Prisoner Support As Civil Rights Activism ( Part 1)
Prisoner Support may not be something you think about very often, but if you ended up being jailed due to a mistake or unfair sentencing due to politics, Prisoner Support organizations could literally be your only lifeline. Part of the frightening aspect of prison is the isolation and prisoner support groups are often a prisoner's only link to the outside. As human rights activists, the prison situation is pertinent on many levels...
Prisoner Support As Civil Rights Activism (Part 1 of a 3 Part Series)
by Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)
Prisoner Support may not be something you think about very often, but if you ended up being jailed due to a mistake or unfair sentencing due to politics, such as racism or classism, Prisoner Support organizations could literally be your only lifeline. Part of the frightening aspect of prison is the isolation. As human rights activists, the prison situation is pertinent on many levels. First of all, a very disproportionate amount of black males are in jail, which is a red flag for racism. Secondly, a disproportionate amount of those charged with crimes require a public defender (a PBS special I saw said 90% of those charged with crimes nationally in the U.S. need public defenders, which also shows who they are charging with crimes). This is a class issue. Thirdly, the human rights conditions within prisons are atrocious and violate laws. Enforcement of the human rights laws within jails is the issue there, and it is prison solidarity groups that are pushing for human rights enforcement within the jails from outside. So I just outlined three reasons to get involved with prisoner support: Racism, Classism, and Human Rights Enforcement.
As a young child, the Pete Seeger "Live at Carnegie Hall" album was played often in our house. During the "We Shall Overcome" portion, two things struck me as a young child. One was he had the audience sing "We are not afraid." And then he said, "We sing "We are not afraid" even though we are afraid." That statement has stuck with me my whole life. We make sure to sing "We are not afraid" and in unison, *even though we are afraid.* Another thing he said during that song on that album was, in essence, if you are feeling like your life is meaningless, you need to go down to places where people are dealing with serious issues of racism, classism, civil rights issues, and he promised you that if you went down to Mississippi and Alabama and got involved in the civil rights struggle, putting your body on the line, that the meaninglessness in your life would go away. That also struck a chord in me, even as a very small child. I saw that my own mother was most alive when she got very active in political struggle, whether that was in feminism , anti-classism, or anti-racism protest.
Right now, one place you can guarantee your work will be appreciated is in the area of prisoner support. If you are feeling your life is meaningless, if you feel you just work, buy, consume and get ready to die, you can change that today, by getting involved with prisoner support. As I said, people are jailed for their race and for their social class in America, and these people need the support of people outside jails.
The Anarchist Black Cross/ABC ( http://www.anarchistblackcross.org) is a prominent prisoner support organization. I interviewed 4 members of the ABC about issues ranging from public defenders to women prisoner needs to political prisoners we should know about now. The answers the ABC Network (ABCN) provided were so informative that I felt I needed to publish all of their answers, so this article is broken up into a three part series. Part One explores how ABCN volunteers first got involved in prisoner support, what the ABCN is, how human rights and prisoner rights activism are related and what has touched these activists most about their work with prisoner support. Part Two explores the issues of public misconceptions about prisoners, women prisoner needs, public defenders, and state harassment for prisoner support work. Part Three gives current information about how to get involved with prisoner support now, including the names of individual prisoners, different ways to get involved, and prisoner support resources to further your education on this subject.
I interviewed Mr. Twitch (ABC Legal Services), Anthony Rayson (ABC Network), and Tony Young and Chantel G., both from the Lawrence ABC in Kansas. I asked what the ABC prisoner support network is, as it appears to be a network of smaller ABC groups. Mr. Twitch said "the sizes and continuity of the groups vary like the breeze at times unfortunately. I am an entity of one here at the ABC Legal Services myself, and truly autonomous, as a current ally-member to the ABCN. Mainly, we try to focus on Anarchist Political Prisoner support, and the eventual abolition of prisons as they are, period. We are also involved in Prisoner Book programs, and attempt to educate other prisoners to politicize themselves through zine distribution and correspondence. I supervise a small prisoner legal network mostly within the state of Texas."
Anthony responded that "the ABC Network is a collection of autonomous ABC chapters focusing on open-ended prisoner support. We want to learn from and help educate prisoners (mutual aid) in order to strengthen awareness and resistance to the prison system. We want to support resisters, be they anarchist, New Afrikan or whatever. We want to make connections with the most oppressed sectors by working with those held captive by the state. Our goal is to provide the most insightful material, inside and out, often written by prisoners, to help swell the ranks of those in resistance to the state, to work towards the abolition of prisons, capitalism, governments and other oppressive systems. Also, we want to make the human connections with prisoners, educate those on the "outs" about the evils of this slave-based system of repression. As serious anarchists, we think it is tactically necessary and important to focus on the massive incarceration industry in the U.S. A main tenet of anarchism is prison abolition."
