Around a dozen anarchists gathered in Denton, TX to host a public food sharing in a popular, centrally located park, and to write letters of support to long term anarchist political prisoners and prison rebels. It is important to us that we stay in contact with radicals and prison rebels being held captive by the state. We want to make sure that our comrades know that they are not alone, despite the isolating conditions of captivity. As we shared food, wrote letters and made art together, we thought about Marius, Krow, Sean, Jeremy, Kara Wild and many other friends who may be locked up, but who will never be forgotten.
When I think of solidarity in the context of the June 11th holiday, in conjunction with writing the obvious letter to our caged comrades, I believe in the prioritization of engaging in living resistance utilizing/creating structures therein that allow rad folk to circumnavigate being caged. The Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement’s most recent communiqué offers some suggestions that may enrich hypothetical efforts (it’s free online and worth your time).
More immediately, we can also activate general prisoner solidarity by once more utilizing/creating local legal/bail funds to free any and all who are incarcerated and eligible for bail on this day. Even in the move from specific (eco-prisoners) to general terms, prisoners, if we are to be ‘solid’ with one, we must be solid with the other, as they are oppressed by one of the same forces and entities- the state. As always, no prisons means no prisoners. This is not to dilute the focus of this very important day from eco-prisoners, just extend the scope and reach of our support.
Outreach to un-politicized prisoners is a common good that needs doing and also holds potential to radicalize more people, thus also potentially adding them to the cause and discussions of the proverbial “team”. We must be prefigurative in all that we do, valuing the process of achieving and actively living (daily) revolutionary lifestyles just as much as the diverse outcomes of those processes (derived from recent inspirations of Marianne Maeckelbergh’s “The Will of the Many”)
Disproportionately, the poor and people of color (POC) sit in jail due to lack of access to resources or money to pay bond (and sometimes they are very low bond amounts). We must outreach to offer tools that enable more agency on the individual’s part here.
Also on this day, we must acknowledge and undermine the fact that our so-called “government” continues to vilify comrades who defend the earth and all it’s creatures and life forces, in order to distract from the evil-doings+ merciless killings of land, water and people/creatures that the “US Government” is endorsing and perpetuating on a daily basis. They continually take the focus off of their heinous and racist resource-colonial acts and continue to subjugate, imprison, or kill any and all who seem to threaten their relative power.
Lastly, fuck Derek Jensen, but, “Forget Shorter Showers,” and don’t forget other Earth Defenders and Water Protectors that need our attention and support today and all days, like:
Red Fawn Fallis@ HACTC, 110 Industrial Rd. Rugby, ND 58368
Kathleen Bennet @ Morton County Jail, 205 1st Ave. NW, Mandan, ND 58554
as the latter needs assistance getting bailed out of jail! There are so many others we can reach out to as well, including internationally.
While we are reaching out to our wild-caged creatures this day, in the realms of prisoner and legal support groups, be sure to “check” yourselves and others’ privilege if comments like “take care of it” or “it’s better to just deal with it now” are slipping out of people’s mouths in regards to addressing looming and potentially lengthy terms of incarceration. You/they may never have before been in this situation, and you/they may not wish being as targeted or ill-resourced whist incarcerated! We should first seek to find them alternatives if at all possible. For prisoner post-release support, both prior preparational and logistical, to create adequate healing space for all involved is paramount. You’re all human; no one is a romanticized epitome of a radical ideal.
Thank you deeply to all who have supported me or donated to my support fund! My heart and wild appreciation goes out to you and I cannot do it without you! Here’s to having each other’s backs! Please also remember to support the upcoming International Solidarity with Eric King Day on June 28th and extend support to prisoners on food strike for better conditions in Folsom prison.
In closing, “… we threaten our own interests and rights when we condone by our silence the use of the government surveillance, attack on the legitimacy of the political activists, and the use of the criminal law to suppress and punish political dissent.” -Lennox S. Hines
Until All Are Free!
