Follow us on Twitter and Facebook!

Rethinking Prisons now has a twitter feed at https://twitter.com/rethinkprisons and a facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AYearOfRethinkingPrisons.

We have also posted some new writing by inside members of REACH Coalition at http://reachcoalition.wordpress.com/.

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Solidarity with the California Prison Hunger Strikes

On July 8, 30,000 people joined together across racial lines to participate in the largest hunger strike in California history.  These people are prisoners at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, and other California prisons.  Their current strike action renews a two-year peaceful protest against conditions of extreme isolation, arbitrary punishment, Kafka-esque policies, and inhumane living conditions in California prisons, particularly in the SHU, or Security Housing Unit.

The SHU is a euphemism for solitary confinement, which in turn is a euphemism for living death.  Prisoners are held for 22½ hours a day in an 8 ft. x 10 ft. windowless cell that looks something like this:

PelicanBay-SHUcell

As at Guantanamo Bay, the lights are  on 24/7.  And even when prisoners are released from their cells for recreation, they remain in isolation in “exercise yards” where only a small glimpse of sky is visible between concrete and wire mesh.

pelican bay yard 2

Pelican Bay was built in 1989 to house “the worst of the worst” in the California prison system.  But the truth of the matter is that hundreds of prisoners are isolated in the SHU without having done anything, let alone something violent, simply because they have been identified as gang members.  The gang “validation” and “debriefing” process reads like the Standard Operating Procedure at Guantanamo Bay.  Gang validation (or classification as a gang member) is managed through a points system that tracks such criteria as tattoos, incriminating photographs, banned reading material, telephone conversations and other forms of communication, and information from debriefing reports, inmate informants, and the allegations of correctional officers (Sharon Shalev, Supermax, p. 74-88).  A quote from George Jackson and a picture of a dragon, together with some hear-say from inmates or guards, can be enough to get you validated as a gang member (see Shane Bauer’s recent article in Mother Jones for more on this process).

Once you’ve been validated as a gang member, you can be held in the SHU indefinitely.  To get out, you have to either prove that you have been falsely classified (a Sisyphusian task) or “debrief” by providing prison authorities with accurate information about gang membership and/or activities. Colloquially, this process is known as “parole, snitch, or die.”  But snitching and dying are by no means mutually exclusive possibilities, as former gang members face retaliation upon release or reintegration into the general prison population.  And even if they were willing to face this risk, gang members who have been isolated for years or decades often don’t have any reliable information to share as an informant.

The average length of time in the SHU at Pelican Bay is 7.5 years, but 89 prisoners in the facility have been isolated for more than 20 years, and one prisoner – Hugo “Yogi” Pinell – has been isolated for 42 years, longer than the prison itself has existed.  Over 11,000 prisoners in California, and over 80,000 across the US, are held in some form of “restricted housing” [read: solitary confinement, read: living death].  And due to severe overcrowding in California prisons, many people are double-celled in isolation units built for one.

The issues raised by the strike action of the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition are more than “just” prison issues.  They are more than “just” human rights issues.  They are issues in which the very possibility of a meaningful life – both behind bars and beyond them – is at stake.  To live in a world where anyone is treated this way is to be implicated in the practice of torture.  Torture is about power, but it’s also about meaning.  In her classic book, The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry describes the logic of torture in terms of an “unmaking of the world.”  I cannot think of a better description for the SHU.  You don’t need electrical cords or dental drills to torture a person; you just need to stuff them in a concrete box and force them to bear the whole weight of their being in isolation from others.

According to Scarry, torture “uses the prisoner’s aliveness to crush the things that he lives for” (38).  This is true also for the torture of solitary confinement: It exploits a prisoner’s power as a subject of meaning, turning their own capacities for feeling, enjoyment, perception, and thought into an instrument of their own undoing.  Scarry describes this as a forced self-betrayal: “Each source of strength and delight, each means of moving out into the world or moving the world in to oneself, becomes a means of turning the body back in on itself, forcing the body to feed on the body” (p. 48).

The hunger strikers at Pelican Bay and across the California prison system are engaged in a process of making this otherwise invisible violence visible.  They should not have to go this far. It’s our responsibility as people on the outside, people who are not forced to live in a concrete box, to support the prisoners’ collective action so that their demands can be met, and the hunger strike can end with the least possible suffering and harm.  As Jonathan Simon writes in the blog, Governing Through Crime:

Hunger strikes are an extraordinary act of self deprivation by people who have almost nothing.  They can result in the deaths of those involved and compel prison staff to engage in degrading practices like force-feeding to prevent that.

They also put people like you and me in the position of having to choose: Which side are you on?  What matters to you, and why?  What kind of a world do you want to live in?

