Process Blog Home

Organizing the Prisons in the 1960s and 1970s: Part Three, Organizing Past, Present, Future

Roundtable discussion with Dan Berger, Alan Eladio Gómez, Garrett Felber, Toussaint Losier, Lydia Pelot-Hobbs, Tony Platt, and Heather Ann Thompson. Process guest editor: Jessie Kindig.

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison rebellion in 1971, Process speaks with seven scholars of the carceral state about prisoners’ organizing in the 1960s and 1970s and movements protesting mass incarceration today. This is the second of a three-part series, guest edited for Process by Jessie Kindig. Check out parts one and two.

Process: Can you describe how prisoners have built movements and spaces of freedom in heavily controlled and repressive environments?

Heather Ann Thompson: This is complicated and, to my mind, often misunderstood. Earlier histories of the prisoner rights movement have tended to locate the roots of prisoner activism largely outside of prison walls—they suggest that it was activists on the outside whose agitation seeped into prisons and motivated the incarcerated to mobilize on the inside. The reality was, though, that it didn’t take outside activists to persuade prisoners to organize. The conditions of their confinement were brutal enough that acts of resistance happened regularly and collective action was seen time and again and the most effective way of netting change. To be sure, it mattered that prisoners read Malcolm and Mao, but their material circumstances bred resistance all on its own. Indeed, it was the writings and activism of prisoners—think of men like George Jackson or Eldridge Cleaver—that informed the movement on the outside as much, if not more, than the other way around. Again, prisoners experienced a level of brutality and dehumanization that even residents of the impoverished and highly criminalized communities did not. The way they made sense of this—and argued as well as mobilized against it—was deeply instructive and inspirational to the black freedom struggle writ large.

Tony Platt: There is a tendency in much of the current literature on the carceral state to emphasize its massive power and extraordinary reach: a panopticon on steroids. The web of surveillance is now so pervasive, some argue, that we are all willing participants in an “infinite loop” of self-subjugation. I think this overestimates the rationality and coordination of a “criminal justice system” that is disorganized, often chaotic, and fractured, more like Kafka’s penal colony than Orwell’s 1984. Even when the penal system is extraordinarily repressive, as in supermaxes, prisoners resist and organize, from hurling their body fluids at guards, to seeking legal remedies to alleviate the horrors of solitary confinement.

Dan Berger: In some ways, prisoners build movements the way any other group does: through political education and collective mobilization in support of demands. Yet the institutional context makes a significant difference, since prisons are set up to minimize any kind of collectivity and are suspicious of many (especially radical) educational endeavors. So even where strategies remained similar to what happens elsewhere, prisoners had to use alternate tactics to pursue them.

Literacy was one of the most significant tools in organizing. During the 1970 rebellion in the New York City jail system, prisoners developed a newsletter to spread their demands and message throughout the system. Lacking a typewriter, prisoners took turns copying the newsletter by hand to distribute it. California prisoners did the same thing with articles and even whole books, passing handwritten copies from person to person. Because many prisoners come from working-class communities divested of quality schools, such use of shared readings not only shaped their ideological framework but strengthened many people’s basic literacy skills. In their reliance on literacy, furtive means of communication, and nonbiological kinship structures, twentieth-century prisoner organizing had a lot in common with the resistance strategies of slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Lydia Pelot-Hobbs: The law library at Angola was another important site for prisoner activism. Jailhouse lawyers such as Kenneth “Biggy” Johnston led legal classes not only so that individuals could better work on their cases but also so that people could better understand the shifting landscape of the Louisiana criminal legal system.

Martin Sostre (Source: Wikimedia).

Martin Sostre (Source: Wikimedia).

Garrett Felber: The most controlled and repressive space of the prison is solitary confinement, or “the box” (which is now referred to as segregation). In New York, where my work focuses, a solitary block generally consisted of a floor of individual cells with only a bed, toilet, wash basin, running water, and a light. Before arriving in solitary, prisoners were often held in “keep-lock” or a strip cell, which contained only a defecation bucket and a blanket.

Martin Sostre, a forgotten figure in the prisoners’ rights movement, described solitary confinement in 1975 as “the real barometer of who is a threat to the state.” As someone who spent the majority of his time incarcerated in some form of solitary cell, Sostre also participated in one of the most organized and successful protests from within this highly confined space.

