Tag Archives: prisons

Resistance Behind Bars

How do you organise around ideals and fight back in a system designed to control and repress any and all dissent? It is an important question for all of us, but how much more so for those actually trapped behind prison walls?

On the 9th at Birkbeck we held a small workshop with Robert King of the Angola 3 and Denise McNeil of the Yarl’s Wood 3, sponsored by the law college and holding maybe 30 people or so. We took the opportunity to do it, with the help of the marvelous Sarah Lamble and Isabelle Fremeaux of Birkbeck, given Robert King is back in London!


It’s always such a pleasure to have him here, though I confess I have been dead sick this go round. But the antibiotics have kicked in and I am finally getting round to the blog!

The goal was to get into an in depth discussion of the parallels between two countries increasingly turning to prisons to control their populations. The stats on the US are familiar enough, two and half million in prison, over 8 million within the system through probation, 1 in 9 black males under 25 in jail. The UK seems to stretching itself to join it: prison populations have hit record highs, and as a proportion of the population, blacks are incarcerated at an even higher rate. Only this month, Met officers were asked to explain why blacks were the victims of tasering at such a higher rate (50% of recorded taserings, though about 2% of the population).

Denise was getting her son ready for school when the police and immigration burst into the block of flats looking for the man living upstairs. They searched her flat looking for him, and arrested her violently in front of her son for the small amount of cannabis in her bag. Violence has been at the forefront of her encounters with the system. She served her six months, and was then immediately transferred to another prison to await deportation. She was there a year and a half, and only just recently released on bail after long struggle in the courts. Two other women, Sheree Wilson and Aminata Camara, remain in prison.

Her stay in immigration prison was both indefinite and abusive, and she joined other women in a five week hunger strike. She was there when the guards locked the striking women into a corridor for hours with no toilet facilities, food or water. She was beaten by guards and placed into solitary confinement for four weeks. You can read Denise’s statement on the hunger strike as given to the Guardian two weeks into it here.

In Yarl’s Wood the women worked to overcome barriers of language and race to come together and strike to improve their conditions; those perceived as the leaders were thrown into solitary. Angola the same, with the duration of solitary being the primary difference. As King said, however, solitary always changes you, traumatizes you, no matter how long or short a time you stay there. He has known men to be broken in only a day, it is in itself an inhuman thing to do to another human being and should be abolished.

So how did they organize? Talking to each other, the way you do on the outside. In some UK prisons you are allowed mobiles, which clearly facilitates things a great deal. But you can always pass messages. King remembers from solitary, men who were so skilled they could bank rolled up balls of newspaper off of a wall and into any cell they chose. You bribe orderlies and guards with cigarettes. You use fraying threads from your shirt to create strings to pass or collect notes. The ingenuity of human beings is incredible, and where there is a will to organise and improve conditions, there seems to be a way to do it.

This is just a very small taste of Wednesday’s inspiration of course, I’d definitely encourage you to listen to the podcast here, and please do look at the campaign pages for the Angola 3 and the Yarl’s Wood 3 to see what you can do.

There have been a whole round other events for King of course. We started it all off on Monday 7th March at UCL, screening In the Land of the Free to over 300 people in the Cruciform Theatre, followed by a discussion with King and director Vadim Jean. We also heard poignant statements from the other two of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, sent to us from their cells where they continue to be held unjustly:

Similar events were held at Birkbeck, Centerprise, the George Padmore Institute, the Karibu Centre and Rio Cinema in Hackney. A great tour all round, and still a few more private events to go…

So if you missed the events, buy a book or dvd, I promise you will not regret it, and your money will go to Robert or the Angola 3 campaign. No better cause I could think of.

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Murder and Mayhem at Theo Lacey Jail

We keep building new jails. We have more prisoners than any other country with the exception of China. We seem to think that pouring money into contractor’s pockets to build prisons, arrest prisoners, guard prisoners, feed prisoners, transfer pisoners, clothe prisoners, put prisoners to work, well, we seem to think that all that will make us safer. It certainly keeps a lot of things out of sight out of mind, though every now and then prisons errupt into the public consciousness with rioting and violence. Theo Lacy jail hasn’t errupted into riots, but it did make the front page of the LA Times yesterday after transcripts from a Grand Jury investigation were finally made public…it took a court case to make this public record public, and given what the contents are it’s pretty easy to see why the battle was fought to the bitter end. The LA times headline is simply “Rampant Abuse seen at O.C. Jail.” So what do they consider rampant abuse?

John Derek Chamberlain was raped and beaten to death over a period of 50 minutes, with inmates finding time to go and wash the blood from their clothes in an area that was close to the guard’s glass walled station and should have been patrolled every half hour.

I suppose rampant abuse is just strong enough to cover that. But I think I would call it something else, especially given the patterns exposed in the transcript of the hearings…

Inmates testified that jail deputies had told them Chamberlain had been charged with child molestation. He was not, in fact, charged with any such thing. Deputies acknowledged that they used inmates called “shot-callers” to keep other inmates in line. These inmates enforced jail rules at the behest of deputies, and used violence to do so. Prison guards not only turned a blind eye to all of the violence, but encouraged it and incorporated it into discipline at the jail. Apart from this of course, remains the fact that deputies lied in the log book and did not actually make the rounds required of them, they watched television and made personal phone calls and texts. Such a murder occurring in prison should have been referred immediately to be investigated by the District Attorney, but instead the Sherrif’s Department stepped in, an action that looks remarkably like a cover up. While heads have rolled in the Sherrif’s Department, all of the deputies on watch the night Chamberlain was murdered have continued working at Theo Lacy. A substantial legal battle occurred to keep the transcripts of this highly damaging hearing sealed so that these truths should never come to light.

This certainly raises questions about what happens in prisons in our country. It raises questions about the point of prisons at all, why do we have them? Given the levels of violence and crime, the regularity of race riots, the infamous reputations of Angola, Folsom, San Quentin…what do we hope to accomplish with prisons? It is imposible to kid ourselves that they serve to reform individuals…I think it is proven that prisons tend to break down and corrupt everyone that comes into contact with them, both inmates and employees alike. We can grow even further into a prison society, lock people up without ever letting them back out, isolate guards even more from the rest of society…but who would choose this when we can also choose to implement other solutions, strengthen our community’s ability to take of its own? We spend more on prisons than schools, so we already know what direction the government is pushing us in…

For alternatives and more information look at http://www.criticalresistance.org/

also published at http://www.allvoices.com/users/Andrea#tab=blogs&group=2