Proposals: Reflecting on an Anarchist/Prisoner Publication

(reprinted from anarchistnews.org)

The following is a self-reflection regarding a North Carolina-based publication titled Proposals. This publication was a joint effort of anarchists on the outside and many prisoners on the inside: on a monthly or bimonthly basis it published prisoner-supplied letters, report-backs, analysis, and historical accounts, as well as news briefs and anarchist perspectives on anti-prison struggle from the outside. The contributors were mostly not “political” prisoners in the traditional leftist sense but rather conscious, “social” prisoners seeking a way to ignite some kind of rebellion in their facilities. By our accounts, Proposals reached as many as 1000 of the 40,000 prisoners in North Carolina, and continues to be passed around at least half of the State’s facilities, excluding jails.

Though the project was fairly short-lived (it lasted from January to September), it has contributed to an ongoing trajectory of anti-prison politics and action in our State, as well as a large number of relationships with rebellious prisoners. For this reason we desired to present a broad self-critique of the project to the larger national anarchist milieu, in hopes that the questions, answers, and points of departure we have found may find some resonance in others’ anti-prison efforts. Up until now the project has been mostly kept out of the anarchist space, for reasons both of focus as well as a desire to avoid unwanted attention. Now that these efforts have shifted somewhat, we hope that an open discussion of our successes and failures might benefit others.

To view various issues of Proposals, check out: http://prisonbooks.info/resources/ (The issues are formatted for printing, but you can figure it out…)

Original Intent

The origins of this modest project lay partly in past experiences with similar publications as well as the world of books-to-prisoners projects and anarchist black cross activity. A desire to “find” and create relationships with various rebellious prisoners in our State, a strong critique of the political/social prisoner dichotomy created by much anarchist and leftist practice*, and an eagerness to explore the possible affinities between outside anarchists and prisoners all contributed to the project. This eagerness is not simply “political;” we hold a deeply personal hatred for prisons and the shroud of fear they drape over our lives. One might say the gap between “anarchist” and “prisoner” has become increasingly shallow, if no less wide. Relative to past experiences, an anxiousness to move beyond the individual political prisoner advocacy of much anarchist prisoner support, on the one hand, and the largely faceless “send-literature-to-prisoners-and-hope-for-the-best” approach, on the other, also animated our motivations.

To briefly summarize, we believe anarchists need to find new ways to engage with prison struggles. The once vibrant network (and federation, to recall a stale debate) of ABC chapters is now largely absent from the scene, and in any case was often forced to limit itself to individual advocacy rather than any strategy capable of spreading general rebellion against prisons or policing. While such a support base is absolutely necessary in hard times for comrades on the inside, individual advocacy cannot surmise the primary avenue of anarchist struggle with regards to prisons. In their best manifestations, such groups have focused equally on campaigns of a more general nature that have the promise of reflecting broader tensions in society. And of course, as recent struggles against police in the Northwest have shown us, such campaigns of activity hardly necessitate an ABC chapter.

On perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum of “anarchist” franchises (with regards to prisons) lies the books-to-prisoners project. Though nearly thirty of these exist across the US, the majority are largely apolitical charity exercises that require little attention here. Some, however, have been organized (or taken over!) by comrades, and continue to exist in their towns as a sort of node of anti-prison activity of some kind. These groups tend to focus more on sending anarchist and other radical materials in to prisons when possible, and sometimes engage in other activities as well. The sending of thousands of anarchist pamphlets, many themselves written by anti-authoritarian ex-panthers and fellow prisoners, in to prisons, is a worthwhile task. The bureaucratic restrictions on sending in written materials means that if any group is to accomplish this, it will probably have to be a books-to-prisoners-type organization with a certain degree of legitimacy.

Nevertheless, the limitations of such activity are clear. As mentioned, it easily collapses back into a service-oriented mode, de-prioritizing the support and spread of rebellion for the less-risky humanitarian endeavor of packing as many dictionaries into the cage as possible. This is inevitable of any organization that begins to place its own continued existence over the actual tasks and principles it originally set out for itself. This is a movement where movement putting ourselves “out of business” should be a top priority.

