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Prisoner Support As Civil Rights Activism (A 3-Part Series/ Part 2)

In Part Two of these interviews, we explore the issues of public misconceptions about prisoners, women prisoner needs, public defenders, and state harassment for prisoner support work. Part Three of this series 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.
Prisoner Support As Civil Rights Activism (A 3-Part Series/ Part 2)
by Kirsten Anderberg ( http://resist.ca/~kirstena/pageabcinterviews.html)

I asked a group of ABCN ( http://www.anarchistblackcross.org) interviewees what is the most common misconception they find people holding about political prisoners, and/or prisoners, in general? Mr. Twitch said that this was a complex issue, as there were factors involved, such as deeply seated, and institutionalized, racism. He said it was impossible to talk about prisoners without also discussing the social factors involved. Anthony said, "people are afraid of prisoners and can't conceive of "prison abolition." They see vicious criminals menacing society. We are not in favor of letting criminals endanger citizens. That's what our government does, but people do not realize that as criminal behavior. Murderers, extortionists, thieves, bullies, liars - these are how business, the police, government and the military operate - with impunity. We already have criminals menacing society at every turn! Incarceration is a crime against humanity in and of itself and does not solve any problem a prisoner may have. Nor does it do society any good. There are alternatives to deal with aberrant behavior that do not "pour gas on the fire" as the punishment industry does."

Tony Young said, "I do not think that most non-anarchist people I know believe that there are political prisoners in the U.S. As for other prisoners, most people seem to have bought the propaganda and believe that only people who deserve to be in prison go there. Some anarchists, on the other hand, romanticize political prisoners and prisoners of war, especially those who were captured and enslaved for participating in armed struggle." Chantel said, "the media has lead people to think that prisoners are horrible people, monsters. People on the outside forget that prisoners are human beings with feeling and emotions, hopes, fears, and ideas. People on the outside forget that prisoners are our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends and neighbors. They forget that nice people they know can and do end up in prison. They forget that they themselves could end up in prison."

I asked the ABC activists how they responded when people said the only people in jail are criminals, so who cares? Mr. Twitch said "The police-state is a reality right now in this country, just judging from the Grand jury activity against political dissent out on the west coast now, it is a clue McCarthyism is in vogue, and I'd worry about goin' down for casually knowing someone being investigated by the government under the ever-expanding language and enforcement of the Patriot Act." It all starts "when someone knocks a little too loud unexpectedly at out doors. When 70% of prisoners are in for non-violent drug offenses, that makes you wonder, where people's priorities on the logic-meter are. I think the word "crime" is criminal, and should be ejected from the dictionary." Chanel said, "I think the most important factor in dealing with comments like that one is reminding people of their basic humanity and the basic humanity of prisoners."

Anthony said, "those people are ignorant and self-centered - just like the government wants people to be. If they are not afraid to learn the truth, we will try to help educate them. Those too close-minded, we don't waste our time with. Testimony from prisoners who are mothers and incarcerated because of economic "crimes" can reach the hearts of most people. This is just a fear-induced argument and appeals to the heartlessness and callousness of people - "sheep" in the government's flock. I suppose the slaughter in Iraq is all about "democracy" too?"

"There are a few things that could be said to counter this. One would be that no judicial/penal system is without fault and that, even in the U.S., innocent people go to prison. There are many stories of people being released from death row, even in the corporate news. So one could ask, if the U.S. system murders innocent people on death row, then how many others who are not guilty of the crime they were convicted of, are there in general population? It could also be pointed out that many people locked up right now are there because of crimes that did not cause physical harm to anybody. Arguing the "drug war" point is very useful because it's one that a lot of people can agree with, because a lot of people use drugs. I also like to say that the "real bad criminals" are those in society who will never be imprisoned in their lifetimes. They are the police, guards, judges and corporate executives. Some people will also agree with this statement because of experiences they've had with police brutality or distrust in corporations. I have found that the productivity of these conversations depends on the economic status of the person being talked to or their personal experiences."

I commented that I have noticed a predominant amount of the people receiving high profile support in jail seem to be men. I asked to what that was attributed? Is it just a tremendously disproportionate amount of men are incarcerated? Or is it mostly men running the prison support networking? I asked for resources that specifically address women prisoners' needs. Mr. Twitch said, "the prison populations are still predominantly male; though don't forget also the underserved "transgendered" peeps either. I think there are a lot of men doing the prison support work, and that is a difficult obstacle to transcend in attracting and holding a more gender-balanced activist makeup in radical political groups; because due in part to the nature of male assertiveness and tendency to dominate group dynamics. I think a lot of men aren't sensitive to this happening within a collective, and it is definitely a part of the problem. The women I notice who are outstanding in their work, are the ones who have found a way perhaps to find a group that respects women to include them equally. There is a WABC ( Women's Anarchist Black Cross ) collective, headed by a former Oregon prisoner "Sixpack," who co-produces a community TV show in Portland, Oregon. The women's populations are beginning to increase dramatically... Lydia Bartolow at the Break The Chains prisoner support collective in Eugene works with the Coffee Creek Correspondence group that supports that Oregon Women's facility. Mostly the non-violent check-writing and drug offenses; sometimes the spousal abuse, and rare cases of self-defense murder."

Anthony responded that "94% of America's prisoners are men. Getting women prisoners to open up and trust prisoner supporters is difficult. Overwhelmingly, these prisoners have been victims of sexual &/or physical abuse. And, they are still preyed upon by guards, the system, sick predators on the "outs" and so forth.
As well, most of these women are mothers of small children. The authorities threaten these women with the loss of custody of their children, if they get seriously political.