During his first incarceration from 1952–1964, Sostre converted to the Nation of Islam at New York’s Clinton Prison. By 1960, he and several other Muslim prisoners had been transferred to Attica Prison in an attempt to quell their activism. With almost the entire fifty-cell unit on the third floor of Attica’s reception building filled with politicized Muslim converts, Sostre noted that when “the box ceases to work, the entire disciplinary and security system breaks down.” He and other Muslims at Attica began committing infractions with the goal of overfilling solitary confinement. The action forced prison officials to choose between ending their arbitrary discipline of Muslim prisoners or converting the prison’s most repressive space into a locus for activism. I draw the parallel in my work to the concurrent “Jail, No Bail” strategy of the southern civil rights movement. Both movements took the principal form of state repression—whether it was solitary confinement or the county jail—and converted it into a tool of political resistance.

Toussaint Losier: The historical record is littered with ingenious examples of how prisoners organized in spite of the strict constraints of imprisonment. Converts to the Nation of Islam held in solitary confinement who took the water out of their toilets to talk to each other through the pipes in their cells. Organizers who worked in shifts to clandestinely hand print hundreds of copies of their own inmate newsletters and use them as the basis to agitate others around a common set of demands. Leaders from different jails or prisons who used scheduled court dates as opportunities to meet outside of their respective institutions and coordinate their efforts.

In the main, though, they built movements based upon the fact that carceral control relies on some degree of prisoner compliance. Time and time again, prisoners took advantage of the limited space they were afforded as part and parcel of how prisons are managed to politicize each other and establish underground mosques, collectives, labor unions, and other types of organization. More broadly, they benefited from the basic sense of solidarity incarceration can instill amongst prisoners as well as the breathing room that outside support afforded them.

Pelot-Hobbs: One of the things that has really surprised me in my research is the extent to which Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC) officials allowed and at times facilitated prisoners’ activism. For instance, in response to the Hayes Williams lawsuit, a number of liberal prison reformers were appointed to run the Louisiana DOC and Angola. These prison administrators not were only against the rising tide of law and order but believed that prisoners had the right to try and change the system from behind bars. In the case of Angola, this translated into incarcerated journalists being able to run the prison magazine The Angolite as an uncensored publication from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s. Through The Angolite, incarcerated journalists such as Wilbert Rideau were able to conduct investigative reporting into problems at Angola and the broader Louisiana penal buildup as well as to promote the policy changes incarcerated activists were fighting for.

Furthermore, during this time there was much more exchange between incarcerated and free world activists. People from the outside were routinely able to attend the meetings of incarcerated activists with the Lifers’ Association and later the Angola Special Civics Project, which allowed for a rich cross-fertilization of ideas around strategy and tactics and helped to build up the power of prisoners’ organizing. They were even able to hold a number of criminal justice symposiums where they presented plans for prison reform to activists from Baton Rouge and New Orleans as well as elected officials.

On the other hand, as all activists know, not everyone wants to attend a meeting or join an organization. Activists at Angola were well aware of this and worked to bring people into their work through building relationships through the prison’s various sports leagues. In addition, while some prisoners felt comfortable writing to friends and family around particular campaigns, organizers knew that could also be too much of a stretch for some people. For this reason, they created a system whereby the people who worked the visitation concession stands would be stocked with information about current prison reform campaigns. A prisoner who didn’t feel comfortable writing or talking to his loved ones about a particular issue could send their visitor to buy a snack, and receive the bonus of prison reform literature. These tactics served to both allow prisoners to get involved at various levels as well as to extend the reach of their activism.

Alan Eladio Gómez: As another example, in 1971 in Steilacoom, WA, the ferry city nearest McNeil Island, activists worked with prisoners’ family members to found the Steilacoom Inside/Out program. A rented house served as a place where families could spend the night before visitation, meet with each other, and figure out how to support their family inside.

Integral to the program’s success was the support it received from the progressive community in the Tacoma/Seattle area—from students and faculty at the University of Washington, the NAACP, and regional Black Panther Party chapters, and the formation of “Inside-Out: A Prisoners Information Service” to spread the word on the outside. Allies and family members outside the walls brought the struggle to a wider audience and helped to challenge the prison administration’s control. Celebrities like Jane Fonda and Pete Seeger joined award-winning muckraker journalist and political activist Jessica Mitford in organizing support for the striking inmates, with Mitford filing her own lawsuit when she was denied entry as a journalist into the prison.

In examples like this one, we can see how prisoners’ efforts, with support from people and organizations outside the walls, transformed institutional spaces: cells and yard space into libraries, community gardens, and spaces of care; common areas, cafeterias, and education departments into arenas for insurgent learning, self-defense classes, and collective decision-making; the prison factories and segregation units into picket lines that in turn served to challenge and contest white supremacy, labor exploitation, the war in Vietnam, and the impunity for guard-on-prisoner violence; the courts into arenas of legal and political struggles; and college classrooms, community spaces, and private homes into spaces and places of anti-prison political movement activity.

