Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Proposals: Reflecting on an Anarchist/Prisoner Publication

Oct. 9, 2011 Anarchist News

The following is a self-reflection regarding a North Carolina-based
publication titled Proposals. This publication was a joint effort of
anarchists on the outside and many prisoners on the inside: on a monthly
or bimonthly basis it published prisoner-supplied letters, report-backs,
analysis, and historical accounts, as well as news briefs and anarchist
perspectives on anti-prison struggle from the outside. The contributors
were mostly not “political” prisoners in the traditional leftist sense but
rather conscious, “social” prisoners seeking a way to ignite some kind of
rebellion in their facilities. By our accounts, Proposals reached as many
as 1000 of the 40,000 prisoners in North Carolina, and continues to be
passed around at least half of the State's facilities, excluding jails.

Though the project was fairly short-lived (it lasted from January to
September), it has contributed to an ongoing trajectory of anti-prison
politics and action in our State, as well as a large number of
relationships with rebellious prisoners. For this reason we desired to
present a broad self-critique of the project to the larger national
anarchist milieu, in hopes that the questions, answers, and points of
departure we have found may find some resonance in others' anti-prison
efforts. Up until now the project has been mostly kept out of the
anarchist space, for reasons both of focus as well as a desire to avoid
unwanted attention. Now that these efforts have shifted somewhat, we hope
that an open discussion of our successes and failures might benefit

To view various issues of Proposals, check out: (The issues are formatted for printing,
but you can figure it out...)

Original Intent

The origins of this modest project lay partly in past experiences with
similar publications as well as the world of books-to-prisoners projects
and anarchist black cross activity. A desire to “find” and create
relationships with various rebellious prisoners in our State, a strong
critique of the political/social prisoner dichotomy created by much
anarchist and leftist practice*, and an eagerness to explore the possible
affinities between outside anarchists and prisoners all contributed to the
project. This eagerness is not simply “political;” we hold a deeply
personal hatred for prisons and the shroud of fear they drape over our
lives. One might say the gap between “anarchist” and “prisoner” has become
increasingly shallow, if no less wide. Relative to past experiences, an
anxiousness to move beyond the individual political prisoner advocacy of
much anarchist prisoner support, on the one hand, and the largely faceless
“send-literature-to-prisoners-and-hope-for-the-best” approach, on the
other, also animated our motivations.

To briefly summarize, we believe anarchists need to find new ways to
engage with prison struggles. The once vibrant network (and federation, to
recall a stale debate) of ABC chapters is now largely absent from the
scene, and in any case was often forced to limit itself to individual
advocacy rather than any strategy capable of spreading general rebellion
against prisons or policing. While such a support base is absolutely
necessary in hard times for comrades on the inside, individual advocacy
cannot surmise the primary avenue of anarchist struggle with regards to
prisons. In their best manifestations, such groups have focused equally on
campaigns of a more general nature that have the promise of reflecting
broader tensions in society. And of course, as recent struggles against
police in the Northwest have shown us, such campaigns of activity hardly
necessitate an ABC chapter.

On perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum of “anarchist” franchises
(with regards to prisons) lies the books-to-prisoners project. Though
nearly thirty of these exist across the US, the majority are largely
apolitical charity exercises that require little attention here. Some,
however, have been organized (or taken over!) by comrades, and continue to
exist in their towns as a sort of node of anti-prison activity of some
kind. These groups tend to focus more on sending anarchist and other
radical materials in to prisons when possible, and sometimes engage in
other activities as well. The sending of thousands of anarchist pamphlets,
many themselves written by anti-authoritarian ex-panthers and fellow
prisoners, in to prisons, is a worthwhile task. The bureaucratic
restrictions on sending in written materials means that if any group is to
accomplish this, it will probably have to be a books-to-prisoners-type
organization with a certain degree of legitimacy.

Nevertheless, the limitations of such activity are clear. As mentioned, it
easily collapses back into a service-oriented mode, de-prioritizing the
support and spread of rebellion for the less-risky humanitarian endeavor
of packing as many dictionaries into the cage as possible. This is
inevitable of any organization that begins to place its own continued
existence over the actual tasks and principles it originally set out for
itself. This is a movement where movement putting ourselves “out of
business” should be a top priority.

