On Feb 27, 2015 from 1-3:30pm, I spent the afternoon with about 50-75 men locked up inside Maine's maximum security Warren State Prison, along with about 15 community members (some of them very distinguished like professors, long-time civil rights activists, and the new dean of UMaine Law School, Danielle Conway), as well as the Warden and Deputy Warden of the facility.
It was the most incredible experience, and I hope a conversation that adds to the ongoing efforts by the Maine NAACP to link organizing inside and outside the Maine state prisons, and continued partnerships for education and political/social change.
NAACP branches outside the prison have been cooperating at the lead of the Warren State Prison NAACP Branch (led by prisoners) to put on a film series: each month a movie is viewed by community members on the outside, and people in the prison, then they come together the next week to discuss the film. So far, none of the films have been about criminal justice or prisons. Until NOW!
The leaders of the NAACP branch on the inside of the prison made history last week, by playing Broken On All Sides inside a prison for the first time. Then we did again, I think, by having really deep conversations about race and racism, prison oppression and prison organizing/fightback, inside the prison yesterday (in front of the Wardens mind you). I have to hand it to the Wardens, who Rachel Talbot Ross (head of Maine NAACP) cited as politically progressive and seeking to initiate important reforms. It was amazing to hear one of the guys say "We need to strike like they did in the Georgia prisons. But how many of you are willing to do that? Raise your hands if you'd be willing to do a strike here in Warren!" A majority of the men raised their hands, there in front of their "overseers," and the young man continued for 2-3 minutes on this. How fucking fantastic.
They talked about not letting race, appearances, or backgrounds divide them.
They talked about how they want education inside the prison, and how could they begin to create programs inside to rival the gym and weightlifting facilities.
They talked about getting more guys involved, about speaking up about this and filing grievances.
They talked about the bigger picture: most of them are in there for drug offenses, as are most of the nation. The "War on Drugs" is a war on people, that does not make our streets safer, and it must end.
A couple of them talked about the part in the movie where Michelle Alexander says "all of us are criminals: there is not one of us who has not violated the law and some moment in our lifetimes." But it's about how law enforcement and prosecutors choose to target poor communities, especially communities of color.
They talked about starting a think tank, along with community members coming in.
They talked about what happens when they get out, the best ways to stay out, and how to continue to have an impact politically and grow themselves when they are released.
They facilitated their own conversation better than any college presentation I've been at, respectfully listened to each other, and never let themselves go on too long.
We talked about how things change for them when outside community members are there to observe (the COs and the Wardens mostly kept quiet the whole time), and how we community members might be able to continue coming back inside to allow prisoners the space to organize for change, the space to discuss these ideas in large groups. They talked about grievances with their specific facility, the racism experienced by Black prisoners from the COs there, and their white brother prisoners backed them up and said "I have seen it, I have seen the racism against my cellmate."
This was a mixed-race crowd. And although guys sat in groups that were mostly white or mostly Black, there was definitely some mixing of races, friendships, and political groupings (such as the group in the back corner who had studied Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow together).
Before the event started, and as many of the guys were coming inside the "multi-purpose room," I mingled with them to introduce myself and ask them how they liked the film, get any other comments, etc. The guys were so grateful that we were there. I tried to express that the pleasure and gratitude was sincere for me too, and that this was the most important screening event I've done to date.
They talked about how they could spread the word about the project and help the movie tour across the state (and country)-- by telling their families when they talk to them. I handed out business cards (through the prison Chaplain) so that they'd have the information. And glad I printed cards that had some political info on the back and a description of the project: "The U.S. has 5% of the world's population, yet 25% of the world's prison population. The "home of the free" also locks up more of its ethnic minorities than any other country. This documentary explores the biggest civil rights struggle since the end of Jim Crow segregation. It dissects the War on Drugs and the targeting of poor communities of color, exposes the "tough on crime" movement, and offers possible reforms and solutions to ending mass incarceration. The director is raising money to do an organizing tour across the U.S., setting up screenings of the movie followed by meetings of people who were formerly incarcerated/convicted, along with allies, to begin the discussion of how we can dismantle the system of mass incarceration."
I tried my best to say that this is not about me, or the project, but about human liberation. My project my goal is liberation.
The business cards were no good for staying in touch with them directly, since there's only email on there and they don't have access to computers (reminder that I need to set up a P.O. box with easy to remember number for guys to be able to write). But they can spread the word to their fams, and some of them were getting out soon and had interest in contacting me (one of them was from North Philly!).
I have to thank Rachel Talbot Ross, who is an unstoppable powerhouse, incredible and beautiful human being who is doing incredible work as the head of the Maine NAACP and in other capacities. This happened because of her and the NAACP prison branch inside. There was an NPR reporter on the inside who was able to record some of the conversation and took some photos, so hoping to share that soon!
This trip makes me want to double-down my efforts and expand the Broken On All Sides organizing project. Maybe now is the time for applying for grants again, for pushing the national connections, and for getting this moving forward with others.