Activism in the age of prisoner resistance: College students and activists are changing the prison reform paradigm
Written by jm on 01/21/2020
by Jason Renard Walker, NABPP Minister of Labor
Maggie Ray Anderson, a senior studying law and justice in
Washington state, hopes to one day involve herself in the criminal justice
reform field. Unlike many newly arriving activists, Maggie’s interest is
helping convicted sex offenders rehabilitate through effective positive
programming and counselling. “I’m hoping to make changes,” she says.
Despite the negative that is placed on most sex offenders,
Maggie is more than willing to take on the challenge. With a very versatile
appetite for change, becoming a lawyer, overhauling America’s prison system and
collective struggle with prisoners is all on her plate as alternate offshoots
to Plan A.
For her ethics class, she wrote a brilliant paper titled “Prison
Labor, Race, and Ethical Dilemmas,” which explores and criticizes the perils of
prison labor and its exploitative dimensions. This paper was published as an
introduction in my upcoming ebook, “Reports from Within the Belly of the Beast:
Torture and Injustice inside Texas Department of Criminal Justice.”
One of her first steps, she says, in working toward her goal is creating a podcast that gives prisoners and their families another platform to share their voice, reconnect with their communities, and present ideas and solutions. But first, she’s preparing for her graduation from college.
Maggie is by no means the only college student who can
change the prison reform paradigm. Students at Colorado College have stepped up
to the plate. With their “Colorado College Prison Project,” student activists
Katie Lawrie, Theresa Westphal and Emma Kerr have taken the initiative to
provide support to incarcerated activists. From legal defense fundraising to
protesting, the Colorado College Prison Project not only wants to protest for
real change, but to physically involve themselves with the prisoners who are
proactive in achieving this end.
Activism in the age of prisoner resistance has called for a
revolution in how prisoner rights organizations are involving themselves with
prisoners. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) is a prime
example of this prison reform paradigm shift.
The IWOC is a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World
(IWW). The IWW understood and analyzed the in-prison civil rights struggles and
saw these struggles as being tied into the struggles of the working class. It
saw that these small time movements were gaining some positive currency, an
incentive for creating the IWOC, which gives prisoners the opportunity to
advance their own labor unions, strikes etc. with the exclusive help and
support of the IWW. Many state prison systems have banned such activity with
the help of federal courts; while a few others allow it with very strict
The Attica Prison Rebellion serves as a hallmark example of
the lengths prisoners will go through to be treated humanely and the lengths
guards and the state will go through to keep their punishment programs secret.
For a full scope on the Attica Prison Rebellion, see Heather Ann Thompson’s “Blood
in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.”
Even though prison reform has been a key topic in today’s
political campaigns, and celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Jay-Z and Meek Mill
have initiated their own fledgling advocacy groups, there will still have to be
an element in existence that merges these thoughts, ideas and trends with
practices that will spearhead legislative change for the long run. One key
example of this is the support and solidarity that protesting concerned
citizens provided to prisoners during the 2016 and 2018 national prison work
stoppages. Bad prison conditions still exist throughout the country, but such
unity provided a buffer for insurance towards any in-prison movements that may
come in the future.
Activism in the age of prisoner resistance has called for a revolution in how prisoner rights organizations are involving themselves with prisoners.
Amani Sawari is an extremely gifted young college
graduate-turned-activist who not only supports prison reform and real change,
but has brought forth various writing platforms and program opportunities
designed to soften the outer shell that has made real change difficult. She is
a writer, founder of Sawarimi, spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, and
national co-ordinator of their Right2Vote campaign with the support of the
Roddenberry Foundation. She has a periodical, free to prisoners, called
Right2Vote Report, which details the on-going efforts to give prisoners their
right to vote back. She also has a section in this periodical and on her
website that gives prisoners a chance to voice their opinions and ideas via
artwork, essays and poems.
Her efforts often take her from one side of the country to
the next, partnering with organizations such as Prisoner Legal Action Network
(PLAN), Pink Peacock Project and Triple-P Radio, a place that gives lifers
(those with life sentences) a platform to express themselves. A lot of these
organizations and advocates she works with aren’t familiar to the broader
audiences in America, so anyone who’s interested in learning more can contact
Amani Sawari via her website, www.sawarimi.org. If you are an activist
working alone or are looking for involvement, Amani is there for you.
