Tag Archives: prisons

Organizing Manual from Daniel Hunter: A Movement to End the New Jim Crow

The organizing guide to Daniel Hunter’s Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow contains a note on the copyright page that this emerged from conversations with Daryl Atkinson, Chris Moore-Backman, Michelle Alexander and Dr Vincent Harding, makes me so wish I had been a fly on that wall. Daniel Hunter is an organizer and strategist with Training for Change, and James Lawson gives it a brief preface. It is short and sweet and tries to answer the question of what to do with the realities described by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, how do we build a movement to end it?

Hunter starts each chapter with a story that holds a lesson. Nice. Every chapter is filled with clear headings and clear points. Every chapter ends with next steps that summarise the main points and gives you the questions you need to be asking yourself. This makes it easy.

I. Roles in Movement Building

It starts out debunking some myths about movement, which I really like.

Myth: Movements are like a lit match.

The myth that movements “Suddenly appear” misses the critical process of building up networks ready to act and ways to communicate broadly. The myth ignores the necessary tasks of leadership building and visioning. While sparks are important, without those critical pieces, movements will not tun into a fire. (6)

Myth: Movements are built by heroic figurehead leaders (6)

Myth: Movement require complete internal unity (7)

Myth: Movements succeed if they mobilize large, mass actions.

…movements don’t win because of singular actions. Movements need ongoing resistance…require sustained pressure. (7)

I like too the understanding that there are different roles in this great struggle to change the world. It’s good to understand where you fit, to know that might change (I might have added that in there, most of us aren’t organisers for all that long), and to respect the others. He gives this minimum of four: helpers, advocates, organizers and rebels, just as a starting point. I also like that he connects each to structural change — that’s really key, and hard to do for a lot of folks. I don’t know why I liked the warning labels best but I did, there’s lots more description.

Helpers — great, but need to understand structural issues, not just personal ones

Advocates important, sometimes take over and take away ‘clients’ power and agency.

Organizers — awesome, might get stuck in a stuffling organization, only try to get what they think is ‘winnable’ even if people want to try for more. That goes for the others too. I really like this line:

‘Organizers understand that shame festers and breeds when people experience something as a personal failing they cannot overcome. (12)

rebels — can become too attached to marginal identity, reduced to simply tactics without an end game, can become self-righteous.

Just to reemphasise that a Key part of movement building is the moment when pople understand not just through eyes of individual responsibility, but larger structural issues.

2: Building Strong Groups

I like how this chapter unpicks the reality behind Rosa Parks, what really happened the day she refused to change her seat, the role of Jo Ann Robinson and the Women’s Political Council, the various people involved not all talking to each other, Robinson’s frustrations and her immediate jump to action regardless of what Dixon or others said. I never knew a lot of this until I read Danielle McGuire. The lessons learned:

Prioritize relationship-building in every way you can , organize one-on-one meetings, recruit people outside your circle. Develop a shared power analysis — I really like his triangle model — there’s a very cool worksheet here to help structure a workshop.

Knock out those damn pillars! Analysing them, thinking this way helps us understand what we can do, gives us back our own power. I often don’t like analogies and metaphors, I’m not sure I like this one but appreciate the point:

Elimate the smog inside of us: Some have likened oppression to smog. Without a choice, we all inhale smog. It is in our body. The toxicity fo oppression is in each and every one of us. It makes us callous to the oppression of others — and even of our own selves. We must detoxify ourselves…create a culture that stands on higher prinicples. (36)

And finally, empower leadership from the oppressed — I write about that all the time. This decentralised method also allows innovation and experimentation, national groups in the spotlight don’t usually have this ability.

Chapter 3: Creating Effective Campaigns

Another awesome drawing on what a campaign actually looks like.

I have to say, I have never met anyone in the UK who would consider anything but the first damn drawing. Until recently hopefully.

