What I learned from Albert Woodfox and Robert King

albert Woodfox

Robert King (left) and Albert Woodfox at Harvard Law School on March 8th

If you want to get perspective on your life, I suggest you spend an evening listening to Albert Woodfox and Robert King.

Woodfox, who spent 43 years and 10 months in solitary confinement, and King, who spent 29 years in solitary, were two of the Angola Three housed at the notorious Angola Penitentiary (formerly Angola Plantation) in Louisiana. The third member, Herman Wallace,died in 2013, days after being released.

Certainly you can read about them. Just this year, the New Yorker had an amazing piece on Woodfox. But hearing them speak, and feeling the hope still in their hearts is enough to make most of us think twice about not getting to work on time, missing a party, or gaining a few pounds.

Most amazing is not just that they found ways to make their lives have meaning while thrown into one of the worst prisons in the country. Housed in solitary, the men said specifically because of their beliefs as Black Panthers, they found ways to educate themselves and others. They were eloquent as they spoke about their experiences and the power of organizing for racial and economic justice.

King said his political education started on the tiers where, at the time, they had solitary cells with some bars instead of what is common today, closed door rooms. Helping others, King and Woodfox found ways to “talk and shout down the tier, give each other magazines, and educate some of the men to read and write.”Reading Marching to a Different Drummer, King realized that one person could make a difference. He said, “I learned about my innate capacities and my sense of goodness.”

Woodfox said that he would like to be remembered not just for being in solitary, but for the work he has done which others have called “modelling a moral code.” He spoke at length about prisons as a place where slavery clearly exists. For example, he said that the guards “fed us in a manner they fed dogs.” The men worked to change this at Angola and did. They went on a 45 day food strike and drank water only. The point was to get their food put on a tray on a little shelf in a way the men felt was respectful. They achieved that goal. They also stopped what Woodfox called “sexual slavery” in the prison.

Woodfox said that solitary confinement is an “unnecessary evil which exists because society sanctions it,” King added, “You do not have to violate a law in prison to get put in solitary.” Both men felt their political affiliation and their teaching about politics were the reasons they were put in solitary. “I still have claustrophobia and panic attacks,” said King.

What kept them both alive is that they joined the struggle against mass incarceration and for freedom. “Humanity is worth any sacrifce,” said Woodfox, speaking of his love for people. He added, “Freedom is a state of mind…You can never define yourself by the system that tried to oppress you.”

Many questions came to the two men about how they maintained their mental sanity while incarcerated and how they kept up the fight in such discouraging conditions. Woodfox answered this way: “If you don’t fight at all, you are sure to lose, but if you fight back, and join with others, you might win.”

A good lesson for the age of Trump, and a clarion call to end solitary confinement.

Beyond the Bars of Hopelessness

My new article on Truthout Beyond the Bars of Hopelessness: How We can Revive Parole begins: “A newly released Sentencing Project report, “Delaying a Second Chance: The Declining Prospects for Parole on Life Sentences”, lays it on the line: Incarcerated people who have been sentenced to “life” but are eligible for parole are serving excessive sentences. This is the case in spite of the fact that research shows that lifers are extremely unlikely to be rearrested if released. More

Hope you’ll read It!

We Want Real Change!

WE WANT REAL CHANGE IN MASSACHUSETTS JUSTICE

Massachusetts_State_House,_Boston,_Massachusetts_-_oblique_frontal_viewImage courtesy of Wikimedia

 

To be delivered to The Massachusetts State House, The Massachusetts State Senate, and Governor Charlie Baker

Join 70 Massachusetts organizations issuing an urgent call for immediate and substantial changes in policies, practices and procedures in the state’s justice system. 500 SIGNATURES BY VALENTINE’S DAY!

PETITION BACKGROUND

We know that you all have been flooded with incredibly important actions at this time. But justice in Massachusetts cannot become a footnote. Even though 70 orgs. signed the urgent call for action on January 17th, WE MUST KEEP THE HEAT ON.

Led by the Coalition for Effective Public Safety, we now ask individuals –as well as organizations who did not sign on to the 10 pg. letter– to do so!

