“Like a Wind Blowing Flames”: Prison Rebels Speak From the Cages

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Photo from the Miami Herald.

The past few months we’ve been closely following the Twitter accounts @JLawSpeak and @SlaveryPrison, which have been doing an excellent job of covering rebellion from within the prison walls.

With hunger strikes, riots, and rebellions popping off all the time in prison, we wanted to know more about what was going down inside the prison walls. As luck would have it, we recently were lucky enough to have the incredible opportunity to conduct an interview with prisoners, with responses coming from inside a Florida maximum security unit. Uhuru, a Black prisoner who hails from Brooklyn originally, has been a part of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a group of incarcerated prisoner advocates, for around 4 years. We caught up with Uhuru about recent uprisings and revolutionary perspectives. It is truly exciting to share his words with all of you.

“The most common protests in the streets that gets prisoners riled up is protests against racist police violence that turns violent. Seeing those images always silences jails throughout the nation. Prison officials are very aware of these components that can set off a prison rebellion.”

Bloc Party: In your experience, with the recent prison uprisings do you find them to be totally spontaneous? Are there aspects of them that are organized? Do rebellions happen because of any sort of organized network that already existed or not?

Uhuru: Uprisings are never spontaneously happening. There are usually preceding conditions set that gives all the elements needed for a rebellion. Prison officials try to study this cause and effect of prison rebellions in order to predict rebellions before they happen. This is why they will remove a prisoner seemingly for no reason from a particular setting under the pretext of security, or flat out “this prisoner has too much influence.”

What type of conditions can set off a rebellion varies. It could be a management decision by prison administrators, prisoners organizing with other prisoners, or outside the wire influences. Outside influences could be protests in the streets. The most common protests in the streets that gets prisoners riled up is protests against racist police violence that turns violent. Seeing those images always silences jails throughout the nation. Prison officials are very aware of these components that can set off a prison rebellion.

What do prison officials and pro-prison reform advocates say the cause of prison rebellions are? “Staff shortages.” They will never admit that the more inhumane the conditions of confinement are the greater the chances will be for rebellions. This is why prison authorities will pacify some prisoners with rare prison foods, events, or new privileges to calm emotions or disrupt what they know is already developing or happening.

Never forget what was said during the historical prison rebellion when a thousand prisoners had taken over Attica prison in upstate New York in September 1971 and held 43 hostages for four days.

“If we cannot live as people, then we will at least try to die like men,” declared the prisoners. This has been resounding throughout every major prison rebellion in this nation.

“What do prison officials and pro-prison reform advocates say the cause of prison rebellions are? “Staff shortages.” They will never admit that the more inhumane the conditions of confinement are the greater the chances will be for rebellions.”

Bloc Party: Give us a little history lesson about the facility you’re at. What conditions or situations make rebellion possible? What are prisoners reacting against? Is there any rebellious activity or uprisings that have happened in the past that make others possible? 

Uhuru: In North Florida where I’m housed we have had four brutal uprisings last year. Pigs and prisoners were hurt. This year we have saw three, but not on the scale of last year rebellions. I am on max from one of those rebellions. Steam had been building up after years of them beating, humiliating, in some cases killing, like that of prisoner Randall Jordan-Aparo, who was chemically maced to death by prison guards. It was so bad we had other pigs that tried to whistle blow, they got punished by demotions and firings. This is called setting the wall of silence standard, any pigs cross it they are made examples. Take all this into account with no one hearing our angry voices set the conditions for us to take any little incident and turn it into a full blown rebellion. 

And we did, 300 strong. Rip and burned shit up. Those few hours were our few hours of freedom, and I relished it. When other prisoners witness resistance it does set in motion ideas and encourage more resistance. The more organized the resistance the more wide spread it can go. Like a wind blowing flames that starts burning uncontrollably. It takes on a life of its own.

“And we did, 300 strong. Rip and burned shit up. Those few hours were our few hours of freedom, and I relished it. When other prisoners witness resistance it does set in motion ideas and encourage more resistance.”

Bloc Party: One news source reported that a couple weeks before the uprising at the McCormick prison in South Carolina, there had been a large “brawl” in the prison yard. They reported that some Bloods had stabbed four people and chased the guards off the yard. Is that true? If so, how did that contribute to the build up the the uprising on the 4th, if at all? 

Uhuru: From our JLS comrade at McCormick Prison, [we learned] there was a prisoners vs prisoners violent episode. Regarding the pigs abandoning posts, this is proper pig protocol in prisons across the country. Folks are unaware that pigs will not break up or interfere in any prisoner violence once it has grown beyond control, until the pigs arm up. Sometimes this can take hours.

At McCormick the situation was back under control until the lockdown for the water. At that point this was not a gang issue but a prisoner population concern. This is when you hear of prisoners of all stripes complaining together. More grumbling builds up tension. More tension, more action follows. This is what my comrades in JLS call a snowball affect. We have to be careful mixing up the type of situations. When prisoncrats explain prisoners positions in the negative they will sum it all up as gang issues. By doing this they appeal to folks dislike of what they perceive as gangs. From that point on it justifies every action the state or government does in response to the perceived gang control issue. These are propaganda tactics you find law enforcement have long been using in the New Afrikan/Black communities.

