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Print Media and Prisoner Activism

by Stephen Wilson

Because America’s prisons are its most opaque institutions, prisoners and their allies have always employed strategies of visibility to create awareness and understanding of who is being held captive and the conditions of their captivity. Print media – books, magazines, newsletters, newspapers, zines, pamphlets and visual art – has been a critical part of those various strategies of visibility. 

Throughout the different eras of the American Prison Movement, but especially between the late '60s and early '80s, a number of platforms were created to connect prisoners to one another and their allies. Streams of prisoner-created content flowed from behind the walls and into the hands of allies who published and disseminated the materials. Across the prison movement, “prisoners used media to sustain connections with other prisoners and with sympathetic outsiders. As collective action became more difficult, writing and editing provided an opportunity to continue working collaboratively with others on both sides of the prison walls.”1

Print media kept prisoners connected to the social justice movements of the day and enabled them to be active participants. Allies created opportunities and platforms for prisoners to be heard. Prisoners’ voices were given spaces to articulate their issues and solutions. Allies knew that “those closest to the problem are the ones closest to the solution.” These arrangements kept prisoners and their allies informed about what was happening inside and outside the prison walls. These connections, enabled by print media, were critical to successfully opposing the Prison Industrial Complex. 

“The media and cultural production of people in prison – especially writing, but also song and visual art – have been important vehicles for garnering national and international attention for local campaigns, and for coalescing local demands into broader social justice agendas.”2

Print media, especially newsletters and newspapers, enabled prisoners to organize and educate. The San Quentin Rebellion of 1968 started after articles published in the prison newspaper, The Outlaw, circulated prisoners’ grievances. The Outlaw was republished by The Berkeley Barb, an underground, radical newspaper. This led to more publicity and over 75 percent of the prisoners at San Quentin joining the work strike. The more recent successes of the widespread hunger strikes among California prisoners demonstrate the importance of print media.

Print media always played a major role in the American Prison Movement. Today, this is not the case. While there is more being written about prisons and prisoners than at any other time in American history, prisoners are struggling to have their voices heard. So much of the discourse occurs online.

Many outside activists have not thought about how the move to online media affects inside activists. With so much of the focus of our activism being squarely placed on social media, how are the imprisoned to contribute? Prisoners don’t have Internet access so how will they join the conversation? This shift causes one to wonder what role prisoners play in the movement. Are prisoners’ efforts central to their own liberation? Are prisoners’ opinions important or decisive? Do they play a role in creating strategy? Are they just symbolic actors?

There are real questions to be answered now that the role of print media has been diminished. How will prisoners connect to each other and outside activists? How can we expand a base that has no Internet access? How has the Internet affected our ability to organize behind the walls? How has the Internet affected prisoners’ political education and resistance abilities? Without access to the public via the Internet, how will prisoners create visibility? Beyond a few creative writing contests, there aren’t many opportunities to do so.

Even well-meaning activists and allies sometimes miss the point. Recently, I received two calls for submissions. Each one asked for essays centered on abolition or mass incarceration. Both notices welcomed contributions from the currently incarcerated. But both notices directed interested parties to a website for more information and submission guidelines. Neither notice included a street address for the editors or publishers. How is a prisoner going to contribute? It’s frustrating being the topic of conversation, but never a participant.

At a time when mass incarceration and policing are being widely discussed, prisoners’ voices need to be heard. The importance of print media cannot be overstated. We need platforms that enable us to connect with each other and outside activists. We need platforms where strategies and tactics can be shared. We need platforms where discussion and debate can happen. We need platforms where healing can occur. Prisoners depend upon allies to create these platforms. As a movement, we need to grow our capacity to listen. We need to expand our ability to connect. We need to place more seats at the table.

This is not a call to abandon online forums or activism. It is a call for greater awareness and inclusivity. We need to be conscious of those not privileged with Internet access. The next time you write or read interesting material online, ask yourself who is denied access to it. Then, do something to connect a prisoner to the material. Moreover, support the few print periodicals that keep prisoners connected and informed. Support publications like Black & Pink, The Abolitionist, Turning The Tide, Hearts on a Wire, Stiletto, Ultraviolet, News & Letters, Prison Legal News and others. Print out an article and send it to a prisoner/activist. The voices of those centered at the most concentrated point of the Prison Industrial Complex must be heard and amplified. 

Stephen Wilson is incarcerated in Pennsylvania and is a member of Black & Pink and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s Prisoner Advisory Committee.

--

1  Berger, Dan and Toussaint Losier. Rethinking The American Prison Movement. New York (Routledge, 2018).

2  Ibid.

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