Organizing the Prisons in the 1960s and 1970s: Part Two, Hearing Prisoners’ Voices

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Cover of a 1977 issue of The Angolite, published by prisoners of Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Cover of a 1977 issue of The Angolite, published by prisoners of Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Roundtable discussion with Dan Berger, Alan Eladio Gómez, Garrett Felber, Toussaint Losier, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, Tony Platt, and Heather Ann Thompson. Process guest editor: Jessie Kindig.

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison rebellion in 1971, Process speaks with seven scholars of the carceral state about prisoners’ organizing in the 1960s and 1970s and movements protesting mass incarceration today. This is the second of a three-part series, guest edited for Process by Jessie Kindig. Check out parts one and three.

Part II: Hearing Prisoners’ Voices

PROCESS: Recent scholarship on the carceral state, in the JAH and elsewhere, has focused on state formation and systems of policing and imprisonment. How does a focus on prisoners’ self-organizing and prisoners’ voices add to or change this conversation?

Tony Platt: There’s always been activism inside prisons and prisoners raising their voices. We mostly don’t listen. When we do listen, their voices not only add a new layer of information and experience to our knowledge, and humanize people who have been demonized, but also change the way that we understand the carceral state. Think of the impact on public consciousness of the prison-related writings of Eugene Debs, Kate Richards O’Hare, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Angela Davis, Piri Thomas, and many more.

Toussaint Losier: Scholarship that pays attention to prisoners’ agency, their self-activity and organizing, should remind us that systems of control, however much they aspire to being total, rely on a fundamental negotiation between the seemingly all powerful and the powerless. To some degree, this scholarship should make us hopeful, as it would suggest that however concrete state institutions might appear, they are in fact permeable. If we look closely, we can find stark examples of resistance and revolt, examples that might not only add depth to our understanding of the past, but also inspiration for what is possible in the present.

On the other hand, this scholarship should also be sobering, leaving us with a sense of how key developments in state formation have been initiated in response to prisoners’ resistance. The militarization of policing, the rise of mass incarceration, and the expansion of solitary confinement are, in part, examples of state building in response to resistance. In sum, this sort of scholarship points both to the potential for rebellion as well as the backlash that failed rebellions are likely to engender. 

Dan Berger: State formation is always a multifaceted response: it both produces and responds to a wide set of insurgent challenges. Our understanding of the state is woefully incomplete without taking seriously the role people in prison (and their supporters, friends, and family members) played as political actors themselves. It is impossible, for instance, to understand the rise of supermaximum security prisons and other experiments in isolation without taking seriously the activism prison officials explicitly identified as their rationale in pursuing such designs.

There are also affirmative reasons that require serious attention to prisoner organizing. The status of prisoners offered a rare, if brief, meeting point for civil rights, Black Power and other revolutionary nationalist movements, feminists, LGBTQ activists, civil libertarians, socialists, and others. Organizations and movements who agreed on little else found common cause in the plight of prisoners—and what that plight suggested about the worrying state and dystopian future of American society as a whole.

Garrett Felber: It is important that we not merely add grassroots struggles and prisoners’ voices to a narrative of state formation. Rather, we must understand the ways in which the two are mutually constitutive. In my work on Muslim prison organizing in the 1960s, prison discipline and prisoners’ activism were constantly in dialogue. The daily interactions between prison repression and prisoners’ radicalism were interlocking, and they helped to shape the contours of prisoners’ activism as well as the acceleration and expansion of the carceral state.

Heather Ann Thompson: Both inquiries are vitally important. If we don’t understand how the carceral state works—how exactly it represses, maintains itself, expands, and finds legitimacy as well as funding—we can’t fully understand the way power operates in this nation. Equally true, if we don’t understand how prisoners experienced, endured, and resisted the carceral state, we also have a skewed idea about power. We might think that state power is absolute, or just as dangerously, that it has a degree of legitimacy that it does not in fact have on the ground and in lived lives. When we study the spaces where the carceral state and those who endure it intersect we get a truly complicated and deeply valuable understanding of how the carceral state really works. Historians need to do much more work on the prisoner side of this story. It is harder to locate, and it is harder to write, but it must be located and written if we ever imagine teaching a comprehensive history of criminalization, containment, and caging in the United States.

