“For freedom we want and will have,
for we have served this cruel land long enuff,
and we are full able to conquer by any means.”
-correspondence between slaves, 18th century
“Those who are locked up
know better than their jailers
the taste of free air.”
Presented here is a series of interviews with and articles by prisoners on the recent wave of Black-led riots, uprisings, direct action, and protest against the police across the US. The conversations and correspondence that resulted in these pieces took place mostly in the spring of 2016, marking some time since the beginning of the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. Reflecting on the ongoing rebellions that have reverberated on both sides of prison walls since that summer almost two years ago, the insights and clarity of these pieces feel no less immediate. While a print version exists so that people can mail copies into prison or table copies on the outside, I also wanted to have an online venue to continue to feature new pieces by prisoners with whom I write.
This project emerged organically, after trading ideas with several prisoners I’ve corresponded with off and on as part of a North Carolina (anti-)prison news bulletin. Folks wanted their thoughts on #BlackLivesMatter and the recent riots to be amplified on the outside, as well as to have an avenue to distribute and further these conversations in their facilities. After being immersed in my own way in the insurgencies of the last two years, albeit as a white person, it felt like there was a lack of visibility of prisoners’ own thoughts on this struggle, especially the analysis of “social” prisoners who may be actively resisting on the inside but have little of the recognition or activist cred of known political prisoners.
The folks who contributed to this small publication come from a variety of backgrounds, politically, racially, and otherwise. They are Black and Brown and white, gay and straight. The pieces have been minimally edited for spelling and grammar but not content, with the hope of preserving as much as possible the quality of prisoners’ voices on the page. Some contributors have chosen to remain anonymous, while others gave their consent to be named. Most of these prisoners are people I’ve written with for years, though when word of the publication started spreading, I began to hear from people I’d never talked to before, and a couple of these pieces reflect that.
I hope to be a comrade to those behind bars whenever possible, but I am not an “ally” to them, or any other heterogeneous group for that matter. Rather, as an anarchist I’ve tried to represent myself as transparently as possible politically to those I correspond with, avoiding the dynamic that comes from passively following leadership and instead at times engaging in active debates with people. Sometimes this means actively choosing to work with some prisoners rather than others. Though there is absolutely a (constructive, I hope) variety of political viewpoints represented here, my own affinities are likely made clear.
I should point out that there is an unfortunate shortage of women prisoners’ voices in this ‘zine. This is primarily due to the proportion of male to female prisoners in North Carolina facilities, where men outnumber women roughly ten to one, though perhaps it is also representative of the strengths and weaknesses of my own relationships. Certainly there is no shortage of rebellious women at NCCIW or most other women’s facilities, and there is a strong history of North Carolina women resisting their confinement and subjugation at the hands of the state.
With recent prison riots and strikes in Texas, Nebraska, Michigan, and Alabama, and the widespread hunger strikes that spread through California several years prior, we’re living in a time when prison struggles are building intensely. These efforts are primarily being initiated and self-organized by diverse crews of prisoners outside of established activist organizations or networks. Support on the outside has also grown, however, and is currently playing a role in amplifying news of a national prison strike set for September 9th, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising.
This surge in activity unfortunately coincides with the increased prevalence of reformist and even “abolitionist” rhetoric among politicians and their loyal opposition in the world of non-profits and esteemed activist organizations. Whatever their intentions may be, if historical precedent serves, these forces will act to preserve whiteness and capitalism by inaugurating new methods of discipline and social control to replace the old.
In this context, I hope that this publication can prove useful to comrades and accomplices on both sides of the wall, that future struggle against prisons will be as impossible to control as it is to contain, and that these prisoners’ words speak to others as powerfully as they have spoken to me.