The ABCN Mission Statement of the U. S. says, "ABCN is a network of anarchist prison abolitionists... Through solidarity work with other groups and the ongoing work to help serve the needs of our locked up brothers and sisters, we seek to overcome fear, ignorance, and apathy." Chantel said "each ABC group affiliated with the Network makes its own decisions about what projects to undertake and what prisoners to form relationships with. There is no ABCN central office telling groups what to do."
I asked these activists how they got interested in prisoner support. Mr. Twitch came into ABC through his affiliation with Pirate Radio in Austin, TX. in 1999. He became an official member of his local ABC collective in Spring 2002. Anthony Rayson got involved with prisoner support after he began the South Chicago ABC Zine Distro in 1998. He said it was the responses from the prisoners that were most compelling. He said he was mentored into prisoner support work by Sean Lambert, a bi-sexual prison abolition anarchist out of New York and continues to work in prison support as he sees it as "ground zero" in "the struggle at home." Tony Young's first experience with prisoner support was in 2002, when he wrote a political prisoner in Nebraska named Mondo We Langa. Later, he moved to Kansas and got involved with anarchist-activists and "began thinking about the importance of prisons in sustaining the State and capitalism. After several months of varied involvement, I decided that my activism would be aimed at destroying the belief that locking people in cages makes us safe and I would do my part to tear down the prison-industrial-complex."
Chantel said she heard an anarchist who had spent several years in prison speak at the 2002 North American Anarchist Gathering. She said she had not really thought much about prison issues before that, and the speech really moved her. Chantel said the ex-prisoner spoke of the "way white supremacist groups recruited men in prison by having people on the outside correspond with them and send birthday cards. I was struck by the fact that anarchists need to be doing the same thing, not just as a way to recruit for our "cause," but because we really care about people and want to reach out to them." She ended up being one of the founding members of the Lawrence ABC in the Fall of 2002.
I asked how human rights activism and prisoner rights activism are related. Mr. Twitch said "As you may or may not know, the state of Texas, being one of the largest prison populations in the world, equally alongside the state of California, has perhaps the most egregious and human rights abusing forms of isolation imprisonment formats in what they call here, "Administrative Segregation"; this is a 23-hours a day total maximum security prison-within-a-prison solitary confinement. Much of what has been publicized in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, goes on daily in our countries maximum security facilities. Just the dietary needs are at times barely admissible as humane treatment in the name of budgetary austerity; illness, contagious disease, and sanitary conditions are rampant problems inside."
Anthony responded that "Prisoners are human beings, ensnared by a criminal government. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution specifically designates prisoners as slaves. Slavery - economic, prison, sexual - is the bedrock of capitalism in America. Prisoner "rights" (and lack thereof) goes to the core of the modus operandi of this government. The most important resisters to the government are often prisoners. Laws written by predators are not legitimate. Prisons are how America keeps poor people down. The world gets bombs and we get bars." Tony responded, "One cannot talk of defending human rights while supporting a system that depends on psychological, sexual, and physical torture." And Chantel said, "Prisoners are human beings. As human beings, they are entitled to the same basic rights as other people. Being in prison is punishment enough; having their human rights stripped from them is a double punishment."
I asked what had touched the ABC activists most deeply about their ABC work? Mr. Twitch said, "The strength of some of these people to keep going and resist the oppression and the sheer constant feeling of despair that pervades prison life; the relentless ingraining of the institutionalized mindset; I don't know how I would hold up emotionally knowing that much of my intense love for freedom was taken away. I have a lot of respect for that in some folks I represent." Anthony said, "I guess I would say the most heartfelt benefits from this work have been the outpouring of guidance and affection I have received - especially in the aftermath of my father's death in January of '01. The courage in the face of brutal repression they are forced to endure is very inspiring, too. When a prisoner we have supported is finally freed, it is a very exhilarating feeling! And, the electrifying brilliance of their artwork and political analyses is awesome, as is the stellar quality of the writing. To me, it is the most remarkable and vibrant and useful information being created dealing with present-day conditions. Plus, the realness, genuine warmth and honesty of our relationships, and the humor and soul-searing truthfulness in the midst of such Dante-esque living conditions, provides motivation for strong resolve. Every day, many new situations arise."
Tony said, "I have been writing to two men on death row regularly for over a year now. It can be difficult at times. It's hard knowing that two people I consider to be my friends may be executed for acts of harm that they quite possibly did not even commit." Chantel commented, "I am touched whenever a prisoner sends us a couple of stamps or a few dollars to help us with our literature distribution. I know these people don't have many resources, so I am deeply appreciative when they share what they have so that we can continue to get reading material to other prisoners. I was also touched when I helped organize a prisoner art show last summer. There are many talented people in prison, and I was grateful for the folks who were willing to trust us with their work."
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