Lydia Pelot-Hobbs: Attending to the history of prisoner organizing brings into relief the various moments of contingency in the development of the U.S. carceral state. Too often there has been a tendency for a straight line to be drawn between the War on Crime or the War on Drugs and mass incarceration today. But the truth of the matter is that the story is much more complex and messier than that.

For instance, reading issues of the prisoner-published magazine The Angolite from this period brought to my attention that one of the potential solutions to the federal court ruling on Angola in the 1970s was the complete shuttering of the plantation penitentiary. This, unsurprisingly, was a reform incarcerated journalists excitedly backed not as a pipe dream but as an option that seemed at the time more feasible than the massive prison expansion that eventually occurred. Identifying this pivotal moment pushed me to reconsider this period not merely as one of rising law and order but one of competing ideologies at play.

Felber: One difficulty for historians has been considering the relationship between small-scale prison discipline and larger shifts in policing and prison policy. Despite important works such as Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right and Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime that have illuminated the impact of bipartisan policy measures on imprisonment, we still know less about how the decisions of wardens, prison guards, state police, and prison commissioners have shaped mass incarceration (Daniel Chard’s work on the prisoners’ rights movement in Maine and Cheryl Hicks’s study of black working-class women in Chicago come to mind as two great examples). It takes listening to voices from within prisons to fully understand these smaller moments of carceral buildup.

For example, the state police in New York actually began sending undercover agents into prisons to collect Arabic writings and enlisted a local professor to decipher confiscated prison notes in Kiswahili. This surveillance was then redistributed in a monthly bulletin to wardens throughout the state. Prison officials also went to annual conventions such as the American Correctional Association (ACA) and shared surveillance techniques with one another. Prisoners’ voices are not only significant insofar as they fill out a larger portrait of mass incarceration. They are a part of a constant dialogue which informs state formation.

Alan Eladio Gómez: Research and engagement with contemporary anti-prison movements has led me to question all the categories we use in social science and humanities research. From participation, resistance and struggle, to change, abolition, solidarity, time, and questions of geography and experience, these categories have specific meanings in the writing of incarcerated people. What do urgency, patience and discipline mean in this context? How is possibility cultivated and guarded in a place where hope is spoken alternately in whispers and shouts? As an imprisoned person, you can’t go home after the direct action or protest, and a proposal or political demand is recognized by the warden as a threat, or perhaps a possible method of control and surveillance, or both.

Pelot-Hobbs: In addition, studying the activist strategies of prisoners can help remind us that the state is not a monolith, not even the carceral state. Incarcerated organizers—like all activists—look for the pressure points and internal contestations to be leveraged. The Angola Special Civics Project was no different. From behind bars, they developed a critical analysis of how state power worked and whose policies and practices were responsible for the curtailment of their freedom. For instance, they argued that it was not reformist wardens but elected politicians—such as the conservative legislature and particularly tough-on-crime governors—who were responsible for their life sentences. For this reason they focused their energies on mobilizing friends and family on the outside to vote for prison reform candidates. Researching these strategies and others elucidates not only the multitude of actors involved in carceral state-building but the differing aims and power of, for example, a governor who won his election on a revanchivist commitment to rolling back parole versus a Department of Corrections secretary weighing the costs of keeping elderly prisoners behind bars.

Gómez: Tracing the impact of the self-organizing of incarcerated people reveals how spaces and practices of insurgency spread across the prison walls. Through visits and close collaborations, people on the outside could be transformed by their experiences working with people on the inside and by the intellectual and political ferment behind bars. For example, how incarcerated people organized for their rights and freedom was also about liberation for lawyers from professional, disciplinary, and social constructs of litigation and legal work; for academics and psychiatrists, a reflection on their own assumptions about human nature and who has expert knowledge; for movement participants, it offered a chance to reflect on their reliance on the state for justice and to ask whose experiences framed their strategies and guided their coalitions.

Felber: Prisoners’ voices are most important because they give us an understanding of what to build, not merely what to tear down. A note I keep on my desk reads: Who is more qualified to speak on freedom than those denied it? It is a daily reminder that the most expansive visions for human dignity and justice come from those who have had it stripped away.

PROCESS: Do you see an absence of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people in discussions of prison abolition or reform today? Has that historically been the case?

