, and more facilities will lift restrictions throughout this week.

As the lockdown entered its seventh day, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania responded to the ongoing situation. The following can be attributed to Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania:

“The continuing lockdown at the Department of Corrections is gravely serious. We share the department’s concern about the health of the staff. The health of the people who are incarcerated is also of utmost priority.

“Unfortunately, the DOC has failed to provide meaningful transparency in this situation, leaving loved ones of people who are incarcerated uninformed and anxious about what is happening. And the public statements on the DOC’s own website talk only about the health of staff, with no mention of how many prisoners have become ill. If staff have been ill, it’s reasonable to conclude that prisoners have been sick, too, although the lack of information makes that impossible to confirm. Either way, the department has left prisoners’ families and the public in the dark on the health of the people who are incarcerated.

“The DOC should immediately provide public information about how many prisoners, if any, have become ill and how families can check on the status of their loved ones.

“The department must also reinstate mail and visitation privileges as soon as possible, as mail and visitation are constitutionally protected rights for people who are incarcerated.

“In a radio interview today, Secretary Wetzel stated that facilities will be back to normal operations by next week if there are no more illnesses. If there are more illnesses, he simply stated that the department will ‘revisit’ the situation. That response is inadequate. We do not accept the notion that the DOC can hold prisoners in their cells 24 hours per day, stop mail, and end visitations and phone calls in every state facility every time a staff person becomes ill. The health of the DOC staff is certainly critical, as is the health and well-being of prisoners. A statewide lockdown is a heavy-handed response that is detrimental to the long-term health of people who are incarcerated.”

– 

ACLU-PA Statement on Continuing Lockdown of Pennsylvania Prisons, September 4, 2018.

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“There is hope, though. For centuries, a worker’s most potent weapon against exploitation from capitalism and oppression from the powers that be has been direct action: the strike. And right now, America’s prisoners are on strike. Incarcerated workers across the nation are standing up to protest their inhumane living conditions and buck the horrific yoke of prison slavery with organized labor’s strongest weapons—solidarity and collective action.

The prison strike was organized by workers both inside and outside detention facilities, spearheaded by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), and supported by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) and the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), and sparked by [deadly uprisings at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina earlier this year that cost seven prisoners’ lives. The strike began on August 21 and ends on September 9, dates that reflect the legacy of rebellion in American prisons: on August 21, 1971, George Jackson was killed by prison guards in San Quentin, and his death was met by protests from other prisoners across the country, culminating in the famed September 9 uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. By choosing these dates, participants in the prison strike of 2018 are drawing a direct line between their current struggle and the struggles of those who have come before, emphasizing the stark fact that very little has changed in terms of conditions or opportunities for those who are locked up and held by the state since the birth of the modern prison system.

The striking prisoners of today have released a list of ten demands, which calls for improvements to the current living conditions in prisons, increased rehabilitation programs, educational opportunities, and specific policy goals. This essentially articulates the idea of non-reformist reforms, a central plank of prison abolition. By illuminating the barbarity of the current prison system and calling for its abolishment while advocating for an improvement in current conditions, they are—to paraphraseFrench socialist André Gorz—asking not for what can be achieved within a current system, but for what should be possible.

As of August 21, across 17 states (and one Canadian province), these incarcerated workers are demanding real, tangible prison reform, and the abolition of one of America’s great enduring shames—the loophole enacted by the 13th amendment that decrees slavery can be used to penalize those convicted of a crime. This is where the term “prison slavery” originates, as director Ava DuVernay laid out in her groundbreaking 2016 documentary 13th, which argues that slavery never ended — it was just repurposed by the prison industrial complex and blossomed as mass incarceration. Her documentary argued that the new American plantations don’t grow cotton, they work prison jobs churning out license plates and other cheap goods, for which prisoners are paid mere pennies on the hour—if at all. Meanwhile, prison labor generates an estimated $1 billion per year, proving to be quite a profitable business for the private companies and corporations who benefit from prisoners’ work.

Prison labor is used to manufacture a vast array of consumer goods, from Christmas toys and blue jeans to military equipment, lingerie, and car parts. Incarcerated people also frequently serve as a captive labor force for prisons themselves as kitchen and maintenance workers, and for a variety of other services, from shoveling snow after a Boston blizzard to harvesting oranges in Florida. (California recently made headlines when it was revealed that it was using prison labor to fight its deadly wildfires, which it has done since the 1940s; the prisoners (which included some juvenile offenders) were reportedly paid $1 per hour plus $2 per day to risk their lives, and are barred from becoming firefighters after their release.) Prisoners are paid very little for their work; the average wage in state prisons ranges, on average, from 14 cents to 63 cents per hour for “regular” prison jobs, and between 33 cents and $1.41 per hour for those who work for state-owned businesses, and while they are working full-time jobs, prisoners do not always have the benefit of basic labor protections, such as minimum wage, sick leave, or overtime pay. Given that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 2.3 million people currently behind bars, the prison industrial complex would collapse were it to pay incarcerated workers the minimum wage—which creates further incentive for them to keep locking people up.

Many prisoners welcome the chance to work during their incarceration, because it gets them out of their cells, allows them to make purchases from commissary, and gives them the opportunity to send money home to their loved ones, but not everyone is given a choice: according to Newsweek, some prisoners in eight states—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas—are not paid at all for their labor in government-run facilities.

