Organizing Across Prison Walls is How We’ll Bring Them Down

By Felix Rosado and Layne Mullett

On June 6, 2015, around 300 people crowded into the Mosaic Community Church in West Philadelphia to launch a campaign to end death by incarceration (DBI)—more commonly known as life without parole (LWOP)—in the state of Pennsylvania.

The event was organized by four organizations: Decarcerate PA, Fight For Lifers, the Human Rights Coalition, and Right 2 Redemption (an organization based inside Graterford State Prison), as well as other incarcerated activists across the state. When we sent out invitations to the event we had no idea if people would show up, or just how strongly the call to end DBI would resonate in Philadelphia—a city that has been devastated by incarceration, systematic disinvestment from public infrastructure, and high levels of violence.

The success of the launch event marked the beginning of a growth spurt for our movement. By June of 2016, we had a bill in the State House of Representatives that would make people serving DBI parole-eligible after 15 years. By October of the following year we had a companion bill in the Senate, and the ranks of the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration (CADBI) had swelled to hundreds of inside and outside members, with fledgling chapters and related projects taking off in several cities and towns across the state.

Due to the reactionary nature of state politics, we still have a ways to go before legislation to abolish DBI can become law, but the progress we have made is significant, and would never have been possible without deep collaboration between people inside and outside of prison. People locked away in hundreds of thousands of cages across the United States are the front line in this struggle and have been leading the way for decades. At the same time, the resources, connection, and mobility of those on the outside is essential both for bringing that struggle to light and for amplifying its message.

Where we came from

On the inside, for too many decades, especially throughout the “tough-on-crime” (or rather, tough-on-poor-people-of-color) era and years of unchecked prison growth, efforts for freedom were bleak and mostly relegated to individualized quests for relief in the courts. We either gave up or hustled and bustled to be one of the less than 1% of appellants who get their convictions overturned. This kept our fights isolated and weak. It kept our loved ones and supporters on the outside isolated as well. But it’s all we had, especially those of us fighting DBI sentences. Clemency was out of the question after one individual released in 1994 went on a crime spree, reversing the outcome of a gubernatorial election and altering the politics and policies of the DOC for a generation (and counting). The odds of getting a legislative life raft were slimmer than hitting the Power Ball.

Outside supporters and activists groups, much smaller in number than today, were eager to advocate on our behalf, but not necessarily with us. Members of these well-meaning organizations and committees communicated with inside folks and occasionally came to visit with groups, mostly at Graterford, the closest and most accessible prison to Philadelphia. They’d walk away from these encounters feeling good about having fulfilled their obligation to provide a seat at the proverbial table to those they’re fighting for. But, in the end, day-to-day decisions about direction, strategy, and action were made away from those tables.

In 2012, about a dozen men at Graterford founded Right 2 Redemption (R2R) in an attempt to change the course of the decades-long fight to end DBI in PA through parole eligibility. We decided early on that we needed to radically shift the approach, narrative, and language around the issue. But we couldn’t do it alone. Not long after, we joined forces with three groups made up of inside and outside members—Decarcerate PA, Human Rights Coalition, and Fight for Lifers—to form the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration.

Others serving DBI across the state also helped drive this shift towards bigger movement building. When the outside organizations who would eventually become CADBI first met to discuss the possibility of a joint campaign, our conversations were guided by the words of three powerful organizers serving DBI sentences—Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall, David “Dawud” Lee, and Robert “Saleem” Holbrook—who had sent a position paper for the meeting to help ground us in the ways this issue was grounded in a broader struggle for racial and economic justice. They write: “We struggle because we are fundamentally opposed to injustice and state repression, not because we are desperate for freedom. Every prisoner, regardless of their sentence, wants to be free, for freedom is the natural disposition of humans. As conscious and politicized prisoners however, we connect our freedom to the need to struggle against societal injustice. Therefore, if we were released tomorrow, our struggle would not be over, we would continue to struggle against all forms of oppression.” We were also guided by materials sent by R2R, who powerfully express the idea that “this systemic negation of the human capacity for redemption is a crime against humanity.”

