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From the Editor

In my October editorial I asked readers what they would like to see more of in PLN as well as any suggestions on how we could improve our content. One of the respondents, Richard Barker, said he would like to see more case law. As far as case law goes, we are dependent on the rulings published by the courts as far as what we do and don't cover. Back in 1990 PLN didn't publish many prison cases because not that many were issued. Since then both the number of prison cases published by the courts and in PLN has increased. We will continue to run most prisoner "wins" and other relevant cases but we will be sticking to our present mix. Part of the reason is that a significant part of our readership isn't too interested in the nuts and bolts of prison litigation but just wants to stay up on the activism and news end of things.

But there's another reason we don't cover only court related information. The bottom line is that right now American prisoners as a class are suffering massive defeats on every front: legislative, political, judicial and public opinion. The occasional individual can and does win the occasional court victory but such victories do nothing to alter the basic facts of prisoner disempowerment, disenfranchisement and the use of imprisonment as a tool of social control by the ruling class in this country. After the Attica rebellion in 1971 a relatively strong prison movement emerged and advances were made by prisoners. Among other things this included, for the first time in American history, some degree of judicial enforcement of constitutional rights in prison. But there was a degree of pressure on both the courts and prisoncrats to make concessions. Prisoners were organizing in and out of prison, the anti-war movement had seen many activists imprisoned who upon release became prisoner advocates and the government in general had a serious political crisis.

Those who bemoan the fact that prisoners are suffering serious losses in living standards and almost every conceivable item ask "why are they taking this from us?" Well, why shouldn't they? It's not as if they "gave" us anything to begin with, everything from personal clothes to long hair, family visits, etc., have been the result of struggle by prisoners. Historically prisoncrats have not been inclined to say "we've been treating 'em too bad, let's give them something." Power respects only power. The truth of this can be seen at every level of society. In the 1930's a strong labor movement and communist party was struggling for basic rights. In the 1960's hundreds of cities burned. The result was bribe money and counter-insurgency programs like welfare, civil rights law, legal services, an end to overt discrimination, etc., which channeled the struggle out of the streets and into the courts and government offices. With the pressure off, i.e., no serious organized domestic political opposition (and the demise of the USSR as an international competitor) the ruling class has gone back to its old ways and figures it can keep its bribe money and build a bigger police state. The wholesale assault on prisoners is just part of this overall process.

It is an unfortunate reflection of the weakness of the prisoner movement that we have come to rely on litigation as our primary means of struggle. Litigation is a symptom of political weakness (as a friend once quipped "why do you think they call them pleadings?"). This is not to say that litigation doesn't have its place and shouldn't be used. I am simply saying that as a strategy it is a dead end street because ultimately the courts maintain the status quo. If they didn't they wouldn't be part of the government now would they?

The answers to these problems, like many others now confronting poor and working people in this country, have been answered in the past. Neither the problem nor the solution has changed. Prisoner activists need to look at the bigger social-political picture because prisons are simply the ruling classes' solution to its problem of keeping poor people and society in line in this country. In countries like El Salvador or Guatemala they use death squads; different means, same purpose. Right now the corporate media has done a good job of separating "us" (prisoners) from "them" (working people out there in minimum security). The result is a massive increase in state police power with no opposition, and draconian measures against those in prison, which of course does not address the declining wages, lack of affordable health care and decaying infrastructure affecting a majority of Americans. But that's the point. Issues like this are ignored while politicians posture over chain gangs, weightlifting in prisons, etc.

These are ideas I have been thinking about for some time now, I haven't gotten around to writing a more comprehensive article due to the press of keeping up with the other articles that are on a deadline. Politically inclined readers out there should consider submitting articles on the topic of strategy and ideas for the prison movement in general and prisoners in particular. PLN frequently gets letters to the effect that "we prisoners need help," the question I ask is what are the prisoners doing to help themselves or to struggle for themselves? My experience and observation has been that struggle attracts support, whining does not. Historically the prison movement has tailed along after other movements (civil rights, anti-war, etc.,) and in the absence of any other movements on the political landscape we need to rely on ourselves. One thing is that prisoners who get out, for the most part, try to put the prison experience behind them and either revert to criminality or simply drop out politically. A lot of readers write in to cancel their PLN subscription when they are released (more than a few have renewed it upon their return to prison later). This revolving door makes cadre development difficult. Perhaps one effect of the trend to lengthier sentences and an increased lifer population will be more prisoners realizing they have a vested interest in the prison system and they should try to get friends and family members on the outside involved as well.

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