Addressing the Lack of Collective Action in Washington Prisons

7/14/18

Historically, people in Washington’s “male” prisons do not collectively participate in any kind of political action. During the past month I have specifically been seeking out conversations to gain a better understanding as to why. Here I will be addressing some of the common responses I have received as well as proposing how we can move forward given current cultural and systemic barriers.

The single thing that has arisen in every conversation is people’s fear of losing what they currently have. Few people phrased this as a potential for collective loss, which does not hold up as a legitimate argument. School and volunteer programs may be temporarily suspended if people in Washington prisons were a part of a collective political action, but a permanent loss would only occur if a single program was the foundation of political action. However, most incarcerated Washingtonians are honest enough with themselves to state it as a personal loss. They are worried about their job, school, visits, and telephone privileges, as well as loss of good time or custody level. While I can sympathize with this fear, I do not accept it as a legitimate argument. Fear is not the reason to bow before tyranny. It is a reason to plot and plan a safe(r) way to accomplish one’s goals, not a reason to give up the cause.

Culturally, each prison regards itself as unique. In Walla Walla, the narrative was “we are the heart.” This narrative helped support collective action there and resulted in a food strike which has successfully brought change to the WA DOC meal program. Soy is being decreased in the menu and hot breakfasts should be returning in January. Monroe has a narrative of “we are the microphone.” With Seattle and UW nearby, Monroe is “uniquely situated; lawmakers come in this prison and speak with us,” as one of my comrades has stated on many occasions. This narrative is a part of the foundation for the fear of collective loss already mentioned. Rather than regarding our geography as a boon of potential support for action, it is treated as an anchor weighing us down. It will take a lot of relationship building and long, uncomfortable conversations with outside people about what their support would look like in even the smallest action. However, having these conversations with outside people about what their support would look like in even the smallest action. However, having these conversations is complicated by people in prison fearing getting reported on having those very conversations, which leads to my next point.

People in Washington prisons believe that if they agree to participate, others will rat on them before any action begins. This is a legitimate argument. I’ve had “kites” (the form used by people in WA DOC to communicate to staff in writing) put in on me just for talking about the national prison strikes. There is no doubt in my mind that anyone who tries to organize anything will be in the IMU before day one. However, this is not a reason to do nothing. It is simply something to consider when making plans, with the rats’ idiotic excuse being they don’t want to have their routine interrupted. A culture of entitlement being so ingrained and a refusal to even think about delayed gratification makes conversation with them frustrating and dangerous. Thus, at this time, any action by people in Washington prisons will have roughly a quarter of the imprisoned population not only opting out, but actively supporting the WA DOC. This pervasive lack of consciousness and solidarity is, in my opinion, our largest obstacle.

Lack of community and censorship is also a concern. While most people treat these as two separate issues, I see them as one. The reason that the WA DOC is able to censor communication so severely is because of a lack of community among people in Washington prisons, as well as between those in prison and those outside it. I have a network of wonderful pen pals who support me. I know there are others who have the same. Yet, anytime I’ve proposed a letter writing campaign for various issues, no one has been willing to pledge to ask their friends and family to write emails or call the relevant offices to try and make change happen. I see this as isolating tribalism, with every incarcerated individual hoarding what little they have for themselves and being unwilling to even admit they have something good for fear of others begging for them to share or trying to take it outright. We can’t talk to each other because we refuse to trust each other. We refuse to trust each other because we are not willing to conduct ourselves in a way that is conducive to being trusted.

Every time I publicly state that I have a half dozen pen pals but am not supported by any of my family-by-blood, I am violating a taboo of Washington prisons and I have people respond accordingly. Anger and disgust are the usual reactions I receive. It is okay to vaguely allude to having “some sort of support out there somewhere”; however, the moment any detail is given, people in Washington prisons react against whatever is being said. Because it violates a social taboo to admit to having a network, we cannot build community among ourselves or connect those networks into a wider community outside the prison, a network of community necessary for both the social health of the human creature, as well as any collective action.

So what is the answer to all this? Well, it’s complex. Some of these issues can be directly addressed, others will take a lot more work, and some will simply have to be accepted as the nature of the environment for the time being and addressed later when we have the capacity to do so.

The easiest to tackle is people’s fear of collective and personal loss. The solution is “set the bar low.” When I say “food strike,” people think “starve until we get what we want,” which, knowing the WA DOC, will take a really long time. Furthermore, with the culture of Washington prisons being what it is, work stoppage and commissary boycotts are similarly off the table. Instead, we make both participation and the stakes low. For example, “Fast Fridays.” Each Friday for the duration of the national action, just don’t go to meals. This is what I’ve personally been doing. I’m fasting once a week in solidarity with all the men and women across the country who are doing so much more. I personally see the cause as having a spiritual component and am honoring that. Someone else may have a different opinion and we as a collective should honor that too. Whatever else the involvement, skip the WA DOC’s fine cuisine each Friday.

I believe this would solve the problem of people’s fear of loss because it’s not a strike, work stoppage, or other overtly defiant act which would get the WA DOC to swarm like hornets. We wouldn’t even be insisting on change ourselves, just going a little hungry in symbolic support of those who are. If a lot of people participate, then the administration will notice. But if very few people buy into it, the action is small enough to still be safe. This is where we begin; until this level of action can be sustained, I do not see larger action being feasible in Washington state’s “male” facilities.

The issue of lack of community is much thornier. How do we build community when everyone is lying to each other about their relationship ties, thus creating fractures in the web of community? This is a question of social trust. When in a class or sitting in circle, there will usually be some issues with keeping confidentiality early on (thus feeding the “don’t trust” narrative), then the people who were whining the most about others gossiping quit, and from that point forward there are no more issues with confidentiality (three guesses where I got my “one quarter of Washington prisoners can’t keep their mouth shut” number from? That’s the average number of people to quit before it’s actually safe to talk in most programs.) There is a lot of community building that has to happen in order to fix this, the same community building that needs to happen to fix other problems in Washington prisons, like segregated tables, jailhouse thievery, lack of solidarity, toxic masculinity, and a general sense of entitlement.

While this essay does not even come close to solving any wider problems, I hope it has outlined some solutions which will help with building the capacity to eventually address those issues in a peaceful and safe way.

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