Political Activism Killed by Religion in Louisiana

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[Religious Repression] [Prison Labor] [Organizing] [LA State Penitentiary] [Louisiana] [ULK Issue 17]
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Political Activism Killed by Religion in Louisiana

I have begun to receive ULK and I have not had any problems with censorship. There are not very many politically active people/groups here now, such as in California, so the mailroom is not hyperaware of radical political publications.

This was not always the case. Louisiana State Prison (Angola) in the 60s, 70s and 80s was a hotbed of political activism, primarily with the Black Panther Party. It was also considered one of the bloodiest prisons in America. Since the 90s it seems political activism/education has evaporated. This is mostly due (in my opinion) to the prison becoming admittedly more safe, the aging and death of the older inmate population (as the 60s and 70s were a universally more politically active time across America), and the current Warden. Warden Burl Cain has quite effectively turned the prison into a church, with even a 5-year seminary college funded by the Southern Baptists of America.

This has had an enormously detrimental impact on the prison population. There is no longer any prisoner solidarity (beyond the individual self-serving prison clubs and organizations) or any real political movement. Most (though not all) prisoners now play the religion game as a ticket to move up within the prison society and garner favor with the administration. In fact, to essentially get in any position of prisoner power - such as a club president or to work for the prison magazine The Angolite (which came to prominence under Wilbert Rideau) - you must be an active professed Christian.

The true harm in all of this is that there is no real rehabilitation or education within the prison now. Louisiana does not have parole for people sentenced to life and 90% of the 5000+ prisoners here at Angola will die in prison. This is a proven statistical fact even admitted by Louisiana DOC. The only option for lifers in Louisiana is the possibility for a sentence reduction by the pardon board. This is not a legitimate option though. It is extremely rare (once every 10-15 years) that they recommend a lifer for a sentence reduction and the governor signs it.

In the farce of this hopelessness, the warden has pushed the panacea of religion both to fight hopelessness, as well as the idea that if you garner enough favor and play the religion game well enough, you will be lucky when you go before the pardon board. The warden has made moves to place himself as an "advisor" to the pardon board to give recommendations as to who should be given a pardon (sentence reduction) and who not. This means you either toe the warden's line - be Christian, not exercise your rights, make no waves, become an informant to show you are "reformed" - or you essentially have no hope whatsoever of ever being granted relief by the pardon board. This includes those prisoners with lesser sentences who go before the parole board. The pardon and parole boards are one and the same.

All of this is a preamble to my real reason for writing this letter to you. I am attempting to re-energize a political base among the prisoner population. The most possible form this may take is by labor unionizing. Angola is one of the last great prison farms (18,000 acres for crops and cattle), along with places like Parchman in Mississippi. A good many of the prisoners here still perform agricultural labor. This food is primarily sold for private profit, not fed to us. This prisoner labor saves the state (and earns it) million of dollars, while prisoners receive little or no "incentive pay" or wages. Field workers earn 4 cents an hour or less, half of which (up to $250) must go into a "savings account" the prisoners may not use (except for a few narrow reasons) even if the prisoner is a lifer and will never get out to use his "savings." This money sits instead, in perpetuity, earning interest in DOC bank accounts for the state.

The only practical political force prisoners here may exert is by unionizing. Not only to work towards better living/working conditions in prison, but towards more just sentencing laws. Unionization as well creates a solidarity movement younger prisoners may never have experienced before which can prove fertile grounds for Marxist/Maoist education. It would be fitting to see such an agrarian Maoist movement take hold and grow here. Unionization and the educational benefits of a labor movement create the grounds for producing politically aware cadres, some who will remain in prison, but many who may return to their communities to expand the movement.

Consequently, it is my hope to recruit and develop a dedicated cadre of individuals here to research the possibility of a prisoner labor movement and further that idea by education and activism.

I have already circulated the introductory letter you sent to me describing MIM(Prisons)'s platform, as well as the first issue of ULK I have received. I further plan to enroll in your Maoist study cell. I have read and studied Marxism-Leninism for many years but am not as familiar with Maoism or how such Maoist principles may differ in form or function from Marxism. As I have always generally understood, Marxism-Leninism applied to an industrialized (to a large degree) proletariat, where as Maoism was an agrarian movement. I'm sure this may be a huge oversimplification. For that reason, I wish to educate myself more, with your help.


MIM(Prisons) responds: We support this comrade's efforts to organize prison workers. Rather than a proletariat or peasantry, the U.$. prison population's relationship to production puts it squarely in the lumpen class, as we explained in a report on the U.$. prison economy. Prison labor is used to save the state money, as this comrade points out, in its excessively expensive project of imprisoning this class of people that capitalism has no use for. Therefore organizing prisoners to heighten the contradictions of the state in fiscal crisis is of great value. And there is no doubt that this organizing serves an excellent educational purpose as well.

Maoism is an advance on Marxism-Leninism that still bases itself in the revolutionary class of the proletariat but also sees the peasantry as a key ally to the proletariat in countries like China where the system is semi-feudal and the population is so dispersed in the agrarian countryside. While we can't just take this theory and apply it to farming in the U.$. where conditions are very different, the philosophy of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM) is still very relevant today. The dialectical materialist method teaches us to learn from the best that history has to offer (MLM) and apply it to our conditions today just as groups like the Black Panthers and Young Lords did with the lumpen before us.

The history of prison labor organizing at Angola pre-dates the Panthers, and according to one blog, during a strike in 1951, 31 prisoners cut their Achilles tendons so that they could not be made to work on the farm. Acts like these distinguish those who really have "nothing to lose but their chains" - one definition of the proletariat. Religious brainwashing can be effective at diffusing such resistance, especially when there are bribes involved, but the oppressed will gravitate towards Maoism as it represents their interests as a people and not just short-term individual interests.

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