This model also involves a faceless approach: these projects are
notoriously backlogged and deal with thousands of book requests, so that
personal relationships with would-be prison rebels can be all but
impossible. Real affinity cannot solely be the result of a one-sided
postal relationship, yet by itself the books-to-prisoners model offers
little else.

In summary, for us Proposals represented an attempt to put into practice
some of the many critiques and analysis towards prisons and anti-prison
struggle that have been floating around in insurrectionary anarchist
discourse in the past few years, with the hope that such an experiment
could push back against or transcend some of the limitations various
anarchist projects have encountered. This should not be interpreted as a
dismissal or repudiation of all earlier efforts or strategies; many of
these efforts have borne fruit in surprising ways, and in any case
represent the hard work of people attempting to struggle in an anarchist
culture bereft of collective memory or strong support from other political

The Project

As mentioned earlier, Proposals was always conceived of as an experiment.
Starting out we had little idea if the publication would reach widespread
appeal or if the censors would ever allow it through the door. For that
reason we remained committed to the intent behind the project more than
its actual form. This form took shape as a monthly newsletter that would
be sent out at the beginning of the month to a mailing list of prisoners
who had already expressed interest in radical topics, or who had mentioned
organizing study groups of their own. By definition, then, the project was
built on the efforts of earlier efforts and contacts, for which we are

Short-lived, or abruptly ended projects dealing directly with prisoners
are detrimental to creating lasting relationships. By creating Proposals
as the continuation of the already strong connections between Anarchists
on the outside and prisoners on the inside, we were able to effectively
end the project without creating that disconnection. There are certainly
prisoners disappointed about being given a publication only to have it
cease a half year later. But by having the cyclical relationship that
Proposals had with the local books-to-prisoners group we have not lost the
ability to have two way communication.

Our goal was to provide a venue for prisoners to discuss and debate their
common situation. We actively solicited submissions in private letters and
in the publication itself, though we reserved the right to not print
things with which we strongly disagreed, or that might endanger the
publication. We consistently attempted to have a back and forth
correspondence with regards to editing various pieces, revolving around
not just grammar or writing style but also perspectives on everything from
various nationalisms to how best to create prisoner unity. This process
was difficult and time-consuming; ultimately we switched to a bi-monthly
rotation so as to have time for the correspondence to take place. Often we
would hear about a struggle or action at a certain facility from one
prisoner and have to write back to a dozen others to confirm or
substantiate the activity, or to gain another perspective.

Despite the difficulties of the process, we were happy with the results.
Within a matter of days of the first mailing, letters began pouring in
with prisoners asking to be added to the mailing list. It seemed the
publication was being passed along entire blocks in some facilities. We
can only estimate that, on average and excluding the many prisoners on
segregation, for every prisoner that received Proposals at least another
four or five read it. This combination of personal correspondence, based
on a political affinity, and a broad audience was exactly the niche
Proposals was designed to fill.

As things progressed, it became clear that while prisoner unity was a
tremendous obstacle (along with punitive segregation, it was probably the
biggest obstacle) more was going on inside than anyone on either side of
the walls had previously known. Multiple yard occupations in various
facilities, hunger strikes, prisoners flooding their cells en masse—while
none of these actions were large, or achieved coordination with multiple
facilities like Georgia or California, prisoners across the state were now
hearing and talking about them together in their yards and in newly formed
study groups. We also had the privilege of publishing accounts of
previously hidden prison struggles, including a 5-day (!) riot in 1975 at
a women's facility in Raleigh (issue 2) as well as a new year's eve riot
at a Raleigh youth center in 1991 (issue 3).

Along with more widely known struggles like the California hunger strike,
this has helped galvanize people on the outside as well as the inside: in
the last six months demos outside of prisons and jails have occurred in
Asheville, Durham, Raleigh, Greensboro, and Windsor, NC, the last of which
managed to be coordinated with prisoners on the seg unit of the rural
facility. Much of this activity has had a certain feedback loop: prisoners
see the demos, write to either Proposals or a local books-to-prisoners
project in response, and a relationship is formed. This represented for us
a certain advance upon the now popular tactic of prison or jail noise
demos, a tactic that while exciting in its reproducibility seems to be
limited to creating a sort of temporary, anonymous affinity. To exchange
shouts or upraised fists between the walls with a group of unknown
prisoners can be exciting-- to also interact with some of those same
prisoners the following week via a joint anarchist/prisoner publication is
even better.

