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Posts Tagged ‘prisoner protest’

“Rebellion Hits 4th City Jail – 3 Injured; Hostages Total 24,” New York Sunday News. October 4, 1970.

Their Fate In Prisoner’s Hands.

A Wildfire of Anger from Jail to Jail

Our Reporter Takes a Long Walk in a Dark Place

Get a Behind-Bars Hearing.

[AL: I’m not going to transcribe all of these articles about the prisoner revolt in New York in 1970, but read more with these excerpts (Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.) from Toussaint Losier’s article “Against ‘law and order’ lockup: the 1970 NYC jail rebellions,” Race & Class, 2017, Vol. 59 (1).]  

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The Canadian Carceral State
The Canadian prison system — which includes the country’s immigrant detention regime as well as the federal and various provincial correctional systems — is plainly awful. Canada is one of only a few countries that indefinitely detains immigrants, a practice decried by the UN. While recent anti-ICE protests in the US have drawn attention to the detention of immigrant children, much less has been paid to the fact that Canada also detains migrant children, some of them “unaccompanied.” For years, immigrant detainees in Ontario have drawn attention to the problems of the country’s immigration system and the conditions of their confinement by engaging in intermittent hunger strikes.

Canada’s incarceration rate is around 118 per 100,000 people. While this is significantly lower than that of the United States, it remains higher than most Western European liberal democracies. It’s also notable that this rate is close to that of the United States in the early 1970s, at the height of the prisoners’ rights movement. Although it’s hardly insignificant, the size of a prison system should not be the determining metric of its efficacy or character.

In its latest annual report, the Office of the Correctional Investigator, Canada’s federal prison watchdog, identified a host of issues in the federal system including deficiencies in health care provision, especially in relation to mental health; low pay and high expenses; and lack of effective educational, vocational, and rehabilitative programming, as major issues facing Canadian corrections. While the annual report of the Correctional Investigator is helpful in understanding the nitty-gritty of the problems in the country’s prisons, it rarely spurs a meaningful government response.

Like the US, racial disparity is also evident in Canadian prisons, with indigenous people in particular being hugely overrepresented. Indigenous people make up about 5 percent of the population, but account for around 27 percent of federally incarcerated adults. This trend is even more disturbing in Canada’s women’s prisons, where indigenous women account for 38 percent of the prison population. The youth justice system is even worse — nearly half of incarcerated youth in Canada are indigenous. These rates of incarceration have caused some commentators to assert that Canada’s prisons are its new residential schools. Black Canadians are also vastly overrepresented in Canada’s prisons and jails. Only 3 percent of the general population, Black Canadians account for 10 percent of the federal prison population.

Canada’s prisons shouldn’t be understood simply as instruments of racial dominance — they also warehouse the country’s poor and mentally ill. A 2010 study by the John Howard Society of Toronto of provincial prisoners in the Greater Toronto Area found that one in five were homeless at the time of their incarceration. Half of men entering federal prisons are identified as having “Alcohol or Substance Use Disorders.” and over 40 percent of sentenced prisoners and those remanded into pretrial custody are unemployed at the time of their admission. The 2016 Annual Report of the Correctional Investigator states that “federal prisons now house some of the largest concentrations of people with mental health conditions in the country.”

The consequence of these issues can sometimes be fatal. Several high-profile deaths have triggered inquiries, such as that of Ashley Smith, a young mentally ill woman who hung herself in 2007, in full view of guards who were ordered not to intervene until she lost consciousness. In a 2015 case, Matthew Hines died after a “use of force incident” with guards. Initially, Corrections Canada told Hines’s family that he had died of a seizure after being found “in need of medical attention.” It was later revealed that he had been beaten, restrained, and pepper sprayed by guards. Ten guards then placed him, handcuffed and with his t-shirt over his head, in a decontamination shower where he fell and hit his head. A video taken by prison staff shows Hines, laying on the shower floor pleading to officers that he couldn’t breathe: “Please, please … I’m begging you, I’m begging you.” The incident resulted in charges being laid against two of the officers involved. In April of this year, both of the accused officers entered not-guilty pleas.

Meanwhile, prison walls haven’t been a barrier to Canada’s escalating overdose crisis. Rates of drug-related deaths doubled in federal prisons between 2010–2016. Due to variations in data collection, it is difficult to tally overdose deaths in Provincial jails, but it is likely that the numbers are even higher. In 2017, twenty-seven prisoners died of overdoses in Ontario’s jails alone.

Provincial prisons, like the one in Halifax, are notorious for their poor conditions — something so widely accepted that upon conviction, judges routinely reduce sentences for time-served in pre-trial detention. Staff shortages plague jails, commonly resulting in lockdowns. Solitary confinement — despite its tendency to cause and exacerbate mental illness — is used frequently and with little regulation. The tragic case of Adam Capay, a young First Nations man awaiting trial in the Thunder Bay Jail, caused national controversy in 2016 when it was discovered that he had spent fifty-two months in solitary confinement in a Plexiglas cell, lit twenty-four hours a day.

The United Nations has declared that more than fifteen consecutive days in solitary confinement constitutes torture. The case only came to the attention of the press and Provincial correctional officials after a guard — the president of his union local — requested that Ontario’s chief human-rights commissioner look into Capay’s conditions, set off a review of solitary confinement in Ontario, and prompted federal rule changes.

Burnside has faced many of these issues including overcrowding, fatal overdoses, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, overreliance on solitary confinement, and staff shortages that result in routine lockdowns. These issues are reflected in the demands of the prisoners striking at Burnside.

Resistance and Prisoner Protest in Canada
The striking prisoners in Burnside acknowledge that they are far from the first in the country to protest, stating “we recognize the roots of this struggle in a common history of struggle and liberation.” Indeed, Canadian prisoners have a long history of collective resistance against inhumane conditions and treatment. Sometimes this resistance has taken the form of hostage-takings and large-scale riots — such as the deadly ones at Kingston Penitentiary in 1971, British Columbia Penitentiary in 1975, and Archambault Penitentiary in 1982. However, there is another, less-examined history of nonviolent collective actions by prisoners, including sit-down protests, work stoppages, and hunger strikes. As is made clear in their statement, this is the history in which the prisoners at Burnside are situating themselves.

The history of prisoner work stoppages stretches back to pre-Confederation, and although prisoner protests often failed or resulted in only minor improvements, they sometimes had more significant and longer lasting results. In September 1934, striking prisoners in BC demanded wages for prison work. The strike escalated into a minor riot that saw some property destruction and ended with protest leaders rounded up to face corporal punishment. Despite the successful repression of the protest, the demands for wages were won. At the beginning of January 1935, federal prisoners who worked began receiving a five-cent-per-day stipend.

The 1970s were turbulent times in Canadian prisons. One of the longest prison strikes in Canadian history started on January 14, 1976, when 350 prisoners at the Archambault Institution in Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, Quebec, began a work strike. The prisoners declared their solidarity with striking prisoners at St Vincent de Paul Penitentiary in Laval and demanded better conditions. The Archambault strike lasted 110 days. Although the action was primarily a nonviolent work stoppage, there was considerable violence over the course of the protest. Prisoners were beaten by guards and prisoner-strike breakers, and two guards were jumped by strikers. Most spectacularly, a month after the strike began, two former St Vincent de Paul prisoners blew themselves up in an attempted bombing of a bus station in support of the Archambault strikers. Having been granted several of their demands, including recognition of a prisoners’ committee, the prisoners ended the strike. The next year, the prisoners’ key demand — the right to physical contact with visitors — was made policy by prison officials.

In the fall of 2013, Canada saw a nearly unprecedented strike in the federal system when prisoners stopped working their manufacturing, textile, construction, and service jobs to protest a 30 percent cut to their wages and the elimination of pay incentives offered by CORCAN, the government agency responsible for coordinating and managing prison industries. While unsuccessful at reversing these cuts, the strike demonstrated prisoners’ ability to coordinate protests across the country. Since that time there have been numerous smaller scale protests, hunger strikes, and work stoppages at various federal and provincial institutions across Canada.

