On October 16, 1997, the Call and Post , a black community newspaper in Cleveland, ran a letter announcing a work strike on November 1, 1997, to protest the abusive practices of the Ohio parole board which is massively extending prisoners' sentences. The timing of the strike, a Saturday, was questionable. A communiqué by the Ohio Prisoner Rights Union called on all Ohio prisoners to remain in their cells and refuse all prison activities "until the government of the state of Ohio guarantees the 39,000 prisoners being discriminated against through the new sentencing laws (HB 2, 1996) and at the hands of the Ohio parole authorities, that we too will receive equal justice."
The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DORC) responded by issuing a memo from DORC chief Reginald Wilkinson threatening even further collective repression against prisoner privileges and programming should a strike take place. Wilkinson's memo stated "Inmates who attempt to lead, encourage or coerce other inmates to participate in any form of boycott will be dealt with severely, including a potential loss of parole release." Which is ironic since thousands of Ohio prisoners have already lost their parole releases. But, this was to be expected.
What wasn't expected was a letter sent to all Ohio prison wardens by Paula Eyre, chairperson of CURE-Ohio. (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) is a national prison reform organization with state chapters.) The memo was posted on many prison bulletin boards prior to the strike. Eyre's memo, on CURE-Ohio's letterhead, states in relevant part: "It was irresponsible of the Cleveland Call and Post to publish such a letter, and it was also irresponsible of the mailrooms in state prisons to allow that issue of the Call and Post , which contained this inflammatory information as defined by the administrative regulations, in to prisoners.
"Regardless of these errors, CURE-Ohio is opposed to such a strike. We do not support it nor do we condone it. CURE-Ohio has worked hard over the last two years to bring a legislative solution to the unfair actions of the Ohio parole board. We now have such legislation in the form of Senate Bill 182. Such a strike, should it turn violent, would quickly undo all that work. In addition, CURE-Ohio is concerned for the lives of prison staff and prisoners. Such a strike has too much potential to turn violent. We want to urge every prisoner not to participate in this work stoppage."
CURE-Ohio board member Cindy Mollick also sent a similar letter, on the group's stationary, to Ohio prison wardens for dissemination to prisoners. Mollick's letter urged prisoners not to participate in the strike and stated "those of us working on prison reform do not support such an action."
Since the strike Eyre and CURE-Ohio's remaining board members (some resigned) have doggedly defended their actions in sending the warden letters. A May 15, 1998, letter from Eyre to PLN regarding the May, 1998, PLN article on the strike attempts to muddle the issue by deflecting attention from their actions prior to November 1. Eyre states that the strike was poorly organized, the original letter published in the Call and Post was poorly written and had bad grammar (alas, not all of us have degrees in English), which made its authenticity suspect in her eyes and that only some of the wardens had posted her letter. Interestingly, if the original letter's authenticity was doubted by the board of CURE-Ohio, did they call the editors of the Call and Post to determine why they chose to run it? I'm not familiar with that publication but it is reasonable to assume the editor would not have run the 1etter unless he/she had been assured of the letter's authenticity. But, as discussed below, the letter's authenticity was immaterial for CURE-Ohio.
Ironically, Eyre claims she and CURE-Ohio hold Martin Luther King, Jr., Henry Davld Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi in the highest esteem because of their advocacy of passive resistance to protest unjust laws. (It should be noted that all three men were imprisoned because of their civil disobedience.) Eyre claims that Ohio prisoners lack the self discipline to participate in peaceful, non violent protest. "You can bet that in a prison scenario, prisoners participating in a non violent action which broke prison rules (like a work strike) would be beaten and threatened by guards and eventually dragged to the hole. Only a very self controlled, self disciplined person would not fight under such circumstances."
Eyre's outlook comes through when she calls DORC prison officials "irresponsible" for not censoring prisoners' mail more. So, why can't a peaceful protest remain non violent? Because according to Eyre prison guards will perhaps beat and physically threaten the passive protesters. At best Eyre's letter to PLN is disingenuous. It also did not address an open letter sent by PLN co editor Dan Pens which accurately recounts the failed efforts of prisoners in Washington state, and elsewhere, who have faced nearly identical circumstances of changed sentencing practices which severely disadvantage prisoners convicted before the change.
Key issues for activists of all stripes is from where do we seek our legitimacy. Some of us believe that strength and legitimacy comes from the masses themselves by struggling to empower the disempowered and give voice to the voiceless. For others, legitimacy comes only from the ruling class and the powers that be. The sense of self importance that comes from empty talk with legislators, government officials and corporate flunkies. Labor unions and political parties are among those that also have to confront these issues. Sometimes doing the right thing to advance a disempowered constituencies interests will be frowned upon by the ruling class. An example is the struggle for the eight hour work day.
After the strike Eyre claimed CURE-Ohio's support was growing and that CURE-Ohio had opposed the strike at the request of its members. In a December 4, 1997, letter to prisoner Dan Cahill, Eyre states: " I don't think you have a clear understanding of CURE and its purpose as an organization. We are not part of the 'movement' nor do we seek to be. We are not activists; we are advocates." Eyre states that as a national group CURE is mostly comprised of prisoners' families and friends. Prisoners' families are not, she notes, left wing radicals "and they are not very active either."