Unlike most other workers, prisoners cannot simply walk off the job; they are forced to get more creative. Participants in the strike have several options available to them, according to Mother Jones, including commissary boycotts, work stoppages, sit-ins, and hunger strikes, and reports of participation are continually coming in from different facilities. In addition, these workers also have much more to fear in terms of retaliation, and several organizers say that they have already endured punitive measures.

Participating in a prison strike is a matter of life or death, but for prisoners seeking justice, if not freedom, there is really no other option.”

– Kim Kelly, “How the Ongoing Prison Strike is Connected to the Labor Movement.” Teen Vogue, September 4, 2018.

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“The transfer to Attica in 1960 was an explicit attempt at curbing Muslim activism in New York prisons and represented the first of a variety of methods of prison discipline by the state. The practice of transferring prisoners to “break up gangs, separate associates in crime, and prevent disorder” was decades old. Sostre later referred to it as “bus therapy.” It was not unique to New York, however. Chase notes that the Texas Department of Correction distributed Muslims throughout state prisons to limit their influence in any one location. These institutional transfers (referred to as “drafts”) and solitary confinement represented the two largest threats to the stability of Muslim communities in prison. The group was persistently under threat due to this constantly fluctuating base. Short sentences often meant the release of members, and several assistants were appointed for each officer position to assure continuity and sustainability. These multiple appointments were primarily meant to combat the “further reduction of our ranks by the implacable enemy through persecutions (solitary confinement).”

Solitary confinement—sometimes referred to as “the box” or “segregation”—was the prison’s primary tool of security and discipline. The practice of solitary confinement was honed over a century earlier at New York’s Auburn Prison, with a trademark system of strict discipline, labor for prison profit, and solitude. This drew on nineteenth-century penal thought based on the belief that collective work and isolated living would reform prisoners. By the 1960s, at Attica Prison, solitary confinement had shed all pretenses of rehabilitation and was used strictly as a disciplinary measure. The section consisted of fifty individual cells on the third floor of the reception building with each single cell containing only a bed, toilet, wash basin with running water, and a light. When assigned to segregation, prisoners often were required to stay for days or weeks in “keep-lock” or a strip cell before moving to the gallery. “Keep-lock” was a single solitary cell with doors that “do not open up any more.” The strip cell was bare, with only a bucket and blanket. As SaMarion testified, prisoners “do an initial twenty days on a concrete floor with only a pair of winter underwear, pair of socks, no sanitary facilities whatever. The only thing you

use for calls of nature is a bucket, a defecation bucket.” Rations in keep-lock were reduced to half of normal mess-hall food: water and two slices of bread. Magette described keeplock at Clinton Prison as even more medieval. The “Dark Cell” was completely empty, without even a blanket. He was put there naked with a half a cup of water and one slice of bread three times a day. 

But solitary confinement was used by prison officials as more than a physical deterrent. It was coupled with the loss of good time as a way to isolate prisoners while simultaneously extending their sentences. Good time, sometimes referred to as good behavior (and now called “earned time”), was purportedly meant to reward well-behaved prisoners with a shortened sentence through their good conduct. However, like solitary confinement, it was used as a punitive measure. For example, in the first year the men spent at Attica Prison, thirty-three prisoners were sent to solitary confinement and four hundred cases of discipline led to 8,525 total days of good time lost over a nine-month period.

The loss of good time and the use of solitary confinement also punished prisoners in two directions at once. First, prisoners lost an initial amount of time for the disciplinary matter. For instance, SaMarion lost sixty days for joining a hunger strike in protest of the solitary confinement of another Muslim prisoner. Te second loss of time occurred during solitary confinement, as each day in solitary earned three lost days. Finally, regardless of prisoners’ behavior in solitary confinement, good time could not begin to be reaccumulated until a prisoner had been readmitted to the prison’s general population. These good-time practices illustrate the vast discretionary powers wielded by prison officials. As SaMarion bleakly noted at trial, “it is taken at will, you have it one minute,
then you don’t have it.”

A year after the four men had been transferred from Clinton Prison, Attica Prison officials reported that a sit-down strike was being planned in protest of Sostre’s solitary confinement. They responded by putting the prisoners in keep-lock with a loss of ninety days of good time. The group was then divided and transferred to different blocks with the hope that “after a thirty-day cooling-off period and the dispersion of the members of this click[,] activity will abate.” This incident reveals the ongoing struggle between strategies employed by prison officials to suppress Muslim activism and prisoners’ resistance to such practices. The state used transfers and the combination of solitary confinement and goodtime practices to slow the spread of Islam in New York prisons. But prisoners continued to bring their plight before the courts, ending the unspoken “hands-off” policy that had previously sheltered prisons from oversight by the judicial branch.” 

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 83-84

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“Every day at about 5pm, 60-year-old Willard Birts has to find a power outlet. Then he has to wait two hours next to it while the battery on his ankle monitor recharges. If he lets the battery drain, or enters San Mateo county, he risks being sent back to jail while he awaits trial.

Birts pays $30 per day – that’s $840 per month – for the privilege of wearing the bulky device. It sucks up all his income, leaving him homeless and sleeping in his Ford Escape in Oakland.

“It’s like a rope around my neck,” he told the Guardian, a cable snaking across the floor from his ankle to the wall. “I can’t get my feet back on the ground.”

