Finding Ways to Relate Helps Educate
These were very thought provoking question you asked: Do you find it impossible to relate to people in your facility? Do your organizing conversations go nowhere? Do you struggle to get people to see the importance of writing grievances? Well yes, yes and yes.
Many people say it is futile – show them, tell them examples of otherwise. Offer to help if necessary.
I get angry with those who say, and this is quite common, "don't come to prison if you don't like it." I say "so, you must like prison by that logic?" And I point to the relatively small-time offenses here compared to the larger ones perpetrated on us and the other oppressed people. I'll say, look around, see anyone with any money, any rich or much less upper class people up in here? I will appeal to their humanity and ask: is it okay to take parents (mothers in my case, it's a women's facility) away from their children for trying to support themselves? Point out the economic basis of most crime in here.
Drug addicts often say "prison saved my life." I'll ask what else might've helped you even if it was not available to you at the time? What is prison helping you do differently to not use drugs? Do you know the statistics of recidivism to not only drugs (relapse) but re-incarceration? In a group, one can say all 5 of you claim you won't come back but 4 of you will, which ones? Why could this be? And point out the "felon branding," job killing, underclass designation. We don't have realistic options to not be around opportunities to use drugs, sell drugs, etc. And more importantly why do people use the drugs they do? I'll talk about Dr. Gabor Mate's theories of addiction, science of addiction and how drug cases and/or addiction is dealt with in other countries. How capitalism and materialism feed the alienation and psychic (and physical) pain behind some addictions. Is there recreational use? Why is marijuana now legal in 2/3 of states from full recreational to medical yet Feds still criminalize (we have several women here on marijuana charges).
Most importantly, I cultivate good will, openness and friendliness to most inmates. I ask them about their families and comment on family support being such a blessing. I talk to women, joke with them and show my own struggles, vulnerability and wishes. I share pictures and stories of their dogs and my dogs together, boyfriends, and I see people's good characteristics and basic drive to connect.
I redirect all the "positive thinking" into imagining what constitutes actions. From first being thought of as "crazy" now I am considered the fiery, spunky "fighter" in my 60s (I don't look or act like it, they say), and I do not believe I have a single enemy out of 93+ women. A few of the COs do not like me however, because I will challenge them (not needlessly or if I am doing something I could get written up for). For example one telling me I was "disrespectful." Well, this is true, I do not respect lizards who jail people and profit off suffering. However, they cannot punish a feeling, only an action. So, having the correct attitude, but avoiding an action that only hurts yourself and denying the CO "a win" is a win for the cause.
I cannot see the state weakening. It seems ever more powerful everyday especially legally. The Feds especially are punishing small economic and drug crimes with five years and up sentences. The new attorney general is pushing the agenda for prosecutors to go for the high end of guidelines and give out longer sentences for victim-less crimes than murder in most other countries. The decisions by the Supreme Court and Appeals Courts have seldom been in the interest of the people.
The reason gay and lesbian movements are being championed is because they do not challenge the status quo on the capitalistic power structure whatsoever. Think if felons received the same considerations in hiring and for governments benefits. But it is completely legal to be prejudiced and deny any employment or service based on being a felon. The New Jim Crow isn't just for New Africans anymore.
That's my thinking. If I am to be a martyr you will know. I'd like my life or death to have some consequence in the struggle.
MIM(Prisons) responds: In everything we do, we must try to determine what will have the most impact the fastest. Sometimes people are ready to just hear facts and then start doing political work. More often, people hear truth in what we're saying, but also have a lot of resistance and ambivalence. As organizers, we're trying to influence them and push them. So helping them through these roadblocks is our job.
In these types of conversations, there is a natural dialectic that occurs, where when one persyn takes one position, the other persyn naturally argues the opposite position. And the more we argue a position, the more likely we are to internalize that position and behave accordingly.
So often we fall into the trap of trying to tell people what to think, inadvertently entering into a head-on debate. Or we rely on luck that the timing is right for them to grasp on to what we're saying. These are the easy routes of recruiting, because they don't require as much thoughtfulness or introspection on our part. And when people don't grasp it, we can put the blame on them for being lazy, or too caught up in tribalism/capitalism/whatever. And sometimes we get lucky and people do grasp it, which validates our mediocre approach.
But if we want to be the most effective at helping people grow and change, we have to understand where they're coming from, where they're at.
In impersynal recruiting such as sloganeering, public speaking and writing in ULK, understanding our audience might just mean understanding (or defining) their class, nation, and gender intersections, and cultural background. There is always individual variability, but even when trying to reach people on a group level, we can have an understanding of where they're coming from. We aim to speak to and with our audience, not at them.
If we're having 1-on-1 conversations, then helping them break through their roadblocks might also include getting to know what's important to people on a persynal level. Then we can relate the growth back to their persynal goals and show how the two are actually intertwined. This author explains how ey takes this approach to show people that they're on the same team. This is much different than the "you're wrong, if you don't agree with me, fuck you" approach that so many of our comrades take in their recruiting.
When we know someone is interested in doing political work, but is showing resistance or ambivalence, we can choose to dismiss them, or we can go deeper. We can lay blame, or we can take responsibility. Organizing is hard. We can try harder.
This comrade's criticism that some movements are allowed or even promoted because they don't challenge imperialism is on point. Allowing gay people to serve in the military is a good example of this; we won't fight to expand the imperialist military in any way. At the same time allowing discrimination against felons is a way to target oppressed nations while masking it behind a label of "criminal" activity. People convicted of felonies are disproportionately New Afrikan or Chican@.
This is where our understanding of the bigger picture of prisons as a tool of social control is critical. Oppressed nations are targeted for imprisonment even though white people also get caught up in the prison dragnet. This is most definitely a system of national oppression and a way to handle the lumpen population which would otherwise be idle and questioning its lack of economic opportunity — a perfect recipe for politicization. In fact, the prison boom was a direct response to revolutionary activity in the 1960s and 70s!