For Kini Seawright, and all the other women who bury a loved one due to police or prison violence...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Women's Day, violence, and Arizona's state prisoners...

FAMILIES: I've been hearing you. Here's my response. Feel free to download the PDF copy here, print, and send it into as many people you know in the prisons. This has been circulating for two weeks already, and the free men inside are beginning to write back...

International Women's Day 
 March 8, 2013
To the men who inhabit Arizona's state prisons...

As some of you may know, through my blogs and art for the past several years I've been challenging the escalating level of violence, deliberate indifference, and despair in Arizona's state prisons under the directorship of Charles Ryan - the man I've raged at the most in this time, and demanded accountability from. Only recently has it really sunk in that he is not – and never really was – in control of the prisons he administers. You, the prisoners are. Ryan, therefore, is not the man I need to be talking to about all this – the guys who run the gangs and the yards are. So are the people who listen to them.

And so, today, on International Woman's Day, my appeal to end the violence and transform the culture and politics of Arizona's state prisons goes to all you guys who set the tone in there. Specifically, I'm writing to ask for your help stopping the violence against women and children being perpetrated from behind prison walls.

I know that our welfare is something the gangs and yard leaders care about these days because you're putting a green light on every guy accused of committing a crime against a woman or child, among other things. Word has it that there's a “sweep of the prisons” going on right now to target those guys for assault, extortion, and murder. Based on all the calls I've received from the sisters, mothers, lovers and daughters of these men, however, the effect of this approach has been largely to victimize the women and children who love them.

I know you can't see that kind of unplanned consequence the same way I can – I get at least ten calls a week from women being directly terrorized by prison violence, which is why I've come to talk to you all myself, face to face, so to speak. I've come to amplify their voices, which I hope you care enough to hear. They want you to know that they're tired of losing their men and burying their children, and they want to know who among you has the courage to try to stop it.

If anyone has the power to, it's you.

Some people have told me I'm crazy for trying this – that I'm just making myself a target for gang violence in the process, and that your expressed concern about the welfare of women and children is nothing more than an excuse to justify more violence against us by way of attacking our families, which is no different from what the state does. If I don't ask for your help, though, who will? I learned a long time ago from my father that some things are worth taking a stand and fighting for, even if with it comes risk.

If all that is said about you guys is true, then my public critiques of prison gangs, my aggressive efforts to have you all prosecuted for your crimes against other prisoners, and the number of victims I've rescued from your clutches have already made me a target, anyway, and it's just a matter of time before you send someone after me. So be it: I'm not too hard to find, and won't live in the shadows in fear. I'm just hoping that down to the last man you realize that someday you or your family may need my help, as well, and let me express myself unharmed, so that I can still be here for you should that day ever come.

What I'm really counting on connecting with is your humanity and integrity, though, not your self-interest. I've heard from enough guys who have run with you to know that you're not all just products of your environment or driven solely by greed or fear. Most of you, I bet, don't even buy into the racist garbage that the state tries to divide and conquer you with, treating you as if you're all stupid – I know that's just how the politics break down in there. In a foxhole, under fire from a common enemy, a rival gang member may even come to count on you as a comrade and know, you're all under pretty heavy fire now, come to think of it.

What I've seen in my relationships with state prisoners is that most ofyou find ways to defy the dehumanization, and are constantly tryingto survive the world you've been exiled to without eternallycompromising your souls. I always thought you guys had some kind of code of honor, but I see so many guys who have felt the only way to live with themselves was to leave their gang behind, which brought them into conflict with other values, like loyalty. When ordered to harm someone they had no business with or be harmed themselves, they felt they were given no choice but to walk away.

I'm hopeful that with Arizona's prison gangs' apparent commitment to reduce violence against women and children now, though, there's room for dialogue about how you guys can help change the overall culture in there and stop chasing men of conscience from your ranks along with all those guys you don't want. Prisoners are the only ones with the power to starve the state from within of what it feeds on (and feeds us) to perpetrate brutality against you and your families: if you could confront and defy the misogyny, heteropatriarchy, racism, classism, and other bullshit that keeps us all down, you would be the heroes of this revolution.

Instead you risk coming off to the world as nothing more than criminal gangs whose power and creativity is limited to extorting grandmothers for a fix or a fast buck...which is the reason Arizonans are so quick to support the building of new Supermax prisons and further sentencing enhancements for men the state can so label. You have so much more power and potential than to settle for exploiting vulnerable people and their families, though.

Some prison gangs across the country have taken a second look at their ethical codes and begun to use their influence and organizational capacity to their people's advantage: calling out the prison system on abuses in custody, imposing statewide moratoriums on inter-racial violence, secretly teaching each other to read and to litigate the state themselves, and so on.

