Why Occupy 4 Prisoners? What Do Occupiers Have In Common With Criminals?

Posted on 24 February 2012 by Cami Graves


Art by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, held in solitary confinement in Virginia for the past 18 years*

Seven of us got off at the stop that the bus driver told us was for San Quentin. It wasn’t a real stop but a corner about a mile away from the prison, chosen because it was as close as the bus could get without crossing the police barricades blocking the road leading there. The police had set up their blockade in anticipation of the hundreds of people who would be demonstrating at Occupy 4 Prisoners, and also, many mused, probably to discourage us.

As we seven bus-riders began our trek toward San Quentin, splitting off into singles or pairs, I found myself walking next to a woman who couldn’t have been much older than me. She led our conversation with a blunt statement: “My husband is in San Quentin,” and then, without a pause, she went on talking. I almost thought I had imagined it.

At first, the confession made me nervous, but not because she was physically intimidating. She was petite, gorgeous without makeup, and wore a leisurely ensemble of cheerful colors–she was actually the very picture (an archaic one) of feminine warmth and beauty. No, I was nervous because following her statement that her husband was in prison, my instinct was to assume that there was something essentially different between her and me, some difference of character or upbringing that led her to be married to a criminal and me to be, well, not married to a criminal.

This instinct is a learned instinct, something that society taught me. People who are imprisoned are naturally depraved. They are wastrels unfit to live among decent people because they are a drain on decent people. They are unfit to even be treated humanely because they have a non-human element, an inherent animal element. Etc.

We as a society believe these things about people who are imprisoned because we trust in the judgment of the state. When someone is put in jail, it is the modern manifestation of sticking an offender’s head on a pole or making him/her spend time in the gallows in the monarchical societies of old. Those jumpsuits and shackles are a declaration: this person is a bad person and deserves to be punished. This person does not, will never, deserve your compassion or your mercy.

As a follow-up to the Occupy 4 Prisoners action, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Chip Johnson repeated a sentiment I’ve heard too often with regards to prisoners in American society:

What Occupy 4 Prisoners fails to acknowledge is that incarceration – whether it’s the incarceration of those determined criminally insane by the courts or others who’ve repeatedly committed violent acts against others – is a valid form of punishment in any society. There are some inmates who by dint of their actions have forfeited their freedom, and they should never be allowed to walk free among law-abiding citizens.

This is not only a quite flippant summation of the nationwide Occupy 4 Prisoners effort, but it is also an ignorant assessment of what is really happening with America’s prison industrial complex. The above quote is an example of the same deflection and fear mongering that those who run and profit from the prison industrial complex utilize–the fixation on crimes that are extreme, the belief that punishment is the appropriate response to all “deviant” acts.

Unfortunately, Americans are swayed by the argument made in this quote. Of all the issues that concern us–whether or not we have the desire, will, or power to do anything about them–the problem of the prison industrial complex is one of the issues we are most willing to turn a blind eye toward. It is precisely because we feel that we are removed from prisoners, removed from criminals.

This was the thinking that led me to judge (and feel guilty for judging) the woman walking next to me on the way to San Quentin. However, as we walked and talked, I found out that we had a lot in common, and the barrier that I thought separated us became increasingly flimsy. And then a realization dawned on me that brought the barrier crashing down–the realization that I am also the close relative of a “criminal.”

Why didn’t this occur to me immediately, the moment the woman told me her husband was in San Quentin and the word “criminal” started bellowing like a siren in my head? Because I’ve just never thought of my close relative, my brother, as a criminal. In fact, I still don’t think of him as one. He is my brother, an individual, a human being, a very precious person.

In my mind, he didn’t just recede into anonymity when he became one of the 7 million Americans under correctional supervision in the United States and the 2 million currently in jail, and his crimes will never supersede all of the wonderful things he’s done or the great memories I have of him. When I consider his criminal background, it is never from the position of someone who wants to see him punished, but from the position of someone who knows his history, his circumstances, his character, his temperament, and who knows he needs help, not chains. This seems so simple to me, and yet in the U.S. we remain convinced of the effectiveness of our punitive solutions, leading the world–and all of recorded human history–in the number of our own citizens imprisoned “for the purpose of crime control.”

The family and friends of imprisoned people know how valuable imprisoned people are, the good they are capable of. We haven’t written them off yet. Neither should the rest of American society.

