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Jul 2, 20

BreakOut: Dispatches on Resistance to the Pandemic Inside Prison Walls #4

As prison abolitionists, many of us have been fighting in solidarity with and alongside imprisoned comrades for many years. But in the post-outbreak world, the COVID-19 pandemic has birthed new and increasingly complicated challenges, as the virus spreads like wildfire and the State locks prisoners down, moves them, and we become increasingly cut off from those we are in direct contact with.

Despite this, we have seen some of the most inspiring organizing on both sides of the prison walls in the past few months as thousands have taken to the streets across the so-called US to demand #FreeThemAll and prisoners have launched uprisings and hunger-strikes. Now, as COVID-19 cases again pick up steam and the rebellion enters into its second month, moving forward we want to take stock of existing strategies and tactics; discussing what has worked, and what needs work.

Towards that end, we reached out to folks involved in Oakland Abolition and Solidarity (formally Oakland IWOC) and the Philadelphia chapter of the Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement to find out what’s been working in their regions and how we can build off of these lessons.

IGD: In some states, economies are beginning to re-open. How do you see this impacting what will happen inside prisons? Are prisoners a part of any of the phased re-opening plans in your state (if they have any), and what do you expect to happen to the small amount who have been furloughed from their sentences? 

Oakland Abolition and Solidarity: Transfers between prisons are restarting, they were suspended for approximately 2 months. Some facilities never really instituted plans that allowed for social distancing. One has had 3 confirmed CO cases, though we suspect more. Others have had larger outbreaks and a number of deaths. Very little else was done system wide other than cancel all visitation. Some measures like removing every other phone in order to create more distance are experimental and end up further limiting people’s access to resources and connections without alternatives. Other measures have been instituted like staggered meal times. Public Information Officers are also not answering their phones or returning calls.

CA released a smaller number of people relative to the size of its population, and there’s reason to believe that the Governor of California has exaggerated the amount of people released during the crisis.

Beyond that, people have widely expressed the really intense psychological effects of just knowing that the COs are going in and out everyday with little or no screening, and that they are the only vectors for exposure. So it’s up to the care and discretion of guards to what extent prisoners are exposed. This is cause for extreme concern, even maddening.

Philly RAM: As state economies re-open there will be a higher demand for goods produced via prison labor; the conditions in which that labor takes place further increases the likelihood the already-vulnerable will contract the virus. Even in Pennsylvania (which is slowly easing up in the southwest) prisoners are being made to manufacture masks, antibacterial soap, medical gowns, and disinfectant.

IGD: For those of us on the outside, we’ve been experimenting with different tactics while also trying to maintain social distancing. The car blocs and caravans were an ingenious work around to that dilemma for the current moment. But what comes next? How do we create opportunities for mass pressure campaigns that work beyond just a honk-in or call-in?

Philly RAM: COVID-19 makes organization and action even harder than before. We believe that we can make progress using small IRL demonstrations and things such as lock-ins in addition to call-in campaigns and caravans. But what’s even more important is getting as much info and resources as possible inside the prisons.

IGD: A critique we have heard from people inside, is that our struggles in their eyes have at times reinforced the idea of there being good/bad prisoners – this playing out through the process of demanding and petitioning for selective release. How do we as abolitionists move forward with a demand to “free them all” without ultimately relying on piecemeal concessions? 

Oakland Abolition and Solidarity: One of our points of unity reads, “We reject labels given by the State such as ‘guilty,”criminal,’ or ‘gang member.’ We do not choose who we work with based on these or other simple moralistic designations.” We would certainly add “violent/non-violent” “safe/dangerous,” and any other such designation to this list. It is built into our practices and language to ignore the myriad ways that the State pits prisoners and all people against each other. We reject all reforms or policies that reinforce these or further entrench these hierarchies. Free them all is and has always been our cry. Prioritizing older and more compromised/ vulnerable folks may be acceptable in this time, but never give an inch to the narrative that some prisoners are “safe” and others “dangerous” recognizing that these narratives ultimately redound to the benefit of the carceral system.

Philly RAM: A concept we’ve discussed in the effort to counter hierarchical tendencies is that the carceral state and its culture criminalizes so many aspects of our lives (whether we’re inside a physical cage or not). That the capitalist State designates who is within its bounds and worthy of moral consideration. This is a point of solidarity we share with those inside the prisons – to differing extents we all find ourselves against the US carceral system.

IGD: As the pandemic drags on, Black and Brown communities are shouldering the majority of the deaths and the heartache – this is most clear in rural communities where epicenters have been inside prisons, jails, detention centers, meat and produce packaging plants and warehouse style working conditions. These spaces all share the reality of being largely hidden from “the public.” How do we help keep these struggles connected to each other and in the forefront of the minds of people that are already overly inundated with media? 

Oakland Abolition and Solidarity: Collaborative, real time, and engaged content. Seeking and building active collaborations that are rooted in a recognition of the connection between struggles. Example, looking for and seeking to support mutual aid structures that are popping up in “prison towns.” Fusing a meaningful, material backbone for ongoing conversations and collaborations.

Philly RAM: Keep communication open with comrades on the front-lines, then plug in to fulfill the needs of the people. Some good examples we’ve seen are medical fund campaigns, supporting striking workers, and gathering clothes/tools necessary for folks exiting prisons right now (among others).

IGD: Based on what you have seen either in your own organizing or those of comrades, what have abolitionists done in the past few months that has had the most impact and generated the best results? Also, what walls or limits, either in terms of the State refusing to budge or our own capacity, have we run up against in our organizing that we must now figure out how to get over and move beyond?

Oakland Solidarity and Abolition: It feels like the State is winning right now and setting the tempo, but our job remains unchanged. However, success can’t only be measured in whether or not the State bends to the will of the people. People building frequent, reliable, and solid relationships and communication channels with people in our county jails over the last few months has been extremely impactful. People inside having access to a larger media platform to have their stories heard, taken seriously, and acted upon creates empowerment, and greater collaborations that can be built on.

One weakness that we’re observing though is the need to be more creative with taking care, providing support, thinking strategically, and supporting accountability in our collective organizing. There are fewer built in chances to see, check-in with, and support each other. There’s more isolation, both inside and out. We need to be more vigilant about filling those gaps, and it takes more intention. Moreover, the landscape is shifting really rapidly, and it can easily overwhelm people’s personal capacity.

We must continue fostering collaboration and collectivity. It’s time to be more vigilant and disciplined.

Philly RAM: From what we and our comrades have done and seen and seen from others, it’s been the commissary drives, online workshops, and education opportunities have really served to bring people together and uplift the spirits of those inside or outside.  Establishing skills in care work and teaching each other help us for any future situations that might arise.

IGD: In your own words, in the current COVID-19 period, what do you think comes next in the fight for abolition?

Oakland Solidarity and Abolition: Desperate times call for desperate measures. The current moment shows us who, what, where, and why of what ‘desperate’ is. It’s our job as abolitionists from wherever we are to fight the desperation, death, and indignity around us and our neighbors.

Everything about this world is becoming more naked. Violent mechanisms survive best in the dark and they’re finding fewer places to hide. I think our job is to be loud and quicker about everything that happens, and be creative about illustrating and interpreting the shifts. But ultimately this is just a piece.

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An ongoing column chronicling prisoner resistance to the outbreak of the coronavirus.

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