Canadian prisoners — like others around the world — have also attempted to organize unions, to advance both their interests in relation to the conditions of their incarceration, and those of their labor within the institution. In 1975, The Prisoners’ Union Committee, an organization of former prisoners and radicals who had cut their teeth in the anti-war and women’s movements, and supported by the American Indian Movement, attempted to represent prisoners who were engaging in escalating work strikes and sit-down protests in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. The effort was unsuccessful, but resulted in the creation of Prisoners’ Justice Day, an annual day of work and hunger strikes initiated in 1975 and held every August 10 since. The date of the first Prisoners’ Justice Day was chosen to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Edward Nolan, a prison organizer who died by suicide in his solitary cell in Millhaven Institution in Bath, Ontario. The event continues to serve as an annual day of remembrance of those who have died in Canada’s prisons.

In 1977, prisoners working in a privately run meatpacking plant operating out of the provincial jail in Guelph, Ontario successfully organized a local of the Canadian Food and Allied Workers Union, along with their non-incarcerated coworkers. In doing so, they became the first group of prisoners to be covered by a legally recognized collective agreement in North America. Their unionization resulted in the equalization of pay between prisoners and non-prisoners, among other benefits.

Most recently, in 2011, the Canadian Prisoners’ Labour Confederation (or “ConFederation”) began organizing around working conditions and pay in the Mountain Institution in Agassiz, British Columbia, with the goal of winning union recognition for federal prisoners. The effort fizzled after successive labor boards refused to adjudicate the case, ruling that federal prisoners fell outside of their jurisdiction and that they were not “employees,” but participants in rehabilitation programs.

– Jordan House, “Why Canadian Prisoners Are Participating in the US Prison Strike.” Jacobin, September 5, 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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“Laval penitentiary has long history of violence,” Montreal Gazette. August 28, 1980. Page 04.

The Laval Institute, where late last night nine prisoners were still holding 11 hostages, has often been the site of prison violence.

The history of the 107-year-old prison, formerly known as St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary, is dotted with riots, hostage-takings, escapes, suicides and murders of both prisoners and guards.

In the last four years alone there have been five hostage-takings, including the current one. The most recent occurred last February when three prisoners, armed with ice picks, held three guards hostage for eight hours.

The hostage-takings have all been resolved without violence, but in other incidents several guards have been attacked by prisoners, and one guard has been killed.

In July, 1978, prison guard Guy Fournier was shot and killed as five inmates made an escape attempt. One prisoner was killed in the incident and the other four were recaptured within weeks. They are currently serving life sentences, with no opportunity for parole before 25 years.

Conditions at the Institution, which has housed approximately 200,000 inmates during the last century, has been called deplorable by prisoners, politicians and prisoners’ rights groups. 

The prison has been condemned by at least three royal commissions of inquiry and one government subcommittee.

A 1977 report by the federal sub-committee that examined Canada’s penitentiary system called the institution uninhabitable and said it should be ‘demolished and rebuilt.’ 

But the report did nothing to lessen the violence there.

In September, 1978, for example, 29-year-old inmate Roland Simard, a known associate of Edgar Roussel, one of the prisoners involved in the current hostage-taking, wounded two guards with a home-made knife.

Simard, who was serving two life terms for murder, got another year for the attacks.

But during his trial several other inmates testified that guards in the solitary confinement unit where Simard was being held harassed him by restricting his food and taunting him for about a month before the incident. 

Over the years, prisoners’ protests of conditions in the jail have ranged from hunger strikes to suicides to riots.

Earlier this summer, seven prisoners from the solitary confinement unit slit their wrists in the prison exercise yard to protest conditions in the unit.

Two were hospitalized and the others were treated in the prison infirmary. Authorities used tear gas as they cleared the exercise yard.

Four years ago almost 300 inmates went on an hour-long spreed, smashing sinks and toilets, setting bedding and mattresses afire and breaking windows. Approximately $500,000 worth of damage was done, but no one was injured.