You pick a goal — Hunter gives a range of campaign goals that could be considered to chip away at the system explored in The New Jim Crow, like stopping prison construction and reducing incarceration rates, improving prison conditions, ending re-entry barriers and increasing direct services, tackling the contributing structural issues, and fighting for alternatives to incarceration. The structural issues are important, especially as they intersect with deportations, or with issues of race, class and gender. This needs ongoing discussion and education — he suggests a ‘newspaper game’ to collectively build knowledge by pooling articles.

He describes the process for collectively choosing the campaign, the importance of having a target:

The people who can make the changes are usually quite happy to avoid doing so….. Change will not happen… unless the target is faced with direct, persistent pressure. It;s therefore crucial to identify the appropriate target … the person or people who could implement a new policy. (51)

You can see the old Alinsky influence in a lot of this despite the total difference in style, God I miss people who understand picking targets.

I like the continued emphasis on the tensions between picking campaigns that are winnable without losing sight of the revolutionary goal of what he calls ‘storming the castle’, achieving the broader structural change we need. There’s also some good stuff in here about thinking about allies, recognizing where they are in relation to your politics. moving people from opposition to at least neutral positions.

I also like the emphasis on thinking about how to create alternative institutions, what do we actually want, rather than just what we are against. We need to do this way more, as well as continuously build towards deeper change. Hunter writes

effective campaigns are ones that promote and instill new values. To do that, we should look for all available opportunities to represent the highest moral values of humanity in our words and actions, and encourage others to do the same. (60)

Some of us might need a little more humour here, perhaps, but it’s a serious thing.

He also describes the need to make sure you are growing as a campaign, moving and recruiting outside your easy, comfortable circles, that you are self-reflective on your own role, where you fit within oppressive systems and contribute to them. It all seems simple, it is still very far from most people’s practice. And finally — another key point, particularly in differentiating this book from much traditional civil rights organizing as Alexander notes, as well as many organizing in the Alinsky tradition:

It requires that we build a new public consensus that values each and every human being’s worth and dignity–especailly poor people and people of color who are demonized, whether as felons, criminals, or any kind of “other.” (63)

This is not an easy battle, but it is one we must win.

[Hunter, Daniel (2015) Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow. Denver: Veterans of Hope.]

 

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Three Clear Sundays: Ken Loach

‘Three Clear Sundays’ aired on 7th April, 1965 on the BBC’s The Wednesday Play.  Directed by Ken Loach, well, I figured it would be sad. I still hadn’t quite known what I was in for. (This is chock full of spoilers, I warn you now).

It opens though, on some lovely footage of 1960s Portobello Market, back when Notting Hill was vibrant and full of life — the Portobello Market I’ve read about but only ever seen as dying embers. It opens on scenes of honest and dishonest graft, casual racism when the barman down the local throws out a black Caribbean fellow. You’re not welcome here, go to the other bar.

Back to his mates and his jokes.

This is where it all starts, where honest Danny Lee (Tony Selby) is accosted by  a crooked copper (I love a film where crooked mean coppers are just a fact of life), belts him one. Heads off to jail.

Again the documentary takes over in the passage down to the nick, the line of men waiting to be locked up. Again the casual racism, a bit of comic relief at immigrant expense  — a new inmate who’s single, though he’s shot the man who stole his wife. But he’s innocent now. Doesn’t know how old he is. Calls the copper ‘boss’, not ‘guv’. Can’t write.

But Danny Lee can’t write either. Nor can his brothers.

Some jokes at the tramp, his smell — a special disinfectant spray used on his seat.

Back to the drama.

Turns out Danny Lee is the youngest, the slowest, and the only straight in a family of fairly lovable thieves, their activities run by their mother (Rita Webb). She’s a fierce one, and never tires of repeating the moral of this particular story — the 11th commandment. “Never plead guilty.” Danny does, and see where it gets him.

Straight to the hangman’s noose.

I suppose that’s the other moral of the story — that the death penalty is wrong.

Danny’s path isn’t of his own making of course. He’s taken advantage of by some lifelong criminals, kings of the underworld — gone to prison for nothing, they ask. Couldn’t keep your nose clean? What couldn’t you do with £2000? He only dreams of a fruit and veg stall to replace his barrow, his Rosa (Finnuala O’Shannon), the baby coming, he’s so sweet and innocent…god you can see this tragic ending coming. So for the money to win this dream of his, he pretends to be crazy, bashes a guard over the head as part of their scheme to be let off early for good deeds rendered, kills him accidentally.

The story was a bit heavy handed for me, but I liked the documentary-styled bits. I liked when the criminals are raising cash amongst themselves and expand on easy money and hard-working poverty. Or when Rosa goes to visit Danny’s mother who dislikes her, says her son is too good for an ‘Irish cockney’ and offers to give her an abortion that very evening. She changes her tune when Rosa mentions her father’s offer of £500 and a caravan if she marries a man in work. I loved this glimpse into everyday life.

All of the scenes open up with a fairly mawkish Irish tune, I didn’t even notice right away that the lyrics tell of the characters and their dreams and their struggles and their failings. They bear the role of a Greek choir, the sentimentality of a drunk, the nostalgia of an immigrant and an innocence lost. The ballad of Danny Lee, his pregnant fiance,  his mother with her heart (almost) broken by her only straight son. I thought it was pretty brilliant when I found this paragraph in an article (‘Love and Justice’ — Andrew Weir, 12 Sept 1997, The Independent) about the original story’s author, Jimmy O’Connor, sentenced to hanging himself for a murder he didn’t commit:

A 24-year-old petty thief called Jimmy O’Connor was swiftly convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. It all seemed very straightforward. At Pentonville prison, he spent eight weeks in the condemned cell, listening to the air-raids and the maudlin singing in the pub over the Caledonian Road. He was to hang on the very day of his 24th birthday. But then, just two days before, the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, mysteriously reprieved him.

Ah, the maudlin singing. It explains everything. It turns out that one of my favourite things about Three Clear Sundays is the man who wrote it — and the author of those poetic musical interludes? Nemone Lethbridge, his wife.

In 1959, he married someone who was his exact social opposite. Nemone Lethbridge was a pretty, upper-class young barrister, 14 years his junior and the impeccably-accented daughter of a general.

I dislike her already, but I try to reign in my prejudices.

The fact that they met at all was a reflection of the prevailing culture of the mid- 1950s, as authors and dramatists pulled back the heavy curtains on working- class life. Room at the Top and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and Frank Norman’s musical, Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be, had revealed the existence of what must have seemed an alien universe to the British middle classes. And in the new medium of television, Jimmy O’Connor became the first writer to open up the hermetic world of prison and the criminal underworld to general inspection.

This seems a bit late to be claiming such a thing, noir had been doing this a long time, no? And journalists like Arthur Morrison before that, but maybe through the medium of television this is true, I am no expert. But nor, I think, is this author. Anyway, the article continues:

“It was quite thrilling, extraordinary to see,” Nemone says about these times. “I was so drawn to this explosion of talent. Things we take for granted now, like EastEnders, The Sweeney and so on, would not have been possible but for the ground they broke. It is very hard to realise now how fresh and exciting all this was.”

Nor had I ever heard of The Star Tavern, might be worth paying it a visit. I am just sad I never knew of it before as I spent a few wearying afternoons in the horrors of Belgravia wishing for a drink but fearful of stopping amongst such people.

One of the few neutral zones in the class war of this time was a pub in Belgravia called The Star Tavern, run by a semi-criminal landlord named Paddy Kennedy, who cheeerfully handed out foul insults to all his customers. They included famous figures in entertainment like Bing Crosby, the actor Richard Todd and playwright Emlyn Williams, who would mingle with upper- class bohemians, among them Princess Margaret and the gambler John Aspinall. Both groups could also experience the frisson of hobnobbing with publicity- happy criminals. Men like Eddie Chapman, the safe-blower who worked as a British double agent during the war, Billy Hill, the self-styled “Boss of Britain’s Underworld”, and London’s most prolific cat burglar, George “Taters” Chatham.