It is from this place that CADBI was formed. Inside and outside members consisting of those condemned to DBI, our families, and fellow comrades in the struggle work together to accomplish this mission.

We definitely don’t have a perfect model. We’re constantly grappling with how to truly work in collaboration around decision making and implementation of our strategies and initiatives. While this process is far from seamless, we are learning and growing as we go. And while we can’t speak for all inside-outside organizing happening in PA, we are reflecting on our own experiences working together to draw out some lessons we’ve learned.

What does inside-outside organizing look like?

I see incarcerated people participating and leading movements for social change by galvanizing 2.5million American prisoners, 7 million American people under some form of parole supervision, tens of millions of their families and communities in cities affected by racist laws, militarized police, unjust courts and for-profit state/federal prison systems, to lead a human rights prisoners’ movement to totally transform America as we know it.
—Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall

Respect the leadership of those inside. Those of us with our “chestnuts in the fire,” as R2R member Kempis “Ghani” Songster likes to put it, are taking the lead. As more and more of us are realizing that our individual struggles for freedom are inextricably tied to collective liberation, we are coming together to demand change that will affect all.

Empower and support the loved ones of incarcerated people to take leadership. Families and loved ones of those serving DBI are a powerful bloc, especially when they have access to supportive spaces to share their experiences and expertise. No longer fearing the stigma of being related to a “criminal” and no longer disempowered by the life-draining process of paying lawyers and waiting years for denials, their voices are growing louder. For example, the mother of one of the authors mostly kept her son’s incarceration and DBI sentence a secret for over two decades. But after being convinced to attend a CADBI rally at the state capital building for the second year in a row, she was interviewed by a reporter who went on to put the story and picture of her holding up a “FREE MY SON” sign on the front page of the local paper. Once “outed,” and after the surprising and overwhelming support she received from the city, she thrust herself headlong into daily activism.

Since then, she has participated in nonstop forums, rallies, and other events, and has been active every day on social media. She mobilized community members for a well-attended CADBI forum in the city of Reading, and then helped organize three legislative visits with a State House candidate, State Senator, and State Representative. All were successful meetings, with two of the three agreeing on the spot to co-sponsor the bill and the other now moving in that direction. This kind of empowering collective action is the antithesis of scraping together money for lawyers and then waiting years for the next outcome.

Build real relationships and meaningful opportunities for collaboration. This is foundational to any organizing, and inside outside organizing is no different. In the words of incarcerated activist Kerry “Shakaboona” Marshall, “Inside-outside organizing in PA looks like a ‘family partnership,’ with people in prison and in society working together towards a common goal. It’s prisoners and activists who were once strangers to each other creating familial bonds, supporting each other, and challenging the oppressor’s system. This family partnership works on the basis of truth, justice, freedom, equality, and reciprocity.”

According to David “Dawud” Lee, who has been an organizer behind prison walls for decades, “the work actually begins with building relationships with each other, because without that critical first step it is almost impossible to accomplish any goals. Next we need to discover what issues we find the greatest need to work on. I think that we must find folks with a common interest, and who are willing to explore creative ideas as we work towards building movements across the country.”

We all need political education. In the words of Terri Harper, an activist and advocate serving a DBI sentence at SCI Muncy, “We attempt to challenge injustice first by educating ourselves on the intertwined systems that have control over our lives. That’s familiarizing ourselves with the legislature and how it works. It’s setting aside time to watch/read up on political battles and resolutions. It’s also having a basic knowledge of DOC policy, so that any one of us can effectively hold the powers-that-be and ourselves accountable for word and deed incompatible to safety, understanding, redemption and peace.” Making time for this learning and knowledge-sharing, both inside and outside of prison, is critical for building a movement that is thoughtful and informed.