Prison reform and positive change is a lot deeper than
legislators passing umbrella bills that target a specific class of prisoners or
ex-cons. Given that the release plans and parole eligibility requirements vary
from state to state, the Maggies, Kates and Amanis approaching from a different
angle and empathetic perspective of the prisoner is a decisive factor in not
only how far prisoner advocacy will go, but how fast change will come as a
Many prisoner rights activists are unaware of each others’
existence, even though they share similar goals; but with the rise of advanced
technology, this is slowly changing, thanks to social media outlets like
Facebook, Twitter and the like. During the civil rights era in the 1960s, the
Martin Luther Kings didn’t have this luxury and had to actually walk the grounds
they sought to change, which often proved to be fatal, and made such
individuals targets of police dog attacks, firehosing, verbal ridicule by
unruly citizens and more. This in itself discouraged white sympathizers and
those advanced in age and physically unfit from taking to the streets.
Now, these same individuals can play a pivotal role from
their home and with their smartphones and computers – while those suited to
walk the changing grounds do just that. Others, unconcerned, simply ignore the
whole debacle, posing as ignorant. “I think many people have the privilege of
pretending these problems don’t exist, or they haven’t even encountered
information about what it’s really like in the first place”, Theresa Westphal
explained to me in a letter.
These same individuals she’s referring to are mainly
rightwingers who are affected by availability bias and refuse to educate
themselves beyond the information provided by outlets like Fox News, who see
prisoners as subhumans who are getting what they deserve – case closed.
On the other side of the fence, there are a wealth of people
who not only want to know the truth about prison conditions, but provide
whatever support they can to right the wrong. Azzurra Crispino is one of many
people who reflect this type. When she isn’t being a professor of philosophy at
Austin’s community college, she’s networking the PAPS blog (Prisoner Assistance
Prisoner Solidarity), uploading essays from prisoners across the U.S. onto this
blog, writing them letters of support, speaking with them on the phone, serving
as a media correspondent for hunger strikers, work strikers etc. and, most
importantly, keeping their spirits high. Her focus isn’t on popularity, she
says, but using her own time and platform to penetrate the shell that’s
blocking prison reform and real change from becoming a reality.
Unlike most government-created reform groups, these groups mentioned
here aren’t profiting, monetary-wise, and often have to conduct fundraisers
just to have the means to keep the thousands of prisoners they support in the
loop, e.g. sending them newsletters, legal documents, letters etc. This,
basically, is because they are engaged in advocacy work independent of
government assistance and pursue the agenda to do more meaningful and practical
things than what the government has ever done for prisoners.
But that isn’t to say that the tools provided by the
government aren’t useful. Effective, yet costly, devices sold by the profiteer
behemoth JPay give some state prisoners access to legal and educational
programs. At a medium cost of $70, prisoners or their families can buy this
device that can be used for a variety of things, including playing video games,
listening to music, sending and receiving emails and more. Yet, this equipment
is only sold in select state prisons, Texas not being one of them. County jails
like Tarrant County seem to be a pioneer for them to hit the Texas prison
It is well-known that there is a prison problem in the U.S.
The U.S. locks up more people per capita than anywhere else on earth, housing
some 2.3 million prisoners in 102 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, 942
juvenile correctional centers, a resounding number of city and county jails,
immigration detention centers and pre-parole release centers.
As the world becomes dependent on digital and computer
skills and learning at pace with technology, conventional thinking around prison
reform and education isn’t working. That’s why it’s imperative that more
forward-thinking advocates and legislators do what needs to be done to bring prisoners
to par with an ever-growing and changing society, regardless whether it
requires that they can’t save face for their counterparts working against
progressive prison reform.
Under federal law, prisoners don’t have a right to access
computers, regardless of whether they lack internet access. Data that was
obtained by London-based writer Christen Ro in 2015 shows that only 22 percent
of Americans in prison have ever used a computer. This suggests that those who
will eventually re-enter society will do so lacking the basic computing skills
needed to hold a decent-paying job and, in many cases, without a GED, trade or
other skill that will give them an advantage over other potential employees
seeking the same job position, but with something to certify their worth.
