Supporting Politicized Prisoners
When I first entered the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and during many of my journeys throughout its Restrictive Housing Units (a.k.a. “hole”) in various maximum security prisons, I had the fortune to directly or indirectly come in contact with a couple of the Black Liberation Army and Black Panther Political Prisoners buried within the Department’s holes in isolation from the rest of the prisoner population. As a juvenile entering Pennsylvania’s state prison system in 1991, I was completely ignorant to the reality of Political Prisoners in the United States, much less in Pennsylvania. Upon coming into contact with them, either directly or indirectly, I quickly learned why the state isolated these men (and women) from the prison’s general population. It wasn’t the men that the prison administrators feared; it was their example on other prisoners and their ability to lead by virtue of that very example. Youth that were in rebellion against everyone and everything would stand at their doors in silence while in the hole, listening to Russell Maroon Shoats or Joseph Jojo Bowen (just to name a few of the many) articulate a language and example of rebellion that we could relate to and that not only caused us to question our own actions, which were self-destructive, but also caused us to question the government’s actions which turned out to be just as unjust and corrupt as we were.
I can’t say that every prisoner that heard them speak came away from the experience as committed revolutionaries or activists, but the majority of us came away from the experience convinced in the illegitimacy of the criminal justice system, the prison system, and the government in general. Their placement in the hole (forever!) served to accomplish two purposes. One, it prevented them from organizing prisoners to confront the abuse and injustice that occurs in prison when prison administrators have unchecked authority and two, it served as an example to other prisoners. If you embraced their actions and politics, you too would be locked away forever in the hole and suffer the same consequences. Also, in a broader sense, their isolation constituted an attempt by the administration to erase legacies of resistance that the government viewed as outside the acceptable means of dissent in the United States (e.g. protest peacefully, write a letter to your congressman/newspaper, but, in general, don’t rock the boat).
The isolation of Political Prisoners and singling them out for exclusive punishment by the prison system has historical parallels in another institution known for its repression and brutality. Albeit an uncomfortable topic to discuss in so-called post-race America, during the era of chattel slavery, on plantations throughout the United States, one of the most vicious practices employed by the slave holders to keep slaves from rebelling was to single out the strongest and most rebellious slave and disfigure him (or her) or outright kill them as a means of instilling fear in the other slaves. By making rebellion, or even the thought of rebellion, a capital consequence within the repression of the plantation and the overall institution of slavery, slave holders were able to reduce the possibility of open rebellion on the plantations and to promote more subservient slaves as examples for other slaves to follow.
This tactic of isolating and destroying strong examples within oppressed populations endures today within the Prison Industrial Complex, the neo-plantations of Imperial America. Stashed away within the nation’s Prison Industrial Complex are over a hundred Political Prisoners from the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s serving draconian sentences imposed for their political opposition to a system that was fundamentally racist, unjust and in need of change (real change, not rhetoric). Victims of a vicious government campaign of repression, spearheaded by an illegal counter intelligence program called COINTELPRO, these prisoners have been imprisoned in many cases for over thirty years and are condemned to die within the country’s prison system.
The majority of these Political Prisoners are seniors with serious health problems and yet the government has not offered them any amnesty or compassionate release. To add insult to injury, the United States doesn’t even acknowledge their existence, insisting according to its official line that there are no Political Prisoners in the United States, only prisoners who have committed crimes. What is it then that the government fears about men and women in their sixties and seventies that prohibits it not only from releasing them after decades in prison but also from recognizing their very existence? It is the example of Political Prisoners that the government fears. To the government, these prisoners represent an era when the legitimacy of the system was successfully challenged and called into question by activists who possessed a credible revolutionary vision, agenda and alternative for the country. By keeping these Political Prisoners isolated for decades, the prison system, like the plantation system of slavery that preceded it, hopes that their isolation will serve as a deterrence to any prisoners who dare to see them as examples they’d want to follow.