The use of GPS ankle monitors in the American criminal justice system is on the rise – up 140% between 2005 and 2015, says the latest data available. The government uses these devices to track the location of individuals to make sure they are complying with the terms of their release, whether that’s being at home every night after a certain time or avoiding specific places. They appear to offer a tantalising alternative to jail and the chance to be with family on the outside.

It pretends to be an alternative but it’s actually a form of incarceration

But wearers described them as digital shackles that deprive them of their liberties in cruel and unexpected ways.

“It pretends to be an alternative to incarceration but it’s actually a form of incarceration,” said James Kilgore, who runs the Challenging E-Carceration project at the Center for Media Justice.

The rules for electronic monitors differ depending on the county and the offence. They are used both pre-trial and during parole and probation. In some cases the county covers the total cost of the technology – after all, it’s saving money on extra beds in prison – while in others fees for the wearer range anywhere from $10 to $35 per day.

Beyond the financial costs, ankle monitors introduce new ways for the wearer – disproportionately, people from impoverished and socially marginalised communities – to end up back in prison.

“The minute you have a device on you you can go back to prison because your bus is late, or the battery dies or there is a power outage,” Kilgore said.

Private companies will sometimes offer their surveillance technology at no cost to cash-strapped counties, instead pushing the cost on to the wearers.

William Edwards, a 38-year-old former office clerk, was made to pay $25 a day to wear a GPS-tracking ankle monitor between January and April 2017.

He had been driving an acquaintance’s car with the owner in the vehicle when police pulled them over in November 2016. Police found drugs in the owner’s bag and a gun in the glove compartment and arrested both men.

Edwards, who suffers from chronic myeloid leukemia, spent December 2016 in Alameda county jail in California, where his health began to deteriorate. He was released on the condition that he wore a GPS monitor.

“You just think about the opportunity of being home with the people who care about you,” he said. “But it was horrible. A living nightmare.”

Although Edwards had no convictions – and the charges were later dropped – he spent months as a prisoner in his own home, constantly harassed for money by LCA, the company that provided the tracking service. LCA demanded to know what his girlfriend earned so they could base their “means-tested” fees on his household income.

“I felt like I was dealing with a mafia loan shark,” he said.

Edwards is using the legal system to fight back. He is part of a class-action lawsuit against LCA and Alameda county, filed in early August, which accuses the county of allowing a private company to make profit-driven decisions about people’s freedoms, denying them due process. It accuses LCA of extorting fees from people through the threat of incarceration, in violation of federal racketeering laws.

The restriction of liberty is a government function, but when that service is provided by a private company there’s no public oversight of decision-making. In the case of LCA there’s no transparency over how it decides the fees to charge nor the techniques it users to ensure people cough up.

“You would never let a public probation officer threaten someone with jail if they can’t pay a fee,” said Phil Telfeyan, the founding director of Equal Justice Under Law, which is bringing the suit. “We’re not going to let a private company do that either.”

LCA declined to comment.

‘These are not silver bullets’
Despite the surge in use of ankle monitors, there’s not much rigorous research to suggest they are effective at preventing people from absconding or re-offending or at keeping the public safe. Some studies have, though, shown they can be useful for ensuring that sex and drug offenders comply with the terms of their parole, such as home confinement orders.

In many cases they add an administrative burden on probation and parole officers who have to deal with thousands of daily alerts, errors and false positives. This “crying wolf” aspect has caused officers to miss or ignore important alerts, meaning the public is lulled into a false sense of security.

In Colorado, a parolee called Evan Ebel cut off his ankle monitor before murdering a Denver pizza delivery man. He then tracked down Colorado’s prisons chief and shot him dead at his home. Parole officers didn’t realise he had gone awol for several days.

In California, the sex offender Phillip Garrido wore a GPS monitor and was visited at his home by parole agents at least twice a month. It took 18 years for agents to discover that he had been keeping Jaycee Dugard captive in his garden, having kidnapped her as a child. During that time Garrido repeatedly raped Dugard, fathering two children.

– 

Olivia Solon, in Oakland, “‘Digital shackles’: the unexpected cruelty of ankle monitors.” The Guardian, August 28, 2018. 

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On the website for Unicor, the newly renamed Federal Prison Industries — the 84-year-old government-run corporation that utilizes incarcerated people for labor — there’s a section called “Shopping.” There, you can benefit from the fruits of the company’s “Factories With Fences” program, which produces items manufactured by the 182,797 inmates of the nation’s federal prisons: socks, solar panels, goggles, shelving, license plates, office furniture. For $139, you can buy the Chrome Frame Matrix HD Chair for your office or home in ebony, wine, sapphire, or indigo, knowing it was made by prisoners who serve Unicor at dozens of facilitiesfrom Canaan, Pennsylvania, to Atwater, California. If you are looking for labor, prisoners can also be contracted for your company, for services ranging from manufacturing to call center duties. After all, it’s a fantastic deal: The pay rate for inmates ranges from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour. This, partners are told, offers companies “minimized overhead costs to help drive bottom-line improvements. (Seeing this bargain laid out in the crisp, airless language of convenience capitalism both elides the skin-crawling horror of incarceration and somehow underscores it.) Unicor has a capsule history of the federal U.S. prison labor program on its website, which notes that prison work programs originated in the United States with the nation’s founding in the 1700s, and that “despite periods of criticism from detractors, increasingly constrictive procurement laws, misinformation and stigma,” they have “endured.”