Bloc Party: What role do prison gangs play in rebellions and uprisings?

“From the standpoint of JLS, we hope to see the young warriors that are a part of the so-called criminal elements develop beyond a criminal mentality to a revolutionary mentality.”

Uhuru: Depending on your walk of life, we don’t call these groups gangs, but instead street organizations or formations. From the standpoint of JLS, we hope to see the young warriors that are a part of the so-called criminal elements develop beyond a criminal mentality to a revolutionary mentality. The potential is there, what cultural conditions will it take to turn these minds into a real fighting force for the people, only time will tell.

In the prisons, although we recognize their reactionary nature, they are very valuable to uprisings in most cases. Its the unpredictability energy they bring that places prison administrators on the edge. We are finding that these prisoners are more willing to create a disturbance then non organized prisoners. Much of this has to do with their numbers of those in the young age brackets.

There is another group called gangs by prisons, cultural and political formations. Anything the prisons or law enforcement perceives as a challenge is labeled as a gang. Then later a security threat group. Although I am a part of JLS membership, I’m a member of Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), we are called a gang. That label had me slam on max units for years. Why? Due to our founder George Jackson’s historical influence on national prisoners  resistance. Today we are all over pushing resistance, some by force, others by pen. Organized bodies of prisoners like JLS would not be if not for the organized prison struggles that preceded it. So just for the record, any major rebellions popping off in this country will always have prisoners labeled as gang members involved. We all have a stake in this as part of the prison class.

Bloc Party: Tell us more about the guard who refused to shoot a prisoner during the McCormick rebellion on October 4th, which was reported via the @SlaveryPrison Twitter account. Do you think it’s possible that more guards could refuse to follow orders or push back against the administration in other ways? Do you have any faith in rebellious alliances with prison guards against the administration?

“Prisons around the nation are becoming more brutal, pigs are more sadistic than ever. A few guards are not mentally equipped to commit to such a life of work so they quit early on.”

Uhuru: I do feel there are guards that do sympathize with prisoners during an injustice at the prisons. It’s rare to find them walk off the job due to it. Prisons around the nation are becoming more brutal, pigs are more sadistic than ever. A few guards are not mentally equipped to commit to such a life of work so they quit early on.

Prisoners should never have alliances with guards. Any alliances are shams. They work and draw a pay check for that work to keep prisoners contained and enslaved. That is a fundamental problem that can never be balanced out. Those pigs can help us more by telling the truth on abuses, stopping their coworkers in the process of abusing their authority, and continue to refuse to follow orders that will violate prisoners human rights.

Otherwise, prisoners must recognize its consider war. We are at war. We had a conference call with prisoners in different states, where we all agreed to promote destroying these pigs morale every chance we get. Make them quit. Tell them they are better then a damn guard job. As prisoners we have to tear it down from inside out. These guard shortages is years of work from prisoners to advocates making being a pig unpopular. Now prisoncrats are forced to go back to the table to reevaluate. That reevaluation means to eventually downsize. They can no longer manage the nation prisons.

Bloc Party: In one of your Tweets you said that despite race you still say #FTP. Tell us more about the cross-racial alliances you’re seeing around you? What are the roadblocks to such alliances and how are they being overcome?

“Some of our traditional prisoners lead organizations remain as founded, but we work under other organizations on issues as a collective united front of different so-called races and political ideologies.”

Uhuru: In today’s time we are way better in the prisons on a national level regarding racial alliances. Where there is culture differences, this generation is a little more aware, there is a mutual respect. For the most part prisoners are not so bent out on the race subject, unless there is a racial incident. That racial incident can escalate into a major disturbance.  In California where many of my comrades are, they have prisoners committees set up of different racial groups representatives to keep the lines of communications open if there is an issue. Some states, you rarely ever hear of racial violence amongst prisoners. Obstacles are the fool prisoners that can’t accept the changing dynamics in racial alliances in the prisons.

And the pigs who have always fueled racial beefs. Pigs have a long held traditional belief that as long as prisoners beef with each other, we won’t come at them and we are easier to control. Some of our traditional prisoners lead organizations remain as founded, but we work under other organizations on issues as a collective united front of different so-called races and political ideologies. This is the biggest change I’m witnessing in our times on the prisoners organizing front.

FTP means fuck the police. Some folks think its to be cool with and work with a police if they are apart of a historical oppressed community like the black community where I’m from. We say fuck that, he is upholding so called white supremacy and fascism,  and therefore that black pig is just as much a part of the problem. He is an enemy of his own people. So we tell people don’t come to us with no racial exception rule regarding law enforcement on all its different levels.

I would like to end with a quote by George L. Jackson:

“Settle your quarrels, come together, understand the reality of our situation, understand that fascism is already here, that people are already dying who could be saved, that generations more will live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act. Do what must be done, discover your humanity and your love in revolution.”

From my max cell I scream –

FUCK THE POLICE! AND WE MEAN IT! BURN THE PRISONS!

JLS Prisoner, Uhuru


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About the author:
Bloc Party

Bloc Party is an ongoing column that looks at State repression, counter-insurgency, prisons, political prisoners, as well as what people are doing to resist them.