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Notes from the Unrepenitentiary

If all goes well, and my 6-month halfway house is approved, this will be my last column as a prisoner contributor to PLN . This column will be written in the future by my co-defendants and comrades, Marilyn Buck and Linda Evans, both of whom remain in prison, having received longer sentences than mine.

In the years I've spent behind bars -- especially the many times I've found myself in the hole -- PLN has been enormously important to me. Nowhere else could I find such clear, direct coverage of legal remedies for prisoners. Instead of vague, empty promises of aid and support, PLN offers actual, concrete help. What a relief!

But, as most of us in prison learn, true legal remedies are few and limited. The legal system, like the system as a whole, is stacked against us. A clear example is the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, where courts, media, and all the arms of the ruling class are lined up to refuse to look honestly at the myriad violations of constitutional and human rights in his trial. "Law and order" protects the rich and disempowers the poor, bestows privileges on whites and oppresses Black, Native American, Puerto Rican, Mexicano, and other Latino people, elevates men and denigrates women, and certainly values CEO's, police, and bank officers over the rest of us. So "equal rights under the law" sounds more and more like an oxymoron -- the meaning of one part cancels out the meaning of the other.

I know I'm preaching to the choir here -- not many of us who have been through trials and jails and prisons believe that the courts will back us up in the long run -- but we have to try: "exhaust our legal remedies," force the courts to treat us as human beings, hope for a break, refuse to sit quietly and accede to the further erosion of our already minimal rights. And this, I believe, we have to continue to do.

But I also believe that the only way we will succeed in winning anything from the courts is through militant support from people outside. I've been involved in what are called "group actions" inside, and I know how quickly the prisoncrats act to smash any such action, or even what they perceive as the threat or possibility of such action. That's why the federal BOP now outlaws any and all prisoner organization.

So we need that kind of help from people on the street: pressure, rallies, demonstrations, campaigns, picket lines ... all kinds of activities. Right now, we urgently need all of that for Mumia --he who has given his eloquent voice to all of us for so long, now needs all of us to raise ours for him. It will take enormous pressure and action to counter the law enforcement establishment that is clamoring for his execution. This is a moral and political imperative for every person who values justice.

In the late 50s and early 60s, it was the tremendous energy, courage, and tenacious militancy of the Civil Rights Movement that forced the u.s. to adjust and honor its own laws. The result was not an end to white supremacy and racism, but it was an opening up of some avenues of political and social involvement. In the same way, I think the growing movement of support for prisoners and political prisoners will have to become a lot more militant in order to force the legal system to recognize any of our rights as prisoners. And that will be a big contribution to advancing the struggle for justice in this country.

Last month's PLN reported a Seventh Circuit case of Charles Haynes, a federal prisoner in Wisconsin, who "fought back" against a bully and sexual predator. Mr. Haynes was barred from using a legal defense in court of self-defense, because he had failed to snitch on his tormentor, instead taking matters into his own hands (more power to you, Charles Haynes). This case provides a glimpse at one major way the prison system is trying to disempower and divide prisoners: by making it mandatory to snitch in order to preserve your rights. That's something that it is crucial for all of us to resist. The rise in snitching has seriously undermined our ability as prisoners to stand united for our dignity and human and civil rights. Collective action, communication, solidarity can all help cut back on snitching. Support from folks in the street can help here, too.

When I get out, I commit myself to working towards the kind of movement I've been talking about here. First order of business: fighting for Mumia.

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