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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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“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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“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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“Here is a glimpse of a cell in the new state prison under construction at Attica, N.Y. The prison will be quite modern.”

– from Toronto Star, July 24, 1931. Page 19.

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“Come home, my daughter, come back home

A man has told us about America

That the factories are not safe there

That it’s dangerous to ride the iron-train.

People live there on the fifth floor — what a fright!

And a person’s life is not worth a cent

I can’t stop crying that you have left

Come back, my daughter, come back home!

Moishe Lipes writes his Yente bad news

“Work is cheap and inflation races forth

Poor people will work for any price”

If only I had never heard of America!

He writes that girls labor at the machine

Just like men sewing in the factories

What in tarnation drove you there?

Come back my daughter, because I’m passing away!

Rakhmiel Schmid took a chunk out

Of my life — I could not bear to hear…

“A hundred girls — he writes — turned to ash

In a fire at a sweatshop… ”

“Newark,” the city is called, isn’t that New York? Write!

May God have mercy, Daughter, did I hear it right! —

Take pity on your mother and don’t stay

In that accursed country any longer!

Through the windows of the highest floor

They sprang aflame into the street,

All America — he writes — is outraged,

“People trudge around in despair, sickly from their misery.”

Your portrait that you sent out,

Is now in my hand, you are, knock on wood, a beauty…

In you alone I could delight

My little girl, come home, don’t let me sit and cry!…

Don’t forget to light a candle at the second Seder!

Do you have a memorial light for your father yet…

Ach! We lost him unprepared

You, a good father, I, a loyal man!

Obey me! Come back, my sweet daughter, come!

Leave after the holiday, write immediately that you will,

Come my child mine, come, I wander desperately around —

Write me which day and on what ship.

Be well my daughter in that alien land

From where your old mother wishes you were far —

Come home, my only one, back to me,

And thrill your mother with your honeyed glance.

Your writing Mother, sweet and loving,

your sorrow-filled mother’s letter

Delivered a heavy blow

deep within my broken heart.

Your call dear mother moves me so,

Your grief becomes my wail —

No! Newark is not New York, No!

Don’t listen to that man,

There is no danger going on…

In the factory where I produce

There will never be such an affair,

Because it is “fireproof”…

It is built that way,

That death from fire

will ne’er occur.

It’s made of marble and of steel

The floors are stone

The doors from iron made

A fire will never

Burn it down…

I work, thank God, incessantly.

I’m making myself dresses for Peysekh…

It’s truly hard work,

But what can be done?

You get used to it…

When you don’t have a million

It must be so…

I’m sending you for matzah,

For mead and wine

For a new dress —

Use it with joy!…

I’ll put up a candle

For my father’s peaceful rest,

And cry as I do…

Do not fret, Mother

And have no vexation —

There is a heaven,

There is a God…

Her reply was sent in the morning,

That evening in fright

Her body was identified among the devastation,

A firebrand, fallen, burned

Along with a hundred other “hands”…”

–  Morris Rosenfeld, “Two Letters on the Death of the Immolated Worker Girls.” Forward. March 15, 2011. Originally published in the Forverts, April 2, 1911

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kulampara:

Christopher Street Liberation Day, New York City, June 24, 1978

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The courts occupy a “social” space. They define a system of social relationships within the courts, as well as a system of social relationships linking the courts to the institution as a whole.

First, they are used by a limited number of people for limited amounts of time and for limited kinds of available activities. They also manifest a simple organizational structure. Discussion [of] these limits will give use some idea of the dimensions of the social cubicle that the courts constitute.

Limited Time
The courts are open between 3:10 and 4:30 pm on weekdays; on weekends and holidays, they are open from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. Bad weather or prison wide disciplinary action may also close the courts temporarily. On weekends, these activities may be substituted by movies or religious services.