Losier: This country has constructed the largest prison system in human history, yet prisoners and those formerly incarcerated have been left invisible in a manner that seems distinct from earlier periods. Sure many individuals might have loved ones behind bars, but for the public at large, it’s as if those incarcerated have been hidden, even after they have been released. Rather than simply putting millions of people in prison, what if the essential work of mass incarceration has been the re-legitimation of this process, such that after the crisis of imprisonment brought on by the struggles of the 1970s, those touched by it can be left out of sight and out of mind? Their absence from discussions of prison reform feels like it is a function of their continued marginalization. Indeed, there has been an unprecedented flowering of organizing amongst formerly incarcerated people and, in some instances, amongst those who are incarcerated over the past decade. Are we ready to hear from them?

Berger: Not only are people in prison excluded from prison reform conversations, but all too often so are the families and communities they come from—poor and working class, predominantly people of color, disproportionately queer and transgender. Their collective exclusion from prison reform is an extension of the marginalization these communities face within the broader political economy. As the near hegemonic support for mass incarceration has now given way to an equally strong program of “prison reform,” the people who have the most to offer and the most to gain—or lose—have been a priori excluded. Yet we have the regrettable situation where the people who created or maintained the problem are trying to fix it with the help of a series of elite neophytes. Meanwhile, the real solutions to ending mass incarceration—massive decriminalization, decarceration, and urban reinvestment in housing, jobs, and health care—remain unheralded.

Thompson: Formal prison reform organizations have always been woefully blind to the importance of having the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated at the very center of the organizing efforts, and indeed at the helm of them. What is more, in ways that these organizations have never fully appreciated, it has time and again been prisoners who have pushed leaders to have to listen to the reform organizations. It is not until prisoners rebel—make news—that officials react. It is prisoners who make clear, even today, that our criminal justice system is in crisis and, only then, have officials asked advocacy organizations for their thoughts and advice.

Pelot-Hobbs: Within contemporary mainstream bipartisan “prison reform,” definitely. In some pockets of grassroots anti-prison organizing, unfortunately more than I would hope it to be. With that said, the fact that so many incarcerated activists at Angola were able to secure their freedom has meant that much of contemporary anti-prison organizing in New Orleans includes and is led by people who were involved in groups such as The Lifers’ Association and The Angola Civics Project. Norris Henderson, who was one of the key organizers in Angola, founded Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) upon his release as an organization for explicitly formerly incarcerated people to build their political power. In addition, Henderson has served as the Executive Director of Safe Streets/Strong Communities and been one of the driving forces of the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) which managed to shrink the New Orleans city jail by 6,000 beds following Hurricane Katrina. Moreover, with Louisiana home to the highest per capita incarceration rate in the nation, it seems almost impossible that such work could be devoid of formerly imprisoned people today.

Felber: As conversations around mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex become more mainstream, the experiences and voices of formerly incarcerated people tend to be marginalized rather than elevated. However, grassroots groups such as Critical Resistance continue to advance the voices of those imprisoned through The Abolitionist newspaper, which is written largely by prisoners and those formerly incarcerated. Dorsey Nunn, who has led the campaign to “ban the box” and end discrimination against former prisoners, was recently recognized by the White House for his work. He also co-founded the organization All of Us or None, which is a national grassroots group led by formerly incarcerated people. And just as writings by Angela Davis, George Jackson, and Assata Shakur were crucial to the prisoners’ rights movement, we have important narratives today such as Shaka Senghor’s Writing My Wrongs or Yusef Shakur’s The Window 2 My Soul. There is no one discussion regarding incarceration today, so whose voice you find depends on where you look. But we need to work as scholars to make sure that these voices are foregrounded, not muted.

Gómez: Historically, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people have played a central role in struggling for their own freedom and ideas for change in society. That the literature does not always focus or center these processes and influences is another question. And as stated above, it is important for supporters—be they family, friends, self-identified activists—to consider the ideas, analysis, and strategies that emerge from inside. That was a challenge in the past, and still is now.

Berger: One fascinating, if thus far under-studied, project of the past might be worth revisiting. While small groups of prisoners have always formed study groups or collectives, something unprecedented happened in the 1970s: hoping to avoid rebellions like Attica, several liberal prison administrators across the country established models of shared governance between guards, wardens, and prisoners. These efforts never received the support they needed to succeed. Guards hated them, even going on strike to shut them down. The conservative opposition succeeded, and the various “inmate councils” were curtailed or scuttled altogether. For a brief period, however, people in prison exercised more control over their own lives. Mass incarceration has not only sent more people to prison but divested whole communities of economic, personal, and political control.

