By Ed Mead
Back in the late '70s I was involved in an armed escape attempt from the state prison at Walla Walla. It was my first time in a state prison, and the experience was to teach me a lot about the low regard my captors had for the truth.
The escape was to be made at 8:30 p.m., after the Men Against Sexism (MAS) banquet, by some group members who were on the banquet's clean up crew. The visiting room would have been closed for hours at that point, so there was no possibility of anyone but MAS members and prison staff being harmed because of the escape effort.
The plot was busted a day or two before it was to take place, and all us would-be escapees were unceremoniously dumped in the hole. We were infracted for attempted escape, and in those infractions it was clearly charged that we were going to try to escape at 8:30 p.m., long after the visiting room was closed. Yet once we were safely locked up the warden met with both family members and selected prison leaders. He told them all that we had planned to escape at 1:00 PM, a time that could have exposed wives and children of prisoners to gunfire. The lie had its effect. Prisoners did not support us.
That was then, and over the intervening years I've experienced a lot more disinformation and lies by prison officials. The most recent example (if one can believe the newspapers) deals with the issue of prisoners having computers in their cells. The apparent disinformation around this issue has also had an impact on prisoner consciousness. Last year the PLN printed a letter from a Walla Walla prisoner who had written in response to my article "The Struggle For Computers Is Continuous." He complained about our one-sided coverage of the issue, and cited the diversion of a $20,000 software program as an example of the bad things done by Reformatory prisoners when they owned computers. I printed the letter, but did not bother to mention that no such incident had ever taken place. It has been my experience that those infected with administrative disinformation are rarely open to new realities from their peers.
Prisoners at the Reformatory fought for, obtained, and self-policed the use of personal computers in their cells. In the more than three years the program was in effect there was only one arguably computer-related infraction. Some guy left a small amount of marijuana behind (not inside of) his monitor. He lost his computer, though if the drug had been left behind his radio or television he would not have lost either of them.
The computers were an outstanding program. Many former computer owners are out on the streets doing productive work in the computer field. None of them have returned to prison. And, because prisoners bought their own machines, this was done at no cost to the taxpayer. Indeed, the computer ownership program went so well that on July 27, 1987, some 14 months after the WSR computer policy had taken effect, the DOC's Command Managers issued authorization for wardens across the state to set up similar programs at their respective institutions. All these wardens kept the existence of this authorization a secret. It only came to light as a result of litigation filed by prisoners over the taking of the computers.
The computers were not taken because of any abuses committed by prisoner computer owners, it was rather a direct result of Larry Kincheloe being appointed to the position of director of the Division of Prisons. One of his first official acts was to launch an attack on the popular and successful computer ownership program at the Reformatory, and to prevent its spread to other facilities within the state.
We won't get into Kincheloe's sleazy tactics, but will instead focus on what we believe to be his lies. In the January 31, 1991 issue of The Seattle Times it was reported that Kincheloe "told legislators that inmates used disks and [computer] programs for jailhouse currency.... Inmates also used their computers to store hit lists, draw up accounting systems for drug and gambling operations, and even design escape plans, he said." All this is pretty heady stuff, is it not? Only a fool would allow computers in the hands of prisoners after such a terrible misuse of these machines. The only problem is that none of it was true.
Prisoners managed to secure a hearing before the Senate Law and Justice Committee on the computer issue. At the February 6, 1991, hearing our representatives presented the case for having computers in the cells. Then it was Kincheloe's turn to testify. When pressed by the senators, according to the Seattle Times, "Kincheloe said he had no examples of Washington inmates misusing computers." Well how about that!
The fight for computers is a continuous one. These machines were not taken for any reason but to limit the outstanding legal work prisoners were putting out on them, and to silence our use of computers in the furtherance of the struggle to extend democracy. The computer can be a legitimate tool of liberation. The next phase of this ongoing effort will be a trial in federal court over the unconstitutional manner in which these machines were taken. We have asked that the trial start on March 25, 1991. After the trial there will be another letter writing campaign, more articles on the subject, our representatives will be calling on the governor for a personal interview, and so on.
Computers mean good jobs with something approaching a fair wage; they mean a lower recidivism rate; and they mean the possibility of a qualitative boost in the impact prisoners can have in altering some intolerable realities. Please do your fair share. Every Washington reader is urged to participate in this ongoing campaign. Have your people write letters of protest to the governor, get your friends involved, donate stamps, circulate a petition. We will win this issue if each of us can do something, however small a part, toward putting this valuable means of communication back into the hands of prisoners.
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