Prisoners Mobilize for Black Lives and Against Brutality Behind Bars

Over Memorial Day weekend, a mob of ten or more prison guards maced and beat “Pooh Bear,” a Black man incarcerated in Alabama’s Kilby Correctional Facility, in the head arms, ribs, legs and back with clubs.

An officer had kicked him the night before, an incident that Pooh Bear reported. To retaliate against this “snitching,” two guards, officers with the last names of Moss and Turner, ordered Pooh Bear to go outside. Every incarcerated person at Kilby knows, reportedly, that such an order is code for a beating. Moss called for backup, then struck Pooh Bear in the face with his stick. More and more officers joined in, beating him all over his body, while yelling racial slurs, as detailed in 10 corroborating letters written by incarcerated witnesses that were sent to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Truthout. The guards reportedly high-fived each other after the beating, while the sergeant and lieutenant coached Officers Moss and Turner on how to write the statement report.

On the phone, a Black man incarcerated at Kilby who prefers the pseudonym Nick, told Truthout, “It’s known it’s OK to jump on an inmate, lock him up, charge him for assault and that’s gonna be that.” Nick chose not to send the DOJ his eyewitness account of Pooh Bear’s beating because of retaliation he faced previously.

Prisoners say that abuse reminiscent of the “modern day lynching” of George Floyd is common practice behind bars. Swift Justice, who is also incarcerated at Kilby Correctional Facility and prefers a pseudonym, tells Truthout: “What happens in here is just like the rhetoric police on the street used to justify killings.” Outside of prison the officers say, “‘He had a gun or appeared to have a gun,’” Swift explains. In prison they often say, “‘he had a knife, or failed to comply with the direct order.’ And in here it’s hard to prove different and, we don’t have cell phones to capture it. These guys in here know it and it scares them! And rightfully so.”

Potential, another Black man confined at a different facility in Alabama, says that guards “know where the cameras are and where they aren’t. They take guys where there aren’t cameras and they will beat the sh*t out of them. That’s the system here. And the supervisors allow it … because there’s no camera we can’t substantiate that, it’s like it never happened.”

Even though the spotlight isn’t directly on brutality behind bars, the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement is energizing and inspiring hope for some incarcerated people. “Of course, when we see everyone united and riding together and taking a stand, we all excited and stuff in here,’” Potential says. “And we all understand the potential that these protests have as far as affecting the guys on the inside and what it means for society in general.”

Nick says he sometimes feels hopeful, but becomes discouraged when he notices old patterns taking shape. “When I look, I see the same faces representing the stuff that[’s] always seen representing … Al Sharpton, Ben Crump … and there’s no [real] solution.” But, he adds, “As long as you start a spark somewhere you can always start a fire. The protests out there right now is definitely a spark.”

Organizing for Black Lives Behind Bars

Some people behind bars are, to the extent possible, supporting the emerging Black liberation uprising. On June 7, Jeremy Hammond’s Support Committee, a group that has supported Hammond since he was sentenced to 10 years in prison after the FBI entrapped him in a hacking case, released footage of Hammond and others chanting “no justice no peace no racist police!,” from their cells at a transfer facility in Oklahoma. “Free the people,” one man says. Another says, “All the protesters out there, man, thank you. We really support everything y’all doing.” In a second video, Hammond fires off: “We support the thousands of warriors out there arrested on the front lines, abused, we got your back!”

Incarcerated people at the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia tapped on the windows as BLM demonstrators walked by, while others inside Baltimore City Correctional Center reportedly led a “No Justice No Peace” chant. People confined in Sydney, Australia, spelled out “BLM” with towels after prison guards used so much tear gas against them that nearby residents were gassed in their homes. Over sixty individuals went on hunger strike “in memory of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant and Tony McDade,” in a unit at the Mesa Verde immigrant detention center in Bakersfield, California.

Incarcerated writer Christopher Blackwell similarly reported that men in Washington have been shouting solidarity slogans behind bars, and carrying ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs. “Watching the recent events unfold has left prisoners feeling like the atrocities we experienced are finally coming to light,” he wrote. “It has been invigorating to watch the entire world take a stand against these systems. Maybe this time our communities will see justice. Maybe this time we’ll see real change take place in the United States.”

Blackwell added that many prisoners want to be out in the streets. Joshua Williams, an incarcerated Ferguson protester with a seven-year prison sentence related to attempted property destruction and stealing a bag of chips, iterated this point in his interview with GQ. “I feel good about it, because I can see they still got the fight in them,” he said. “They’re still fighting for what I fought for. They didn’t give up. But I want to be there with them too, though. So it’s bittersweet.”

In addition to physical barriers, institutional ones can prevent incarcerated people from fully entering the discourse. Many confined people don’t have access to the news beyond mainstream TV channels, which oftentimes provide an uncritical, narrow interpretation of the news. Potential says this censorship can hamper peoples’ analysis of events. Without his contraband cell phone, he would be in the dark. Beginning to address this issue, True Leap Press created booklets with news that can be printed and sent to people behind bars.

Even with access to an abundance of media coverage and books, many people on the outside have much to learn about the historical context of prisons and policing. While most believe police exist to ‘protect and serve’ the public, their historical origins lie in patrolling enslaved people, attacking Indigenous people and disciplining the working class. As Swift Justice puts it: “The question is how many people in the movement outside realize this is a continuation of slavery ending in results of slave catchers exercising immunity from their actions?’ I call it ‘Blue Privilege.’”

Swift expresses solidarity with the movement, and also hopes prisoner struggles won’t be left out of the conversation. “I would love to see people of America get just as mad about the police murders in the prison plantations as they are about those occurring in our streets,” he says. “Our problems are related!”

As COVID-19 leads to increasingly worse conditions for the almost 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, support from the outside is incredibly urgent. At least 589 incarcerated people have died from the virus. In Alabama, a prison system the DOJ already reported as violating the eighth amendment ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” they are at complete mercy of the virus.

As Potential looks around his dorm, an open room with hundreds of bunk beds “packed like sardines,” he sees just one man with a mask. He says COVID-19 is the most “immediate threat” to them right now, but believes sustained pressure from the movement could eventually improve their conditions and lead to decarceration.

“We are hoping it will trickle down to the guys on the inside with long sentences, and hoping we get some fairness across the board.”