Turns out the daughter-of-a-general and author of those maudlin verses had defended characters like the Krays:

she began to make a name for herself defending East End “faces”. “The East End thugs tended to get into big fights on Friday nights, ” she recalls. “When it came to pleading for them in the morning, I was usually the only one available. I defended many of the East End names of the day: the Kray twins, Red-Faced Tommy, Freddie Foreman, Frank Mitchell – the so-called `Mad Axeman’. I always got them off and, to begin with, I thought it was because of my brilliant advocacy. It was only later I realised all the prosecution witnesses had been terrified into silence.”

Was it only later? Was there that much translation needed between classes and their realities? The article argues that yes…

Fishman became a convert to O’Connor’s cause, and a friend and helper in getting him work on Fleet Street, where his speciality was the life stories of crooks: he ghost-wrote such gems as Burglar to the Nobility and I was the Priest of the Underworld. For Fishman and other Fleet Street editors, Jimmy was like a foreign correspondent reporting from the underworld, someone who could interpret for them news and even language they could not understand themselves.

I confess, it’s all very safe true-life flirtation with the glitz and glamour side of organised crime. I prefer in the end the depictions of its costs. The deaths of many a slow young man talked into something by someone slicker and more ruthless, the child growing up without a father, his mother without the man she loves or a chance at the future she hoped for. They’re the forgotten side of such crime that leaches off the system and calcifies into just another of its pillars. Criminals that always do prey on their own no matter the legend.

So back we turn to ‘Three Clear Sundays,’ and Danny Lee waiting in his cell, confessing his sins. We turn to perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, yet the most banal, as the hangmen practice their knots and their touch on the lever. As they talk about their everyday lives.

The end is still a shock.

The final scenes black with white lettering, quotes about the process of hanging, its effect on the body, how men do not always immediately die. A final quote from Arthur Koestler.

Down with the death penalty, you must agree. And still, cheekily, the original moral comes through — “Thou shalt not plead guilty”. Turns out that is the title Jimmy O’Connor used for his 1976 autobiography. I am almost certain this is him on the back of this book.

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Concrete Park

I’m loving Concrete Park, fucking loving it. Not least because it’s got a map, and these geographies are so familiar:

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Looks hell of familiar, as do the faces and the slang and the ways of being of most of the folks in these new graphic novels. The need to name them all off, to describe a wide cast of players and the power they wield over their little piece of the city they have built — a little confusing, but it makes it feel more real because of that I think. That familiarity again, the kind too many of our kids’ survival depends on as they navigate their city.

I was worried it was all a little too familiar, I mean, you imprison all these people from inner city LA and similar neighbourhoods from cities all over the world and ship them off to work as slaves in the ice mines and they reconfigure the gang culture they all grew up with. A little fucking sad of us, right? All that same old shit about turf and respect and power and product, like there’s nothing else for us. But a lot more mixed up, a crazy diverse slang that brings together hindi and arabic and spanish and cantonese and more because of how people were mixed up together working the mines and their loyalties shifted just a little…I love that, you know I love that. Still, there is initially nothing outside this world of gangs — both the good and the bad of them. The way they take care of their own, the way they kill each other. Nothing outside of them except cops.

Concrete ParkIt’s pretty descriptive of reality for a lot of kids, and some of those adults that keep wearing their tube socks up to their knees and their pants sagged and hobble up the hill home, their bones all tired from methadone. I guess all those veteranos died in the mines, or back on Earth.

Anyway, I like that Erika Alexander and Tony Puryear are writing  something that will take us beyond that. Same old on a brand new planet — that’s how it starts. But all that’s about to be radically challenged by a world of crazy technology and older gods, older magics. It’s also about to run out of food and water, get cut off from its supplies and that looming environmental catastrophe is pretty damn familiar too.

And then from page one there’s been a voice calling for rising above all that shit, creating a new world better than the old. Is Chavez named after Cesar or Hugo or both? Is this voice on the radio talking up the revolution for good or ultimately evil?

Who knows, but damn I’m looking forward to the third book. Especially as the ladies are kick-ass in here, my only wish that they challenged a little more than white stereotypes of beauty. But I suppose it’s all right that everyone is hot … as is the website, with translations of the robot’s speech so you find the subplot, and the playlists, and the science behind it all.

