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Challenging Evil That Ills This Society

The September 1995 New York State Prison Strike

[The following is reprinted from Peace Newsletter, 3/96.]

Musaa has served 13 years of a 20 year sentence in the NYS penal system. He has earned three degrees with an emphasis on political science and social critique. Until last fall Musaa was at Auburn Correctional Facility.

This interview is adapted from our correspondence. Here Musaa discusses last September's statewide prison protest against worsening prison conditions. Sept. 13, 1995, was chosen as the date to kick off the two week protest because it was the anniversary of the 1971 Attica Rebellion. That bloody rebellion was also a protest against worsening prison conditions.

In the aftermath of the protest many prisoners, including Musaa, were shipped around the state and placed in special housing units or deprivation cells. Musaa mentions Jean Marie DeMay, formerly of the NYC Legal Aid Society. She lost her job on Sept. 4 for allegedly urging maximum-security prisoners to strike. - Ed Kinane

PNL - Was the September action unprecedented?

Musaa: Strikes, boycotts, and protests by prisoners over dehumanizing prison conditions certainly aren't anything new. Rather they are a classical part of prison experience. Our protest differed in that, firstly, it was an attempt at a political analysis by prisoners in general. Prisoners were directly connecting their current conditions with the overall political climate of society. This is largely facilitated by the media blitz of opportunist politicians using prison as a platform issue of the electoral process.

Secondly, it was the first time in New York that a citizen [i.e. Ms. DeMay] was directly linked with prisoners on a level of engaged activism.

Thirdly, there was a phenomenal diffusion of activism beyond single group leadership. In prison, it's very difficult to go beyond fragmentation to a large-scale unified effort. The protest came out of a "collective" of a single idea which took into account the failures of the past. Simply put, that single idea was: without unity, we all lose.

Finally, rather than being haphazard and spontaneous, the protest was systematic. There was considerable planning in terms of duration and scope of activities. For good reasons, such planning has been missing in earlier forms of prison protest.

PNL: What kind of good reasons?

Musaa: In times past, advance notice to prison officials led to protest leaders being targeted for reprisal and in the planned actions being thwarted. In this case, we felt a need not to be historically fatal. We're painfully aware that past protests that seemed to achieve some gains eventually resulted in those gains being repealed or eroded.

PNL: Like at Attica?

Musaa: Attica was a classic protest. Prisoners used violence to achieve an objective. Violence is the result of improvisation and haphazard thinking: a foiled goal fermenting into frustrated "reactionaryism." Violence is too virile to contain.

In contrast, the September protest used nonviolent confrontation reminiscent of civil disobedience. It was like a sit-in. Prisoners refused to come out of their cells. This hit the prisons' economic base: the strike deprived them of free or cheap labor.

Prisons make plenty of money from coerced labor. Prisoners have no choice about working and are paid only a few cents an hour. The US Constitution eventually abolished slavery, but not for those convicted of a crime. Now you can see why, when some citizens propose that prisoners be kept in their cells 23 hours a day and the penal system smoothly sidesteps such proposals.

PNL: Some think whatever Jean Marie did was wrong.

Musaa: Those who think so have a vested interest in the system. They are the pro-prison capitalists. However, one should recall that civil disobedience is both customary practice and integral to American society. It dates back to when this country was forming its system of democracy. It's the only true right most citizens have.

Recall that even Dr. King was criticized for using civil disobedience in his civil rights protests. Today, however, he's honored by the same system as one of the greatest advocates of civil rights in this country and in this century. Ms. DeMay engaged in the same sort of activity that is at most "citative," but not criminal.

Her activity may have been technically wrong, but she was right in being more humane: She challenged the existing evil that ills this society. The recent court ruling halting further double bunking correlates with Mrs. DeMay's stance. She deserves commendation, not condemnation.

PNL: What problems did the protest address?

Musaa: There were four in particular: double bunking, good-time legislation, dehumanizing abuse, and poor medical treatment. I'll take them one by one.

Double bunking: This means having two prisoners crowded into a one-person cell. More and more the state is subjecting prisoners to such abuse. This is despite the fact that double bunking can lead to increased incidence of diseases like TB and AIDS, and also to increased violence among prisoners. Lab experiments have shown that mice raised under very crowded conditions tend to be violent. The same seems to be true for people forced to live in crowded ghettos and prisons.

And while we're on the subject of mice and men ... shouldn't prisoners, if they're going to be treated like beasts, be treated as well as beasts? Monkeys in zoos get far more space than we do!

Good-time legislation: NYS asked for the death penalty in exchange for "merited good-time allowance." Good-time is an incentive earned by prisoners toward "rehabilitation" as a sign of "penitence." It shortens their time served. Although the death penalty was installed, the opportunity for prisoners to earn good-time was sacrificed to a political platform built to exploit crime as a commodity.

There are people behind bars who should be released from further imprisonment, and there are those who should never have been imprisoned to begin with. There is a racist and discriminatory context to the whole thing. This becomes obvious when one sees that according to FBI statistics, most of the US prison population is Black or Latino. Virtually all of those come from slums and ghettos. Of the 46 million African-Americans and 28 million Latinos in the US, all but 4% live under these herded conditions.

Most US violence is inner-racial, i.e. Black on Black, White on White, etc. How then can issues such as execution, tougher sentencing or rehabilitative release not be racist? There's not one Black anti-good-time advocate in the NYS Legislature.

Dehumanizing abuse: Prisoners for the most part are needlessly abused and degraded, and in a manner that in no way helps to make them better people. On the contrary, hostilities are created and prisoners become embittered. This occurs in both male and female prisons. Note the number of rapes, assaults, impregnations, and sexual harassments perpetrated on female prisoners--also other acts of degradation like strip frisks and body searches conducted by male guards.

Medical treatment: Prisoners are often denied appropriate medical treatment for both curable and terminal illnesses. Among prisoners, much pain and suffering and death occurs due to neglect. There's no medical plan or insurance covering prisoners that guarantees them more than minimal consideration. Often they are treated by unqualified and callous quacks who are persuaded to keep medical expenses low.

I think it was Senator Kennedy who stated on the floor of Congress a couple of years ago that "America's medical availability for all its citizens is worse than South Africa's," and that in the US, "health is determined by wealth." That's not the first time America has been compared to South Africa. Percentage-wise, more Blacks are imprisoned in the US than in South Africa.

PNL: What message do you have for readers concerned about the issues you've raised?

Musaa: The NYS prison system needs a strong reality check. This can be accomplished in part by concerned citizens opening up the forum on prison conditions and engaging in pointed discussions with both policy makers and prisoners. Since tax dollars fund prisons, citizens should be able to randomly inspect them. On these inspections they should look for operating values inconsistent with good moral thinking and human development.

I speak to activists as much as to common working people: get beyond the sidelines, get involved. You can influence policies affecting prisons--these ultimately affect you. Prisons reflect our social system; their failure perpetuates a continuing and growing dysfunctional cycle. And finally, make Mrs. DeMay the rule rather than the lone exception.

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