The latest “test” to prison labor comes not from outside detractors or procurement laws, but from within the prisons themselves. On August 21, a loosely connected network of incarcerated activists, led by the group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, announced a nationwide prison strike. One of the ten demands released by the protesters is an end to prison slavery – a demand for a full and fair wage just noting it specifies as based on the prevailing wage in their state or territory for any labor performed while incarcerated.

The strike was inspired by a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, on April 15, which left seven inmates — Corey Scott, Eddie Casey Gaskins, Raymond Angelo Scott, Damonte Rivera, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary, and Joshua Jenkins — dead. Prisoners stated that the surge of violence was due to inhumane living conditions, punitive sentences, and the prison warehousing rival gangs in the same units.

The date was set for August 21, the day Nat Turner’s slave revolt began in 1831. It’s meant to last until September 9, the anniversary of the Attica State Peniteniary uprising, a mass prisoner takeover of an upstate New York prison in 1971 that ultimately led to significant reforms in the New York carceral system.

“We are men! We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such,” said Attica inmate Elliot “L.D.” Barkley, in one of the first public statements made by the protesting prisoners in 1971. Barkley, the most visible face of the Attica uprising, was shot in the back and killed when authorities stormed the prison to quell the uprising, leaving thirty prisoners and ten prison guards dead.

The first demand of the 2018 strike echoes Barkley’s words across decades: It is a call for “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.” The rest are concretizations of this demand: that the label of “violent offender” should not result in anyone being barred from rehabilitation programs; that current and former prisoners regain their voting rights; an end to racist over-charging of black and brown people; and an end to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely restricts the ability of prisoners to file federal lawsuits, among others.

The strike is as sprawling and difficult to track as America’s prison state itself, a system that encompasses some 2.3 million people. Its participants are largely anonymized by the activists who publicize their resistance, for fear of retaliation by prison authorities. By its very nature, it vexes publications, as the incarcerated individuals taking part are purposefully tucked out of sight and kept from communicating with the press. But reports have trickled out — particularly in activist-aligned outlets like Democracy Now! and It’s Going Down — of ICE detainees hunger-striking in Washington State; prison work stoppages in South Carolina; boycotts of commissaries in Florida; and more hunger strikers, in Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, and California. Many groups of strikers have released local demands. These reports are smuggled out like the contraband they are, to whichever ears on the outside are willing to receive them.

At New Folsom Prison in California, 26-year-old Heriberto Garcia, in the tenth year of a fifteen-years-to-life sentence for voluntary manslaughter, recorded himself refusing food in his cell and smuggled the video to a revolutionary press in Chicago, which posted the video to Twitter. “I was introduced to the gang life at the age of 11. I ended incarcerated at the age of 16 and have been down ever since,” he wrote to correspondents at True Leap Press last year. “I’m still evolving with the struggle and will continue as long as I’m alive.”

Sympathizers on the outside have staged a variety of actions to show solidarity to incarcerated strikers. In Minneapolis, protesters set off fireworks outside one of the city’s juvenile detention centers, accompanied by music by the anarchist marching band Unlawful Assembly. In Brooklyn, marchers banged drums while Metropolitan Detention Center inmates flashed contraband cellphones through narrow windows; in other states, activists have participated in banner drops, created solidarity graffiti, and clashed with police in marches.

Inside prison walls, incarcerated individuals who engage in active resistance must contend with a system designed to impose punishment and tighten the vice of privation. Activists have reported retaliatory solitary confinement, transfers, and the deprivation of clean clothes and showers for prisoners who have helped to organize hunger strikes and work stoppages. In America’s prisons — the gray archipelago of warehoused men and women tucked in towns, behind great casements of cement — a great shadow economy moves forward. Every consumer annoyance in the outside world — phone-company fees, health insurance premiums — has a parallel that exists in the prison economy, only contractors are free to exploit a captive audience. Prisoners stripped of their liberty have to further contend with exorbitant fees for outside phone calls; charges for medical care; erratic or extortionate prices in prison commissaries; and perhaps most grotesquely, in 43 states, “room and board fees” for incarceration itself.

Imprisoned men and women are the drivers of this multibillion-dollar shadow economy: its laborers and its prey. The work stoppages and hunger strikes are the weapons of those from whom all others have been stripped. The hands that assemble thousands of chairs and tables and solar panels, that sew socks and table linens, that print and bind books for pennies, have no recourse beyond stilling themselves from that work, in the face of fearful punishment. Over the past decades, prisoners have packaged holiday coffees for Starbucks, stitched lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, and answered calls for AT&T, and farmed tilapia for Whole Foods, among dozens of other blue-chip brands. The small luxuries — cheese, chocolate, soap — of the commissary are all they have to boycott, and those who can are doing so. Hunger itself is the last offensive of the incarcerated person, when the only freedom left for a body is the freedom to devour itself. It’s the freedom once expressed by the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who wrote, after her husband was shot and her daughter imprisoned by Stalin:

In this madhouse of the inhuman
I refuse to live. With the wolves of the marketplace
I refuse to be. I refuse to swim
with the sharks, on a current of human spines.