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Nottingham’s Caves and Reconstruction of Communities

Nottingham was our last stop on those glorious summer days in the Peak District, and a fascinating one. I didn’t know it was a city of caves, built over sandstone that human beings have been tunneling out for centuries.

We attempted a derive of underground Nottingham. It involved much suffering, especially by my partner Mark who can’t abide tours led by ‘characters’. I hate them too, but for me being underground offset that — though for the record, I thought we’d be able to do them without a tour leader in costume and was proved dreadfully wrong.

The 450+ caves underneath the city do not appear to be things that city bureaucrats and planners cared about at all until recently unless it was to seal them up and stamp them out — sometimes I wonder how it’s possible that people with such power view awesomeness as a liability. Until I read Le Corbusier. This church survived, but with the indignity of corporate identity and its reinvented nature as a Pitcher&Piano chain pub plastered all over it.

Nottingham Trip

Planners tore down all the old narrow streets with their twisting and interconnecting cellars, and built scenic car parking, with ‘local colour’ added through its naming in a most disheartening way (poor Maid Marian):

Nottingham Trip

They also plunked down Broadmarsh Shopping Centre on top of them. The best tour (that we had time to find and embark on) of the caves has to be accessed through the shopping centre itself, with more care gone into warning you of stick figures in peril than the wonders beneath that might distract you from Top Shop:

Nottingham Trip

I thought, actually, the characters in costume were pretty good for what they were asked to do — I finally understand how tanning works! I personally prefer straight exposition, but I didn’t mind the acting. The tannery carved out of the rocks several hundred years ago once looked out onto running water — human beings have transformed this section of the landscape with immense thoroughness, and with a rather jaw-dropping destructiveness once you realize what has been lost. The caves were still eerie and wonderful, despite our being part of a large group of people tramping through in hard-hats

Nottingham Trip

The very poor lived in them — at much risk to health and life expectancy:

Nottingham Trip

They were used as cellars and storage rooms and hiding places and escape routes and gambling and drinking dens:

Nottingham TripDuring WWII people escaped the bombs in them. I wanted more, so I decided we would brave the prison on our save-money-by-visiting-both-attractions tickets — a terrible mistake. They did try to make horrific injustices and horrible punishments a little less horrible, but the gibbet is there hanging. They just weren’t sure whether this needed to be an indictment of past (and present) barbarities and solidarity with its victims (my strong feeling), or a house of horrors, or a curiosity box of punishments with some celebration of law thrown in.

Nottingham Trip

There’s a statue of a woman being burned to death complete with fake fire, a celebration of changing prison guard uniforms alongside a most heartbreaking procession of punishments for crimes of hunger and poverty, and reminders of just how many were transported to other countries both to cement the power of Empire and to rid England of the troublesome poor the wealthy had no use for, especially the ones that did not just die quietly of cold and starvation.

Nottingham Trip

If I were not heartbroken enough, here the caves were things of horror, holding felons (remembering that god these were some unjust laws in a system of complete injustice) and people imprisoned for debt. These were the only caves I would love to see blown into tiny pieces, along with this prison.

Perhaps as an attempt to lighten the horror of all we were seeing, was they had recreated Drury Hill. A city nerd’s dream come true. Having destroyed this neighbourhood of history and character and community developed over a whole lot of hard years (from whence also came most of the desperate poor came who were sent of to America, Australia), they rebuilt a cardboard and mirror version for our enjoyment. We wandered through it:

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

We walked past ghosts

Nottingham Trip

This was such a strange version of the modern urge to recreate the material past that people in power have destroyed and that now fascinates us, but in a sanitised and safe way. A belated recognition of what gives a city its character and why people love it. A nod to tourists, but I imagine this is one of the museums every child growing up in Nottingham is brought to see and in some ways is forming ideas of what Nottingham was and is now.

