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Hidden table caption inserted for accessibility: Images, text and links for OUT OF CONTROL A 15-YEAR BATTLE AGAINST CONTROL UNIT PRISONS by Nancy Kurshan.
 

OUT OF CONTROL: A 15-YEAR BATTLE
AGAINST CONTROL UNIT PRISONS

 

7. DEVELOPING A RHYTHM: 1986

The resource list
The 1986 resource list
1 page PDF

On May 19, 1986 we organized a report back (24 page PDF), an opportunity to share the activity with friends who were unable to attend the April 19 caravan and to bring together those who had participated. May 19th is the birthday of Malcolm X, so we thought it appropriate to show a movie about his life in addition to videotapes of our demonstrations, in our continuing efforts to connect the issue of racism to our Marion work.

By now we were no longer fooling ourselves into believing we were a temporary, ad hoc group. In fact, we made a conscious decision to continue the work, and were developing a rhythm to our work, alternating between educational events and demonstrations and actions. We called ourselves The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML). In the beginning we had no resources of our own—no mail box or telephone or bank account. Citizens Alert, a generous group that monitors police abuse in Chicago, agreed to be a conduit for checks. The People’s Law Office offered their address and phone number for our use. We were off and running.

Each fall we held a large program around the anniversary of the lockdown, and in the spring we took to the streets.

In between we held smaller meetings and events, spoke whenever and wherever invited, organized petition campaigns, and toured other places when asked. We created slide shows, videos, pamphlets, transcriptions of programs, newsletters, and resource lists (1 page PDF).

We sent out frequent reports to our friends and supporters. Ultimately we had about a thousand- person mailing list (this was before e-mail replaced all that) and organized regular, labor-intensive and expensive bulk mailings. Usually one person from the Committee was in charge of organizing the mailing, and many others participated. Often we made a party out of it, with pizza and music, and enjoying one another’s company. The contents had to be collated, stapled, sorted and banded together by labels printed out according to zip codes and placed in large bags that were hauled to the downtown post office along with the necessary paperwork. It was always worth it, as we had an extremely responsive mailing list. In many ways, the people on that list, from all over the country, were central to our work. We kept the list alive, updating it regularly. For years, even after he stopped coming to meetings, Glenn Good kept the computerized list up-to-date, regularly entering new names and deleting returns. We couldn’t have done it without his reliable commitment.

We also had an extensive correspondence, not the least of which was with prisoners throughout the country who had heard about our work. At first we used the People’s Law Office as our address, but after a while we rented a P.O. Box. I picked up the mail regularly, but Steve really put his shoulder to the wheel. He was in charge of answering all the mail, and made sure that every single letter from prisoners and non-prisoners alike was answered in a timely manner either by himself or someone else in the committee working with him. Most weeks this task alone involved hours of work.

Interaction with prisoners, especially at Marion, was critical to our work. We did not see them solely as victims, but as essential participants in the work. We listened to them. We learned a great deal from them, and we were inspired by their commitment and courageous resistance, sometimes literally putting their lives on the line. In fact, among our most effective pieces of propaganda were annual publications of their letters in what we called “Reflections on the Lockdown.” (8 page PDF). In these publications the voices of the prisoners rang through loud and clear.

In October of 1986, National Public Radio (NPR) did a two-part series on Marion, in no small part due to our work. We considered that a breakthrough as the mainstream media generally refused to cover the inhumane conditions and the struggle for prisoners’ human rights. We transcribed the NPR programs and published them in pamphlet form (15 page PDF).

On November 1,1986 we held a Conference for Education and Action, emphasizing that it was now the third anniversary of the Marion Prison lockdown. Steve, a statistician by trade, researched the facts, and we produced a flyer noting that Black people were incarcerated at six times the rate for white people in this country, and almost twice the rate for Black people in apartheid South Africa! In addition, we pointed out that there were now over 100 political prisoners in the United States.

In the course of the 15 years of our work, we were constantly studying and analyzing imprisonment, control units, racism, and similar larger dynamics in society. We often formulated concepts that we anticipated as relevant for the future. I will mention these as they occur organically in this narrative, but one is particularly relevant here, because during Steve’s presentation, he noted that if things kept going the way they were, by 2000 the United States would hold a million people in prison. Many people ridiculed us for this observation, yet this dubious goal was reached, in fact, in 1995. This was one among many of our predictions that unfortunately came true.