Your Comrade in Struggle,
For the wild
– marking the four year anniversary of my charges related to the Penokee Mine Struggle
(from Support Krow)
Being locked up is being placed in a constant battle. You’re fighting for your physical well being, your dignity, your desire to be treated like a fucking living thing. It isn’t a game, it isn’t romantic. People lose this fight, people lose themselves often. One of the most savage tools the state uses is muzzling its captives, stealing, prohibiting and limiting our voice and contact with the outside world. This is dangerous because when you can’t see or hear the outside, you stop seeing yourself as a part of it, You forget that you belong out there. You can fall more into what they want, the prisoner mold, it’s a real fucking trap.
This is why communication is so dangerous to this system, it can dismantle their entire ratshit agenda. What is more powerful than knowing your voice will be heard, than knowing that out in the world people exist who love you and will refuse to let you get lost within these walls? The last time I was transferred, my team found me within 24 hours, with no help from the BOP. Those bastards refused to let me make a call, refused to give me a pencil to write a letter, they were not going to help me be in contact, it goes against everything they want. There was no fear though because I knew no matter where I got sent or how badly I was being treated, my team would fucking be on it. Communicating the situation with the community, using every possible tool imaginable to keep our line of contact available, harassing the facility until they found me and found out what had happened to me. This trust was built overtime, because EVERY TIME I have faced adversity they have been there for me, guided and helped me in every way imaginable. I was placed in Transfer seg on Friday, I had my first letters from my partner by Tuesday, and my first phone call by Thursday. That communication kept my spirits alive, it ruined their plans. The system doesn’t like this, an empowered, loved prisoner isn’t a good prisoner.
The state goes through many means to block our communication. Charging crazy (3c’s =)..) funds for calls and limiting them to 300god damn minutes A MONTH, scanning all in coming and out going letters, reviewing all emails before they’re able to be sent out, shipping you far from your family, isolating you completely, or at least trying to. They’ve shown their hand, our strongest tool is their biggest fear; well informed, connected, empowered prisoners. Prisoners who know their strength, prisoners with ears and hearts outside these walls. I’ve seen first hand how different doing time with support is compared to without. I’ve also seen how different you can be treated when these fucks know they can’t bury you. Communication can be our strongest weapon because it can remove the fear the state tries to instill, it can calm our nerves in a anxiety riddled environment, it can spread knowledge of what is happening to us to the outside world along with what is happening outside to us, it can promote hope, inspire victories, keep the fire and rebellious spirit burning within our hearts. I am stronger mentally because of the love and help I’ve received from those on the outside. If everyone had that same love and communication, there wouldn’t be a prisoner population.
Thank you to everyone who has been there for any prisoner, to my partner<3, support team, and everyone who has been there for me in anyway. Through that support we are free.
In our final interview for the June 11th International Day of Solidarity with Marius Mason & All Long-Term Anarchist Prisoners, we spoke with Cindy Crabb about anarchist eco-prisoner Marius Mason.
Marius Mason is in the middle of a 22 year sentence in federal prison for acts of property damage carried out in defense of the earth and animals, including an arson at a Michigan State University lab researching genetically-modified organisms for Monsanto. He is currently held captive in the high security Federal Medical Center Carswell, only recently being released from administrative segregation after years held there. Marius came out as transgender in 2014 and continues to advocate for trans prisoners.
In our interview, we discuss Marius’s recent release from administrative segregation, the challenges of long-term prisoner support, the gendered inequalities of prisoner solidarity work, maintaining projects through the years, the financial struggle of supporting prisoners, the importance of June 11th, and the personal and emotional challenges of prisoner support.
JUNE 11TH: Would you start be telling me about yourself and your experience with prisoner support?
CINDY CRABB: My name is Cindy Crabb. I wrote the zine Doris and I’m on Marius Mason’s support team. I started doing really basic prison support in the early ‘90s, when I basically sent my zine through to prisoners and had a little bit of correspondence with prisoners that way. And then later on I did books to prisoners in Asheville, NC. And I do it in Ohio now a little bit. First I started writing Marius when a mutual friend of ours committed suicide and I knew Marius would have one less pen pal. So I started writing him, and after a couple of years he asked me if I wanted to join his support team. So that evolved into more active prisoner support, trying to find out what wasn’t happening and what needed to happen, how to get things more organized than they were and facilitate him getting more support.
