Grieve, Grieve, Grieve; a Growing Movement for Democracy
In this issue of Under Lock & Key we are featuring reports from comrades in a number of states who are leading efforts for a campaign to have prisoners' grievances heard and responded to by state officials and employees. This campaign has continued to grow in popularity, with minimal effort by MIM(Prisons), yet many have not yet heard of it and there is much room to expand. For all who remain inspired by the recent efforts of California and Georgia prisoners, but feel your conditions are not so advanced, we suggest you work on the USW-led grievance campaigns to start getting people organized in your area.
The basic actions necessary to advance the grievance campaign are:
- File grievances on the problems you face where you're at. Get people around you to file grievances. Appeal your grievances to the highest level.
- If your grievances go unanswered, organize people around you to sign and mail out grievance petitions created by USW, distributed by MIM(Prisons). Send follow-up letters periodically to check on the status of your petition. Send responses to the grievance petition to MIM(Prisons).
- If your state is not yet covered by the grievance petition, but your grievances are going unanswered, translate the petition to work for your state. This requires looking up citations and policies, and figuring out who would be best to send the petition to.
While getting grievances responded to is essentially an exercise in reformism, we see promise in these efforts because they struggle to give voice to some of the most oppressed. This is a democratic struggle in a part of the United $tates where the least amount of democracy exists. Amerikans will tell you that's the point, "you do the crime, you do the time." But we disagree. We don't think the U.$. prison system has anything do with justice or applying objective societal rules to its citizens. The simple fact that about half of all U.$. prisoners are New Afrikan, while only 12% of the U.$. population is, disproves that theory in one fell swoop. In general, the oppressed nations have seen an increase in democracy in the United $tates, yet for a growing segment of these nations, their rights are lawfully being denied. For those who have committed real crimes against the people and should spend time in prison by proletarian standards, we think a program of reforming criminals requires accountability on both sides.
Some have pushed for campaigns to give prisoners voting rights as a method to increase prisoners' democratic rights. But we see imperialist elections having little-to-no bearing on the conditions of the oppressed nations. In contrast, we see the grievance campaign as a democratic campaign that we can support because it can actually succeed in giving prisoners more say in their day-to-day conditions.
The grievance campaign to which we are referring was originally sparked by some comrades in California in January 2010. Since then it has spread to Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas. The petitions are updated regularly based on feedback we get from those using it. The three states which have been particularly active lately are Texas, North Carolina, and Colorado.
The Colorado campaign kicked off just before recent reforms were enacted in the Colorado system as a result of passive resistance by the prison laborers being used in large-scale industry there. Similarly, Missouri's petition is specific to their conditions of censorship around a relatively new policy banning music with parental advisory ratings.
In this issue, there are two reports out of Texas, showing the varying levels of organization within a state. One comrade in Connally Unit reports of a mass demonstration.(page X) While another comrade has diligently filed the maximum grievances he can for almost two years, he has proved this road to be fruitless by himself.(page Y) But what is the lesson here? Are our efforts worthwhile? We say there are no rights, only power struggles. We already know that the injustice system is going to abuse people; it is made to control certain populations. In order to win in a power struggle, the other side must feel some sort of pressure. Sometimes one grievance to a higher level is enough to apply pressure. But when the higher level is involved in the repression, it's going to take a lot more than one persyn's grievance. Look at the example of the Scotland lockdown.(page Z) One comrade reported that grievances were being ignored, as has been common in Scotland before the lockdown. But we hear from ULK correspondent Wolf that a combination of complaints from prisoners and outside supporters resulted in an improvement in conditions, however small. This is parallel to the petition to End the High Desert State Prison Z-Unit Zoo, which met some success last year.
The lesson isn't that getting a little extra time out of cells, or skull caps, is a great victory. The lesson is in how prisoners and their outside supporters pulled together and exerted their influence on the DOC as a group. At the same time, a North Carolina comrade reports how standing up by oneself can be risky.(page A)
We think the grievance campaign is a good stepping stone for comrades who say unity and consciousness is lacking in their area. As we know from reports in ULK, the conditions in most prisons across this country are very similar. So the basis for mass organizing should exist even if it requires some hard work to get started. Circulating a grievance petition doesn't require a lot of people to start, and just about everyone can relate to it.
One USW leader involved in the original campaign in California came out to question the effectiveness of the tactic of signing petitions and sending them to state officials and legal observers. S/he proposed moving into lawsuits to get them to pay attention, particularly after one CDCR staff member implied they wouldn't address any complaints without a lawsuit. As John Q. Convict points out, there are also connections still to be made between the grievance campaign and media access in states like California to create more accountability for the captors. The best tactics will depend on your situation, but the petition is a good place to get started and to test out the waters.
This work is not just a way to bring allies together locally, but is connecting struggles across the country. One Massachusetts comrade was inspired by the efforts of a Florida comrade who was having trouble mobilizing others and wrote in to tell h: "To my Florida comrade, I want to tell you to stay strong." S/he went on to quote Mao, "In times of difficulty we must not lose sight of our achievements, must see the bright future and must pluck up our courage."
Of course, oppression will always exist under imperialism, because it is a system defined by the oppression of some nations by others. And we cannot hope to use reforms to fix a system that tortures people and then ignores administrative remedies to cover their own asses.(page B) But we must begin somewhere. And the grievance campaign encompasses many of the little battles that we have all fought just to be able to read what we want, talk to who we want, and have a voice in this society.