Despite these successes, however, censorship increasingly began to drag
down the publication. Correspondence was interrupted, issues were banned,
many of the prisoners who most needed to see new issues were unable to
receive them without great difficulty. We never had a good plan to deal
with this censorship, nor the power or capacity to meet it head-on. It
became clear that mailroom guards were pulling issues immediately upon
sight of our return address, and while a rebranding of the publication
helped temporarily, it became clear that something needed to change.


In addition to censorship, the lack of a common narrative framework also
presented a problem, albeit one that might have been better overcome
without constant bureaucratic interference. The people on our mailing list
primarily shared two things: their position as prisoners and a desire to
act. Outside of this commonality, many prisoners clearly spoke very
different languages with regards to prison struggle, or conceived of it in
extremely different frameworks. This is hardly surprising, but it
represents a certain obstacle to publishing a semi-coherent anarchist
publication. For this reason and others, much of the submissions we
printed were limited to immediately practical concerns, such as
report-backs from specific facilities or vague calls for “prisoner unity”
in the face of administrative repression. Articles carrying deeper
analysis often came from outside the prison walls, though they seem to
have been received with enthusiasm.

Part of this lack of shared language or narrative (or analytic depth) is
to be expected from a prison population that has both grown massively and
has experienced little broad-based rebellion in the last 40 years. If one
were to (tentatively) suggest that the strikes in Georgia and California
represent a renewed era of prison struggle in the US, one might expect the
current political depth of prisoners' critique to elaborate and deepen in
the coming years. Of course, the prison newspapers that operated in many
facilities across the country in the 60's and 70's are long gone; if any
publication is to support this process of radicalization and dialogue, it
might have to be publications such as this one. How to continue such a
project that remains committed to its task of helping to generalize
rebellion and deepen radical discourse on the inside without drawing so
much attention from the authorities remains to be seen.

It is probably clear that the consistent question in our minds remains
that of the role of the outsider. Certain things are apparent to us: our
role is not to mediate prisoners' struggles, to place ourselves as
negotiators between them and the guards and wardens as so many “prisoner
support” groups have done before us. That is the way of the Left, but it
is not our way.

Any rebellion, but particularly one which is concerned with an apparatus
of isolation and separation, will die if it does not spread. Up until last
December in Georgia, the history of prison rebellions in the US consisted
mainly of single-facility uprisings or organizing efforts, which almost
always failed due to their containment to one prison and the apathy of the
larger society. One need not read a history of Attica to know that for
those who have the courage to risk everything, such containment has brutal

The role of the outsider then must be to fight containment and generalize
a struggle wherever possible: beyond just one block to a whole facility,
beyond a single facility to an entire region of prisons, beyond prison
walls to other sectors of society which have their own tensions with
prisons, policing, or the economy. In the last year two different prison
struggles have achieved some degree of generalization, the first (Georgia)
without hardly any help from the outside except for the role of media

Albeit on a much smaller scale, Proposals attempted to support this
process of generalization whenever possible. Obviously this took place
through constant correspondence as much as through a printed newsletters,
but the newsletter is what congealed these activities together. Our
efforts were partially successful, in terms of the spreading of
information, but rarely were prisoners well-organized enough to act on the
information. What's more, anarchists in NC (or possibly anywhere in the
US) simply don't yet have the capacity, on their own, to support such
struggles adequately on the outside.