There's a group called P.A.C.K. (People Against Court Kidnapping) that deals with this dreadful phenomenon. Contact Kebby Warner #259737, Scott Correctional Facility, 47500 Five Mile Road, Plymouth, MI, 48170 for more information. I'm not denying sexism plays a part in this, too. Our collective (ABC Network) has some tremendous women members in it and I guess they could answer this question better. I have some zines dealing with women prisoners. Here are a couple of other sources: Break the Chains, P.O. Box 12122, Eugene, OR 97440,  Breakthechains02@yahoo.com, Break the Chains Women's committee,  Breakthechains03@yahoo.com and Chicago Books to Women Prisoners c/o Beyond Media Education, 7013 N. Glenwood Avenue, Chicago, IL 60626,  http://chicagobwp.org,  jackslowriver@yahoo.com.

Chantel responded by saying, "The majority of correspondence our group receives is from male prisoners. We are often working so hard to answer the letters we receive that we don't have a lot of time to do outreach to women. The ABCN discussed this problem at our recent network meeting and brainstormed some ways to let female prisoners know about the resources we have available. We are trying to balance outreach to women with not taking on more than we can handle. Lawrence ABC has sent letters and e-mails to a couple of books to prisoner programs that focus on women, as well as other woman focused prisoner supporters. We are trying to find ways to get our literature list to female prisoners in the hope that those prisoners will contact us if we distro something they want to read."

"Part of the reason for the situation is that as far as sheer numbers go, there are more men than women in prison. That means we probably will get more letters from male prisoners. Another part of the problem is that in this society, men typically get more attention than woman. Men are also socialized to be assertive and ask for what they want, where women are socialized to be passive and not ask for things. I think all of these factors play into why most people hear more about male prisoners. I don't know that I would agree that there are "mostly men running the prison support networking." I just don't know enough about the broader picture of prisoner support to know that there are more men involved than women. While there are more men than women in the ABC Network, I would not say that men are running things in our group. The women I know who are involved in the ABC Network certainly make their voices heard."

"As a woman, I think I am keenly aware of the fact that women prisoners do often seem to take a back burner to male prisoners. I try to always address that in my support work and think of ways we can assist female prisoners. However, often I feel like all the prisoner supporters I know are constantly just trying to keep on top of the letters that are coming in and the immediate work that must be done. Often outreach gets put on the bottom of the things-to-do list. Check out the following organizations that focus on female prisoners: Women's Prison Book Project,  http://www.prisonactivist.org/wpbp/." She also recommended the Chicago Books to Women in Prison,  http://www.prisonactivist.org/wpbp/." She also recommended the Chicago Books to Women in Prison,  link to chicagobwp.org.

I asked these activists if they had any opinions about the American public defender system. Mr. Twitch responded, "Wow! Well, it seems they are too much interested in the deal-making, and rarely are concerned with personally helping to get a person off, or putting any research time into a case; it's definitely a risk. It's almost as if they are working with the prosecution sometimes." Anthony said, "The public defender system is a joke. Only they are liable to being sued - not judges or prosecutors, so they walk on eggshells and don't "rock the boat." They're trained lawyers, brainwashed into being indifferent functionaries in this rip-off system - this meat market over human lives. Many aspire to become prosecutors and judges and are part of the "game." They dutifully railroad poor blacks into prison. It's all a sickening scam. The police come in and do their "testilying" and the public defenders go through the formality of "defending" the accused - because they don't have the money to afford a sharpie lawyer. They're just an adornment to make it look "legitimate."" Tony replied, "I am experiencing the system now. I was arrested recently and the guy who was appointed to me is so swamped with work that he could not possibly provide me with adequate counsel. I think this is common."

I asked the ABCN folks if they ever feel/get hassled by police or the state for their work. Anthony said, "We need people willing to put their anarchist principles to task. This is very demanding, nose-to-the-grindstone work that requires long-term dedication. It's extremely rewarding, stressful, emotional and complicated. It can be dangerous, too, as the authorities are intent on infiltrating our groups and disrupting our work. We need people to stop being lazy and to reprint our zines and generate supplies, and help us put pressure to bear where and when it is needed." Tony responded, "I have not personally been hassled by the police for the work I do to support prisoners."

I said it was my belief that the jails are filled with poor people, and that white collar criminals and the serious global corporate criminals walk the streets daily, free, threatening every bit of life on the planet, for their individual profits. I believe it is an inaccurate statement to say only criminals are in jail. No, only poor people are in jail. A PBS special said that 90% of those criminally charged require public defenders. Doesn't that clearly say who is being charged with crimes and who is not? My contention is jail is not about crimes, jail is about class. I asked these activists what they thought about that statement. Mr. Twitch said, "I absolutely agree, that is correct; I'll say no more." Tony's response was, "I think this is a correct statement." Anthony responded, "I agree with it, totally. Prisons are meant to keep the poor in check. With 2.2 millions prisoners, they are overwhelmingly poor and being warehoused for a super-lucrative for-profit punishment industry. Profits are guaranteed as all the money to run these gulags has been extorted from taxpayers. As well, prisons are being "privatized" for profit and companies employ prisoners at sweatshop level wages, which drives wages down for all workers. This is a country of "extreme" capitalism - virulently racist and internationally predatory."

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