Limited Users
Not every inmate has a court; indeed, not every inmate may use the recreation yard. Without having made a census of the various functional or activity alternatives to the courts, it is impossible to put precise numbers on the various subpopulations. Nevertheless, let us begin by reviewing who uses the yard. Recreation in the yard is part of the daily routine of Clinton prison.

However, some groups of inmates are not within that routine system, for one reason or another. First are disciplinary cases who are remanded to Unit 14. This number may vary considerably. Idle men (men without jobs) have not been allowed until recently to use the courts or the yard.

I was given to understand that a morning period was being introduced in which these men would have recreation between 10:00 and 11:00 am. At this time, however, the considerable number of nonworking inmates are denied the use of the yard.

Ill and newly-arrived inmates are exercised separately, in the smaller courts between buildings or not exercised. A separate lawn behind the hospital is for men with tuberculosis and other communicable diseases. Men working on gangs, work crews that go outside the wall, do not use the yard when they are so working.

In all, therefore, a sizeable proportion of the inmate population does not use the yard – roughly 1200 men make up the yard population on an average afternoon. In round numbers, that constitutes about two-thirds of the inmate population. Some men simply prefer to stay in their cells during these times.

Access to the yard is not synonymous with access to the courts. Several kinds of activities exist on the yard, and, for the most part, these define relatively permanent groups rather than merely a menu of available diversions.

Involvement in a rigorous sport, for example, is seen as an alternative to membership in the courts rather than an adjunct to it. Once again, it is difficult to estimate the sizes of the various subpopulations of the yard. Nevertheless, the following groups appeared to me to have significant numbers of participants:

  • Body builders. Four platform type spaces, equipped with weight-lifting articles, occupy a space close to the entrance to the yard.
  • Football players. Organized (tackle) football is a big thing at Clinton. An inmate player reported that there are four teams, each numbering about 30 men.
  • Basketball players. The number of basketball (and handball) players is about the same as the football contingency.
  • Horseshoe players. A relatively small group.
  • Television watchers. Several inmates occupy an area near the building where they watch two hooded television sets. Unlike many prisons, Clinton has little access to television. A two-channel radio station is piped into the cellblocks and available to inmates by individual earphones. One channel, I was told, carried sports programs; the other often carried the soundtrack of a television program on the air at that time.
  • Isolates. Many prisoners have neither courts nor a sport group. They may be seen sitting on lawn space around the fringes of the yard or walking in unused areas. Several guards complained of this situation.

Our guess is that no more than half of the yard population belongs to courts. The de facto user population is probably somewhat less than that. Mancusi’s 1957 study of the courts reported that 63% of the inmate population were court members; we guess that that proportion has declined. In any case, the courts are not the quasi – residential bases for either all of the members of the inmate population or for all of the yard users.

The exclusiveness of these activities is not absolute – thus, a football player may “visit” a friend in one of the courts (although the reverse is more difficult, I imagine). Likewise, we should be cognizant that the courts are in some sense a select population, arrived at by something of a screening process.

There are several ways for an inmate or a group of inmates to get a court if one is desired. Perhaps the most common one is through friendship with an inmate who is already on a court.

An inmate may befriend another or re-establish a friendship tie that existed on the outside (this may not necessarily be a friendship tie: inmates may look out for men with similar interests, similar group associations, similar political or religious beliefs, similar educations, kinship relations or the kin of kinship groups, etc.)

In any case, the “applicant” is suggested to the inmate “manager” of the court, who has the final say on the making of invitations to join the court. In practice, this “say” is not often a formal matter – it is informally given or withheld within the framework of day-to-day interaction in the court. A potential member may be scrutinized by the manager and other members of the court.

Rodehaver, Mancusi, and Smith (1964), in their article on the courts, reported that homosexuals, sex offenders, belligerent men, and shirkers were avoided. Preference goes to individuals who either fit in with the dominant activities of a particular court or whose connections on the inside or on the outside enhance the welfare of the fellow court members.