Despite their high cost, the JPay mini-tablet and a prisoner’s
right to access it is a step in the right direction, as those lacking a GED or
having trouble with speaking English can use them while incarcerated, which
ultimately helps them upon their release. Those who already have a GED can take
college coursework, watch vocational videos and do so at any pace and skill
level they can grasp. The only downfall I see heading in this direction is that
prisoners and/or their families are only contributing to the high-fees model
that has made JPay and its counterparts a profitable enterprise.
[T]he U.S. prison system is an overtly for-profit industry, which ignores the connection between the exploitation of prisoners for profit and high recidivism rates
Other prison profiteer companies like the Keefe Group,
Securus Technologies and Access Securepak are all JPay-like-minded, contracting
with prison systems all across America, who then sell their commissary service
and telephone service to prisoners at exorbitant prices. In California’s Santa
Rita county jail, a pack of Top Ramen noodles that can be bought at 10 packs
for $1 on the outside, costs the detainees 90 cents a pack.
Then in Texas, one 15-minute phone call used to cost
prisoners $3.60 with the commissary vendor who sold the minutes imposing their
own personal tax. But, following the 2018 national prison work stoppage, the
cost was reduced to 6 cents per minute, with the time allowed per call rising
to 30 minutes. The commissary vendor-imposed tax was removed but is now taken
by the phone company, who could possibly split the annual gross with the
commissary vendors. So, basically, a prisoner who buys $50 worth of minutes
will only have around $47 placed on his phone account, without any explanation
as to where the money went, as there is no mention of the tax listed on the
commissary purchase receipt or explained to the prisoner when they place a
Several steps are needed. First, an overhaul of the prison
system will also call for the overhaul of the companies that contract with the
prisons, mainly to exploit the absence of options a prisoner has by selling
items for 10 times more than what they would cost a non-incarcerated
individual. Either the prisoner buys from them, or has nothing at all. Also, these
companies have a financial stake in incarceration, which contradicts any
attempt to reduce prison populations.
Second, the U.S. prison system is an overtly for-profit
industry, which ignores the connection between the exploitation of prisoners
for profit and high recidivism rates. Supposedly designed to “correct” the
incarcerated, the complete opposite occurs, as prisoners learn that
disadvantaged people are also a very profitable commodity. One of the founders
of JPay Inc. was an incarcerated man, who used his experience to exploit this
paradox. And prisoners who can afford to buy commissary items in bulk can
re-sell these items on the prison markets for twice the amount they were
purchased for. Now you have some prisoners who have limited funds, using this
black market to take care of their basic needs, as they can borrow right then,
as long as they pay interest later. Given that prison systems in the state of
Arkansas, Georgia, Texas and Alabama work prisoners for free, their only option
of paying back what they borrowed is through family and friends.
States that do pay prisoners to work often pay them wages as
low as 6 cents an hour. So a prisoner who gets paid this low wouldn’t even be
able to buy a pack of Ramen noodles after an eight-hour work day if he was
incarcerated in California. And those working in California get paid less than
40 cents an hour, unless they’re helping fight fires, in which case they get $1
a day, but aren’t allowed to pursue the job upon their release because of their
felony conviction. Another example of the penal system profiting off of
prisoners, without providing them job skills they can use upon their release.
This is why it is important to not only support the
activists who seek real change, but to get involved yourself.
Most Americans see prison reform as a mechanism that can
only be advanced by so-called professionals that are, one way or another,
employed by the government. But, in reality, prison reform starts with the taxpayers
and loved ones of those incarcerated. They are the ones who elect state and
judicial representatives, who have the most influence on policy changes and their
implementation. As for the prisoner, his or her influence is limited to
bringing awareness, organizing protests and petitions and so forth. So, in the
event a policy or custom is affecting the rehabilitation of prisoners in a
particular state, the representatives will overlook it until those who have the
most influence on their job stability use it to threaten that stability.