Work and power are shared. Through a variety of creative means, we collaborate on philosophy, strategy, and decision making, utilizing every available method of communication. We write, email, call, visit. Outside liaisons come into the prison for meetings. Inside representatives call out to gatherings and actions on the outside. Outreach for events is handled by both the inside and outside. Inside members speak at rallies and events via live phone calls or prerecorded statements. Major actions always have some avenue for inside members to participate, even though they can’t attend physically. All members have a voice in decision making. It’s hardly smooth but we find a way to make it work.

People in prison do the best outreach. From the beginning, CADBI’s base-building strategy centered on an outreach model that bounced back and forth between inside and outside. Once an action is decided upon, folks on the outside make a flyer and send that flyer and any other relevant information to CADBI members and trusted comrades on the inside. Then CADBI members on the inside make copies and circulate that flyer both inside the prisons and reach out to friends and family members on the outside to tell them about the event. This outreach model ensures that people are learning about CADBI through someone they are already connected to, and are therefore far more likely to get involved.

Believe in your ability to make change. Says Shakaboona, “My advice to people who are trying to organize across prison walls is to be committed, exercise patience, keep your word, don’t overwhelm yourself by doing too many projects at one time, be open-minded to engaging in the struggle in a multiplicity of ways, and don’t have belief or faith in politicians and the state’s institutions(i.e., laws, police, courts, and prisons), instead have a belief/faith in the ‘power of the people’ to change their circumstances.”

Terri adds, “If I were to advise others in prison on how to organize, I would sum it up by telling them to educate, share, receive and get active, as activity leads to added connections, and that IS organizing. The only other thing they must do is PLAN.”

Where do we go from here?

Prison walls are designed to confine and separate people, not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally. As Clinton “Nkechi” Walker—an incarcerated poet serving a DBI sentence—writes for the LifeLines Project, “If it takes a village to raise a child then I am absent of that village, otherwise neglecting my responsibilities and letting down those little ones that need my knowledge.” We feel every day the weight of that absence, loved ones who are not home, not able to do their work in the community.

And at the same time, this absence is not the totalizing force that the state might like it to be. For we are not absent from each other when we struggle together, when we build community, family, and movement together, when we strategize, argue, and plan together, when we work together to bring people home.

Collaborating across prison walls is strategic, in that it brings to bear the immense capacity, analysis, and creativity of those who are locked down and locked out by the prison industrial complex together with those on the outside. It lessens the burden of people who for too long have shouldered the weight of their loved ones’ incarceration alone and in the shadows. Fear and shame are being replaced with realization that they are not alone, that their neighbors, coworkers, fellow parishioners are also doing time on the outside. Eerie silence is morphing into an increasingly loud roar that can be heard inside prisons and state capital buildings.

As we chip away at the walls—together—we’re building bonds that transcend and will outlast our mission. We’re building bridges and pathways to the kind of society we want to live in. And it’s making those walls feel just a little less concrete—until the day they come crumbling down.

Felix Rosado is co-founder and co-coordinator of Let’s Circle Up, a restorative justice project based at Graterford State Prison. Originally from Reading, PA, he has been fighting a death by incarceration sentence since 1995. He also co-coordinates the Alternatives to Violence Project and is a member of the Inside-Out Graterford Think Tank. In 2016, he earned his Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree from Villanova University. He is an advisor to Decarcerate PA, as well as to Eastern State Penitentiary’s Prisons Today Exhibit and Returning Citizens Tour Guide Program. As a member of Right 2 Redemption (a founding organization of the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration) and Lifelines, he seeks to end the practice of caging humans until death.

Layne Mullett is founding member of Decarcerate PA and the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, and a co-creator of LifeLines: Voices Against the Other Death Penalty. She has been active in social justice movements for over a decade, organizing against gentrification, austerity, and the prison industrial complex, and working for the freedom of political prisoners. Her writing has been published in the journal Perspectives on Anarchist Theory,in the anthology Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency, and in the forthcoming book The Long Term. Layne currently serves on the Community Advisory Board for Critical Resistance. She lives in Philadelphia.

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