What if we all imagined prisoners as our family, our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives? It might help us to remember that they are also people. They’re just like us; they have dreams, they have a vested interest in seeing society prosper. Perhaps the most clear indication of this are prisoners’ struggles toward ending their own unfair treatment and becoming liberated.

It’s worthwhile to skim the statements from prisoners on the Occupy 4 Prisoners website because it is a touching reminder of the humanity of imprisoned people and it is also informative and invigorating.

Many of the statements communicate the conditions of the prisoners’ imprisonment, but they extend beyond that–they also communicate a profound concern for other prisoners and for the state of both American and global socio-political affairs (even though many of them have little access to the flow of information that we on the outside enjoy). They express their solidarity with the Occupy Movement and send words of thanks and encouragement.

A lot of prisoners, it seems, have an understanding of the terrifying realities of our society that we on the outside don’t have because, as Enceno Macy writes in a beautiful piece originally published on PlanetWaves.com, while the outside world is a mirror of prison, changes do happen, but only for the sake of appearances–to falsely convince us that we are a free people–while oppression remains fundamentally the same. In prison, there are no pretenses, and, thus, there is no delusion that things are all right.

Macy’s story is an encouraging one. He describes how he entered the criminal justice system as a  ”simple and self-absorbed” youth. “I blew my own chance without even knowing I had one,” he writes. But through much introspection and many transformations, he evolved into someone who is committed to seeing dramatic change in the world. It has been hard for him to be true to that commitment, however, because he is behind bars. To us on the outside, he writes, “There is blessing not only in being helped but in being able and willing to provide that help. You are lucky if you have the chance to make a difference, because some of us don’t have that opportunity.”

Despite the conclusions some may draw from Macy’s example, it would be false to conclude that he is a success story for the justice system. His spirit has remained persistent and his growth has continued despite, not because of, the soul-crushing conditions of American prisons.

Most prisoners, though they surely feel what Macy feels, do not emerge with such a positive spirit. A young woman, one of the speakers at Occupy 4 Prisoners, echoed the sentiments of many prisoners on Monday: “I felt like an animal. I was told I was nothing, and I believed it.”

In a 2005 documentary on torture in American prisons, infamous Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio asks one of his returned prisoners, “Why can’t you straighten up?” The man answers, “Because I’m a criminal.” Arpaio’s response: “You’re only a criminal because you want to be a criminal.” But who wants to be a criminal, to be labeled one?

Arpaio is known for the brutal conditions of the six correctional facilities he oversees, and he boasts in the same documentary that he will make prisoners live on bread and water because “they’re criminals [and] murderers!” As of the most recent surveys, the recidivism rate within 3 years of release for the formerly incarcerated is over 40%. Should this come as a surprise when draconian policies such as Arpaio’s only serve to convince the men under his supervision that they deserve the worst punishment that he can get away with inflicting on them? Hearts are hardened as bad behavior and the ability to receive punishment becomes second-nature.

An article on incarceration from The New Yorker aptly quotes Dickens in 1842:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

Many don’t want to live this life but are so broken by this system–and by the years of abuse and neglect they often suffered before they entered it–that they feel they have no other choice. Those who hope to get out, who fight back or beg for mercy, are ignored or silenced.

Sadly, prisoners’ voices are the easiest to suppress because they are already social pariahs locked behind bars. In his statement to Occupy, Sean Swain writes, “In 2007, in a published interview I observed that if Ohio prisoners simply laid on their bunks for 30 days [and refused to work for the exploitative Ohio Penal Industries], the system would collapse.” Swain goes on to say that the result of this observation being made public was that he was almost permanently moved to supermax (segregation from other inmates, the highest level of security within a prison), and he was placed on a security threat group list.

Swain writes, “The state is hysterically shit-their-pants petrified of an organized prisoner resistance, the way plantation owners feared a slave uprising.” The most profitable course of action for the prison industry is to avoid the empowerment of prisoners altogether by making their time in jail even worse than it already is.

In her speech at Occupy 4 Prisoners, author Kelly Turner spoke of how she escaped a possible life sentence under California’s 3-strikes law. Introduced to the system as a teenager, she says of herself and her fellow inmates, “The majority of us came from dysfunctional homes.” She stole and forged because she wanted to have the appearance of having it together, a motivation that is behind much of the crime committed in the U.S. today.