Prisoners like myself, and countless others, who came to prison for offenses unrelated to political activity that have been influenced and inspired by the example of Political Prisoners have used their examples to transition ourselves out of the criminal behavior and thought process. Our aim is to transform the “criminality mentality into a revolutionary mentality” as was embodied in the words and example of the late revolutionary prison writer and activist Comrade George Jackson. Dhrouba Wahad, a former Black Panther Political Prisoner, described this transition as “militant redemption” because in transforming themselves, these prisoners (myself included) seek a redemption rooted in the experiences of the militant struggle for freedom, justice and equality within American society. We do not confine ourselves to personal transformation, but also demand a societal transformation. The transition is not without perils and obstacles because in the eyes of the prison system and, in some cases, the government, we represent the very examples of rebellion that the government sought to extinguish by burying Political Prisoners in isolation for decades in the hopes that they would fade away, along with their “un-American” politics and examples. These politics and examples ironically consist of demanding their full rights to equal justice under the law, participatory democracy, and the pursuit of self-determination. By lifting the torch of the Political Prisoners that the system seeks to eliminate, we ourselves become subject to many of the same forms of repression (i.e. isolation, frequent transfers, interference with mail and outside contacts, etc.) that are imposed on Political Prisoners.
It is within this context of rebellion, struggle and repression that a new category of prisoner has emerged, in the wake of Political Prisoners, to plague the Prison Industrial Complex: prisoners who have transitioned from social criminals to social justice activists. This transition has also created a discussion within the larger anti-Prison Industrial Complex communities and within radical circles in general about what level of support or recognition should be extended to Politicized Prisoners, especially given that some of the most scathing critiques against the Prison Industrial Complex, societal injustice, corporate capitalism, etc. are currently emerging from the minds and pens of Politicized Prisoners. Politicized Prisoners were also the organizers of the largest prisoner protests in history during the recent mass hunger strikes against indefinite solitary confinement in California and the mass work stoppage in Georgia against de facto slavery (i.e. requiring prisoners to perform manual labor for free). In Pennsylvania, Politicized Prisoners have contributed valuable insight and support to coalitions of human rights activists, community activists, and organizations like Decarcerate PA and the Human Rights Coalition (both of which advocate against the Prison Industrial Complex and the abuse of prisoners within it).
In all states, Politicized Prisoners are contributing ideas and organizing in alliance with outside activists and organizations confronting the Prison Industrial Complex. These prisoners’ activities certainly count as political and the repression the prison system imposes on them as a result of their activities is also politically motivated. So why the hesitation within activist communities and organizations to recognize that a level of support should be extended to these individuals? The positions against extending full support to Politicized Prisoners usually revolve around either a claim of scarcity of resources (totally legitimate) or an ideological argument that extending full support to Politicized Prisoners endangers the position of Political Prisoners because it lumps them into a shared category with common criminals, thus diminishing their legitimate “political prisoner” standing.
Both of these positions carry merit given that movements supporting Political Prisoners are already overstretched, underfunded, and understaffed. Also, the possibility does exist that Political Prisoners’ unique contributions could be diminished or overshadowed should they be lumped into a single category with Politicized Prisoners. And yet, years ago, when asked what constitutes a political prisoner, Black Panther political prisoner Marshall Eddie Conway responded: “An activist is a person that stands up to injustices… and I have learned over thirty plus years of being in jail that a lot of people become Political Prisoners, become conscious and become aware and act and behave based on that awareness after that have been incarcerated for criminal activity.” Notice that he did not distinguish between Political Prisoners that came to prison for political activity and social prisoners that came to prison for ordinary crimes/offenses.
Within Marshall Eddie Conway’s response is an important point that speaks directly to Politicized Prisoners and that point lies in how he conditions a movement’s recognition of a social prisoner’s transformation into a Political Prisoner on the basis not solely of awareness, but rather on he (or she) acting and behaving in accordance with that awareness. In short, practicing what you preach or walking the walk. Many of us who have politicized ourselves within prison recognize that it is not enough to quote Comrade George Jackson, Malcolm X, etc. without abandoning the gang mentality and predatory character traits that we entered the prison system with. Marshall Eddie Conway’s words therefore remind us that in order to successfully make the transition, we must see ourselves as and become conscious actors in the struggles against the Prison Industrial Complex, as well as other social justice issues within the larger context of revolutionary and progressive movements and struggles.