This model also involves a faceless approach: these projects are notoriously backlogged and deal with thousands of book requests, so that personal relationships with would-be prison rebels can be all but impossible. Real affinity cannot solely be the result of a one-sided postal relationship, yet by itself the books-to-prisoners model offers little else.

In summary, for us Proposals represented an attempt to put into practice some of the many critiques and analysis towards prisons and anti-prison struggle that have been floating around in insurrectionary anarchist discourse in the past few years, with the hope that such an experiment could push back against or transcend some of the limitations various anarchist projects have encountered. This should not be interpreted as a dismissal or repudiation of all earlier efforts or strategies; many of these efforts have borne fruit in surprising ways, and in any case represent the hard work of people attempting to struggle in an anarchist culture bereft of collective memory or strong support from other political milieus.

The Project

As mentioned earlier, Proposals was always conceived of as an experiment. Starting out we had little idea if the publication would reach widespread appeal or if the censors would ever allow it through the door. For that reason we remained committed to the intent behind the project more than its actual form. This form took shape as a monthly newsletter that would be sent out at the beginning of the month to a mailing list of prisoners who had already expressed interest in radical topics, or who had mentioned organizing study groups of their own. By definition, then, the project was built on the efforts of earlier efforts and contacts, for which we are thankful.

Short-lived, or abruptly ended projects dealing directly with prisoners are detrimental to creating lasting relationships. By creating Proposals as the continuation of the already strong connections between Anarchists on the outside and prisoners on the inside, we were able to effectively end the project without creating that disconnection. There are certainly prisoners disappointed about being given a publication only to have it cease a half year later. But by having the cyclical relationship that Proposals had with the local books-to-prisoners group we have not lost the ability to have two way communication.

Our goal was to provide a venue for prisoners to discuss and debate their common situation. We actively solicited submissions in private letters and in the publication itself, though we reserved the right to not print things with which we strongly disagreed, or that might endanger the publication. We consistently attempted to have a back and forth correspondence with regards to editing various pieces, revolving around not just grammar or writing style but also perspectives on everything from various nationalisms to how best to create prisoner unity. This process was difficult and time-consuming; ultimately we switched to a bi-monthly rotation so as to have time for the correspondence to take place. Often we would hear about a struggle or action at a certain facility from one prisoner and have to write back to a dozen others to confirm or substantiate the activity, or to gain another perspective.

Despite the difficulties of the process, we were happy with the results. Within a matter of days of the first mailing, letters began pouring in with prisoners asking to be added to the mailing list. It seemed the publication was being passed along entire blocks in some facilities. We can only estimate that, on average and excluding the many prisoners on segregation, for every prisoner that received Proposals at least another four or five read it. This combination of personal correspondence, based on a political affinity, and a broad audience was exactly the niche Proposals was designed to fill.

As things progressed, it became clear that while prisoner unity was a tremendous obstacle (along with punitive segregation, it was probably the biggest obstacle) more was going on inside than anyone on either side of the walls had previously known. Multiple yard occupations in various facilities, hunger strikes, prisoners flooding their cells en masse—while none of these actions were large, or achieved coordination with multiple facilities like Georgia or California, prisoners across the state were now hearing and talking about them together in their yards and in newly formed study groups. We also had the privilege of publishing accounts of previously hidden prison struggles, including a 5-day (!) riot in 1975 at a women’s facility in Raleigh (issue 2) as well as a new year’s eve riot at a Raleigh youth center in 1991 (issue 3).

Along with more widely known struggles like the California hunger strike, this has helped galvanize people on the outside as well as the inside: in the last six months demos outside of prisons and jails have occurred in Asheville, Durham, Raleigh, Greensboro, and Windsor, NC, the last of which managed to be coordinated with prisoners on the seg unit of the rural facility. Much of this activity has had a certain feedback loop: prisoners see the demos, write to either Proposals or a local books-to-prisoners project in response, and a relationship is formed. This represented for us a certain advance upon the now popular tactic of prison or jail noise demos, a tactic that while exciting in its reproducibility seems to be limited to creating a sort of temporary, anonymous affinity. To exchange shouts or upraised fists between the walls with a group of unknown prisoners can be exciting– to also interact with some of those same prisoners the following week via a joint anarchist/prisoner publication is even better.

Despite these successes, however, censorship increasingly began to drag down the publication. Correspondence was interrupted, issues were banned, many of the prisoners who most needed to see new issues were unable to receive them without great difficulty. We never had a good plan to deal with this censorship, nor the power or capacity to meet it head-on. It became clear that mailroom guards were pulling issues immediately upon sight of our return address, and while a rebranding of the publication helped temporarily, it became clear that something needed to change.

Problems/Dilemmas/Questions

In addition to censorship, the lack of a common narrative framework also presented a problem, albeit one that might have been better overcome without constant bureaucratic interference. The people on our mailing list primarily shared two things: their position as prisoners and a desire to act. Outside of this commonality, many prisoners clearly spoke very different languages with regards to prison struggle, or conceived of it in extremely different frameworks. This is hardly surprising, but it represents a certain obstacle to publishing a semi-coherent anarchist publication. For this reason and others, much of the submissions we printed were limited to immediately practical concerns, such as report-backs from specific facilities or vague calls for “prisoner unity” in the face of administrative repression. Articles carrying deeper analysis often came from outside the prison walls, though they seem to have been received with enthusiasm.

Part of this lack of shared language or narrative (or analytic depth) is to be expected from a prison population that has both grown massively and has experienced little broad-based rebellion in the last 40 years. If one were to (tentatively) suggest that the strikes in Georgia and California represent a renewed era of prison struggle in the US, one might expect the current political depth of prisoners’ critique to elaborate and deepen in the coming years. Of course, the prison newspapers that operated in many facilities across the country in the 60’s and 70’s are long gone; if any publication is to support this process of radicalization and dialogue, it might have to be publications such as this one. How to continue such a project that remains committed to its task of helping to generalize rebellion and deepen radical discourse on the inside without drawing so much attention from the authorities remains to be seen.

It is probably clear that the consistent question in our minds remains that of the role of the outsider. Certain things are apparent to us: our role is not to mediate prisoners’ struggles, to place ourselves as negotiators between them and the guards and wardens as so many “prisoner support” groups have done before us. That is the way of the Left, but it is not our way.

Any rebellion, but particularly one which is concerned with an apparatus of isolation and separation, will die if it does not spread. Up until last December in Georgia, the history of prison rebellions in the US consisted mainly of single-facility uprisings or organizing efforts, which almost always failed due to their containment to one prison and the apathy of the larger society. One need not read a history of Attica to know that for those who have the courage to risk everything, such containment has brutal costs.

The role of the outsider then must be to fight containment and generalize a struggle wherever possible: beyond just one block to a whole facility, beyond a single facility to an entire region of prisons, beyond prison walls to other sectors of society which have their own tensions with prisons, policing, or the economy. In the last year two different prison struggles have achieved some degree of generalization, the first (Georgia) without hardly any help from the outside except for the role of media liaisons.**

Albeit on a much smaller scale, Proposals attempted to support this process of generalization whenever possible. Obviously this took place through constant correspondence as much as through a printed newsletters, but the newsletter is what congealed these activities together. Our efforts were partially successful, in terms of the spreading of information, but rarely were prisoners well-organized enough to act on the information. What’s more, anarchists in NC (or possibly anywhere in the US) simply don’t yet have the capacity, on their own, to support such struggles adequately on the outside.

Here we have a paradox: part of the appeal of anti-prison struggle for anarchists in the US is that the terrain is still uninhabited by the typical stew of NGOs, leftist party-sects, and “movement organizations” that so often serve as barriers to more revolutionary activity. The reasons for this absence are varied, but it opens up a broader space for experimentation and radicalization than exists in the more institutionalized realms of issue-based politics. At the same time, in situations of crisis this means that unless we are very well connected with friends or family members of the prisoners themselves, we are likely to be the only ones standing outside the prison walls. It is one thing to print a publication charged with the spreading and sharing of information to different facilities; it is another thing entirely to be capable of targeting a dozen or so facilities or DOC offices on a regional level simultaneously.

Another dilemma we experienced could be seen in the demands issued on multiple occasions by prisoners. As seen in both Georgia as well as California, not to mention the smaller struggles in NC, the demand-form is still a standard way that prisoners communicate with prison officials. Examples abound even from the very pages of our small newsletter: Prisoners occupied a yard and demanded that a snitch be moved off their block; a prisoner went on a one-person hunger strike and a whole list of relatively minor demands were met; on a seg unit prisoners set fires and banged on their doors while a crew submitted demands for better healthcare. Outside of praising anyone who has the courage to act under the threat of torture, we have no interest in passing judgement on this issuing of demands. But it raises questions for us that we would address to the general milieu: does such an issuing of demands deserve critique? What is the alternative – prisoners occupying their yard until the destruction of “the totality?”

Many of the uprisings that have struck the globe in recent years almost instinctually sought to transcend the demand-form. This makes sense: it is a primary way that power reestablishes mediation and management, a method of recuperation all too common. When one desires an entirely different way of life, this is not a demand that can be granted by power, even if it would. And of course, as anarchists our one “demand” with regards to prisons is that every prisoner be let out, and every prison be torched. But Proposals gladly printed the demands of those prisoners who insisted on acting, even when they knew they did not yet have the capacity to enact such a struggle for total freedom. Were we wrong to do so? How will other anarchist initiatives interact with this phenomenon of demands in the future?*** Is every prisoners’ struggle that involves demands simply the puppet of managers and would-be politicians? How do we read these situations? Because the issue will arise again, and it will likely be less cut and dry than we have found it to be in these limited circumstances.

A final question we would raise is that of how differing anti-prison initiatives might interact. Despite the aforementioned criticisms of the books-to-prisoners model, we maintained a mutually beneficial relationship with the prison books project in our town. Many of the same prisoners wrote to both projects, and our cooperation was crucial. Demonstrations at prisons or jails in the region have become a regular phenomenon as well, and discussions of how to elaborate on this model continue. What needs to be developed more fully is ways in which one-off actions like demonstrations or attacks can intersect with long-term efforts at communication like a books-to-prisoners collective that sees itself outside of the charity model, an ABC chapter, or a specific publication. In so far as the former requires discretion, the latter require distance, making the intersection difficult. Yet somewhere in our various relationships with prisoners this intersection must be possible.

In Conclusion

As in most instances of self-criticism, we’ve brought to the table more questions than answers. For us at least, Proposals struck new ground in combining communication, analysis, and action against prisons. Along with the difficulties of the current social terrain of NC prisons (absence of any coherent discourse, deeply divided prison populations, the constant segregation of politically active prisoners), the project was partially successful, to the point where institutional obstacles became prohibitive. But of course this is to be expected with such efforts, and it hardly means they will cease. For us this is the point of such experimentation, to move quickly across the terrain, strike forcefully, and appear in new and ever more creative ways, not abandoning but building on that which came before.

Hopefully this piece can at least spark some discussion in that direction. We know many comrades around the country are asking similar questions, and perhaps our experiment can at least find resonance if not provide answers.

In love for all our friends and comrades,
and absolute hatred for prison society,

Proposals editing crew

FOOTNOTES

* – An excellent essay on this and other topics can be found in the essay “3 Positions against Prison,” which originally appeared in Fire to the Prisons #10 and can also be found in zine form at http://zinelibrary.info/files/3positionstotal.pdf

** – With the use of clandestine cell phones across as many as 11 facilities, prison rebellion made a giant overdue leap into the digital age in Georgia. We would urge our more tech-savvy comrades (or even just anarchists who know how to use a phone) to seize the opportunity this presents.

*** – Perhaps our Greek friends have some insight into this. Greek anarchists played an influential role in supporting a widespread prison hunger strike in November 2008 (the government ultimately agreed to release over half the country’s prison population!) while remaining critical of the issuing of demands as a strategy. Rendering concrete solidarity while remaining critical is obviously possible, but the question remains whether issuing demands in a prison context is or is not the best approach.