In-prison channels for change are extremely limited to the
prisoner, and often allow only the filing of civil rights lawsuits. When going
this route, the prisoner is up against the state attorney general’s office, who
has unlimited resources and legal expertise, and whose interest is in
protecting the sued entities and helping them to get absolved of committing any
wrongdoing, even when it’s obvious that they have.
Under circumstances like this, a prisoner’s suit is almost always
dismissed because of the prisoner’s lack of resources and legal knowledge and
because they are a prisoner. Courts are reluctant to apply the same legal bias
given to attorneys, and they often see the unfortunate mishaps prisoners are
prone to face as the daily goings-on of prison life and the penalty they pay
for going to prison.
Despite this, there are activists willing to give their time
and resources to the serious litigator. Even though the litigation process can
take many years, a suit that challenges a policy or practice and prevails makes
the working ground firmer for activists, in prison or out.
Dr. John S. Dolley, who serves as a hub for litigators,
activists and organizers in prison, has done his fair share for years. He’s a
key factor in helping those unknowledgeable in filing Habeas Corpus writs to do
so, those litigating to get relevant case law, organizers who need copies of
fliers and petitions to get them, and a host of other ground work. Given that
the Texas prison system is one of the worst, conditions-wise, his presence in
this state has played a key role in several policy changes, including prisoners’
religious rights and right to not suffer extreme heat conditions.
Other organizations that assist prisoners, like the American
Civil Liberties Union, are only willing to assist a handful of prisoners
according to the amount of media attention the violation receives and whether
the violation affects a large class of prisoners. The Human Rights Defense
Center (HDRC), which publishes Prison Legal News, has been effective but only
in a limited number of cases. This makes Dolley’s role in activism in the age
of prisoner resistance critical and worthy of receiving a broader range of
volunteers and activists in Texas. Texas does have the biggest prison
population and the largest number of prisons in the country.
There are also food vendors and medical assistance
contractors that have exploitative tentacles, such as Corizon Healthcare
(formely Corrections Medical Services) and Aramark foods. The legal kickbacks
they provide to the prisons that contract with them make it nearly impossible
for them to cease to exist, even when the health care and food service is
constantly paying out millions of dollars a year for lawsuits involving the
deaths and mistreatment of prisoners under their care.
As long as prisons are allowed to contract with such
entities, which have low standards, reforming any aspect of the penal system
within the grasp of their tentacles will continue to prove impractical. As a
ripple effect, the wealth these companies pull in will allow them to merge with
other smaller companies for the purpose of withstanding the blow of reform,
while regrouping and exploiting another defenseless area. Like the misconception
that changing a company’s name changes their practices and exploitative nature.
CoreCivic, formerly the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), is a prime
example of this vile masquerade.
Not only was Corizon sued over 1,300 times in the last seven years,
according to the Guardian, for cases often including wrongful deaths,
this same report suggests that some of the suits were against doctors and
nurses for sexual misconduct, “including a female employee who paid inmates for
sex.” Many of these cases were reported in Prison Legal News.
(See PLN, September 2017, page 32, and March 2014, page 1.)
Then there is Aramark, a multi-billion-dollar food vendor
based in Indiana, whose mission is to keep expenditures as cheap as possible,
while devising ways to sell low-quality goods at exorbitant prices. Its
contracting extends to sports franchises as well. But in the context of the
former, its recipients are prisoners.
It has been reported that Aramark pulled in a whopping $14
billion in the 2018 fiscal year alone. It is no wonder why this company was
ranked by Fortune 500 as the 27th largest employer, and made the Forbes list
that includes regulars like Google, Facebook, Amazon and other major capitalist
Regardless of Aramark’s shameful history of serving rat- and
maggot-infested foods in Michigan’s prisons, according to a 2015 report from
the Detroit Free Press, it is still a well-sought-after food vendor by most of
the state prisons in the U.S. That is mainly because prison systems are now
trying to cut costs by privatizing most of their food service custodial
functions in particular. Texas is the exception to the rule because its system
raises its own cattle, chickens, pigs, veggies etc. at the cost and expense of
unpaid prison labor.
From published articles and accounts of prisoners that have
to eat Aramark food, every account says that the food not only tastes bad and
is served in paltry amounts; the foods they are supposed to mimic don’t share
the same taste and nutritional value, namely soy meat “gas patties” as they are
called in the Lubbock county jail because of their ability to wreak havoc on
one’s digestive tract. Often leaving a cellblock full of prisoners passing gas
all day long. Or, at worst, have some experiencing some very painful, dry
As long as behemoths like this exist and give prison systems
a cop-out to save and make super-profits, this aspect in need of reform will go
completely unscathed. It shouldn’t be acceptable for those who profit from the
penal system to be the same entities that pick and choose which areas need
reforming and which ones are perfectly fine. There will be little if any
discussions about the budget increases that would be needed to boost the food
service, medical care, labor wages, privileges and what not to a decent level.
In fact, these areas are the first hit when a prison system needs to cut its
budget in order to accommodate guards and staff with things that serve no
penological objective or further a governmental interest.
This is why it is important to not only support the activists who seek real change, but to get involved yourself.
Here in Texas, part of a recent budget cut provided the
warden’s offices throughout the state with leather chairs and upgraded air
conditioning units, despite their refusal to do the same for prisoners that are
forced to live in housing areas that become hotboxes in the summer because they
lack any air conditioning.
With the passing of the landmark criminal justice reform
measure, the First Step Act, that was signed in December 2018 by President
Donald Trump, over 3,000 prisoners in federal prisons were released and 1,691
more federal prisoners saw their sentences reduced, according to the U.S.
Sentencing Commission (USSC). As of now, this reform measure applies to federal
prisoners who meet the criteria, and it isn’t clear when, or if, this program
will be available to state prisoners, and if so which ones. While it’s good
that something has gone into effect that gives prisoners an early out, it still
needs to be reformed if these same individuals are faced with the same problems
that brought them to prison in the first place – and if they don’t have access
to modern-day technology while they are imprisoned.
One positive about the First Step Act is that it removed
mandatory life sentences for “three-strikes” drug offenders in exchange for
25-year sentences, and it gave judges a broader range of options to use a “safety
valve” provision when sentencing nonviolent drug offenders.
This simply implies that a judge has authority to
reconfigure the maximum term a person is sentenced to, if they choose to plead
guilty and rely on the guideline. Before, judges had a window sentence, e.g., five
years to life, with which to impose punishment. Now they can change this
according to behavior, role in the crime etc. This also takes pressure off of
those facing long sentences and who would otherwise be tempted to inform on
their co-defendants to get a lower sentence under 5k1 sentencing guidelines.
But in any event, outside of government control and
influence, citizens across the country are doing what they can to speed up the
process and expose any flaws in bills that claim to be reform measures.
Stay-at-home moms, blue collar workers and many others are
being drawn into activism, and not as money-making opportunities. Thirty-eight-year-old
Cassandra Gatelein started an advocacy group called Cape May County
Indivisible, following and in response to the “surprise” election of President
Trump. Their current focus is on justice. “We fight against the Trump
administration and organize for social, racial, reproductive and environmental
justice. I’m very liberal/progressive in my politics. I am definitely
interested in prisoners’ rights and would like to do more work on those issues,”
says Cassandra, who’s known as Sandy by her friends and family.
As of today, Sandy is working as a tattoo apprentice in an
all-female tattoo shop. Before this stroke of luck, she was doing full-time
tarot readings, which she still does part-time, as well as working on a few
During the winter in her hometown of South Jersey, Sandy
says that it’s cold, quiet and empty; but in the summer the nearby beach and
boardwalk is teeming with tourists.
Any of you who may happen to be vacationing in South Jersey
this summer and run into Sandy, don’t be surprised if you find yourself
involved in activism and prison reform. As Maggie, Katie, Theresa, Emma, Amani
and so many others are showing, a want and need to assist in positive change is
contagious. Even a psychic couldn’t have seen it coming.
Dare to struggle, dare to win! All power to the people!
Notes for further reading:
Send our brother some
love and light: Jason Renard Walker, 1532092, McConnell Unit, 3001 South Emily
Drive, Beeville, TX 78102.
Source: San Francisco Bay View