In some prison yards, loyalty and community is being built not through the imposition of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, but through informed and thoughtful struggle against your common oppressor. A fundamental value is growing for the kind of fairness and justice that the state deprives you of; men are no longer being condemned to additional punishments for the crimes that brought them to prison, much less for the unchecked narrative of what they were accused of that was written by the media and the state.

Instead, in some places men are being judged for the values they live in prison by and the skills they have to offer to their community – like teaching, jailhouse lawyering, and caring for elders and the very ill. Those are the kind of people I'd be recruiting as my brothers (and my sisters) – those who can help cultivate collective resistance to the real threat, state violence, not just those who may be good at collecting on debts until they get taken out by younger men like themselves.

Some prison gangs are making a point of finding and reaching out to young guys who can lead with integrity, instead of continuing the dynamics that encourage and empower those who seek “respect” or their own safety by hurting or killing the most vulnerable or detested prisoner they can find. I'm sorry if I offend any of you, but I'd have a real hard time trusting any of the latter to watch my back, and I wouldn't call them brothers, whatever color they were – nor would I have much respect for those whose interests they represented.

In places like Georgia and California in recent years prisoners have used cell phones and their extensive statewide communication networks to organize massive hunger strikes and labor stoppages in protest of their conditions of confinement, their “sedentary diets” and chronic hunger, and the deliberate indifference shown them by health care providers. They've circulated “illegal” petitions and staged solidarity actions with politicized prisoners in solitary confinement. They've called for an end to violence in their home communities, and for mobilization against the police state oppressing us all instead.

Some of you know that I'm a prison abolitionist – a position which causes State Power and prisoners alike to think I'm absolutely out of my mind. “Real criminals” know (better than anyone, I'm told) that some people just need to be locked away from the rest of us forever, and I'm delusional to think that will ever change.

What I advocate, however, is not just the demolition of prisons across the country – it's the deconstruction of the entire prison industrial complex and the creation of community-based, non-heirarchical mechanisms for promoting the values of collective liberation, shared power, and social justice. Anyone who truly wants a world in which there are no longer victims of war, poverty, rape, or other forms of violence should share in such a vision, because those paths are fundamentally inseparable.

Out of an ethical foundation which places humanity, not corporate profit, at the center of our worlds would naturally evolve more productive ways of not only dealing with addiction, mental illness, poverty and political resistance than chaining and caging people up, but that also confronts and stops those among us who harm others for nothing but their own gain or entertainment.

We are ingenious beyond our ability to imagine – surely we can come up with better solutions to our social problems than simply exiling our deviants and transgressors to a netherworld in which they and their families will be preyed on by sociopaths in orange, brown, and business suits alike while they serve sentences formulated to promote political careers, not further the cause of truth or justice.

Reinforcing institutions of state violence is a major problem, not a solution to our problems, in any case. The prison industrial complex is composed of entities and networks which consume valuable life energy and community resources while going to great lengths to justify their survival beyond their obsolescence. It depends on the perpetuation of many evils to keep us all in chains, both literally and figuratively with our fears and diminished expectations of each other.

All of that is to explain the main reason I've finally decided to come to you for help stemming all this violence – other than Chuck Ryan's impotence, as evidenced by his lack of solutions to gangs seizing control of his prisons other than to build more Supermax cells for you all. I don't want to spend any more of my energy trying to make the very system I'm a sworn enemy of stronger than the potential resistance to it. Abuse of state power manifests in far more egregious offenses against humanity than that which we throw so many people into prison for.

Furthermore, you fellows are the ones who have the most control over your environment and your destinies, not the AZ DOC or prison gangs, despite all the illusions to the contrary. Asking the state to quell the violence is only inviting them to invest in more guards, more cages, more tools of domination, and more weapons of repression. I won't do it anymore.

If you are men of honor – which I have taken considerable risk on the confidence that you are - and really wish to stop the violence against women and children, then exercise the control you already have and do the one thing Ryan himself can never hope to do: stop the violence that originates with you and your brothers. Only then will you and others begin to fully realize how much more power each of you have to transcend both the chains and the lies that make you think resistance to this state, and all the attendant evils of incarceration, is futile. It is not. I know this because I have met free men in prison already on this journey. They are organizing quietly among you – and they are everywhere.

If you are a free man, too, please write to me, and tell me how you think we can work together to help liberate the rest from the chains that try to bind us all – help me before their mothers, sisters and daughters are called to bury them instead.

Thanks for your time and concern for our welfare. May the women and children who love you never know the heartbreak of losing you to this madness, too.

Peggy Plews

Please reply to: Arizona Prison Watch / PO Box 20494 / Phoenix, AZ 85036

for good stuff about women, violence, and the prison industrial complex, see:

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence