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Letter from Exile

Remember Eugene Debs? One of the first Socialists I ever read, before I moved on to the hard-core. I used to quote him in letters - "where there is a lower class I am of it, where there is a criminal element, I am in it, while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." I don't know if he wrote this before or after his stint in Atlanta, but it always impressed me. Enough so I named a cat after him.

I don't think prisoners and their struggle need to be romanticized, but what phase have we entered when the liberals/left, including that highly suspect group "progressives", make no mention of prisons? They write enough about police and police repression - check that - not enough, but more than about prisons, and then let it die on the vine as if humanity ceases to exist after booking.

I don't think this lack of consciousness problem is so much that predominantly white, middle class leftist/liberals have never experienced prison. It's more a case of their not being personally or politically threatened by it.

They go on and on about Big Brother, civil rights violations, suppression of dissent, etc., but they all go past "go" and collect their $200. They can play monopoly like the rich folks-without the Get Out Of Jail Free card. That wasn't the case in the past.

At the turn of the century through the '20s, radicals, Wobblies, immigrants, union organizers, felt the crunch. Communists and unionists in the '30s. Reds in the '50s. Enough radicals and militants in the '60s-'70s to make people think. Blacks, radical and otherwise, having long been held in the revolving door. And Latinos the last few decades.

Nowhere do you come up against the power of the law and naked force as blatantly as it's wielded in prisons. A virtual slavocracy as embodied in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. We have barely any rights the State is bound to respect.

If the Left did have any political consciousness about the issue - and some leftists do - they're not likely to act on it because they lack the strength and resources to wage a vigorous struggle. In their publications, Leftists often refer to the risk of imprisonment due to their activities, but I wonder how many would remain active if they seriously thought their actions carried the risk of imprisonment or bodily harm.

Prisoners often mirror-image what is happening in the street. With the exception of "criminal justice" issues, the general level of political consciousness among prisoners is low. They are ripe for new ideas and alternatives, but don't see any. Which is understandable given there is no organized movements presenting any offerings. This is a period of new total abandonment of prisoners. Combine that with the conditions of survival and it tends to breed an unhealthy cynicism.

Many Marion prisoners have been involved in individual and group acts of resistance over the years. For their efforts, they have been subjected to beatings, torture, transfers, isolation, more time - the whole nine yards. They see nothing positive coming out of it other than maintaining their integrity while staring down the worst abuses. They get no support outside and solidarity is lacking inside. Their hopes hinge on one more crack in the street. One more payday or payback, and hell hath no fury like an enraged ex-con.

For five years now, prisoners have been sentenced under the new rule of mandatory sentences with no parole. Young dudes are coming in with big time. You can't do time on the installment plan anymore - the sentences are too steep, with no parole release. You do more than a couple of bits and your whole life is gone. So, the prevailing attitude is next time why show any consideration to cops or witnesses since you're coming back to 20 to 30 after doing 10 to 15. The prevailing informational exchange is based on methods of criminal operation.

So while a totally unsuspecting and scammed soul takes refuge in the fact that 1.2 million women and men are locked away, the next generation is slipping up to their back door, and ex-cons come out of their own frightful situation without a pot to piss in and no prospects.

The reason there was such a high level of political consciousness among prisoners of an earlier era was because they reflected what was happening on the streets of the country at an earlier time, and to a lesser degree, internationally. Prison conditions are such that confrontations and rebellion will continue regardless of the existence of external movements. The lowest common denominator with us, without significant outside support, is how much suffering and bleeding we will endure before we are willing and able to sacrifice even more for a chance to turn the situation around. Or has the current situation become a permanent and expanding part of a larger nightmare we are all getting sucked into?

The Madison Edge

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