Blog #11: Impotent (Decolonize the P.I.C.)

Webster’s Dictionary: “/a: not potent, lacking in power, strength, or rigor …”

It seems far too obvious that when government institutions blatantly ignore the cry of progressives’ petition for change, that cry, that petition is important. It lacks the power, strength or vigor to compel government institutions to respond positively, relent and acquiesce to the progressives’ demands.

This reality is even truer when it concerns the so-called prison reform or prison abolitionist movement challenging any aspect of the prison industrial complex (P.I.C.). In every state we find the growing problem of institutional racism and repression in U.S. prisons. Standard prison rules continue to restrict prisoners’ limited First Amendment (right to assemble and freedom of expression), Fourth Amendment (freedom from search and seizure/procedural due process) and Fourteenth Amendment (each state must provide equal protection under the law to all people within its jurisdiction) rights.

The most recent case of prisoners’ resistance at California’s Pelican Bay (hunger strike), and the lackluster California activists’ effort to meet the challenge to support the prisoners, blatantly poses an issue of impotency. While California activists succeeded in getting some “passing moment” press attention, the media soon directed their attention to other matters, as did the activists. There have been no fundamental changes to improve the overall conditions of Pelican Bay’s segregated prisoners. The prisoners continue to suffer the indignities of their original charge of constitutional violations. California activists have moved on to other concerns, i.e., the Occupy phenomenon, abandoning the Pelican Bay prisoners’ demands.

Similarly, the prisoners of Georgia recently sent an open letter to the progressive community criticizing how their efforts have been abandoned, despite many prisoners continuing to be severely punished for their strike.

Here, in New York State, I’ve personally experienced a well-intentioned but impotent initiative on my behalf to challenge the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) by progressive community activists.

On January 23, 2012, I was handcuffed and escorted to the Special Housing Unit (SHU) for six months following a bogus disciplinary hearing. I had been charged and found guilty of possessing 14 photos prison officials alleged represented an “unauthorized organization.” The 14 photos had been delivered to me in late March/early April 2011 by Attica’s correspondence department. The 14 photos depicted the March 2011 community-sponsored memorial ceremony for the honored member of the now-defunct Black Panther Party Michael (Cetewayo) Tabor. Cetewayo had been one of the Panther 21, New York City Panthers who for two years were held in jail illegally under a Cointelplo-inspired indictment. The memorial service was held at City College, and award-winning playwright Jamal Joseph, a former BPP member and now a talented theater group director for young people, had his youngsters (Impact Repertory Theater) perform at the memorial ceremony, Because a Black Panther Party banner was hung on the wall behind the podium, and the performing youth wore BPP t-shirts, standing with raised clenched fists, it was charged that the photos represented an “unauthorized organization.”

When word of this bogus disciplinary hearing and penalty of 6 months in SHU, with loss of commissary, phones, packages and good time was learned of by New York City and State progressives, a noble phone and writing campaign was initiated protesting the disciplinary charge/penalty. Since I was denied the right to call witnesses during the disciplinary hearing, a clear violation of New York State Title 7 N.Y.C.R.R. 254.5 and U.S. Constitution First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees, the campaign was directed to New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, DOCCS Commissioner Brian Fischer, and Attica Superintendent Mark L. Bradt.

Despite many people writing and calling, these state functionaries, civil servants, essentially ignored the demand for them to right an obvious injustice.

Now, the problem is no way compares to the struggles of prisoners at Pelican Bay or in Georgia, but it does highlight the impotence of the prison reform/abolitionist community of activists. It expresses and exposes the ineffective challenges we make, often in direct response to crises, lacking a sustainable determination opposing racism and repressive state institutions.

In contrast, during the 2007-2009 San Francisco 8 persecution, the San Francisco 8 Support Committee organized a heroic campaign that brought many progressive groups together. The Asian, Mexican, Hispanic, New Afrikan and Euro-American activist communities joined in support of the demand to “Drop the Charges.” The SF8 Support Committee successfully obtained resolutions from the Berkeley and San Francisco City Councils for the charges to be dropped. They obtained active support from labor unions and civil rights organizations like the NAACP; from major religious institutions and newspapers in the Bay Area community support was given; liberal elected politicians joined in the demand; a huge banner was placed on a San Francisco mountain for highway travelers to see: “Free the SF8.”

The coordinated broad-based organizing by the SF8 Support Committee was reminiscent of the type of organizing that occurred in the late ’60s and early ’70s, challenging the judicial system in the many political trials of that era. Just as important, the SF8 Support Committee sustained a physical political presence in the courtroom, and at various events raising the issue, educating and building support for the SF8.

This example raised the question whether it can be replicated, from a microcosm of a successful issue-oriented campaign, into a macro-platform-oriented organizing campaign. Can a core group of committed political activists build, as in expanding concentric circles, a broad-based uniform prison reform/abolitionist determination in New York State? It is obvious that the NYS prison system is not the least concerned about any community challenges to its racist operations. Not unless or until New York State and City progressives decide and affirm the maxim that there is “strength in numbers” and “strength in unity,” will they grow to become an effective political force capable of ensuring their demands for change and justice in the NYS prison system are met.

Needless to say, it is far past time for progressives across the country to recognize in order to become effective, they must broaden their base of organizing. The continued “preaching to the choir” and “neglecting the bystanders” must come to an abrupt halt. The hard, grunt work of outreaching to unions, legal institutions, (ACLU, NLG, NCBL, etc.), religious and faith-based institutions, civil rights organizations, academia/students , and the many ethnic communities is necessary to build a powerful campaign for prison and parole reform in New York State and across the country.

I am extremely grateful to all those who made phone calls and wrote letters. At a minimum, it served to inform DOCCS my treatment will not go unnoticed. They should be prepared to hear from the community when prison personnel violate their own rules, regulations, and laws. This is an important and significant step forward; however, the task is beyond crisis response. It is a wake-up call for the need to build a powerful, sustainable campaign and movement for fundamental change.

For instance, calling for the resignation of DOCCS Commissioner Brian Fischer and Division of Parole Chairwoman Andrea Evans for dereliction of duties, abdication of responsibilities and failure as civil servants to be responsive to community expectations would be a good start. Of course, a pragmatic proposal would require the building of a Community Prison and Parole Review Board and Ombudsman with the authority to investigate and file public reports with recommendations for change to both the Governor and State legislature, and being able to file complaints with the New York State Attorney General for civil and criminal prosecution.

Conversely, it won’t be until the overall communities from which the majority of prisoners come, and will eventually return, are intimately involved with the demand and challenge for prison and parole change, that the entire prison reform/abolitionist movement will become strong, sustainable and durable. Prisons are “Big Business” in New York State, and many legislators have political investments in this business. But the biggest and unwritten investors are members of the poor and oppressed communities whose family and loved ones feed and generate profits for this business. Unfortunately, the communities, for the most part, do not benefit from the billion-dollar business of prison. Rather, theirs reward is the negative return in the form of modern day slavery.


In fierce struggle,
Jalil A. Muntaqim