So what is the difference between a prisoner rights advocate and an activist? In a December 22, 1997, letter to prisoner John Perotti, Eyre spells it out. "I know a few prisoners are calling for Cindy and my resignation, but the prisoner members of CURE-Ohio have no voting rights (that will change however when the Prison Advisory Board is elected in January, but the PAB will be the only prisoner members with voting rights.)
"Ok, it may make some of our prisoner members mad, but this organization is supposed to be comprised of FAMILIES and FRIENDS of prisoners, not prisoners themselves. That is why in our bylaws prisoners do not have a voice in our decisions. The board of CURE-Ohio represents the concerns of families of prisoners, not the concerns of prisoners. That is the way the organization is structured (and has been from the time Charlie Sullivan began it in Texas ln 1972)." So while hundreds of Ohio prisoners are, or were, dues paying members of CURE-Ohio they are as voiceless and disenfranchised in that organization as they are in the rest or the American political system.
One historical lesson that is clear is that political gains for the oppressed have usually come from struggle by the oppressed themselves. By totally denouncing any activism or struggle by the prisoners themselves who, or what, is being "advocated" for? This is a paternalistic and elitist approach, as well as a historical failure. Essentially it calls upon _______ [fill in the blank with prisoner, worker, black, latino, woman, et al.] to just sit back and let their "advocates," who know what is best for them do the schmoozing with the powers that be and "everything will be all right." Historically, oppressed people have never made political or economic gains until and unless those in power were forced to make such concessions to defuse growing social movements. Recent examples in this country include the New Deal, labor legislation, civil rights for blacks and women, abortion rights and yes, prisoner rights. Absent organized pressure from the oppressed, progressive change does not happen.
Unions face a declining membership outside of the public sector as a result of similar "advocacy" with management. Had the black civil rights movement listened to its contemporaneous "advocates' who spoke out against the bus boycotts, marches, food counter sit ins and other direct participation by black citizens, in all likelihood blacks would still be eating in segregated restaurants, riding in the back of the bus and using "blacks only" restrooms and drinking fountains. So it goes for prisoners.
To date CURE-Ohio has issued no self criticism regarding the 1etters it sent to prison wardens around the strike. It continues to defend its actions. Whether or not CURE-Ohio supported or endorsed the strike was, and is, immaterial. Likewise, it is immaterial whether the strike was poorly organized, had any chance of meeting its goals, etc. It is clear that CURE-Ohio's objection is to any type of prisoner organization and self empowerment, not whether it is well done. The equivalent to this flawed defense is the stool pigeon who defends his testimony against a colleague by saying "they would have been convicted anyway." The issue is collaboration and having principles. CURE-Ohio could have maintained a discreet silence and taken no position on the strike.
When DORC officials called on CURE-Ohio to take a public stand against prisoner self determination, they did so. Rather than use the opportunity to articulate the concerns of prisoners to media and those outside the prisons and temper any violence or brutality by prison guards, CURE-Ohio chose to collaborate with the DORC.
Prior to writing this article I received a letter from Ohio prisoner Terrence Hattie asking me not to write it. Hattie believes that this article will weaken CURE-Ohio in its role as an advocate for Ohio prisoners. CURE-Ohio's actions speak for themselves. Readers can draw their own opinions about the matter. There are larger political issues at stake than just whitewashing the recent past. Likewise, it is no sin to make political misjudgments or errors. The problem is not recognizing the errors and correcting the underlying policy so it does not happen again.
In 1971 prisoners at Attica seized the prison to protest the injustice of the day. The prison seizure came only after passive protests, strikes, etc., had failed. Prisoner advocates came to the prison to speak on behalf of the prisoners. These included many famous and prominent people: journalist Tom Wicker, lawyer Bill Kunstler, even a young, liberal Geraldo Rivera. However, when governor Nelson Rockefeller told the advocates to leave, they did so. Within hours almost fifty people had been gunned down by state police and prison guards storming the prison. Many prisoners were wounded by gunfire and many more were later beaten and tortured by guards and police. Maybe if the advocates hadn't left the prison and had sat down and refused to leave until there was a peaceful resolution to the prisoners' demands Attica would not today be synonymous with mass murder. Prison reformists will have to decide if they want activism or "advocacy."
Ultimately prison conditions will improve when prisoners decide they have had enough and are willing to struggle for change. The gains prisoners made in the 1970's were a result of struggle by the prisoners themselves and their political allies outside. Just as factory struggle is carried out by workers on the shop floor, so too is prison struggle carried out by prisoners inside the prison. Prisons rely on the cheap labor of prisoners to function. Without that labor the system grinds to a halt. As long as the status quo of business as usual is maintained positive change is unlikely. As singer Bruce Cockburn says, "The trouble with normal is it only gets worse."
[Author's Notes: I wrote National CURE chairperson Charlie Sullivan for comment on CURE-Ohio's actions regarding last year's strike and he declined to comment. Many of the letters mentioned in this article were published in their entirety in a labor newsletter called Impact, P.O. Box 2125, Youngstown, OH 44504. In the past year conditions in Ohio prisons have worsened due to overcrowding and repression. The Ohio parole board continues to hand out 20, 30 and 40 year flops and releases fewer prisoners than ever before. The legislation touted by CURE-Ohio to address a few of the sentencing inequalities affecting Ohio prisoners lies stalled in the legislature. The legislation's main sponsor, senator Johnson, faces legal problems of his own after being indicted on federal bribery charges.]
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