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The Class Implications of Prisoner Rights Litigation

The Class Implications Of Prisoner Rights Litigation

Compiled by Ed Mead

Today the most reactionary and violent faction of the ruling class controls the government. These right-wing conservatives ignore the root causes of crime and instead seek to scapegoat prisoners and the poor for all sorts of social ills. And, as can be seen by recent Supreme Court rulings, they express a special disdain for prisoner litigation and those who initiate it.

The radical chic of prison involvement peaked in the 1970s and has been in decline ever since. It will not return until there is once again a thriving progressive social Involvement on the outside. That may be as much as a decade or more away.

We prisoners are essentially alone, possess little power or influence, and are virtual slaves of the state. Prisoners lack even the pretense of political franchise (the vote) or other basic democratic rights. The means by which we can expand democracy, improve conditions, or reduce physical abuses are few.

Since our isolation is so nearly complete, our weapons few; the choice for many of those with a budding political awareness is essentially one be between self-destructive resistance or passive submission to increasingly intolerable conditions. Given these conditions, the manipulation of the law and the exploitation of its contradictions is a legitimate mechanism for fighting back. Indeed, the initiation and prosecution of prisoners rights litigation has helped jailhouse lawyers resist the state's efforts to control them. But in adopting this substantially defensive tactic, social prisoners (those confined for non-political. crimes) should not burden themselves with the useless baggage of illusions or pretense about what will be required to bring about real change.

Bourgeois law is primarily an instrument of class domination. Any proper instruction of prisoner legal workers must start from this fundamental understanding. While ruling class law can occasionally be an effective weapon in curtailing some of the more serious abuses of state power, it will never be an important instrument of class struggle or the source of our collective liberation. It is a defensive tactic, not a strategy for change. Our near total reliance on litigation is a reflection of our weaknesses, not our strength.

Over the years jailhouse lawyers and their supporters have managed to get outside people involved in the prison struggle; they created grievance mechanisms in the state and federal prison systems; liberalized "privileges" such as mail and visiting eliminated some of the more heinous practices, like strip cells and digital rectal probes; and somewhat decreased the arbitrary nature of prison rules and staff behavior. But these gains, given by one hand of the stale, are today being taken with the other. Legal workers are needed to help defend against the continuing erosion of these gains.

The more politically advanced social prisoners, those who are familiar with the working of bourgeois law, would be well advised to continue struggling on the legal front. They should also be training the next generation of jailhouse lawyers. These are important political priorities.

But in learning the law and training new prisoner legal workers, jailhouse lawyers should take care to avoid bourgeois pretensions, such as behaving like an attorney on the streets by preying on their fellow prisoners for money.

Moreover, progressive jailhouse lawyers should generally focus on rights oriented litigation and the struggle to extend democracy, not on setting individuals out of prison. While helping deserving prisoners with their personal cases is okay, it should not be the sentinel focus of one's legal work. For every person who gets out, five more will come in. It is necessary to understand that the prison is a factory, and the product it produces is potential recidivists who are full of anger and rage over the process of their dehumanization. II is this process, as well as the factory itself, that must be struggled against. One simply cannot make meaningful progress by devoting her or his limited resources to merely getting individual prisoners out of prison. And there are a lot of prisoners so fouled up by the system that they should not be turned lose until we are strong enough to work with them.

If the reader pretty much agrees with what has been said so far, then the next step is a big one. II requires some willingness to break with a lifelong conditioning process. To successfully accomplish the objectives set out herein, one must be armed with the science of dialectical and historical materialism. If progressive social prisoners are to successfully exploit the contradictions of bourgeois law, she or he must, along the way, learn to become a class conscious worker. There just isn't any other method for addressing the real problems confronting confined peoples and their families and loved ones on the outside.

While learning to use the law today, people must also prepare for the struggles of tomorrow. And while training the next generation of jailhouse lawyers, we must at the same time teach ourselves the principles involved in bringing about a radical transformation of existing class relations. Anything less would be to dabble in mere reformism and perpetuate illusions about the actual nature of our condition.

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