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Posts Tagged ‘racism in america’

“You see, Portugal is an underdeveloped country-the most backward in Western Europe. It is a country that doesn’t even produce toy planes-this is not a joke, it’s true. Portugal would never be able to launch three colonial wars in Africa without the help of NATO, the weapons of NATO, the planes of NATO, the bombs of NATO-it would be impossible for them. This is not a matter for discussion. The Americans know it, the British know it, the French know it very well, the West Germans also know it, and the Portuguese also know it very well.

We cannot talk of American participation in NATO, because NATO is the creation of the United States. Once I came here to the U.S. and I was invited to lunch by the representative of the U.S. on the United Nations’ Fourth Committee. He was also the deputy chief of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. I told him we are fighting against Portuguese colonialism, and not asking for the destruction of NATO. We don’t think it is necessary to destroy NATO in order to free our country. But why is the U.S. opposing this? He told me that he did not agree with this policy [U.S. support of NATO] but that there is a problem of world security and in the opinion of his government it is necessary to give aid to Portugal in exchange for use of Azores as a military base. Acceptance of Portuguese policy is necessary for America’s global strategy, he explained.

I think he was telling me the truth, but only part of the truth because the U.S. also supports Portugal in order to continue the domination of Africa, if not over other parts of the world. I must clarify that this man left his position in the U.N. and during his debate in the U.S. Congress took a clear position favorable to ours and asked his government many times to stop his aid to Portugal, but the government didn’t accept.

What is the justification for all this? There is no justification-no justification at all. It is U.S. imperialism. Portugal is an appendage if imperialism, a rotten appendage of imperialism. You know that Portugal is a semi-colony itself. Since 1775 Portugal has been a semi-colony of Britain. This is the only reason that Portugal was able to preserve the colonies during the partition of Africa. How could this poor miserable country preserve the colonies in the face of the ambitions and jealousies of Germany, France, England, Belgium, and the emerging American imperialism? It was because England adopted a tactic. It said-Portugal is my colony, if it preserves colonies they are also my colonies-and England defended the interests of Portugal with force. But now it is not the same. Angola is not really a Portuguese colony. Mozambique is not really a Portuguese colony. You can see the statistics. More than 60 percent of the principle exports of Angola are not for Portugal. Approximately the same percentage of investments in Angola and Mozambique are not Portuguese, and each day this is increasing. Guinea and Cape Verde are very poor and do not have very good climates. They are the only Portuguese colonies. Portugal is, principally for Angola and Mozambique, the policeman and receiver of taxes. But they will not tell you this.”

– Amílcar Cabral, “Connecting the Struggles: an informal talk with Black Americans,” Return to the Source: Selected speeches of Amílcar Cabral. African Information Service, 1974. pp. 82-83.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“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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  1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
  2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any
    place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the
    prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
  3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing
    imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations
    of their rights.
  4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be
    rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation
    and parole. No human
    shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
  5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and
    parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer
    be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a
    particular problem in southern states.
  6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
  7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation
    programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent
    offender.
  8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
  9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
  10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences,
    pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted.
    Representation is demanded. All voices count.

– Demands of Prison Strike 2018, from the
Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee

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