In America, our gulags are run not just to punish, but for private companies’ profit, for the sake of the smooth and ugly Chrome Frame Matrix HD Office Chair and its buyers, made in prison. The act of striking is a rebuke not just of individual prison conditions, but of the grinding, predatory march of the prison economy itself. America is punitive — we have the largest number of incarcerated individuals in the world — and it is harsh to those it punishes. It is not a coincidence that those subject to the abysmal conditions of the carceral state are disproportionately racial minorities. Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites across the country, and at ten times the rate of whites in some states. Modern prison slavery, as criminal-justice reform advocates have pointed out again and again, is an extension of our nation’s original sin, the forced labor of black bodies. The acts of defiance smuggled to our eyes and ears from within the system are necessarily small, necessarily isolated from one another, necessarily borne of the cramped and violent framework in which they are contained. It is on us to amplify them to their appropriate enormity, to let the fire of that fierce, noble hunger rise in us, and turn insatiably to justice.

– Talia Lavin, “#Prisonstrike: A Rebellion Inside America’s Profitable Gulag Archipelago.” Village Voice, August 31, 2018.

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“Months ago, inmates across the U.S. began planning a strike over prison conditions, including low or nonexistent wages. To start getting the word out, they didn’t target big news organizations. Instead, organizers posted about the imminent strikes to their own social-media followers. And they contacted publications with an activist bent, like Shadowproof, a press organization focused on marginalized communities, and the San Francisco Bay View, a black-liberation newspaper.

They worried, based on past experience, that mainstream outlets would emphasize that prisoners’ often anonymous accounts of the strike couldn’t be verified and the fact that the impact of the strike was hard to predict. But more radical publications, they believed, would focus on the strikers’ message, about unjust prison conditions and what should be done about them. That message could be amplified online, and picked up by bigger publications. “We intentionally went from the bottom up,” Brooke Terpstra, an organizer in Oakland with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, a group that has been supporting the strike, told me.

The strike began on August 21 and is set to last through September 9, the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising of 1971. In addition to calling for prisoners to be paid the prevailing wage where they live (under the current regime, they can be paid a couple of dollars an hour, or, in some states, nothing at all), the strikers’ list of 10 demands includes voting rights for “ex-felons” and better funding for rehabilitation services. Thus far, it’s not clear how widespread the protest has been. Organizers report that prisoners are striking in Washington, Georgia, South Carolina, and California, among several other states, where prisoners are refusing to work and eat. That’s a conservative estimate, Terpstra told me, as organizers want to remain cautious in order to maintain credibility. Early on, one organizer suggested in an interview that non-prisoners should demonstrate their solidarity by protesting outside prison gates, which appears to have happened at some facilities. In general, prison officials have largely countered the organizers’ claims, saying they’re not aware of any strikes at their facilities.*

Still, the strikers’ strategy, designed for the current media moment, has proved extraordinarily successful by the measures set by the strikers themselves. Following initial pieces in publications like Shadowproof and the Bay View, mainstream outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR started covering the protest. Social-media posts from the strike organizers and their supporters have gone viral. People are talking about the strike and, by extension, about poor prison conditions across the U.S. and prisoners’ demands to see them changed. In an era in which most people experience public events by reading, hearing, and watching videos about them online, the inability to get an inside look at the current prison protest doesn’t seem to have hampered its reach.

“Just as the men in Attica knew that it was important to reach out to the media when they protested inhumane prison conditions in 1971, so too do the folks inside today,” Heather Ann Thompson, a historian and the author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, told me in an email. “Prisons are allowed to be the terrible places they are because, despite being public institutions that we fund and are run in our name, we are allowed no look at what goes on inside.”

For all the public attention, Terpstra pointed out that mainstream lawmakers and political organizations, including labor unions, haven’t said much. A day after the strike began, Ro Khanna, a Democratic congressman representing Silicon Valley, tweeted his support. “Instead of focusing on rehabilitation, inmates are exploited for cheap labor,” he wrote, noting that prisoners working for a dollar an hour are fighting wildfires in his home state. “That is simply inexcusable.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic congressional candidate from New York, wrote, “I don’t believe slavery should exist anywhere in the United States. Including in our prison system.” But many higher-profile politicians have remained silent.”

– Vauhini Vara, “The Viral Success of a Strike No One Can See.” The Atlantic, August 30, 2018.

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“On Christmas Day 1959 at Clinton Prison in Dannemora, New York, a small group of Muslims had gathered in the recreation yard. As one prisoner remembered, it “was snowing and it was very cold, but as usual, on Friday we would meet to [have] a short prayer regardless of inclement weather or anything else.” The men, numbering from ten to seventy prisoners, had routinely met in this area for almost a year. The group had grown over the years, and their physical space expanded as well, encompassing a fifteen-yard long-by-seventy-yard-wide area paved with stones the men had collected from the yard. A stove was used for cooking and an oven for baking since the mess halls did not offer halal preparations. A blackboard contained illustrations and notes on current events and readings from the Qur’an. As was common, a prison officer monitored the congregation from ten feet away. Joseph X Magette reflected, we “were tolerated. I wouldn’t say we were admitted, but we weren’t denied the right to meet.”