 Pelican-censored

The Pelican Bay SHU- Short Corridor Collective has made 5 core demands: 1) to end group punishment for individual rule violations, 2) to reform gang validation policies, 3) to comply with the recommendations of a federal commission on long-term solitary confinement, 4) to provide adequate and healthy food, and 5) to expand rehabilitation, education, and recreation programs.  You can support the prisoners’ strike action by signing this petition, joining the resistance network (by committing to one concrete action a week for the duration of the hunger strike), participating in a solidarity rally on July 13 at Corcoran state prison, planning a solidarity event of your own, or donating money to the PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Collective.  You can also support the hunger strikers by spreading the word about their strike action, and encouraging others to do the same.  This video could be a powerful educational tool for building solidarity.

Who better than Angela Davis to remind us of the collective power of resistance?  In her Autobiography, Davis writes:

Those of us with a history of active struggle against political repression understood of course, that while one of the protagonists of this battle was indeed the state, the other was not a single individual, but rather the collective power of the thousands and thousands of people opposed to racism and political repression.

Davis reflects on the power of the voice in resisting isolation and building solidarity on both sides of the prison wall:

Chants thundered on the outside . . . While the chants of “Free Angela” filled me with excitement, I was concerned that an overabundance of such chants might set me apart from the rest of my sisters. I shouted one by one the names of all the sisters on the floor participating in the demonstration. “Free Vernell!  Free Helen!  Free Joan!  Free Laura!  Free Minnie!” I was hoarse for the next week.

There is no meaningful sense of freedom for Angela Davis without the freedom of others whose names we may not recognize, but who nevertheless make an ethical and political claim on our own existence as citizens, as human beings, and as creatures.  What forms of community could we create, and what meanings could we disseminate, by amplifying the voices of people who are putting their own lives on the line to protest the living death of solitary confinement and the absurd brutality of arbitrary punishment and irresponsible power?

 pelican bay hunger strike images(originally posted on New APPS)

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July 6 Day of Solidarity with Maroon

 CALL FOR AUTONOMOUS SOLIDARITY EVENTS

Calling all maroons, revolutionaries, prisoner supporters, and all who oppose solitary confinement and torture in the u.s. and abroad! Come what may, make July 6 a day of solidarity, celebration, and resistance with Russell Maroon Shoatz! Organize an event in your city or locality!

Political Prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz has spent over thirty years in solitary confinement as a result of his history of resistance to white supremacy and mass incarceration. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has told Maroon supporters repeatedly that they transferred him to SCI Mahonoy for the purpose of releasing him into general population and that it will take up to 90 days.

If his captors keep their word, won by the pressure of his family and his allies like you, he will soon be released from solitary and July 6th will be a great victory celebration.

If his captors break their word and continue to keep our movement elder in solitary confinement and sensory deprivation, your July 6th gathering will be an opportunity for everyone to write hundreds of letters of protest to flood Secretary Wetzel’s office.

We strongly advise all participating autonomous groups to be fully prepared for either eventuality! That means envelopes, postage, paper, pens, copies of the relevant information, food, drinks, music, camera phones, internet! Every local group should create the July 6th event appropriate and most effective for their own community– even if it is you and two comrades or you by yourself!

Together we will be celebrating victory or pushing for immediate action. Either way there is a long struggle ahead and unity is key.

Free Maroon! Free all political prisoners! End solitary confinement and mass incarceration! …because when we resist solitary confinement, political imprisonment and mass incarceration together, no one is alone! Not Maroon and not you!

Send your event announcement to freemaroonshoatz@gmail.com so we can post on russellmaroonshoats.wordpress.com.

And, if Maroon is still in solitary on July 6, send your letters demanding his release to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary Wetzel at:

Secretary John Wetzel
1920 Technology Parkway
Mechanicsburg, PA, 17050
Phone number: 717-728-4109
Fax number: 717-728-4109

Send copies to freemaroonshoatz@gmail.com. Share what you are doing! #FreeMaroon #EndSolitary

P.S. SAVE THE DATE: We will be calling on you again soon for Maroon’s 70th birthday, August 23rd, to flood the prison with birthday cards!

When we resist solitary confinement together, no one is alone!

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Reconsidering Justice: New Blog by Spike Logan

Spike Logan, a student at Vanderbilt University, is beginning a summer project on restorative and retributive justice.  He will be posting his reflections at http://reconsideringjustice.blogspot.com/.  Here’s a description of the project:

This blog is dedicated to following a research project on the differences between restorative and retributive justice and the way each viewpoint contributes to our understanding of how to treat others. It will be a 10 week project revolving around exploring questions like:

  • What are the implicit assumptions and implications that can be drawn from societies that utilize retributive justice and those that utilize restorative justice?
  • What is the purpose of punishment? What should be the ultimate goal in punishment? In what form should punishment be delivered? Who should administer punishment/justice?
  • If someone acts ethically solely because they are afraid of punishment, is this truly acting ethically? Does it matter?
  • What role does religion play in justice? What forms of punishment are endorsed in a religious worldview? What role does punishment serve if there is a higher being that will ultimately hold individuals accountable for their actions?
  • Contemporary science increasingly points us toward the idea that many of our behaviors and actions are somewhat outside of our conscious perception and are based on intricate processes within the brain. How can justice be administered in a way that is fair and appropriate in light of this neurological model of behavior and decision making? 