In the months leading up to the conference, several more political prisoners were transferred to Marion, as we again, had unfortunately predicted would be the case: Oscar López Rivera, Kojo Grailing Brown, Tim Blunk, and Ray Levasseur. Similarly, the Lexington Control Unit had opened in October with two women held there, Alejandrina Torres and Susan Rosenberg, both political prisoners.

Our Conference for Education and Action took place at Wellington United Church of Christ which was becoming our welcoming home away from home. Not only were most Marion events held there, but it was used by many other movement groups, such as the Disarm Now Action Group and the Pledge of Resistance.

About 125 people attended the three workshops, which did not focus specifically on Marion. (See Letter to Friends, 4 page PDF). This approach grew out of our view that Marion was not a “prison problem,” but rather one manifestation of an increasingly repressive political climate.

The Legal Repression workshop featured: Rachel Rosen de Golia, Executive Director of the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights; Mary Ann Corley of the National Sanctuary Defense Fund; and People’s Law Office attorney Michael Deutsch.

September 1988 NPR story on the lawsuit and subsequent closure of Lexington Women's Prison.



Rachel opened with an overview of efforts by the Reagan government to concentrate power in the hands of the Executive Branch, justified in the name of “national security.” She pointed to expanded FBI guidelines, legalizing government surveillance and infiltration; restrictions on the rights of government employees to criticize policy; and limitations on access to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) files.

Mary Ann explained how the arrests of the first Sanctuary workers , the break-ins of Sanctuary offices, and the increased surveillance and red-baiting were all an extension of the U.S. administration’s war in Central America, particularly attempts to silence refugees whose stories of government atrocities had moved many North Americans to action. She added that it coincided with the deepening commitment of the U.S. to a strategy of low-intensity conflict against the people of Central America.

Michael provided an overall framework for thinking about repression, which he defined as a function of the state to maintain unequal political and economic relations. He maintained that repression is a permanent condition under capitalism, and that the changes represented the response of the government to the lessons they had learned from the 1960s. Focusing on the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, Michael explained how this strategy was aimed at criminalizing an entire movement by equating revolutionary activity with terrorism. (It’s well worth noting that this formulation Michael presented 25 years ago is equally true today.) He noted the use of the Grand Jury as a method of arresting and detaining activists without trial, highlighting the Bail Reform Act which meant those arrested could be held without bail if the government said they were a danger to the community or a flight risk.

The Political Prisoner workshop included Bob Bossie, Jaime Delgado, Chokwe Lumumba, and Barbara Zeller. Bob, a Catholic priest, spoke on behalf of the Plowshares activists and urged us not to separate ourselves from people like Nelson Mandela, Leonard Peltier, or Rafael Cancel Miranda: “We must not distance ourselves from them by setting them up as heroes, or letting the government make them objects of derision as criminals. We should refuse to let our hearts and wills be coerced.”

Jaime, Chairperson of the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Prisoners of War, was himself under indictment at the time for allegedly conspiring to aid a prison escape. He maintained that as the government cuts off more options for legal change, the prison system becomes increasingly a tool of counterinsurgency against all who dare to make a decision to act. He argued that since prisons are the point of confrontation between those who act and the state, Marion and Lexington should become rallying points for our movements.

Chokwe gave a historical view of Black political prisoners, placing them in the context of the enslavement of Africans by Europeans and asserting an essential connection between Nat Turner and the 1980s Black Liberation Army political prisoners who “acted against killer cops and drug dealers, and expropriated money to support community action programs, as well as the African liberation movement. Support for them is not just a matter of ‘civil liberties’ but of Black freedom.” (See Letter to Friends).

Barbara, of the Committee to Fight Repression, placed the North American anti-imperialist prisoners like Alan Berkman, Laura Whitehorn, and others in the history of the last five years of those who saw the need to wage armed actions against the U.S. war machine, acting in solidarity with peoples of Central America and South Africa, as well as New Afrikan/Black and Puerto Rican people in the U.S. She said they were being denied access to media, denied visits of family and supporters, and denied political legitimacy.

“The Changing Nature of the U.S. Prison System” was the third workshop. Presenter Joan McCarty, Director of the Prison Workshop Players, read a long letter from a group of prisoners in the Illinois maximum security Stateville Correctional Center regarding their perceptions of changes that had taken place. They noted that “rehabilitation” had been thrown out the window in favor of warehousing prisoners, overcrowding, increased security, such as guard towers, and a younger and younger prison population.

