In Under Lock & Key 71 we promoted a campaign in Texas’ Allred Unit for phone access and video visits during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The campaign won this immediate goal, although the campaign included a list of 15 demands that included an end to long-term solitary confinement, good time credits, releases related to COVID-19, the right to vote and more that were not addressed. Below one of the leaders draws some lessons from the campaign. Both of the excerpts below are from discussions among USW leaders on current conditions for organizing in prisons.
A USW comrade in Texas: Seven days after the phone zap all prisoners in Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU), even those on level 3, began receiving free phone calls weekly. The admin bought cordless phones, there is one on each pod. Each day one section gets calls. There are only 6 sections per pod, so 1 day of the week is ‘stuck out phone call day’ for those who may’ve gotten moved, downgraded etc. So the zap and the strike were a success, but I also observed some keen lessons. Oh, before I say that let me say that the above arrangement is supposed to last until the OTS bluephones are installed. This is what we’ve been told, although I don’t believe it.
Now the lessons: #1. A more profound respect for the necessity to remain underground. This coincides with #2 which is that the masses, both those within the organized body (the rank & file) and outside that body, are EASILY pacified with the simplest reform because for most lumpen the “invincibility” of the state and admin remains intact. Therefore if in the event the admin actually budges in any way it is considered a monumental victory and complacency sets in. That’s what I’m dealing with now surrounded by masses on the “outside of the body.”
Backtracking to #1, I find myself surrounded by masses on the outside now because the admin was made privy to my position and influence among the active protagonists (Team One). As you know, I was isolated, rehoused. Since then some captives have used their outside contacts to apply pressure to admin – this resulted in the discontinued practice of isolation of dissidents on level 3 pods. Consequently I was moved again, and although things are favorable here in most ways, the point is that the admin’s success in separating the cadres has circumvented my attempt to mobilize peers to push the movement forward.
However, I truly think that once the ‘free’ calls are taken away, and it goes back to $15 for a 5 minute call, and no OTS phones have been made available, people will see exactly what I’ve been preaching to them the last 3 months or so, then the material conditions will be ripe again. In the meantime, I’m working on developing new cadres.
MIM(Prisons): The comrade above reported on repression and bad-jacketing efforts by the state, but has worked against them through mass contact and political education. While the focus of the campaign became the immediate goal of phone access during COVID-19, the demands highlighted much bigger concerns, including the end to long-term solitary confinement, which MIM(Prisons) has spent a lot of time campaigning for over the years. Another USW Leader addressed the issue of organizing around immediate, minor reforms in the USW leaders meeting while discussing local conditions in eir prison:
USW comrade N: The most pressing issues at this facility are of course important to all who feel strongly about them (i.e.: phone access to loved ones during the lockdown). However from an organizers’ perspective, these are not battles in which we can effectively push anti-imperialism forward, much less Marxism-Leninism-Maoism (MLM), without veering into reformist practices of little tactical or strategic value. I am aware that arguments on principle can be mounted to the contrary, but absent a practicable, totalizing strategy for revolution domestically being put forward by an MLM organization that is actionable in the here-and-now (notwithstanding the exemplary work MIM(Prisons) has exhibited in their particular field of operations), we cannot effectively utilize many of these prison struggles as a proper springboard to corresponding actions in other areas, actions which do not translate into long-term pacification which benefits their prison administration in an objective, cost-to-us, benefit-to-them analysis.
If we cannot muster the resources and external manpower to mount a facility or state-specific campaign for a tactical reform to push our agenda and continually imprint firmly in the minds of all incarcerated that we have their best interests in mind, it may be advisable to abstain from participation lest credit for the reforms go elsewhere and becomes politically-neutered, or, worse yet, the system co-opts the struggle as its own and touts its successes (ie. The First-Step Act). Otherwise, we are gaining no more than sporadic traction amongst those we are attempting to revolutionize, and then only of a transient nature. We should not be trying to ‘improve’ American prisons, much like we should not be attempting to cut a bigger portion of imperialist profits from Third World super-exploitation for the lower class, yet still relatively privileged, citizens of empire.
If we are to engage in any prison organizing, then censorship battles concerning our political ideology, the UFPP and the Re-Lease on Life programs should take center stage. I find it harder to advocate quality-of-life reforms which are not linked to a totalizing revolutionary strategy outside the walls. Our goal is to radicalize those on the inside, for subsequent outside work. As for our comrades who do not have the luxury of a release date, or have sentences which essentially translate into the same, their best hope for release lies not in reforms but with an all-sided MLM revolutionary organization planning their release through eventual Peoples’ War. It goes without saying that for them, and for everyone suffering under American imperialism, the sooner, the better.
*In case it may not appear as such, all of the above is written in the spirit of “Unity-Struggle-Unity.”
MIM(Prisons) adds: Comrade N echoes MIM(Prisons) in calling for campaigns around censorship battles, building a United Front for Peace in Prisons and developing Re-Lease on Life programs. Ey reflects our general practice in shying away from inherently reformist campaigns; ones that do not contribute to our long-term goals and projects. We include the struggle against long-term isolation on that list, which Team One included in their demands, but was perhaps dismissed as a throwaway demand.
Our comrade in Texas suggests that organizing may start up again when the state doesn’t keep its promises. And we should note that it can be hard to separate out UFPP development work from reformist campaigns. Formations like Team One serve to unite different lumpen formations for common cause. With the correct leadership, and keeping our eyes on bigger goals like the UFPP, and uniting others around a list of more impactful demands, reformist campaigns like phone access could be productive. At this point we rely on the leaders of Team One to make that determination.
We think both the comrades here are contributing greatly to work on the ground and to developing the knowledge and line of our movement overall. We can also say that only focusing on the reformist campaigns, without the longer goals, is not going to change anything in regards to ending oppression and injustice. Scientific leadership liquidating its demands in the masses is an error that will not get us anywhere good either. We’ve seen many who say they unite with our goals but argue that the masses aren’t ready for them so they hide their true politics. This is called tailism, and it has not proven effective in building the communist movement.
Finally, Comrade N makes the point that we need a broader communist movement to be guiding our work in a strategic way. The fact that we are just a prison ministry focused on prisoner support, without a larger organization/formation to be guiding our work leads us much more susceptible to the trap of reformism. This is why it is important for us to be involved in the development of a broader communist movement in this country and to link up with other forces that have the correct orientation around key questions for communists.