J11: Can you speak to the importance of prisoner support in anarchist practice and other liberatory struggles? Explicitly the necessity of supporting prisoners with long sentences?
C: Yeah. I think there’s a few reasons why prisoner support is real essential, especially long-term prisoner support for the anarchist project. As anarchists we often advocate for direct action, and if people get arrested for direct action it’s essential that we be there to support them. Otherwise direct action isn’t really a viable strategy, it’s more just a romanticized form of action. So in order for direct action to be sustainable, reasonable and an actual strategy we need to be able to provide for prisoners who get arrested, for their basic needs, and bigger support.
To help them have the best lives they can while they are in prison and to support their families that are outside of prison. Another reason I think that prisoner support is really essential for anarchists is as anarchists we need to prefigure a world that we want to live in, and part of that prefiguration is being able to provide for people in our community that aren’t able to provide for themselves. So if we live in a geographical community that we are connected to, we can do that through various kinds of support work of people in our communities. A lot of anarchists don’t have geographical communities that they live in or aren’t connected to the community that they live in, and prisoner support can be a good practice in learning to set aside your own sort of agenda, and learn to provide actual support and care to people that are not able to provide for themselves.
J11: Could you tell us a little bit more about Marius?
C: Marius Mason was an activist that was involved in various kinds of environmental activism and community activism since the ‘80s. He was a musician and father and believed in collective organizing and direct action. In 2009 he was sentenced to 22 years in prison for an arson that he was charged with at a Michigan State University building. The building in Michigan that was burned down was doing genetic engineering, and this was in 1999 when G.E. wasn’t really in the public conscience of Americans. The Animal Liberation, Earth Liberation, and environmental projects were more focused on logging and factory farming. In other countries G.E. was prevalent, more something that was being protested against. So say in India people were burning their GMO crops and in protest of Monsanto patenting various seeds.
The arson of the Michigan building that Marius was convicted of, it really brought a lot of media attention to genetic engineering. It really was successful in shifting the dialogue in America from G.E. being just something not really seen to Monsanto being researched, and I think even Frontline did a big expose on Monsanto after the arson. Marius was arrested in 2009 after his husband had turned state informant and gave the FBI a bunch of information about their actions. Unfortunately for Marius his case wasn’t really picked up by activist lawyers or the ACLU, who had picked up a few other cases like this that were coming down at the time. The FBI had started a campaign which later become known as the Green Scare, which targeted environment activists that were doing direct action, and giving them extreme sentences to show to the activists that these type of actions would be prosecuted to the furthest extent. The Green Scare is seen similar to the Red Scare in which the FBI often sent agents in to stir things up and then arrest people who went along with the agents.
So Marius didn’t have an ACLU or activist lawyer step forward to represent his case probably because they thought it was a losing case, because his husband had turned state’s evidence. So he had just a defender that he had hired actually. He took a plea deal, he pled guilty under the assumption that he would get a reduced sentence, but instead he got an excessive sentence. Which was I think was 20 years, with a 2 years terrorism enhancement. He was then placed in a prison in Minnesota, and about a month later was moved to the high security administrative unit in Texas – Carswell.
The administrative unit he was in for over 7 years, and it severely limited his ability to communicate with the outside world. The small unit he was housed in was mostly people with extreme behavioral problems or mental health problems. Since he’s been in prison he’s refused to cut off ties with his friends and community on the outside. And he’s also started a couple of campaigns, one of which was the January 22nd International Day of Action and Solidarity with Trans Prisoners. He’s also been writing poetry and teaching guitar inside the prison. And he took up painting: he’s been doing painting of animals, mostly of ones at the threat of extinction. And he’s also been doing a trans heroes series of paintings.
J11: Could you briefly talk about him transitioning publicly: when that happened and how that worked?
C: While he was in prison in 2013 Marius came out to his friends and family as transgender. He now identifies as a man and spent over two years fighting for the right to receive medically indicated care, and he finally got approved for hormone treatment. So he was the first federal prisoner to receive hormone treatment which will hopefully pave the way for prisoners to be able to receive hormones. He is current fighting for the right for surgical care for gender transition.
J11: So you mentioned that Marius was recently released to general population after years in the administrative unit. How did that come about and what does it mean for him?
C: We are still trying to figure out how that came about and what it means. We are still trying to figure exactly what unit he’s in. He was moved out of the admin unit. The administrative unit – and it’s stated on the website – is there for behavioral problems. And that there are people in there that receive a list of goals that if they meet they get moved out. And Marius of course has never gotten anything like that. His lawyer has been writing them a lot trying to get them to abide by their own standards and hasn’t gotten any response. And then, I think because Marius gets mail and he’s in the public eye a little bit – he’s not forgotten – that there is a better chance for him to get moved out than some of the other prisoners who are in there who don’t have communities of support. But it seems kind of random that he was moved out and we’re not totally sure why. We’re not totally sure quite honestly. He’s not quite in general population, I think he’s in a little bit of a smaller wing. Which might be actually better then general, or at least a better transition spot than general.
It’s hard to tell what’s going on, so I don’t want to get it all confused. I don’t want people to get confused by there being multiple reports of what’s going on. But whatever it is, it’s way better than him being in the admin unit. He’s able to go outside. He wrote us that he finally was able to see the sky and the clouds after years and years of not being able to see them. That he can touch the trees in the yard and feel the wind. Those things he will never be able to take for granted again. That it just means so much that he can go outside. And in this new unit he has more contact with other prisoners, and more groups and activities. So he should be good. I mean, it would be better if he was free, but it’s good that he’s not in that unit anymore.
J11: You also mentioned that Marius has been advocating for himself as a trans prisoner and other trans prisoners. One of the ways he’s done that is initiating January 22nd as the Day of Solidarity and Action with Trans Prisoners. Can you talk about that initiative a little bit?
C: Yeah, he started that. He was communicating with someone I believe in Australia about starting this day of action and solidarity with trans prisoners. He wanted to help expand the support he was getting to bring support to the larger population of trans prisoners, and connect the anarchist struggle with the trans prisoners struggle.
J11: When we discuss prisoner support, we think primarily of things like letter writing and fundraising and such. And often the reality is that people are taken from their children, their elderly parents, and companion animals. Marius in particular has a few cats that he left in the care of a comrade. What can we do to strengthen the support for the families and dependents of our prisoners?
C: I think there is so much that needs to be done to support prisoners across the board. Individual prisoners and prisoners in general. You know, before I joined Marius’s support team I thought probably that he was getting all the support that he needed. I would see his name around and would hear people talk about him. So I was really shocked when I joined his support team, that his basic needs weren’t being met. There wasn’t enough fundraising and the amount of letters he was getting was getting less and less as the years went by. So I think there is always that need for the basic stuff that we think is being taken care of, it probably isn’t being taken care of.
With that being said, there is a number of good organizations that are trying to help support in this larger way that you’re talking about. Like what do we do, how do we help prisoners who have kids who are left behind? And aging parents. I don’t anyone who works specifically with aging parents, but I know the Rosenberg Fund for Children has helped fly kids out to visit their parents in prisons, political prisoners. And there is the Jericho movement which does a lot of support for political prisoners and their families. Project Fang is a new fund that just started up that helps fly people out to visit prisoners. I think in the larger picture when I’m just focused on meeting the basic needs, I’m trying to figure out why there isn’t more support, it’s harder to think about the bigger picture. But I think what would help is if people realize that the basic needs of prisoners, of long-term anarchist prisoners weren’t being met. If they figured out how much time they could put into it, whether it be an hour a week, or two hours a month, or whatever kind of timeframe.
If people really sat down and thought, I need to figure out how to make something happen in a realistic way, and this is a realistic amount of time I can put forward into it, and look at their strengths and look at what they are able to offer. Are they artists? Are they web designers? Can they organize fundraisers? Do they have some in with veterinarians? Can they do childcare? What are their strengths, what do they have to offer? And then think about, is there something in their region, is there a group in their region that’s already doing prisoner support? They can offer their services there. I am an anarchist and I think that anarchist prisoners need our support, but there are also a lot of prisoners that need our support. So you know, if there is a local organization that’s working against ICE and immigration detention – or there was this cool thing on Mother’s Day where people were raising money to get mothers out who just needed bail. You know, like what’s going on locally, or if they don’t have a local area where anything is happening, what can they contribute virtually? I know with Marius we always have a need for fundraising, and art, and just getting the word out. Everything, you know?
J11: That transitions to the next question, which is what are some of the challenges that we have in supporting prisoners? And what could we collectively be doing better?
C: I think the challenges are that it gets tiring, it gets tiring to ask people for money, and writing prisoners can be depressing. And these are two things that we need to constantly be doing. I don’t have a ton of experience beyond Marius’s case, and it could be different with other cases, but I’ve seen this sort of gendered delegation of tasks that I’ve seen in other anarchist movements happening in prisoner support – where more women are doing the daily tasks of care that don’t have as much glory to it, and more men are taking the more glorious media-type roles, which is depressing.
I think there is something really humbling about writing prisoners, and being connected in that way, trying to find, especially, anarchist prisoners where you can’t necessarily write about what you’re doing politically because it probably won’t get through. And where you actually have to think about what else in your life matters, and what else they might need to hear. Most prisoners live in real sensory-deprivation environments. That getting letters, or art, or contacts should involve the senses is really important, and more important than hearing about the political thing that you’re thinking about, you know? And I think for a lot of anarchists, staying in the theoretical, this is what I think politically realm, is their favored place to be rather than going to a place of, what else do I have to offer someone, you know?
So anyway, I think that more people need to be willing to do the daily tasks of care and let go of their egos a little bit, and be like, yeah I might not have anything that will impress Marius to say in a letter, so I’m just going to write about what I did on the walk I went on with my dog. Honestly, he loves the letters of this is the walk I went on with my dog, and most prisoners I’ve written love those letters. They start to forget what it’s like to be in the world, and remembering what it’s like to just exist in the world is really helpful. So, letting go of the ego, and just being willing to do the daily stuff is really important.
J11: Can you speak to the way that the strengths and failings of prisoner support have affected Marius personally?
C: We try to shelter Marius a little bit from the financial situation, so that part hasn’t really affected him personally. There’s some things that he needs that don’t happen which affect him. It’s surprising to me that, you know, he’s vegan and those meals in federal prison are not very vegan-friendly, and as a vegan he has some serious health problems because the food was not sufficient to meet his nutritional needs. So we’ve sent out some calls for people to see if anyone’s willing to spearhead advocacy projects for federal prisons to have better vegan options, and there’s been no response. And I know we don’t have very good outreach, but it’s like, come on people! This is something very real, and I know there’s a ton of really active vegans out there and this would be a good project, and this is really affecting Marius’ health in a severe way.
So there’s that, and then the less and less mail that he’s been receiving in the last few years has been pretty disheartening to him, and creates more disconnection with the world. He’s so understanding that people just don’t write letters anymore, that that’s just not the way people communicate anymore. He understands that and everything. But the letters are a super lifeline, and a way to connect him with what it’s like to be in the world, and honestly to keep sane. So I think people doing that more, that’s been a big one. And then, fundraising. His cat got sick, and we tried to do a separate fundraiser for the cat so it wouldn’t come from his general fund. It wasn’t very successful. I don’t know. We didn’t tell him about the cat fundraiser, and lack of funds from it, but I think it affects him. Not the financial stuff because he doesn’t know about it, but the other stuff.
J11: Can you see any ways that June 11th can contribute to addressing some of these shortcomings? And what are your hopes for June 11th this year?