Process: How has the character of struggle and imprisonment changed or endured since the 1970s?

Berger: One of the most remarkable things about prisoner organizing is its combination of far-reaching visions of social change with brass-tacks immediacy. So, for instance, the 1971 Attica rebellion generated a list of practical demands covering issues such as freedom of religion and political expression, living wages for labor, proper food and medical care, educational programming and so on. Yet in delivering their proposal, prisoners also demanded “speedy and safe transportation… to a non-imperialistic country” and amnesty from reprisals for their participation in the rebellion. So much of prisoner activism was about securing the necessary provisions of healthy personhood while simultaneously demanding a society in which all people could thrive.

Pelot-Hobbs: I think that the primary shift between prisoner organizing in the 1970s and today is that in the 1970s the concept of life without parole or mass incarceration was not yet normalized. This difference in vantage point is huge insofar it shapes people’s belief in the possibility for the punitive power of the state to be scaled back. The other main difference is that many of the openings provided to prisoners by the policies of liberal prison administrators abruptly closed. For example, upon becoming the warden of Angola in 1995, Burl Cain notoriously began censoring The Angolite and made it much more difficult for any prisoners—activists or not—to connect and build with people in the free world. Predictably, twenty years of such prison policies have curbed the capacities of prisoners to organize.

Felber: Changes in the operation and funding of prisons since the 1970s have led to enduring, and even heightened, invisibility of prisoners in the public sphere. The movement of prisons to rural areas has further removed them from view. The privatization of prisons has also obscured the small windows of transparency which were won during the 1970s. And the failure to pass the Private Prison Information Act, which would make private prisons subject to the same public records disclosure laws as government prisons, has further obfuscated their use of solitary confinement and financial practices.

Losier: While there is remarkable potential for prison struggles today, the character of this struggle is markedly different than what existed four decades ago. This change is deeply informed by advances in the repressive aspects of imprisonment as well as the long decline amongst progressive forces in the U.S. and abroad. In some ways, the 2013 California prisoner hunger strikes—with nearly 30,000 prisoners protesting the state’s policies regarding long-term isolation in the Security Housing Unit in Pelican Bay and in other facilities— captures the way in which these struggles have endured, but have also been forced to adapt in fundamental ways to changed circumstances inside and outside of prison. One could say that mass participation in a hunger strike demonstrates the very circumscribed position of prisoners today, a moment where it might be easier for prisoners to coordinate their efforts and elicit public sympathy if these efforts are not mass protests, but expressly individuated and non-confrontational.

Thompson: It has had to change tactics. In this age where prisoners are now prevented from using the legal system to challenge the conditions of their confinement as they did in earlier periods, and in this moment when prisons have been allowed to keep human beings locked in solidarity for months and even years on end, activism has become very raw. Just as the prisoners of the nineteenth century protested via the trauma of, say, cutting their own Achilles tendon so they could no longer be driven as slaves, today prisoners have protested by engaging in hunger strikes. The historical lesson here, however, is clear: whether prisoners have access to the courts, or whether there is an outside freedom struggle making headway, or whether neither is the case, they will always resist—they will always demand that this nation treat its incarcerated as human beings.

Berger: The atomized and high-tech design of contemporary prisons makes uprisings such as Attica harder to imagine; prisoners have been more likely to go on hunger strike than seize hostages. However, their protests still operate at this junction of the visionary and the pragmatic. Take, for instance, the Prisoner Human Rights Movement coming out of California’s Pelican Bay prison, a supermaximum prison where prisoners staged a series of three hunger strikes against indefinite isolation between 2011 and 2013; the labor strikes organized by prisoners in Alabama and Texas saw prisoners in twenty-four states refuse to work on September 9th, the 45th anniversary of the Attica rebellion; and the immigrants around the country who have staged a series of hunger and labor strikes against their conditions in detention centers. However, the rightward shift in American political culture since the 1970s has taken its toll, inside of prisons as much as outside.

Felber: We should also be mindful of the ways that arguments for decarceration are being rerouted through profit motives and corporate logic. As Marie Gottschalk outlines in her most recent book, Caught, bipartisan arguments for prison downscaling that have focused on austerity measures have simply placed more burden on the backs of prisoners. For example, some women’s prisons have begun charging for feminine hygiene products and those with empty beds rent out their space to maximize profits.