We are also asking you to tell your legislators to call on Governor Charlie Baker, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg to address the clear and profound disparate treatment of people of color in our justice system and to address necessary justice issues spelled out in the letter.

We demand that state leaders make good on promises to improve fairness and outcomes for those in the system, reduce prison and jail populations, decrease recidivism, and cut prison costs. We also urge the Governor and legislators to take responsibility now in executive actions and legislation to address long-standing failings of the Department of Correction and the Parole Board.

The full letter is here, and check out ACLU and Citizen for Juvenile Justice’s calls for action on their sites.

PLEASE SIGN ON and SHARE THIS PETITON on Facebook and Twitter, and please email your organizations. Even if your organization signed, we encourage all individuals to sign on too. WE NEED TO LET MASSACHUSETTS LEADERS KNOW WE WON’T SETTLE FOR INJUSTICE.

#WomensMarch

Inspired by the Women’s March, here I am with my niece only a month after knee surgery! We had 175,000 in Boston. What a day.

WomensMarch

Keep the actions going! Here’s more info from the #WomensMarch

Action 1 / 10
THE FIRST ACTION

Write a postcard to your Senators about what matters most to you – and how you’re going to continue to fight for it in the days, weeks and months ahead. We’re offering printable postcards for you to download.

You can go it alone, or consider inviting some friends, neighbors and fellow Marchers over for a drink or dinner sometime in the next ten days to talk about your experience and fill out your postcards.”

It’s easy! Just print them at home or at a print shop and send to your senators.

For more, see The Campaign that is folowing from the millions who marched world-wide on January 21st: 10 ACTIONS / 100 DAYS.

Important Justice Resources You Need Now

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photo curtesy of Merrimack College

I’m posting a few resources that will be useful to activists in the coming era. As I find more I’ll add them.

First up by Mariama Kaba:  Compelled to Act #1: 10 Concrete Actions to Take in January 2017. This is a list of concrete actions you can take now in January. As Kaba, known as @prisonculture says, “Every month, I will be posting concrete actions that we can take in the ongoing struggle for more justice. Victoria Safford shared a quote from someone in an essay that I appreciate very much: ‘You know we cannot do this all at once. But every day offers every one of us little invitations for resistance, and you make your own responses.” I love the idea of “little invitations for resistance.’”

Secondly, from Bill Moyers’ website, Preparing for President Trump. Written by Peter Dreier, this is a “10-point plan for activists, politicians, the press and everyday citizens.”

Touched by Mery Streep’s activism, I think we all should read or re-read something I strongly learned putting on plays at Framingham and relearn every article I write: Art is dangerous”: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, and Sonia Sanchez in conversation.

I’ve been meaning to share this amazing resource with everyone since the election. It bursts the bubble of who voted for Trump. This is a Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves  passed on by activists who I trust enormously. Here’s a small piece of the rationale “We need to be thinking about how we are thinking about this election. This sense of comfort, of insulation from the horrors of America, is precisely what this syllabus is meant to disrupt. We, white people, clearly weren’t listening hard enough to people of color, to women, to queer people, to immigrants, to Muslims, to anyone who holds a marginalized identity. This did not come as a shock to many marginalized people. Instead, as a friend of mine put it: “I am hurt but my hurt comes mainly from having my fears proven. Not from surprise. I am so angry because there are so many people who needed this result to prove to them the divide of this country instead of listening to the voices of their token friends. Instead of hearing. Instead of trusting.” Now is the time to hear. Now is the time to educate and propel that education into action.

Finally, a wonderful Prison Abolition Syllabus posted on the African American Intellectual History Society site (AAIHS) and compiled by excellent contributors Dan Berger, Garrett Felber, Kali Gross, Elizabeth Hinton, and Anyabwile Love.

New Addition! A Resistance Manual  from Aditi Juneja from NYU, a project that includes many interesting ways to deal with the new administration and “get educated, get organized, and take action.”

New addition! “The 65 has compiled a set of scripts for over a dozen issues in the progressive agenda. The demands in these scripts aren’t radically left-leaning. That’s intentional. We believe that progress happens slowly, from the middle out. The middle isn’t where we want to end up, necessarily, but it’s where we have to start.”