When I was asked to define prison organizing, I was stuck for a moment. I realized that I had never defined what I do as prison organizing. First, my concerns have always been about more than the prison itself. Second, my work extends beyond prisons and jails. Third, and most important, my goal has always been to disorganize the prison, to make it less effective, to deny it what it needs to continue: people, money and an uninformed and misinformed public. So I feel I’m more capable of discussing and defining prison disorganizing than prison organizing.
My work has focused on three areas: political education, cooperation and solidarity. It is diametrically opposed to what prison administrations are working to establish among imprisoned folks: ignorance, isolation/alienation and enmity. Political education is the starting point. Malcolm X said: “The greatest mistake of the civil rights movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake people up first, then you’ll get action.”
I know that studying penal abolition gave me the vocabulary, the language, to express what had happened to me, my friends and my communities. I knew that something terrible had happened. I knew that we had been traumatized. But I had no words for it. I couldn’t explain it. The prison teaches us that all our problems are in our heads. That all we need is cognitive behavioral therapy and our lives will be better. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, capitalism and class have nothing to do with how our lives turned out. Studying opened my eyes and healed my spirit. Through study, I acquired the language to name my pain and frustration. Naming the pain was the first step toward healing. I wasn’t crazy. It wasn’t all in my head. When I read “Policing the Planet” and learned about broken windows policing, I acquired the language to tell others what happened to me and my communities and why? When I learned about neoliberalism, I learned to connect the dots between what was happening in my neighborhood, school district and the prison.
Political education helped me see who was the real enemy, who was responsible for my pain. When you’re hurting and you don’t know who is responsible, you tend to lash out against those closest to you. Many of us are behind the walls because of long-suffering pain and misdirected anger. Through study, I gained awareness and knew that other prisoners are not the cause of my pain. I began to see others with new eyes. My education made me more compassionate towards others.
I didn’t want to keep this good thing, this knowledge of what was really going on, to myself. I started to share materials with others. I started holding rap sessions about the PIC in the yard. I found that others were just as hungry for an answer to what was going on as I had been. We started to meet regularly. This is where cooperation became critical. You see, the PA DOC has rules against borrowing and lending and prisoners gathering without staff being present. So we had to get creative and be vigilant. Together, we found ways to study together, trade books and zines, and make copies of materials. We created groups with agendas we knew the administration would approve, like Life Changes: A Grief Support Group, and turned it into a transformative justice/healing circle called “Circle Up”.
Together we created and maintained four study groups. And when one of our members was brutally assaulted by two officers and placed in solitary confinement, we practiced solidarity. We put what we learned into action. We contacted our outside allies and created a phone zap campaign to make sure our comrade was safe and would not be charged with assault. Within two weeks, he was transferred to a prison closer to his family and back in general population.
The cycle doesn’t end. We study. We cooperate/care. We practice solidarity. This is how you disorganize a prison. This is how you disrupt the PIC.