Category Archives: prison

Incarcerated Worker Movement Strikes in Alabama; Spokesman Held in Solitary

Prison bosses have retaliated against organiser Melvin Ray

Prisoners in Alabama have started to organise as workers, in conjunction with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The group of hundreds of inmates, called the Free Alabama Movement, approached the IWW some months ago in order to held them organise and get the word out about their struggle.

The IWW website reports that:

“This is the second peaceful and nonviolent protest initiated by the brave men and women of the Free Alabama Movement (F.A.M.) this year building on the recent Hunger Strikes in Pelican Bay and the Georgia Prison Strike in 2010. They aim to build a mass movement inside and outside of prisons to earn their freedom, and end the racist, capitalist system of mass incarceration called The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and others. The Free Alabama Movement is waging a non-violent and peaceful protest for their civil, economic, and human rights.

“The conditions in Alabama prisons are horrendous, packing twice as many people as the 16,000 that can be housed “humanely”, with everything from black mold, brown water, cancer causing foods, insect infestations, and general disrepair. They are also run by free, slave labor, with 10,000 incarcerated people working to maintain the prisons daily, adding up to $600,000 dollars a day, or $219,000,000 a year of slave labor if inmates were paid federal minimum wage, with tens of thousands more receiving pennies a day making products for the state or private corporations.

“In response, the Free Alabama Movement is pushing a comprehensive “Freedom Bill” (Alabama’s Education, Rehabilitation, and Re-entry Preparedness Bill) designed to end these horrors and create a much reduced correctional system actually intended to achieve rehabilitation and a secure, just, anti-racist society.

“While unique in some ways, the struggle of these brave human beings is the same as the millions of black, brown, and working class men, women, and youth struggling to survive a system they are not meant to succeed within. We advance their struggle by building our own, and working together for an end to this “system that crushes people and penalizes them for not being able to stand the weight”.

Together with FAM, the IWW is asking supporters to:

On Sunday, Erik Forman of the IWW claimed that: “There is some participation in the strike, but the Alabama Department of Corrections is doing everything it can to prevent communication between the prisoners and the outside world.”

Meanwhile, FAM have announced that: “[spokesman and organiser] Melvin Ray was taken out of his cell today and placed in solitary, without clothing or a bed, in retaliation for Free Alabama Movement #prisonstrike. Call St. Clair prison warden Carter Davenport at 205-467-6111 to demand end to retaliations. Let’s flood the phone lines. Show ’em that we’re watching!”

People can also copy and paste or adapt this email for the Alabama Department of Corrections.

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Hunger (15)

Written and directed by Steve McQueen
Screening at FACT from 14th November 2008

Steve McQueen‘s take on the final days of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands is a lyrical and beautifully shot – though unintentionally pessimistic – first feature for the director.

Sands was an Irish Republican Army volunteer, joining at the age of just eighteen in 1972, following years of attacks from loyalists. Upon his second conviction for possession of firearms, he was sentenced to a fourteen year stretch in the notorious Maze prison.

It is here that the film begins, though it is a while before Sands (played by Michael Fassbender) makes an appearance. Instead, we see new IRA prisoner Davey (Brian Milligan) arriving, and refusing to wear the uniform. For this, he is labelled ‘uncooperative’. As an otherwise naked Davey goes ‘on the blanket’, he is shown to his cell, which Gerry (Liam McMahon) has smeared with shit from floor to ceiling. This is all a protest at the officers’ treatment of the prisoners, and especially the government’s removal of ‘political status‘ from IRA inmates.

Aside from the cinematography – which is the work of a skilled artistic eye – McQueen deserves much praise for his unflinching depiction of the institutionalised brutality at the heart of a previous ‘war on terror’, in a Lisburn Abu Ghraib overseen by the draconian but very plausible Ray Lohan (Stuart Graham). We witness the systematic degradation of prisoners, and gain some level of appreciation that they truly were living in a hell on earth. This is important, at a time when the United Kingdom government is deepening its attacks on ‘democratic rights‘ which have long been taken for granted by many people.

Ironically, problems with the film become clear when the Sands character is introduced. From this point onwards, it is very much his story in isolation, about his martyrdom, to the exclusion of everything else. In a twenty-plus minute scene, featuring perhaps the longest single shot in cinema history, McQueen has Sands tell a priest (Liam Cunningham) about his plans to die, as part of a campaign for political status. After much backwards and forwards banter between the two men, the priest gets down to brass tacks and asks Sands why he wants to take this drastic step. The answer he gets is something about fields of waving barley.

By setting the film almost entirely within the Maze, McQueen has neglected almost everything that made Bobby Sands the person he was – someone willing to die for a political cause he passionately believed in. Though biopics are inevitably centred on one person, it is impossible to understand the person in isolation, without looking at the social forces that shaped that life, and the circumstances in which it is lived. From McQueen’s individualistic perspective, it looks as though the hunger strikers have brought all their suffering upon themselves.

Similarly, as we watch Sands die in agony, little context is provided. Although McQueen no doubt wanted his film to be inspiring, it is this omission which makes it depressing. Viewers would be forgiven for thinking the Thatcher government and the prison regime were all-powerful, as their fervent opponent literally self-destructs. In real life, as the strikes wore on and men started dying, massive public support put great pressure on the already unpopular British state – which eventually conceded two of the ‘Five Demands’ – and Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone on his prison death bed.

This was the beginning of the IRA’s ‘armalite and ballot box strategy‘, which saw Sinn Féin become a force in electoral politics. Arguably, what makes the death of self-described socialist Bobby Sands all the more tragic is the sight of his former comrades administering capitalism in the six counties of northern Ireland, alongside bigoted upholders of the Crown.

Prison Memoirs Of An Anarchist

Alexander Berkman (1912)

‘Oh, if labor would realize the significance of my deed, if the worker would understand my aims and motives, he could be roused to strong protest, perhaps to active demand. Ah, yes! But when, when will the dullard realize things? When will he open his eyes? Blind to his own slavery and degradation, can I expect him to perceive the wrong suffered by others? And who is to enlighten him? No one conceives the truth as deeply and clearly as we Anarchists.’

Yes, Alexander Berkman really was that annoying and up his own arse when he was sentenced to twenty-two years (though he got eight years off) for the attempted assassination (or ‘attentat‘) of Carnegie Steel boss Henry Frick. Prison Memoirs is therefore the story of an arrogant, delusional elitist ‘anarchist’ from a bourgeois background becoming someone halfway decent, with respect and genuine fellow feeling for working class people. Wow, prison works!

Berkman left Russia for the United States at seventeen, and became radicalised – like many others of his generation – by the events surrounding the Haymarket bombing. He started working with Emma Goldman (with whom he would have a lifelong relationship) and Johann Most, a staunch advocate of ‘propaganda by the deed’ – ie. political assasination as a supposed catalyst for anarchist revolution. When Frick tried to break the Homestead Strike in Pittsburgh, and the violence of his hired Pinkerton ‘security guards’ left many dead, Berkman decided to kill Frick. However, his attempt was unsuccessful on just about every level, with Frick surviving, Berkman ending up in prison, and the working class turning its back on him in disgust.

Prison really was the making of Berkman as a thinker and as a human, as he gradually learned humility, and put his failed one man insurrection into perspective. As he “suffered together” with his fellow inmates, he lost the massive chip on his shoulder, becoming helpful and considerate. The never-ending flow of letters from Goldman (here referred to as ‘the Girl’ or ‘Sonya’ to protect what was left of the feared Red Emma’s anonymity), gave him hope that he would survive the brutal prison regime, unlike so many of those he met inside. In a letter following Leon Czolgosz‘s assasination of President William McKinley, Berkman argued that:

‘Now, I do not believe that this deed was terroristic; and I doubt whether it was educational, because the social necessity for its performance was not manifest. That you may not misunderstand, I repeat: as an expression of personal revolt it was inevitable, and in itself an indictment of existing conditions. But the background of social necessity was lacking, and therefore the value of the act was to a great extent nullified.’

He had learned – much too late for his own freedom – that political assasinations can only have a negative impact on revolutionary ‘movements’ in the absence of widespread class consciousness. Working people would only have their preconceptions of revolutionaries and ruling class figures intensified by the act.

In the closing chapters, Berkman emerges from being ‘buried alive’ in prison, and slowly readjusts to life outside. It takes the attentions of his comrades and the introduction of a new Criminal Anarchy Law to rouse him from a deep depression. He continued to work for another twenty-five years, contributing to action against World War One conscription, the Bolshevik counter-revolution in Russia, and many magazine articles, books and pamphlets – until the eve of the Spanish Revolution, when he committed suicide to escape the pain of a prostate condition. Prison Memoirs is a fascinating insight into prison life, his relationship with Emma Goldman, and the slow evolution of his personality, from complete wanker to alright guy.