I will be attempting to post at least once each week (generally on Fridays) and I welcome any feedback, criticism, thoughts and comments you may have.

Check out Spike’s blog, and leave him a comment to share your own insights on these issues!

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Call for Papers: Political Theory and Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration

Radical Philosophy Review – Call for Papers

Political Theory and Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration

Special Project organized by Natalie Cisneros (Gettysburg College) & Andrew Dilts (Loyola Marymount University)

The United States has the highest recorded incarceration rate in the world. This mass incarceration operates most severely in communities of color, with recent reports suggesting that rates of imprisonment for Black and Latina/o men and women are twice to over six times as high as those of whites. This project invites papers that engage with this material reality through theoretical and philosophical analyses of prisons as contemporary sites of the functioning of power.  Conversely, we are interested in papers that explore how mass incarceration bears on political theory and philosophy. Submissions from an array of traditions are welcome, including (but not limited to) critical race theory, feminism, postcolonial thought, queer theory, disability studies, political theory, and continental philosophy.

We are also interested in papers that broaden the political and geographic scope beyond the United States, either alone or in comparative perspective.

Possible themes include:

  • How do various forms of imprisonment intersect with racist power and white supremacy in the United States?
  • What is the relationship between immigration, citizenship and prisons in the contemporary U.S. context and beyond?
  • How do discourses and practices of nationalism, neocolonialism, neoliberalism, sexism, heterosexism and classism coincide with practices of imprisonment and the experiences of those who are imprisoned?
  • How should we think about the death penalty and the incarceration of capital offenders in light of both the death penalty abolition movement and the prison abolition movement?
  • How should we theorize race, gender, sex, (dis)ability, and other categories of difference in order to understand the prison? And how might the prison force us to re-conceptualize our ideas of difference?
  • What do historical representations of punishment and imprisonment (or their absence) tell us about the history of political thought and the history of mainstream philosophy?
  • How have mainstream philosophical traditions, concepts, and/or methods succeeded or failed in accounting for the practices of detention and incarceration?

Deadline for submissions: January 15th, 2014.  Word limit: 6000 words, including notes.

We anticipate to publish the articles in two installments, as part of RPR 17.2 (Fall 2014) and 18.2 (Fall2015).

Submissions should be sent as an e-mail attachment (preferably in MS Word) to Natalie Cisneros (ncisneros@allegheny.edu) and Andrew Dilts ( Andrew.Dilts@lmu.edu) with a CC to the RPR editor, Harry van Der Linden (hvanderl@butler.edu).  One copy of the submission should be suitable for blind reviewing. An abstract of no more than 100 words and a short author bio should be included. Citation style should follow the Chicago Manual of Style with bibliographic information in notes.

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Article about Ndume Olatushani in this week’s Nashville Scene

Don’t miss this week’s article in the Nashville Scene by Laura Hutson about Ndume Olatushani’s return from death row:

Today, Olatushani speaks with a mixture of philosophical insight and prison colloquialisms, as befits a man who’s read more books than your average grad student, but who’s lived most of his life behind bars. That reflects the terrible irony of his situation: The positive outcome of the life he has now — a loving wife, a new start, a growing career as an artist — came as the result of a death sentence.

 

That sentence no longer hangs over his head. But the cost of his new life was the 27-year stretch he lost to mind-boggling misfortune and staggering setbacks at every level of the legal system, not to mention his own early bad choices. In a series of interviews with the Scene, he relayed the tortuous path that led to his awaiting execution in a Tennessee cell, and the fight that brought his freedom — led by a woman so convinced of his innocence she literally learned the law to save his life.

Read the rest of the story here.

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“Prison in Literature – Literature in Prison” at the 2013 Midwest MLA Annual Convention

Bruce Franklin has asserted that “just as we now assume that one cannot intelligently teach nineteenth century literature without recognizing slavery as context, one cannot responsibly teach contemporary American literature without recognizing the American prison system as context.” This round-table will explore the various relationships between literature and incarceration. We seek papers that relate incarceration to the study, teaching, or production of literature. Possible topics include contemporary or historical prison texts as well as teaching literature or writing in prison. Although we are especially interested in papers that include and honor the voices of prisoners themselves, in the spirit of our convention theme “Art & Artifice,” we also welcome papers on fictional representations of prison.

Please send 250-word abstracts by June 14th.

For more information, see: http://www.luc.edu/mmla/callforpapers.html#ss

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