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Resistance at Lexington

On August 12-14, the first sustained act of resistance by women prisoners in the u.s. federal prison system in 20 years took place.

On Wednesday night, August 12, there was an argument between two prisoners in the central yard area ("Central Park") at about 8:30. It was over quickly, and everyone was walking away, towards the housing units, because we have to be inside at 9:00. A lieutenant came over running to see what had happened -- pulling on his black leather gloves. He yelled, "Hey, you! Stop!" When no one stopped, he grabbed the first Black woman he saw, lifted her in the air, and body-slammed her to the ground. Other women yelled at him that she wasn't even involved in the argument, but he kept on attacking her, dragged her to her feet, and another guard took her to the lieutenant's office.

This was witnessed by about 100 women. They were all very upset by it, and they gathered to talk to the Captain. At 9:00, all but about 15 returned to their housing units, after being assured that the beaten woman would be released back into general population, and that a thorough investigation would be undertaken.

This was not the first instance of physical brutality at Lexington -- nor, certainly, of racism. The male guards have been putting their hands on us more and more -- both in frequent pat searches, and whenever they want us to move, or to stop, or whatever. This particular lieutenant had threatened several women with brutality. The normally high level of racism had also recently heightened, following the L.A. verdict and the uprisings there. Several Black women who had complained of prejudice had been put in the hole for "inciting to riot."

But this time, it all struck a nerve. On Thursday, word traveled: don't go in at 4:00 p.m. (the major daily "standing count" throughout the Bureau of Prisons). Stay out in Central Park and demand that the women be released from the hole - and the lieutenant suspended.

At 3:50 p.m., when the hourly "movement" began, the scene in Central Park was tense and exciting. Usually, it's rush hour - 1900 women, in the largest women's prison in the world, rushing to the units to try to get a few things done before the 4:00 count. On this Thursday, instead, it was like grid lock: everyone moved slowly, if at all, waiting to see what would happen.

At 4:00, an announcement ordered us all to go inside for a count. Many did, but 90 of us stayed out, and moved into the center of the Park. We sang Bob Marley's "Stand Up for Your Rights," and chanted "Stop Police Brutality," "We Want Justice," "Let Them Out of Seg," and "Figueroa [the lieutenant] Must Go." Ringed by guards - including a SORT (SWAT) team in full regalia - we demanded to speak to the Captain. While we demonstrated, we heard shouts of support from the windows of the housing units, and at least two "all available officers" codes to different units - meaning that the women who had returned to the units for count were doing some kind of support actions, too.

We had to shout the Captain down, when he finally came to talk to us, because he was telling too many lies. Finally he said that the lieutenant would be back at work on Monday, and we all knew there was no point in any further discussion. We were hand-cuffed and escorted to seg - most of us being taken to the old High Security Unit, which has been out of use almost entirely since the BOP was forced to close it in 1988. Seven women to a cell, no blankets, no water - it was payback time.

The next day, 12 of us were taken out and chained up on a bus to Marianna, Florida (the new women's high security unit). As each of us was taken out of the prison, the whole place was locked down. But it was midday, so there were over 100 women in Central Park on their lunch breaks. As each of us was escorted through the Park, we were cheered - loudly, enthusiastically, joyfully - by everyone there.

I've since learned that while we were in transit to Marianna, a smaller group of women repeated the action in Central Park at 4:00 on Friday. There were also quite a few small fires set in various housing units during the night. And a number of women were shipped out to Pleasanton after we 12 were shipped here to Marianna.

For a few bright moments, we felt free. As we moved into Central Park, defying the daily, grinding regulations and control of prison life, we were liberated from the fear that holds prisoners in check. We had the power of justice on our side - and in our eyes as we looked at one another.

The most common thing you hear people say at Lexington is "If men [prisoners - the place used to be co-ed] were here, the police wouldn't get away with this. Women don't stick together, so the prison can put anything they want on us."

But we proved that that's not true. The racism and brutality that go down every day just didn't go down on this day. We'd had enough, and we trusted and respected ourselves and one another enough to stand up together. The demonstration was international - inspired primarily by Jamaican, Haitian, and African American women, it was joined by Latina women and some white women as well. It was clear, for once, that if the police could continue to attack Black women (as they do every day - for example, at any given time the hole holds more Black women than any other nationality), then no one would be safe.

Anger is a constant reality in prison, and the entire prison system is designed to ensure that that anger is turned inward, to destroy one's own self-respect and humanity, instead of being turned outward towards the system and the oppressors. It took courage to resist all that, in the context of total control, abuse and disrespect of women that constitutes women's prison. We had to trust one another, that we would not be standing out there alone. As we looked around at one another, we knew that our demonstration was a victory, no matter what punishment might follow. A small flame of power, sisterhood, and dignity had been rekindled.

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