The men gathered at Clinton Prison had arrived from a variety of different backgrounds during the mid-1950s. None were Muslim when sentenced, and unlike members of the Nation of Islam incarcerated in federal prisons during World War II for refusing to register with the selective service alongside six thousand other conscientious objectors, they did not have political backgrounds or political charges that brought them to prison. William X SaMarion was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and raised as Protestant Episcopalian before converting in prison under the teachings of Teddy Anderson, a Muslim associated with the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam (AMI). SaMarion was incarcerated for stealing two pounds of pork chops, a slab of bacon, and 172 packs of cigarettes before later denouncing such items after converting. James X Walker and Magette both made their profession of faith at Clinton Prison in early 1959. Magette had experienced run-ins with the law since his early teens, having fled the scene of a burglary in Harlem before being shot twice by a police officer when he was fifteen. Martin X Sostre had the most political upbringing of the four. He was born to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents in 1923; his father was a Communist merchant seaman, and his mother was a cap maker. They settled in Harlem, where he was influenced by Lewis Michaux’s African National Memorial Bookstore and the stepladder orators on 125th Street. He dropped out of school in the tenth grade and was drafted in 1942. After serving a brief stint in the Korean War, he was arrested in 1952 for heroin possession. When asked if he used the drug, he responded: “I’m too smart for that. Only suckers use that stuff.” 

The men at Clinton Prison were part of a rich Muslim community, consisting, according to Sostre, of thirty believers belonging to “at least four different sects of Islam, both of orthodox and non-orthodox, namely Afamdiya [Ahmadiyya], Moorish, Science [Moorish Science Temple], Muhahhad [most likely Nation of Islam] and non-denomination.” Many of the men associated with the NOI credited their conversion to Anderson, who maintained the only copy of the Qur’an at the prison. “We would have to consult with him and borrow it from him,” Sostre remembered. “He was reluctant to lend it out, naturally, but usually he would loan it out to ones that wanted to peruse it.” Tomas X Bratcher later described a similar community at Auburn Prison: “some were Ahmadiyya, some were Moorish Science Islams, some were Sunni Muslims, some were Wahapi [Wahhabi]… . We had a non-sectarian class. Tat means that we did not lean to the teachings of any so-called sect in Islam.” Although many of the men were introduced to Islam through the AMI and other groups, they formed a small but growing community that gravitated toward the teachings of the NOI.

What separated the Nation of Islam from other Muslim sects also prompted concern from prison officials: its black nationalist politics and critique of global white supremacy. One of the principal activities of the brotherhood in prison was teaching a robust array of classes in the yard. SaMarion, along with Magette and Walker, was in charge of organizing these lessons; the group covered a diverse set of teachings, including business, Islam, Arabic, black history, and law. The “Mufti is known as the one that keeps the peace within the group, discipline,” SaMarion explained.

The treasurer is one that holds the finances, sees that—if we are short of toothpaste or tooth powder, or the brother has no money and is trying to buy some books, that he has the toothpaste or the tooth powder. Te librarian is the one that has the control of all the literature that we were able to fll our lockers with; literature pertaining to our own kind, Black Man’s literature, Black Man’s history, mathematics, Arabic, anything we thought would help us in our educational field… . The secretary is the one that would record the day’s activities, would record the statements of some of the brothers.

The Muslim Brotherhood (as the organization was known inside prisons) even had its own constitution and subscribed to a shared economic system that used tithing and organizational dues for “supplementing the diet of the members and further[ing] the cause of the Brotherhood.”

While the fundamental crux of prisoners’ legal cases against the state appeared to be religious rather than political, it is important to recognize how the Nation of Islam’s religious views were racialized by prison and state officials. For example, New York State prison inspector Richard Woodward described Demir Asan as “a Moslem but it must be assumed that he is of the legitimate religion as he is white and has a name that might be assumed to be from the Far East.” In the SaMarion trial, the prosecuting attorney Richard Griffin attempted to illustrate the way that “Muslim” was used by prison officials to connote blackness, while whiteness was often decoupled from reference to religious beliefs. Prisons even allowed access to The Glorious Koran, translated by the white English convert Marmaduke Pickthall in 1930 but refused copies of the Arabic translation with
English commentary by the Indian-born Maulana Muhammad Ali. In these ways the prison system’s distinction between legitimate (seemingly color-blind) and illegitimate (race-conscious) expressions of Islam underscored how the NOI’s religious beliefs were, in the state’s eyes, inextricable from racial militancy.

Despite prison officials’ efforts to divert Muslim converts toward the Ahmadiyya
Movement in Islam’s ostensibly apolitical teachings, the NOI continued to thrive in New York throughout the late 1950s. Because the Muslim prisoners were not given a formal space to hold services within the prison, informal prayers such as those described at Clinton Prison often took place in the prison yard. Prisoners relied on memorized prayer, passing surahs to one another through oral tradition. These prayers, SaMarion recalled, were “learned by heart, to be able to speak about.” The basis for many of these lessons were editorials by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, published in black newspapers in the late 1950s. “Most of us have never seen the inside of a Temple,” Tomas X Bratcher

wrote to Malcolm X, “we have had to make up our own lesson from articles appearing in the Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch.” While the censorship of black newspapers by prison officials was never as thorough as their ban of Muhammad Speaks beginning in the 1960s, prisons nevertheless monitored and confiscated newspapers carrying editorials by the Nation of Islam; these included the Pittsburgh Courier, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Los Angeles Herald-Dispatch

The stark contrast between the “tolerance” that Magette described at Clinton Prison prior to Christmas Day 1959 and the various punishments levied against Muslim prisoners after it reveals the strategies developed by the state to suppress political agitation and the spread of Islam in New York prisons over the following decade. “All of the sudden the situation changed completely,” he testified. “Thereafter we were in complete segregation” (solitary confinement). The officer monitoring the congregation that day had reported hearing one of the prisoners say that the group was going to take over solitary confinement. He then issued a disciplinary report charging them with hosting an “unauthorized meeting under the guise of an assembly for religious purposes.” The prisoner who made the remark was locked up immediately, and the other men were soon taken to disciplinary court and moved to a minimum-privilege area. Some even remained in solitary confinement until June of the following year. 