Steve spoke for CEML. He began by affirming that Dostoyevsky was right when he said that if you want to understand a society, you should look into its prisons. Who is in prison gives great insight into what the purpose of prisons must be. Steve had spent a considerable amount of time using various books, journals, government documents, and phone calls to the U.N. to gather information about imprisonment rates, and he presented the data in the form of a slideshow. I don’t believe anything like this had been done before. Although these types of statistics have become common, back then this was cutting edge documentation. Through statistics and graphs he drew a dramatic picture and concluded:

I offer the following observations. First, prisons are being filled at a rate faster than ever before in the history of the United States and this has nothing to do with crime. This increase is associated with more and more people of color going to prison—at a rate that is the highest in the world. When these two observations are put together, I think that it tells us that prisons are some kind of control mechanism for people of color—some attempt to contain them both physically and politically. (See full presentation)

Dovetailing with Steve’s presentation, José dated major changes in the “criminal justice system” to 1965, the year of the assassination of Malcolm X and the establishment of the Uniform Criminal Justice Code, which was just about the time that Steve’s data showed the beginning of dramatic increases in the number of people imprisoned by the U.S.

After the workshops, Bob Robideau spoke to all of us assembled in one large room about the situation of Native American political prisoner Leonard Peltier. We then showed a video of interviews with Lucy and Alicia Rodríguez, Carmen Valentín, and Dylcia Pagán—four Puerto Rican political prisoners held at U.S. Federal Prison in Dublin, California—explaining their dedication to Puerto Rican independence, the special issues of women in the struggle, and the hard conditions they faced in control units.

The Puerto Rican contingent held a fundraising dinner for all present, and we then convened to the Church Sanctuary where the Prison Workshop Players performed a piece that showed the effects of prison on Black families, loved ones, and political leaders. We then gathered for the evening panel on Marion and heard from Michael Deutsch, Marion attorney Nancy Horgan, Chokwe Lumumba, and Jan Susler. Together they addressed the conditions at Marion, as well as questions of strategy and action.

What a long day! Were we crazy to carry on like that?

We felt that many good things came out of the conference. Word was definitely getting around about Marion and Lexington. We had now gathered a substantial collection of literature on the topics and related issues that were distributed or sold. We gave everyone a copy of "Marion, The Prisoners Speak " a collection of statements by the political prisoners at Marion that we solicited, assembled and duplicated. Steve had put together a 30-minute slideshow, "Shut Down The Control Units," and we were encouraging people to show it as widely as possible. We had produced a general pamphlet and developed a "resource list," both of which we would update and use for years to come. We distributed the flyer announcing the free 754-page book about Marion that was published as a result of Representative Kastenmeier’s congressional subcommittee investigation into Marion, and we encouraged people to send for it.

About 175 people attended the conference, many of them new to prison work, who found out about it by seeing our flyers or notices in newspapers, etc. We felt the presentations were of high quality.

We didn’t want people to leave without proposing immediate work and next steps. We had two activities to offer: one, a petition drive demanding an end to the lockdown, a closing of all control units, and the stopping of selective mistreatment of political prisoners. The other activity was a demonstration planned for December 6. Yes, during winter in Chicago! (See flyer.)

Shortly after the conference we sent a letter to our mailing list about the demonstration and inviting everyone to come to a public meeting to discuss it. In memory of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was assassinated by a joint task force of the Chicago Police and the FBI on December 4, 1969, we would also show a movie “The Murder of Fred Hampton” and hear from attorney Jeffrey Haas, a lawyer for the Hampton and Clark families, again echoing our view about the relationship between the inhumane conditions at Marion and the rampant racist and political repression in the U.S. (See flyer.)

I document all these steps to show how we left no stone unturned. We didn’t just have a demonstration. We had a meeting about a demonstration. But we didn’t just have a meeting. We educated by showing a film and having Jeffrey speak. And we didn’t just educate, we made sure we had activities that people could join. We never wasted the chances presented by a gathering of people or a projected demonstration. We called, we mailed, we reminded. We held meetings, distributed literature, updated, reported, showed videos, slideshows, etc. We did not have a single staff person. It was all volunteer labor and a good deal of volunteer money.