Thus men who have access to valued information, goods, or services are desirable members. A man must also be thought to be willing to share the court’s work–for example, stand in line when the wood-fuel is disbursed.

New memberships (and ejections from a court) must be approved by the yard sergeant. In most cases, this is a formality – although, in some cases, the new member is disallowed by the sergeant.

A second avenue to court membership is somewhat more formal. Rather than approaching a particular court, an inmate or several inmates put their names on a waiting list.

If a court becomes available by dint of the departure of all of its members, or disciplinary action against them or some other reason, the new list of names is given the court.

I am not entirely clear on the capacity of sergeants to suggest that certain courts take on certain members, but it seems that this is not done. The yard sergeant has only veto power.

There is, however, a norm regarding the toleration of depopulating or depopulated courts. Managers whose courts have not maintained a membership size that is up to capacity may often be warned by the sergeant that they should expand their membership or risk having the court handed over to a new group.

In this way, the ability of the courts to absorb a larger proportion of those desiring courts is enhanced.

Courts Organisation
Every court has a manager and an assistant manager. Officially, the manager is the “owner” of the court, and he is responsible for infractions that may occur on it. In practice, it seems that this dominance is mellowed by the informal group processes of the members. Nevertheless, the manager has disproportionate power with regard to accepting new members, evicting current members, and shaping the activities of the court. Seniority is a major factor in becoming a manager.

Courts are “inherited” in that they pass from one manager to the next on the basis of the pecking order of the court. Unless other factors obtrude in the process of leadership change (say, the heir does not want to be a manager, or another member asserts or suggests more leadership capacity or more capacity to improve the court welfare) the “succession” is left to the rank on a list of names that is kept by the yard sergeant.

Thus, in terms of succession, each member has a defined status, Names are added to the bottom of the list when they join a court; members move up as the old guard is released, transferred, dies off, or is otherwise removed, This system of succession has several rather obvious functions.

  • In the first place, the establishment of a formal succession order gives a measure of official sanction to the disproportionate allocation of power to the inmates. Thus, conflicts may be resolved more easily than in a system in which no internal structure exists.
  • Secondly, the rules of succession serve to avoid conflicts over leadership change.
  • Thirdly, seniority tends to stabilize and make continuous the institution – leadership being in the hands of inmates who are in most cases more, rather than less, socialized to the prison. Continuous membership in the same court – the prerequisite for managership – virtually implies a relatively clean record over some period of time.

There are other important functions of this system – for example, its capacity to diffuse the leadership of the inmate population – but these will be considered in our review of the functional position of the courts later in this report.

This bare structure serves to establish something of a “household” among the members of a court. Within this household are certain activities. Cooking was inevitably one of the first mentioned. Anyone who has spent a considerable time alone knows that cooking and eating are often casualties of solitude. Food preparation and eating become fueling rather than a meaningful and pleasant activity. Meal-taking and the preparation of food are quintessentially social activities.

In some cases, the preparation of food in the courts may become quite elaborate. But even when the fare is simple, the meals set in motion some of the social amenities. Eating alone and eating in huge mess halls are similar to the extent they bleach out the meanings of meal occasions.

It should also be noted that institutional (in the everyday sense of that term) food is often somewhat foreign and unpalatable to some groups of inmates. Thus, for example, inmates of Puerto Rican identification are able to supplement their diets with their own food.

Court-Induced Strain
Talking, chessplaying, cardplaying, and all of the activities that might go along with a more normally situated patio are also in evidence. Several kinds of activities are explicitly proscribed.

These are posted on a list of rules in the guard station and are brought to the attention of anyone in the process of becoming a court member. These rules can be used as something of a cipher for the problems brought about by the court institution.

No system of explicit rules, in fact, objectively or exhaustively describes the operating procedures of a social institution.

Thus, the rules that become explicit are more often codes for the points at which the “understandings” that comprise a social order have in the past been differentially interpreted or have caused friction between individuals or groups.