The timing of the response by prison officials was not accidental. An entire apparatus of state control emerged in the months following the airing of The Hate That Hate Produced in the summer of 1959. The serial documentary was almost singularly responsible for introducing the Nation of Islam to the broader public, and, as its name implied, it portrayed black nationalism as the by-product of white racism—a specter of “black hate” causing hysteria among white viewers while suturing their guilt by suggesting that racism was not racially distinct. The documentary positioned the NOI as a “hate group” not unlike George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi party and the Ku Klux Klan, often referring to them as “black racists” and “black supremacists.” As the historian Claude Clegg notes, the documentary marked a departure in media coverage of the NOI from the “othering” Orientalist tropes of “voodoo cults” and rumors of human sacrifice toward a discourse of “reverse racism.” In fact, the phrase “black racism” did not exist prior to the documentary, and within one month of its airing the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins had issued a public statement denouncing the group as teaching “black supremacy.”

The Hate That Hate Produced also played a crucial role in pushing the doctoral student C. Eric Lincoln decisively toward publication of The Black Muslims in America. The phrase “Black Muslims” was Lincoln’s creation and was later rejected by the Nation of Islam in part because it severed the NOI from a global Muslim community. Malcolm X recalled the years he spent trying to refute the label: “Every newspaper and magazine writer and microphone I got close to: ‘No! We are black people here in America. Our religion is

Islam. We are properly called ‘Muslims!’” The combination of Mike Wallace’s documentary and Lincoln’s book provided a framework for carceral actors, ranging from police to prison officials, criminologists, and even federal judges, to understand the Nation of Islam as a hate group masquerading under the auspices of religion. The phrase “Black Muslims” became linguistic shorthand for this argument by the state. 

This understanding set the stage for a struggle between Muslim prisoners needing to legitimize their religious beliefs before the courts and prison officials fathering evidence to demonstrate that the group was, in fact, using religion to cover its subversive political aims. Bratcher astutely anticipated the attorney general’s defense in his letter to Malcolm X prior to SaMarion: “I can see that his main argument is going to be in the presenting of certain publications out of books, magazines, and papers about the Muslims… . He is going to try and justify the warden’s violation of our constitutional rights by submitting these published reports to the court saying that we are preaching ‘hate’ and we are a
fanatical group not recognized by the rest of Muslim World.”

Carceral authorities had an insatiable appetite for Lincoln’s book, positioned as an “objective” and nuanced portrait of the organization due to Lincoln’s identity as a black Christian scholar. As the NOI became a greater topic of conversation in race relations and as its presence in prisons grew, the state attempted to develop a consistent logic to justify suppression of Islam among prisoners. Lincoln’s book was widely read and distributed among criminologists and prison officials as the organization gained a stronger footing in America’s prison system. Soon after the book’s release, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) mailed Lincoln a copy of its review in the lapd newsletter with a personal note: “We thought you might like to see our Trainee’s review of your book.” Upon request, Lincoln had a copy of his book delivered to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and ensured his full cooperation. Reuben Horlick of the American Association of Correctional Psychologists invited Lincoln to participate in a panel discussion on the “Black Muslims” at the 1963 convention of the American Correctional Association (ACA). Bernard F. Robinson, a sociologist in the Illinois prison system, wrote Lincoln that not “only did I benefit by your very instructive statements regarding the Black Muslim Movement, but my fellow staff members also considered themselves well edified as a result of your correspondence.” And in May 1961 Richard Woodward reviewed what he called a “fine book by Eric Lincoln” for a new monthly memo on the Nation of Islam that would be distributed throughout the state prison system in New York.

These new highly confidential memos were instituted just after a meeting between Commissioner McGinnis and representatives from the offices of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz in January 1960. McGinnis called the meeting after having been named in a number of writs from Muslims at Clinton Prison. He reported that the Nation of Islam was “spreading like a cancerous growth and was becoming a most serious problem.” Since “it was going to be a continuing thing; and because of the racial feature, [McGinnis] felt that some policy should be formulated.” The Division of State Police then contacted what were known as “subversive units” in major cities across the country to cull information and form a special file on the Nation of Islam. Woodward would serve as a liaison officer between the Department of Correction and the New York State Police. More accurately than he could have known, Malcolm X noted in his autobiography that the NOI’s presence in prisons was “as big a single worry as the American prison system has today.” “I’m sure,” he added, that “they monitored what I wrote to add to the files which every state and federal prison keeps on the conversion of Negro prisoners by the teachings of Mr. Elijah Muhammad.” Indeed, in addition to these monthly memos, Woodward reported acting “in accordance with plans set up by the Commissioner of Correction” to turn over “arrest records and photographs of the following convicts who are confined in State Prisons throughout the State of New York.”