Despite the cold and rain of a Chicago December, approximately 175 people turned out for the demonstration. After a short picket and rally, we marched through the downtown shopping area. The sidewalks were filled with Christmas shoppers who stopped looking into decorated display windows long enough to read our colorful banners and take leaflets explaining why we were there. The march, co-sponsored by our usual partner, the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Political Prisoners and POWs, then wound its way to the Bureau of Prison’s Metropolitan Correctional Center where Oscar López Rivera and Kojo Bomani Sababu were being held under adverse conditions awaiting trial. Several people spoke, including representatives from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America, the religious-based community organization Synapses, The Blacks in Law and Criminal Justice Clubs, and No Pasaran, a women’s group that was a part of the Pledge of Resistance.

A family member of one of the imprisoned Plowshares activists spoke, and we were fortunate to have Rev. Ben Chavis, former political prisoner and currently Director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice. Rev. Chavis exhorted everyone within earshot to work to get all freedom fighters out of jail and put the real criminals such as Ronald Reagan behind bars.

More and more people were embracing the work, in ever widening circles, and making it their own. The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown remained small but mighty. Other members of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee joined. Some came and some went, but Russell Brinkman and Michael Stanek would both be an essential part for many years until its ultimate demise. Michael had been in prison himself for a Plowshares-type action. During the day he worked for a messenger service company, delivering packages by bicycle, no small feat in Chicago weather. We used to tease “Stanek” about never missing a demonstration of any kind. He seemed to always be there. He would generally bring sweet treats to our meetings, carrying them on his bicycle in his backpack.

Russell was the only one in the Committee who seemed to know anything technical. Luckily he seemed to know everything and was responsible for all sound and visual equipment and setup. He did a sterling job, and as a result all our events ran extremely smoothly. He also knew how to operate computers and was essential in the production of almost all our literature. His good-natured energy and spirit permeated CEML’s work. What’s more, he was an excellent skateboarder. Other members of Prairie Fire, although not members of the Marion Committee, were always extremely helpful with childcare and logistics, as well as encouraging their friends and acquaintances to join in the prison educational events and demonstrations. And they never missed an event!

The Prairie Fire Organizing Committee also made it possible for me, as a working mother, to be an activist by providing every parent in the organization with a “childcare team,” a group of people who each week would take shifts caring for the children. I know of no other left organization that has had such a commitment.

Generally the hard core of CEML hovered between 8 and 12 people over the years, occasionally expanding to 15 or so, only to dwindle within months. However, there were many, many people who never came to a meeting but were crucial to the work. For example, our friend Jade Dell wrote two articles entitled “Wall of silence will work only if we let it” and “Religious leaders work to end the Marion Prison lockdown” for The United Methodist Review.

A man named Edward Corwin, who we had never met, wrote letters to members of Congress. He pointed out that the troubles at Marion had begun after the arrival of a new warden, one Harold Miller, and that after the lockdown, Miller moved to Lewisburg, Pennsylvania where, within weeks of his arrival, Lewisburg was locked down. Ed also wrote that:

The conditions at Marion are, themselves, criminal actions every bit as vile as the crimes that landed the inmates at Marion in the first place. And they are being committed in the name of us citizens and with our tax dollars. That makes us all accomplices, putting us in the same moral class with the real criminals, thus depriving us of our right to pass judgment on them.

On the practical side, professional psychologists who have observed this scene have concluded that these conditions can only lead to catastrophe. It has been suggested that the objective of this barbarous treat is “total control.” There is no such thing. Attempts to establish it can only result in total rage. And that is uncontrollable.

Ed received letters back from U.S. Senator Paul Simon and U.S. Representative Cardiss Collins, both Democrats from Illinois, which he shared with CEML. Simon agreed that conditions at Marion were unacceptable and was forwarding his letter to Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania, chair of the Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice. Cardiss Collins also agreed that the lockdown at Marion “is a concern for all Americans. You will be pleased to know that the House Judiciary Committee has conducted an investigation of this situation.” She added, in a rare moment of congressional honesty, that, “Unfortunately, due to the independence of the Federal Department of Justice, it is difficult to initiate change at the prison.”

As 1986 came to a close the human rights group Amnesty International, centered in England, delivered a report to U.S. Attorney General Meese decrying conditions at Marion Prison.

To Chapter Eight: Permanent Lockdown
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