In most ways I prefer this version to Disneyland’s fake high streets, because there is no way you can pretend that this ever was or is real. This is perhaps as good as such things get, its absolute fakeness was still extensive enough that an old couple had some trouble finding their way out, and it is both interesting and disturbing — which this kind of exhibit should be, with a splash of Roger Rabbit’s toon town thrown in. Here is a taste of what was here before:

Nottingham

Nottingham

These pictures are from a forum in which people remember what was and shake their fists at the planners who destroyed it all, as they do in cities around the world where what people most love and remember has been torn down in the name of progress. I have no love of the dirt, disease and misery that once filled some of these streets, but surely we were capable of transforming them into decent housing for the people who lived there. I love that curve of businesses and homes up the hill, and mourn its loss alongside those who lost their homes and livelihoods — I know well that you are never the same again after those things are torn from you, torn down.

City planners never really cared about that, which was always part of the problem. Empathy could have gone a long way to save what was best in our cities. Instead poverty was dispersed, and the earth flattened (a bit) and all the cold barrenness of malls and parking garages put in their place. The hospital where my mum was once a student nurse now turned into luxury flats. A few memories remain in the midst of profit’s rush to reshape a city for its needs.

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

The castle is also preserved, along with the castle caves and Mortimer’s hole. More costumed characters leading tours and telling gruesome stories and too many people on the tour with you. But these caves are really cool.

Nottingham Trip

Really, the way to enjoy old and underground Nottingham is through its pubs. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is of course the most famous, and the place my mum most remembered from her time there. It was immensely awesome and also very busy. We also made it to the Hand and Heart.

Nottingham Trip

Nottingham Trip

It’s a fascinating city, really. One fighting to create employment for its survival and believing development will do that also, and I know the shopping centre is as much a part of that as these rather forlorn attempts to turn empty store fronts into something positive:

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Byron lived here, Charles I planted a standard several hundred years ago to ‘start’ the civil war (I think the roundheads did that really) — the plaques marking this occasion are many and cover a fairly large area that you realise was once a hilltop. I bought a book on the caves I have yet to read, and which charmingly has pictures of most of the caves with a woman I assume is the author’s wife in each of them — wearing a stunning array of clothes and hairstyles. The pubs were many and old — they seem to have survived much better here than other places. There is more potential in some ways for a city like this to reinvent itself from the bottom up, unlike London where money floods in from top down forcing anything interesting and creative out or coopting and destroying it. The moral is, more power in reimagining and recreating the city to more people. So I will end on my favourite sign and a slide show:

Nottingham Trip

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Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag

In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney's representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, a new inmate housing unit is seen near completion a the Madera County Jail in Madera, Calif. County lockups, designed to hold prisoners for no more than a year are now being asked to incarcerate inmates serving the kind of lengthy sentences that used to send them to prisons. In some counties attorney’s representing inmates say it is leading to poor conditions similar to those that previously plagued state prisons.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Golden GulagGolden Gulag is written by an activist trying to answer questions asked by mothers fighting for the lives of their children in prison, and grappling with the theory behind her work, so you know I loved it. I found it quite challenging though, and I’m still thinking about how she frames the political economy of prisons and how that intersects with race.

In a nutshell, she argues that “…prisons are partial geographical solutions to political economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis” [26]. She draws on the work of Hall and Schwartz in how she thinks about and defines crisis: “Crisis occurs when the social formation can no longer be reproduced on the basis of the pre-existing system of social relations” a very technical definition I must confess. But essentially it means that change has to happen, the system of social relations or the social formation must shift. She argues that one way (maybe the only way, I’m out of my depth but I imagine one way) for society to find itself in such a crisis is through the build-up of surpluses. Capitalism depends on a cycle of accumulation of goods and their sale at a profit, it goes into crisis when goods simply accumulate. This crisis is not simply economic, but also political and social. In examining the political economy of California, she find four key surpluses provoking crisis. The state could have chosen different ways to resolve these surpluses, but instead they chose to embark on the largest prison building program the world has ever seen.

So this is the crux, the four surpluses are (in highly simplified form)

finance capital: investors specialising in public debt were having a hard time getting bonds through, they had money and couldn’t lend it to a very large and wealthy government

land: given drought, debt and development, farmers have increasingly been withdrawing irrigated land from production – ceasing to invest in irrigation infrastructure as it is no longer economically feasible. In addition there are large amounts of surplus land in and around depressed towns throughout California, together with high unemployment.

labour: manufacturing left, and hit poor communities of colour the hardest. The increasing number of prisoners has kept pace, and in many ways controlled, the rising levels of unemployment, and the highest percentage of prisoners comes from those areas with the highest levels of unemployment

state capacity: with the tax revolt that took place in California in the 1970s, the state was forced into crisis by lack of funds and lack of mandate to redistribute wealth through programs and services, while still maintaining it’s bureaucratic architecture. The State needed some other way to maintain that architecture.

And thus, prisons. More of them than anyone has ever seen. The rest of the book is looking at why these surpluses resulted in this particular solution.

It’s certainly a deeper and more complex argument than many of the prevailing ideas that she outlines: crime went up, we cracked down; drug epidemic; structural changes in employment opportunities; privatization of prison functions and the search for profit; provision of rural jobs and development; reform. It accounts for all of these things really, drawing them all into a more complex story.

She also draws on Hall and Gramsci to analyse perceptions and changing definitions of crime. I like her take on ideology:

Such change is not just a shift in ideas or vocabulary or frameworks, but rather in the entire structure of meanings and feelings (the lived ideology, or “taking to heart”) through which we actively understand the world and place our actions in it (Williams 1961). Ideology matters along its entire continuum, from common sense (“where people are at”) to philosophies (where people imagine the coherence of their understanding comes from: Jesus, Mohammed, the Buddha, Marx, Malcolm X, the market).” [243]

Her invocation of race is also interesting:

As the example of racism suggests, institutions are sets of hierarchical relationships (structures) that persist across time (Martinot 2003) undergoing, as we have seen in the case of prisons, periodic reform. Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. [28]

I have often seen this quoted, but usually in addition to other definitions. It is curious that she relates it solely to premature death, I’m trying to wrap my head around that, why you would limit it to that, whether that doesn’t leave important things out. I suppose life and death is the most important question after all. She also includes a chapter that tries to grapple with the lived experience of how such a political economy of prisons and race intersects, what that means to people over and above it’s roots in political economy:

From the mothers’ vantage point, we can see how prison expansion and opposition to it are part of the long history of African-Americans and others whose struggle for liberation in the racial state has never achieved even a fully unfettered capacity to be free labor. The development of political responses to legal dilemmas indicates how profoundly incapacitation deepens, rather than solves, social crisis. This chapter … personalizes and generalizes the morally intolerable (Kent 1972) to highlight objective and subjective dimensions of the expansion of punishment and prisons, the demise of the weak welfare state, and the capacity of everyday people to organize and lead themselves. [185]

I like how this is done, but found it hard to connect it theoretically to the sections that preceded it on political economy, it almost felt like a world and story apart. But that might be a reflection of my own experience in how hard it is to bring these two worlds together.

I am also thinking through her comments on activism and scholarship, activism and power. She uses Gramsci in a way I hadn’t thought of and like immensely:

On the contrary, in scholarly research, answers are only as good as the further questions they provoke, while for activists, answers are as good as the tactics they make possible. [27]

grassroots organization should be the kind that “renovates and makes critical already-existing activities” of both action and analysis to build a movement (Gramsci 1971: 330-31)

Ordinarily, activists focus on taking power, as though the entire political setip were really a matter of “it” (Structure) versus “us” (agncy). But if the structure-agency opposition isn’t how things really work, then perhaps politics is more complicated, and therefore open to more hopeful action. People can and do make power through, for example, developing capacities in organizations. But that’s not enough, becayse all an individual organization can do is tweak Armageddon. When the capacities resulting from purposeful action are combined toward ends greater than mission statements or other provisional limits, powerful alignments begin to shake the grounds. In other words, movement happens. [248]

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Resistance Behind Bars: Robert King

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