As part of this new programmatic suppression of Islam in state prisons, McGinnis promised those at the January meeting that he would “identify ringleaders and, upon

identifcation, transfer them to other prisons, pointing out to the receiving warden what to expect. In this way, he hoped to curb their activities in the Cult.” In June 1960, with many of the men at Clinton Prison still held in solitary confinement, the warden followed through on the commissioner’s promise, transferring four of the key organizers— Magette, SaMarion, Sostre, and Walker—to Attica Prison. There, they continued to grow through religious conversions and prison transfers until the group included almost sixty members and became one of the most active Muslim communities in American prisons.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 77-83

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Piper Kerman spent several hours in the Old Capitol Inn Thursday first talking about her life and her bestselling memoir about her year in a federal women’s prison, “Orange is the New Black.” Soon after the luncheon, she joined a panel on “Correcting Corrections: A Deep Dive on Prison Education” that was interrupted in the middle by protesters supporting a prison strike in the state’s prisons.

The mood of the panel, moderated by 5th U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James E. Graves, was somber as the participants talked about the link between a lack of education, dropping out of high school, and the likelihood of being incarcerated. Kerman, who attended Smith College in Massachusetts in the 1990s, talked about how her education, something she emphasized cannot be taken away in a strip search, helped her to cope with her sentence. She now teaches at a women’s prison in Ohio.

“It’s not just about the facts—it’s about the habits of mind,” Kerman said, adding that her critical thinking skills and ability to “seek objectivity around information and try to put that in place as opposed to being completely reactive,” helped her cope.

Betty Lou Jones of the Mississippi Parole Board painted a grim picture of just how a lack of education manifests in the courtroom.

“The fact that some inmates when they are sentenced haven’t an idea of the terminology or the language, and have no ability to incorporate that into their thinking, (and) the inability for them to have a conversation because of the lack of language skills is devastating,” Jones said.

‘Get Those People Out of Here’
Near the cusp of the panel’s second hour, a group of protesters barged into the overly air-conditioned room, listing the 10 demands of the Nationwide Prison Strike, running from Aug 21-Sept 9.

The audience stirred, but sat somewhat quietly as a fired-up protester walked toward the stage announcing the exigencies, while others passed out handouts. He got to the ninth demand when Judge Graves interrupted.

“Sir, how long is your list?” Graves asked. “We are not going to listen to the entire list…”

“We’re going to do it all over again,” another protester yelled over Graves.

The first man finished the final demand on the list. Kerman leaned in, saying nothing, but watching on.

“Get those people out of here,” a woman in the audience said.

“Call law enforcement,” another said.

Several people forcibly removed the protesters who did not go quietly. After firing off more statistics about the justice system, and accusing the room of not doing anything to help improve prisons, the group left out the back door of the inn. A hotel manager stood on the back steps and saw that they left the grounds as she called police, describing the group of less than a dozen as both “black and white.”

Some white women from the audience who had left were fearful to walk to their cars, one asking a black man with a severe limp to escort her across the street although her car was in plain sight.

“Oh, you’re good ma’am,” he said to her as he walked to the JATRAN bus stop nearby.

– Ko Bragg, “Protesters Interrupt Piper Kerman’s Talk on Incarceration, Education.” Jackson Free Press, August 24, 2018.

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“…the lines of influence had to run not from the prison to the community but from the community to the prison. Rather than serve as a model to the society, the penitentiary was to model itself on the society; it was not to be an antidote to the external environment, but a faithful replication of it. ‘The conception of the prison as a community’ was the organizing formula. ‘Temporary exile into a temporary society as nearly as possible like normal society on the outside would seem the best solution.’

Such an orientation appeared first in the 1870′s, with the Declaration of Principles of the National Congress. But the Progressives enlarged on these ideas and made them relevant to the operation of all types of prisons. Persuaded of the essential soundness of the American system and committed wholeheartedly to the notion of individualizing criminal justice, they labeled the traditional prisons ‘machine-like,’ and criticized them as failures at rehabilitation. How could it be otherwise when they prescribed the same medicine to all inmates and did not prepare them to reenter society? ‘The old prison system,’ noted on reformer, ‘exists in terms of suppression and isolation of the individual and in a denial of a social existence.’ It was absurd to compel a prisoner to follow ironclad rules in the institution when he should have been helped to adjust to the democratic quality of community life. The prison had to be redesigned to meet individual needs and to facilitate an eventual return to society.

The task may well have appeared formidable. After all, every state prison held anywhere from one thousand to three thousand inmates in an environment that, at best, resembled a factory. But Progressives were certain of their ability to individualize and democratize the prison. They wished to abolish such inherited practices as the lock step and the striped uniforms. They encouraged liberalized correspondence and visitation rules; to maintain contact with the outside society would facilitate the inmate’s later adjustment. Further, they detested the rule of silence; inmates were social creatures and should be so treated. Progressives also looked to introduce amusements into the prison routine. Sports, exercise, movies, bands, and orchestras, all now seemed appropriate. And so did commissaries, where prisoners could purchase the small but significant amenities that would heighten their sense of a more ordinary life.”

– David J. Rothman, Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and Its Alternatives in Progressive America. Revised Edition. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 2002 [1980] pp.118-119

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