Here we have a paradox: part of the appeal of anti-prison struggle for
anarchists in the US is that the terrain is still uninhabited by the
typical stew of NGOs, leftist party-sects, and “movement organizations”
that so often serve as barriers to more revolutionary activity. The
reasons for this absence are varied, but it opens up a broader space for
experimentation and radicalization than exists in the more
institutionalized realms of issue-based politics. At the same time, in
situations of crisis this means that unless we are very well connected
with friends or family members of the prisoners themselves, we are likely
to be the only ones standing outside the prison walls. It is one thing to
print a publication charged with the spreading and sharing of information
to different facilities; it is another thing entirely to be capable of
targeting a dozen or so facilities or DOC offices on a regional level

Another dilemma we experienced could be seen in the demands issued on
multiple occasions by prisoners. As seen in both Georgia as well as
California, not to mention the smaller struggles in NC, the demand-form is
still a standard way that prisoners communicate with prison officials.
Examples abound even from the very pages of our small newsletter:
Prisoners occupied a yard and demanded that a snitch be moved off their
block; a prisoner went on a one-person hunger strike and a whole list of
relatively minor demands were met; on a seg unit prisoners set fires and
banged on their doors while a crew submitted demands for better
healthcare. Outside of praising anyone who has the courage to act under
the threat of torture, we have no interest in passing judgement on this
issuing of demands. But it raises questions for us that we would address
to the general milieu: does such an issuing of demands deserve critique?
What is the alternative – prisoners occupying their yard until the
destruction of “the totality?”

Many of the uprisings that have struck the globe in recent years almost
instinctually sought to transcend the demand-form. This makes sense: it is
a primary way that power reestablishes mediation and management, a method
of recuperation all too common. When one desires an entirely different way
of life, this is not a demand that can be granted by power, even if it
would. And of course, as anarchists our one “demand” with regards to
prisons is that every prisoner be let out, and every prison be torched.
But Proposals gladly printed the demands of those prisoners who insisted
on acting, even when they knew they did not yet have the capacity to enact
such a struggle for total freedom. Were we wrong to do so? How will other
anarchist initiatives interact with this phenomenon of demands in the
future?*** Is every prisoners' struggle that involves demands simply the
puppet of managers and would-be politicians? How do we read these
situations? Because the issue will arise again, and it will likely be less
cut and dry than we have found it to be in these limited circumstances.

A final question we would raise is that of how differing anti-prison
initiatives might interact. Despite the aforementioned criticisms of the
books-to-prisoners model, we maintained a mutually beneficial relationship
with the prison books project in our town. Many of the same prisoners
wrote to both projects, and our cooperation was crucial. Demonstrations at
prisons or jails in the region have become a regular phenomenon as well,
and discussions of how to elaborate on this model continue. What needs to
be developed more fully is ways in which one-off actions like
demonstrations or attacks can intersect with long-term efforts at
communication like a books-to-prisoners collective that sees itself
outside of the charity model, an ABC chapter, or a specific publication.
In so far as the former requires discretion, the latter require distance,
making the intersection difficult. Yet somewhere in our various
relationships with prisoners this intersection must be possible.

In Conclusion

As in most instances of self-criticism, we've brought to the table more
questions than answers. For us at least, Proposals struck new ground in
combining communication, analysis, and action against prisons. Along with
the difficulties of the current social terrain of NC prisons (absence of
any coherent discourse, deeply divided prison populations, the constant
segregation of politically active prisoners), the project was partially
successful, to the point where institutional obstacles became prohibitive.
But of course this is to be expected with such efforts, and it hardly
means they will cease. For us this is the point of such experimentation,
to move quickly across the terrain, strike forcefully, and appear in new
and ever more creative ways, not abandoning but building on that which
came before.

Hopefully this piece can at least spark some discussion in that direction.
We know many comrades around the country are asking similar questions, and
perhaps our experiment can at least find resonance if not provide answers.

In love for all our friends and comrades,
and absolute hatred for prison society,

Proposals editing crew


* - An excellent essay on this and other topics can be found in the essay
“3 Positions against Prison,” which originally appeared in Fire to the
Prisons #10 and can also be found in zine form at

** - With the use of clandestine cell phones across as many as 11
facilities, prison rebellion made a giant overdue leap into the digital
age in Georgia. We would urge our more tech-savvy comrades (or even just
anarchists who know how to use a phone) to seize the opportunity this

*** - Perhaps our Greek friends have some insight into this. Greek
anarchists played an influential role in supporting a widespread prison
hunger strike in November 2008 (the government ultimately agreed to
release over half the country's prison population!) while remaining
critical of the issuing of demands as a strategy. Rendering concrete
solidarity while remaining critical is obviously possible, but the
question remains whether issuing demands in a prison context is or is not
the best approach.

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