And in 1962 Laval was the scene of the worst prison riot in Canadian history. Several inmates were killed in a riot that destroyed almost 400 cells and cost more than $3 million in damage.

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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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“Historians have had difficulty reconciling the Nation of Islam’s seemingly incongruous black nationalist ideas of a separate state, flag (with a crescent and star), and ethnoracial identity (“Asiatic”), with its use of courts, litigation, and a rights-based framework to secure civil rights protections and constitutional guarantees. [Historian Dan] Berger argues that the prisoners’ rights movement “was less a claim to expand rights than it was a critique of rights-based frameworks.” But this is truer for a later period in the prisoners’ rights movement, following the important constitutional gains won through Muslim litigation in cases such as Cooper v. Pate. In the early 1960s, Muslim prisoners drew on section 1983 of the 1871 Civil Rights Act, which protected citizens against violations of constitutional rights by persons acting under state authority. They also frequently cited the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Cooper v. Pate, for example, Tomas X Cooper referenced the Illinois Bill of Rights as well as the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Muslim prisoners not only cited constitutional protections but also used direct-action strategies such as sit-ins, hunger strikes, and occupations of solitary confinement, that anticipated the “Jail, no bail” efforts of southern civil rights activists. Rather than see claims to constitutionalism and direct-action protest as irreconcilable with black nationalism, we might consider these as effective, if entangled, strategies to win protections for prisoners under the law while challenging white supremacy and incarceration more broadly. As C. Eric Lincoln noted: “the Muslims appear to believe in the efficacy of the white man’s law without believing in its justice.””

– 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. 75.  

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“Outside: A prison protest; Inside: No fuss says guard,” Montreal Gazette. August 11, 1980. Page 03.

By DAVID JOHNSTON
of The Gazette

About 15 supporters of prison reform demonstrated yesterday outside the maximum-security federal penitentiary in Laval, as did hundreds across Canada on what has become a sort of national prisoner’s day.

Six years ago, a prisoner named Eddy Nalon killed himself in Ontario’s Millhaven penitentiary to protest living conditions inside federal prisons. Every Aug. 10 since, federal prisoners – including the 1,000 in the five prisons which make up the St. Vincent de Paul complex in Laval – have staged hunger and work strikes.

Officially, that is. Prison reform groups maintain that they have, but a prison guard at Laval yesterday told The Gazette it was more a case of business-as-usual on the inside.

‘This isn’t a day that is respected,’ said G. D. Morrette, 24, a guard of three years’ service patrolling outside the penitentiary gates in a truck.

‘Nothing changed today,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s eating.’

Prisoners normally don’t work on Sundays. A Gazette reporter was not allowed inside the prison to verify whether the prisoners were on a hunger strike. 

Members of the Prisoners’ Rights Office (PRO), an arm of the Montreal Civil Liberties Union, made up the majority of the demonstrators yesterday at Laval. A PRO official said a federal prisoner is paid $1 a day for eight hours of work, five days a week – work which can range from cleaning the prison kitchen to repairing faulty electrical systems.

The PRO says prisoners pay about 50 cents for a pack of cigarettes (they aren’t charged federal tax) and pay for their own stamps, paper and pencils. Some buy their own soap because they don’t like to use what is supplied by the prison, according to the PRO members.

Prison officials were not available to verify the claims.

Of the five St. Vincent de Paul prisons, two are maximum security – Laval and the Correctional Development Centre. Two others are medium security – the Federal Training Centre and the Leclerc Institute. The fifth prison, Monte St. Francois Institute, is minimum security.

About 86 of 130 inmates at Montee St. Francois have signed a petition to protest medical facilities.

One of the prisoners who signed it told The Gazette that there isn’t any first-aid equipment at Montee St. Francois. Officials were not available for comment yesterday.

Earlier this month, Maurice Pelletier, a 55-year-old prisoner there, died after he suffered a heart attack in his cell and had to be transported to a hospital outside the prison.

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