Many prisoners in the U.S. are imprisoned for actions that aren’t even considered crimes in other countries. Most of them are nonviolent offenders. Minorities and the impoverished make up a disturbing majority of prisoners, and the numbers of those suffering from mental illnesses and disabilities and those with substance abuse problems are also overwhelming. Roughly 75% did not graduate from high school.  Veterans, people who have risked life and limb to serve our country, are 940% more likely to end up behind bars. These facts are all clear indicators that a reexamination of the circumstances that lead one to prison is way past due.

Kelly Turner realized while on the inside that she needed to fight for herself, for her freedom. “God didn’t put me on this earth to serve a life sentence,” she says. Indeed, no one’s purpose in life is to spend the majority of it behind bars. But Turner found that enrolling in courses to receive her associate’s degree was a struggle–at the time she petitioned to take correspondence courses, women at the Central California Women’s Facility were only allowed to obtain GEDs. She says real rehabilitation programs were scarce.

Yet, common sense tells us and years of solid research shows that education improves attitude, access to opportunities, and quality of life. As another speaker said at Occupy 4 Prisoners, while he lamented the high cost of maintaining inmates, “If they put $55,000 into my education, I wouldn’t have gone to jail–I’d go to school.” Imagine! With that in mind, it makes little sense to withhold opportunities from the people who need it most, whether they live on the streets or they live in a prison cell.

“This Is Modern Slavery”–Jabari Shaw and Timbuktu Akaamka perform at Occupy4Prisoners National Day of Action

One wonderful outcome of Occupy 4 Prisoners is that the Occupy Movement has established a bond with incarcerated people that will, hopefully, help us further realize our commonalities and empower us all. Only yesterday, hunger strikers inspired by the Occupy day of action in an Ohio prison won a victory when their warden agreed to meet some of their demands for more humane treatment.

This is the kind of bonding and action we must continue to nurture. The prison industrial complex would crush the last shred of human dignity that prisoners have, the desperate desire for a life worth living, the very sense of their own humanity that would help them transcend the mistakes of their pasts. We cannot let that happen!

We all have a common goal, and in our struggle to achieve that common goal, we have a duty to reach out and lift up our brothers and sisters who are in pain and in bondage. Sean Swain writes:

For those of you who are part of the 99% but don’t really want to identify with this segment of the 99% and object to . . . possibly causing all of these criminals to go free, I remind you: The most hardened and irremediable criminals, the most ruthless killers and rapists, currently run the Fortune 500; they dictate US foreign policy; they drive cars emblazoned with “To Protect and To Serve”. You serve the agenda of those criminals if you turn your back on these “criminals.” Without us, you’re not the 99%. If my math is right, without us, you’re only about 94%.

Let’s not forget that.

We should also consider that as the poverty rate climbs in the U.S. and people are increasingly ending up in jail for the crime of being in debt, or the crime of marching in the street or throwing a seedpod (i.e. protesting), we are really not so far removed from our brothers in sisters in jail, some of whom Kelly Turner says were in for life for stealing a pair of boxers, a jar of Vaseline, a bottle of vitamins. . . . The truth is: we’re next.

A final quote from Leonard Peltier, a Native American leader who has been falsely imprisoned for 36 years.

We Indians said it for generations: If they can kill us indiscriminately, they will do it to anyone. If they can take our land, they will do it to anyone. If they can kidnap our children and take them to prison schools, they will do it to anyone. If they can starve us and lie to us, they will do it to anyone. If they can wrongfully imprison us, they will do it to anyone. Now, sadly, this is another Indian prophecy fulfilled. “We will do as we please.”

Peltier ends his statement to Occupy with the Lakota Sioux phrase Mitakuye Oyasin–All are related. We are all of us in this together.

*This art originally appeared in the San Francisco BayView with the caption, “Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, held in solitary confinement in Virginia for the past 18 years, created this visual essay for National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners and was especially eager for the Bay View to publish it. Since he drew what became the icon of the California hunger strikes (see below) nearly a year ago, retaliation has been brutal, and last week, with no warning or explanation, he was driven across the country to a prison in Oregon. Mail is critical not only to encourage Rashid as he adjusts to his new “home” but to notify the Oregon prison authorities that his many supporters demand he be treated with respect. Write to Kevin Johnson, 70384537, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, 24499 SW Grahams Ferry Rd, Wilsonville OR 97070. – Drawing: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson”