“Understand that … people are dying who could be saved, that generations more will die or live poor butchered half-lives if you fail to act.”
— George L. Jackson, former Black Panther activist
(* September 23, 1941 – shot to death by prison wardens on August 21, 1971)
The German “Network against the Death Penalty” and the “Coalition to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal” wish the Californian Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown a pleasant and instructive sojourn in the Federal Republic of Germany, which as we have heard will include a visit to the memorial at the concentration camp of Dachau. We also ask him to learn from German history and to see to the imposition of humane prison conditions in California immediately upon his return to the United States.
We welcome the Californian Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown, his wife Anne Gust Brown and their entourage in our country. We very much welcome the fact that Governor Brown is interested in his German roots. We also very much welcome that he is not only interested in the German conditions in 1848 – the time when his grand-grandfather emigrated – but also in Germany’s more recent history. At any rate, that is what we conclude from his planned visit to the KZ Memorial Dachau.
But there is one thing we would welcome even more, namely, if his visit in Dachau would cause Governor Brown to ensure, immediately after his return to the U.S., decent present conditions in the prisons under his authority, to put an end to solitary confinement, to decree the immediate release of about 10,000 prisoners already ordered by the courts, to give the prisoners access to appropriate medical care, and to end enforced sterilization of female prisoners. And moreover, to take action to end the death penalty, to end life imprisonment, and to end the current wave of mass incarceration in the U.S.
More than 43 years ago, the imprisoned Black Panther activist George Jackson used to sign his letters from the Californian San Quentin Prison with the words “from Dachau with love.” The concentration camp Dachau existed from March 22, 1933 until its liberation by U.S. troops on April 29, 1945. At first, it was exclusively used for political prisoners, which is one of the reasons for George Jackson’s allusion to this darkest chapter of German history. But most of all, he wanted to use this provocative salute to direct attention to the inhumane prison conditions he and thousands of other prisoners were subjected to.
Today, the prison conditions in California and the U.S. are far worse than even almost half a century ago! In California and nationwide, more than 80,000 prisoners are in prolonged or permanent solitary confinement, a condition which diverse UN human rights institutions say constitutes torture. For these reasons, at present about 30,000 prisoners in California prisons are on a hunger strike and refuse to work.
For these very same reasons, California is now the scene of the largest prison revolt in the history of mankind.
And Governor Brown is the man politically responsible for the root causes of this strike.
We ask you, Governor Brown, to set an example. In their time, the U.S. Army consigned the inhumane prison conditions at Dachau to the trash heap of history. The same thing should happen now to the unbearable prison conditions in the prisons of the United States – and especially the prisons in the State of California, which you govern. Act! Put an end to these prison conditions!
Insofar as I have reason to believe that known readers of George Jackson frequent these premises (if you haven’t read him yet I recommend it; the results can be breathtaking), and given, moreover, the fact that this joint appears to have become a kind of elliptical prison channel (elliptical in the sense of that which tends to fall short), herewith comes a Fiery Flying Signal Boost for the latest installment of the ROCK (pdf; archive here), a newsletter filled with news you can use written by prisoners themselves, and edited by a former member of the George Jackson Brigade (as he explains in his editorial). Since the new issue includes a poem, the announcement is submitted without apology (for those of you who have mistaken the Roule for a poetry device). I would encourage you to subscribe and donate, whether stamps or shekels or both, if you are able.
Possession of a piece of paper with the words “George Jackson” on it, by the way, has been used as grounds for throwing prisoners into solitary confinement in the state of California — it is taken as evidence of gang affiliation, apparently, by paranoid prison administrators.
As for the hunger strike that has been initiated by prisoners in those Special Housing Units where solitary confinement is produced and endured: that proceeds as advertised, rounding towards the end of its second week, with predictable reprisals and impressive absenteeism. The Governor has embarked on his European vacation, but no real surprise there: the California Correctional Peace Officers Association — perhaps the most potent union in the country — gifted him with a $2 million campaign in his favor when he ran for office in 2010. Such largesse may seem exceptional, but the spending category itself was not: every sitting state senator has in fact received contributions from the CCPOA, and the union has assiduously promoted the sentencing guidelines (such as three strikes) that have generated a devastating explosion in the prison population over the last decades. (That population increased by over 140,000 since the beginning of Jerry Brown’s first stint as Governor: from ~20K in 1975 to ~163K at its peak in 2006.) One hates to rat out a union, but when they’re so clearly engaged in a skin trade, and bring a contradiction to such vivid light, it cannot be avoided. The so-called realignment process (described here and in FFR 23 [pdf]) poses a direct threat to the prison union’s livelihood, insofar as the Supreme Court-mandated reduction in the prison population by ~25% will yield a reduction in force on the guard’s side of the dial, with a concomitant reduction in the union’s quondam legendary war-chest, which is after all produced by members’ dues. That war-chest took another bad hit when the union lost a $5 million defamation lawsuit last year. On the ropes thus, it was little surprise that the CCPOA last month petitioned to participate in a lawsuit from SHU prisoners against the practice of solitary confinement. Indeed, these labor-intensive Special Housing Units may well be the union’s last best hope for holding onto a few jobs — even tho they constitute an internationally recognized form of torture, a cruel and unusual punishment of the very sort the Supreme Court decided to remedy. (Cf. current hunger striker Todd Ashker’s analysis along these lines from early 2012.)
They (we) are fellow prisoners. That recognition, in whatever tone of voice it may be declared, contains a refusal. Nowhere more than in prison is the future calculated and awaited as something utterly opposed to the present. The incarcerated never accept the present as final.
Sometimes I think this whole world is one big prison yardSome of us are prisoners, some of us are guards