The nine posted rules are suggestive of the institutional problems the courts pose or have posed in the past.

Rule 1: Court numbers must be visible. The primacy of custody, and the necessity of the staff – as in all emergency-type organizations – to be “prepared for the worst” have several implications for the courts. Flat space, rectilinearity, and unambiguous locational coordinates make prison environments consonant with the needs for speedy, unambiguous, and highly rationalized action. This spatial factor is discussed in more length below. For the moment it is sufficient to observe that a numbering system for the courts became the halfway position between no “addresses” and a bulldozed plane of level, square plots.

Rule 2: Courts [are] not to be traded or sold. This rule is an argument a forteriori for the value of the courts to some inmates. Selling and trading, however, also suggest several potentials for the disruption of the court system. One need merely think of a social institution called escrow to be reminded that the transfer of territory from one person to another involves many points for disagreement and dispute. That the courts have value virtually entails that their ownership, transfer, and control require structuring.

There are probably some other important reasons for the sale stricture. In the first place, the inmate’s departure from the statuses, powers, and influences held on the outside is a characteristic common to all total institutions. The allowance of a free market on courts would inevitably allow the control of these courts to gravitate toward the inmates with “external” power (derived from their “outside” statuses and resources) rather than from “internal” power achieved through seniority.

This allowance would also run counter to the value placed on equal treatment of prisoners. Along with the abridgement of these values, moreover, come some rather practical considerations. If the rewards used by the institution to manipulate the inmate population were allowed to be purchased in “foreign” currency, the social control system would be threatened. “The rent for the courts,” wrote Rodehaver et al, “is good behavior." 

Rule 3: Court managers cannot be changed without approval.Managership is the point of contact between the courts and the official authority. Thus, in some cases – whether by election, collective decision, or the chance arrival of a particular individual to the top of a seniority list – some inmates are not acceptable to the staff as their intermediary.

This rule, then, is an insurance policy of sorts on the structure of succession. One gets the impression that it was rarely invoked since the inmates who pose sufficient problems to be barred from manager posts are the same as those who would lose seniority through sentences to the disciplinary unit. Further, known "troublemakers” are often shunned from the courts – the existing manager may not want to risk responsibility for his acts and ill-fortunes

Rule 4: Adding or removal of men must be approved. Same as above. One point that may be raised here, however, relates to the age old problem of monitoring – allegedly for the rehabilitative benefit of the inmate – his prison associations. The interviews revealed that an inmate will sometimes be barred from a court if it is known that the court to which he is applying includes his pre-prison criminal confederates… . Like many prison rules – and public laws for that matter – this rule lies ready and waiting should a perceived need arise.

A second implication of this rule pertains to the responsibilities of the yard staff. In part a central necessity of the staff is the knowledge of how many prisoners are within one’s immediate responsibility, if they are all there, and who they are. The court system poses a difficulty for this task, as does the yard. Thus, the court’s register becomes an element in this objective. Knowing how many men are assigned to the courts, and where they are may be part of the guard’s official role. In fact, a record of each inmate’s history on the courts is kept at the tower of the yard sergeant… .

Rule 5: Furniture arrangement must not block [the] view [from guard posts].

The interview suggested several functional interpretations for this rule. Hidden homosexual acts, production of alcoholic beverages, gambling, and other activities contrary to prison regulations might be concealed by the arrangement of the furniture. (Tall plants, incidentally, are also proscribed.)

More mundane problems, additionally, spring from the fact that the creation of household-like groups brings in its wake certain conflicts between the customary activities of households and the uniform code of prison regulations.

This is a wellspring of what might be called “technical deviance” that has required certain special compromises to be incorporated in the silent pacts between staff and inmates of Clinton prison.

Rule 6: Illegal acts or goods on [the] courts will forfeit [the] courts. Catch 22. The key to this rule, I think, is that it gives official sanction for the staff prerogative to expropriate the real estate. Equally important is the sanctioning of the exercise of this prerogative on the group as a whole, rather than merely on individuals’ rights to a court. The strategy of group or unit discipline is too well known to require further discussion.

Rule 7: Absolutely no legal materials are permitted. The reason given for this rule provides a fine example of the conflict.that arises out of the separate realities of staff and inmates. The rule, first of all, means that the bringing to the courts (i. e. , the private plots of land) of legal documents pertaining to an inmate’s case is proscribed. Until recently, New York law prohibited prisoners from helping one another on their legal appeals; work on one’s own case was, however, allowed. The change in the State law may prompt a change in Rule 7, although some officers indicated that consultation may be permitted elsewhere in the prison, now, but not on the courts… . The rationale given to me for this rule, however, points up a structural conflict between the interests of the staff and the inmates… . The effective manipulation of inmates depends upon the ability of the staff to retain a monopoly on the reward system, such as it is… .

Legal expertise is highly prized by many inmates. Thus, inmates with it may obtain indigenous rewards by their services. Such rewards are gotten independently of the social control interests of the staff, and therefore are perceived by them to weaken their hegemony … a threat to the prison’s equilibrium.

Rule 8: Each court must have an assistant manager. In the course of my visit nothing was mentioned of the role of the assistant manager. In all probability this rule merely served to clarify the succession and the hierarchy of the courts so that, in the absence of the manager, the responsibility for the court could be unambiguously attached to someone. I have no information on this point, however, and there may well have been more important reasons.

Rule 9: Transfers from court to court requires [sic] permission.
Here, again, the inmate-finding, inmate-intelligence, inmate-associations functions of the courts are underwritten, possibly having closed up a perceived loophole in Rule 4, regarding the adding and dropping of men from the courts.

It is instructive to compare the staff rules to the inmate norms regarding the exclusion of a court member. In his 1957 study of the courts, Mancusi asked a sample of court members: “For what reasons might you drop or put off one of your court members?” Stealing on the court, homosexual acts, fighting and frequent arguments were the most frequent responses.

The disparity between staff and inmate rules suggests that, while inmate norms serve to protect the court from internal strife and the threat of staff intervention and expropriation, staff rules may largely be accounted for in terms of maximizing social control through visual observation, the monitoring of membership, the legitimation of the inmate court hierarchy, the explication of eminent domain, and the monopolization of rewards.

In short. the staff rules proscribe behaviors that would diminish their control and the inmate norms proscribe behaviors that would diminish their autonomy. This split in the transactional groundrules of the courts is important, and it will turn up later in our discussion of the courts functions and meanings.

It is clear that the courts pose certain problems for the staff. We have suggested that in part these problems spring from the location-finding difficulties of irregular shape, the high potential for concealment of illegal acts or contraband, problem of “lost” inmates and the monitoring of inmate sociations, the creation of “valuable” property and the attendant threat of internecine conflicts.

To be sure, there are payoffs for the staff from the courts. But the question that arises in our minds is how the courts came into existence and how they grew to the status of a legitimate institution. Some commentators have described the appearance of the courts as a “hobo” encampment; inmates may themselves refer to the courts as “the Jungle.” The appearance alone, in other words, would tend to suggest that special factors and a gradual evolution may have been at work.

Few administrators would create such a space by fiat or on the spur of the moment; additionally, there are several important prerequisites, which probably became available over time. Thus, we turn next to what can be gleaned about the history of the courts. The doors of inmate spaces in total institutions inevitably lock from the outside rather from the inside, if they lock at all. From the perspective of the staff, in other words, all inmate spaces are public. Thus, the inception and evolution of the courts is an important element in the analysis of the “deviant case” of private property in a total institution.”

– Ron Roizen, “The Courts of Clinton Prison.” Clinton Correctional Facility report, 1972. Photographs are

Joshua Freiwald, 1972, from Jen Kirby, “The Prison in Dannemora Has a Bizarre, Fascinating History.New York Mag, June 10, 2015.

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