Thompson: Today prison reform organizations do seem to be more self-conscious about including the incarcerated. But still, too often, it is in a token rather than in a meaningful leadership capacity. Rarely do the at-times substantial dollars that have been given to criminal justice reform organizations make it to the formerly incarcerated folks who very much wish to do this important work—to travel and to organize to overhaul that system.

Gómez: Let’s also talk about what “change” entails. Whereas change might refer to policies and laws, everyday conditions, or getting out, for folks inside change can also mean carving out time and space to be differently with each other, to discuss what is killing them and how to survive and thrive, to rebuild and sustain the already existing infrastructures of care. These voices, these ideas, these imaginaries demand something else from folks on the outside. New questions can arise, questions about how to go beyond solidarity, how to recognize that movements begin from prisoners’ self-organizing on the inside. For example, what would it look like if more policies and programs were directed toward successful after-lives of incarceration, and were written and designed from the perspective of folks on the inside—from sentencing reform, job-training programs, care-work, and programs for re-entry to urban development projects and high school curriculums, for example. What would that look like?

Platt: In the 1970s, prisoners and the formerly incarcerated had a strong voice in the forums of public opinion. My sense is that in the 1980s and 1990s this voice was weakened, testimony to the near hegemony of law-and-order campaigns, the dominance of neoconservative ideas spouted by academics like James Q. Wilson and Edward Banfield, and the popularity of broken windows policies. The defeat of the left and social democratic liberalism meant that the public discourse became a monologue. In recent years, with criminal justice reform on everybody’s agenda and social movements on the rise, there is much more of a public dialogue. It’s not unusual these days to attend conferences and workshops where the formerly incarcerated are present. And their ideas show up in books, op-eds, blogs, and social media. There’s still more to be done, of course, but compared to the past two decades, it feels like a door has been opened that will be hard to close.

Participants:

Dan Berger is an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell and adjunct affiliate assistant professor of history at the University of Washington Seattle. His book Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the OAH. With Toussaint Losier, he is coauthor of the forthcoming Rethinking the American Prison Movement (Routledge).

Garrett Felber is a scholar of twentieth-century African American history at the University of Michigan and co-author of The Portable Malcolm X Reader with Manning Marable. He currently leads a racial justice community reading group at the Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) in Portland, OR, where he helped establish a Freedom Library with books on social justice and the African diaspora.

Alan Eladio Gómez is an Associate Professor in the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University. He is the author of The Revolutionary Imaginations of Greater Mexico: Chicana/o Radicalism, Solidarity Politics, and Social Movements in Latin America in the 1970s (University of Texas Press, 2016), and ‘With Dignity Intact’: Cycles of Struggle in the Post-WWII U.S. Federal Prison System (University of Nebraska Press).

Jessie Kindig is a writer, editor, and literary agent based in New York and a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. She is at work on a book analyzing wartime violence and U.S. culture during the Korean War, and her writing has appeared in Radical History ReviewAmerican Quarterly, and in the forthcoming Opposition to War: An Encyclopedia of Peace and Antiwar Movements (ABC-CLIO). Kindig is a former assistant editor at the Journal of American History and Process.

Toussaint Losier is an Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled War for the Cities: Mass Incarceration, Black Liberation, and the Remaking of the Carceral StateWith Dan Berger, he is coauthor of the forthcoming Rethinking the American Prison Movement (Routledge).

Lydia Pelot-Hobbs is a doctoral candidate in Geography at the The Graduate Center, CUNY where she is writing her dissertation on the dialectical relationship between the formation and contestation of the Louisiana carceral state from the 1970s to the present. Her writing has been published in academic and activist venues including The Abolitionist, Southern Spaces, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, and in the anthology Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas.

Tony Platt is a Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, UC Berkeley, and a founding member of the journal Social Justice. He is currently working on a book for St. Martin’s Press, tentatively titled Something That Has A History To It: A Genealogy of American Injustice.

Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan in the Departments of African American Studies, the Residential College, and the Department of History. She has written on the history and impact of mass incarceration for The New York TimesTimeThe AtlanticSalonDissentNew Labor Forum, and The Huffington Post. She served on a National Academy of Sciences blue-ribbon panel that studied the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in the United States and has given Congressional staff briefings on this subject. Her latest book is Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Pantheon). Thompson is also the author of Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City and editor of Speaking Out: Activism and Protest in the 1960s and 1970s.

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