Within a Prison Industrial Complex that holds over 2 million people imprisoned, it is inevitable that voices of resistance would emerge from this captured population seeking to articulate their struggles, aspirations, and visions for challenging this beast that they’ve been swept up into. “Repression breeds Resistance” goes the old Black Liberation Movement motto. While recognizing ourselves as inheritors of a legacy of resistance exemplified by the Political Prisoners we’ve take as our example, more than anything, Politicized Prisoners seek to be contributors to movements of resistance and social justice and to leave our imprint on the struggle today, as opposed to riding the coattails of those who came before us. By recognizing this, our supporters on the outside acknowledge our humanity, something that the Prison Industrial Complex does everything in its power to crush. On another level, supporting Politicized Prisoners because of the voice and perspective that we bring to the struggle serves to personalize the movement by creating personal spaces between activists and prisoners that, in turn, are capable of extending the movements themselves – further challenging the Prison Industrial Complex beyond the usual motivations for opposing the government’s most repressive apparatus.
It is within this context of struggle that the contributions of Politicized Prisoners should be viewed as one of the mains reasons why outside activists, community advocates and movements for social justice in general should support Politicized Prisoners. By doing so, it places us in contact and correspondence with a social class of people from diverse backgrounds and cultures beyond the repressive and corrosive environment of prison, helping us to shed the negative values, standards, and concepts of gender superiority and homophobic attitudes that dominate the environment of prison and are in opposition to a revolutionary culture and movement. In return, we possess the potential to enhance these movements (as well as the movements supporting Political Prisoners) by bringing our unique perspectives and experiences in confronting the Prison Industrial Complex to the table. These experiences are unique not in the sense that our perspectives or analysis are better than the movement’s, but rather in that for many of us behind the barbed wire fences, we’ve witnessed and experienced the full arsenal of deception and repression that the Prison Industrial Complex has to offer. Politicized Prisoners also have the ability to reach out to segments of the prisoner population (i.e. gang members, prisoner cliques, neighborhoods, etc.) that social justice activists and movements have difficulty reaching. Politicized Prisoners could likewise serve as examples of the power of redemption that could be used as a counterweight to the widespread perception that prisoners are incorrigible and undeserving of reentry into society.
In addition, support of Politicized Prisoners could help many activists move beyond conditioning their support based on a redeemed prisoner’s guilt or innocence. This conditioning is most evident in the movement to support Political Prisoners, especially here in Pennsylvania where activists have flocked to Brother Mumia Abu Jamal’s case as a cause célèbre based upon his innocence while ignoring other legitimate Political Prisoners such as Russell Maroon Shoats, Joseph Joe-Joe Bowens, and Clifford Lumumba Futch, etc. - to name just a few of those who have been imprisoned for 40 years for armed actions against an overtly racist and repressive Philadelphia police and government apparatus. Are they less deserving of support than Mumia because they do not fit nicely into the category of innocence or do not, like others caught up in the system, present themselves as helpless victims? This moral equivalence dilemma, of activists preferring Political Prisoners who are actually innocent of the crimes they are convicted of over Political Prisoners who are uncompromising in their beliefs that their actions were justified, perhaps explains why most prisoners know of Mumia but relate to the Maroons, Joe-Joes and Lumumbas who do not stand as “innocents”, but more as “One of Us.”
This is not to imply that Mumia is not deserving of support or “One of Us”; to the contrary, Mumia is deserving of all the support he has and more. Also, Mumia serves as an inspiration to all prisoners and is the conscience of those in the prison system struggling to be free and to maintain their dignity. Mumia’s book, Live From Death Row, was instrumental to me in finding my voice as a prisoner writer and activist when I first read it while imprisoned at SCI Huntingdon in 2000. I just believe, along with many others, that more support should be extended to other Political Prisoners whose cases and causes are not as well known or publicized. This translates also to Politicized Prisoners who, while perhaps not actually guilty of their crimes, were nevertheless involved in self-destructive behavior in their communities and have found redemption in their embrace of revolutionary politics, values and standards.
At the end of the day, there is an endless catalog of reasons as to why Politicized Prisoners should be supported, a list too extensive to elaborate in this forum; further, if it is necessary to list them all than movement activists should perhaps question themselves as to why this is so. This is not meant to serve as a guilt trip but simply represents a common sense question: If one is an anti-Prison Industrial Complex activist, shouldn’t a relationship exist with those members of the population who you are fighting with? I say “with” and not “for” because Politicized Prisoners do not want to be viewed as helpless victims, but rather view themselves as pieces of a larger movement combating injustice worldwide. In so doing, we seek not to be rescued but rather to help in the rescue of a world on the brink between corporate tyranny and freedom – because when freedom is outlawed, only the outlaws will be free.
Robert Saleem Holbrook #BL5140
SCI Coal Township
1 Kelley Drive
Coal Township, PA 17866