As prisons come under further scrutiny, private prison corporations such as GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America have shifted their focus to re-entry as a new source of revenue. For example, GEO Group’s 2015 annual report noted that despite “decreases in revenues of $6.6 million related to contract terminations and census declines at certain facilities,” the corporation experienced a “net increase of $7.0 million primarily due to new programs and program growth at our community based and re-entry centers.” Finally, electronic monitoring systems have emerged as another popular answer to calls for prison reform. Yet they have not only become another investment opportunity for private prison groups, but have also sidestepped many of the hard-fought gains of the prisoners’ rights movement. Daily caloric requirements, outdoor exercise, and access to legal materials, all of which came out of demands of incarcerated people, now fall outside the bounds of protections offered on house arrest through electronic monitoring.

Gómez: Because these movements are part of a larger history of freedom struggles over how society should be organized politically, economically, and socially, their endurance demands a deeper discussion of the complicated legacies of the “Prison Rebellion Years” to positively inform ongoing anti-prison/abolition movements—for people inside, their families, supporters, communities, educators, lawyers, all of us.

The knowledge that emerged from these struggles can be considered what Dylan Rodriguez has called a prison abolitionist praxis: their actions show how demanding freedom and changes in everyday living conditions can inspire a vision of a society that does not center racialized incarceration, capitalism, and punishment and control as the primary logics of social organization.

Platt: The recent changes in the carceral state are so extraordinary that most people today either have no memories of the 1970s prison movement or only distorted memories of a movement reduced to violent extremism. I think this problem of amnesia is rooted more generally in the absence of a stable, oppositional party that can serve as a repository of historical memory and make sure that there is inter-generational communication. “Look,” as Obama wryly observed, “America is famously ahistorical. That’s one of our strengths—we forget things.”

Meanwhile, functionaries in the carceral state learned their lessons and didn’t forget the past. Their response to the prison movement was to creatively disperse activists, reinforce the color line, build remote supermax prisons in which solitary confinement became the norm, and cheer for law and order. Now, their order is revealing fissures, and we have an opportunity to hopefully do more than fail better. It won’t be easy.


Dan Berger is an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell and adjunct affiliate assistant professor of history at the University of Washington Seattle. His book Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the OAH. With Toussaint Losier, he is coauthor of the forthcoming Rethinking the American Prison Movement (Routledge).

Garrett Felber is a scholar of twentieth-century African American history at the University of Michigan and co-author of The Portable Malcolm X Reader with Manning Marable. He currently leads a racial justice community reading group at the Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) in Portland, OR, where he helped establish a Freedom Library with books on social justice and the African diaspora.

Alan Eladio Gómez is an Associate Professor in the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University. He is the author of The Revolutionary Imaginations of Greater Mexico: Chicana/o Radicalism, Solidarity Politics, and Social Movements in Latin America in the 1970s (University of Texas Press, 2016), and ‘With Dignity Intact’: Cycles of Struggle in the Post-WWII U.S. Federal Prison System (University of Nebraska Press).

Jessie Kindig is a writer, editor, and literary agent based in New York and a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. She is at work on a book analyzing wartime violence and U.S. culture during the Korean War, and her writing has appeared in Radical History ReviewAmerican Quarterly, and in the forthcoming Opposition to War: An Encyclopedia of Peace and Antiwar Movements (ABC-CLIO). Kindig is a former assistant editor at the Journal of American History and Process.

Toussaint Losier is an Assistant Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled War for the Cities: Mass Incarceration, Black Liberation, and the Remaking of the Carceral StateWith Dan Berger, he is coauthor of the forthcoming Rethinking the American Prison Movement (Routledge).

Lydia Pelot-Hobbs is a doctoral candidate in Geography at the The Graduate Center, CUNY where she is writing her dissertation on the dialectical relationship between the formation and contestation of the Louisiana carceral state from the 1970s to the present. Her writing has been published in academic and activist venues including The Abolitionist, Southern Spaces, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, and in the anthology Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas.

Tony Platt is a Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, UC Berkeley, and a founding member of the journal Social Justice. He is currently working on a book for St. Martin’s Press, tentatively titled Something That Has A History To It: A Genealogy of American Injustice.

Heather Ann Thompson is a historian at the University of Michigan in the Departments of African American Studies, the Residential College, and the Department of History. She has written on the history and impact of mass incarceration for The New York TimesTimeThe AtlanticSalonDissentNew Labor Forum, and The Huffington Post. She served on a National Academy of Sciences blue-ribbon panel that studied the causes and consequences of mass incarceration in the United States and has given Congressional staff briefings on this subject. Her latest book is Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy (Pantheon). Thompson is also the author of Whose Detroit? Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City and editor of Speaking Out: Activism and Protest in the 1960s and 1970s.