C: I’m grateful for June 11th, I think without June 11th, Marius’ case would have lost its visibility. And June 11th is so essential for keeping his case and other long-term anarchist prisoners’ cases visible. I think the vision of what it is now, a lot of different local groups doing events that speak to what’s happening in their communities, and that also draw attention to long-term anarchist prisoners – I think a larger vision could include a little more of a toolbox to help new activists to figure out ways to really get more involved in the anarchist movement and supporting anarchist prisoners. And could make more connections to other prisoner movements, just to bridge some of those gaps or at least show solidarity. I think it’s doing a good job.
Sometimes I think it’s kinda funny, but as anarchists we’re not immune to the capitalist grow-or-die mentality. And sometimes I think that with our projects we think, what can we do next? Like, how can we up the ante? Sometimes, just keeping a project alive is sufficient. Of course I want to see everything grow just as much as anybody else does, but I also think that maintaining things takes a ton of work, and that making things be a constant in for people to get politicized around is a really huge aspect.
J11: Are there any struggles or moments in the recent past that have inspired you?
C: Yeah, Black Lives Matter of course. And some really cool work that, I can’t remember if they were DREAMers or young people who had some kind of legal status in the United States, but did this thing where they got arrested on purpose into ICE holding centers and did some underground reporting and organized things on the inside. Which was really brave and really amazing. There’s a ton of immigrants’ rights stuff that’s really powerful right now, really blowing my mind. And the prison strike of course was, and continues to be, really inspiring and exciting.
J11: Are there any other projects you’re involved with or have interest in that you’d like to talk about?
C: I’m involved in the January 22nd Day of Action in Solidarity for Trans Prisoners, which I think is really exciting. I don’t think it’s really fulfilled its potential yet, in terms of its organizational structure. But I think just getting off the ground that there’s a ton of interest in it, and it’s a really beautiful way to broaden the picture of what we’re doing, and what we’re able to do as anarchists and as queers. We definitely need more help organizing it, but it’s also taken off in local autonomous groups, and sometimes that’s just as good as or better than a more organized form. I think the Trans Prisoner Day of Action and Solidarity has really taken off internationally, which is cool. And I know I’ve seen this critique before, and I think it’s a good critique, that as people in the United States we need to do more work being tuned in and supportive of anarchist and trans prisoners in other countries. So I personally am going to work on that a little bit more over the next couple of years.
In our latest interview for the June 11th International Day of Solidarity with Marius Mason & All Long-Term Anarchist Prisoners, we spoke with Daniel McGowan.
Daniel is a former eco-prisoner who did seven years in prison for actions he took part in with the Earth Liberation Front. Prior to and since his time in prison, Daniel has been active in prisoner solidarity projects, including the Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners calendar.
We talk about Daniel’s experiences with solidarity on both sides of the walls, the particular importance of long-term prisoner support, which forms of solidarity felt most important during his time in prison, post-release support, Communication Management Units, inter-movement prisoner support, mutual aid, supporting New York state prisoners and younger anarchist prisoners, and the origins of June 11th.
JUNE 11TH: Can you start by telling us about yourself and your experiences with prison and prisoner support?
DANIEL MCGOWAN: Sure, my name is Daniel McGowan, and I’m a former political prisoner. I’ve done seven years in prison for actions I took with the Earth Liberation Front, or the ELF, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. My experience with prisoner support, for most of my activist life I’ve been involved in prisoner support, and then I found myself being on the receiving end of tremendous amount of support and solidarity from friends and comrades on the outside.
J11: Can you speak to the importance of prisoner support as part of the anarchist project and other liberatory struggles? And specifically to the necessity of supporting long-term prisoners?
D: Well I think prisoner support is really something that’s needed for anyone that goes to prison. Unfortunately the networks that exist are largely built around our comrades or people that we know in prison. I think long-term is a thing that means different things to different people. I tend to think that a person who has a two year sentence feels like it’s long-term, so it’s sort of relative. But I would say that obviously the longer the sentence, the more solidarity and support is needed. I think any movement that takes itself seriously, anarchist or otherwise, needs to provide for the consequences of state repression or interactions between our movements and the right-wing, in terms of incidents between antifa and right-wing fascists. I think that without having that safety net, not only are people less inclined to take actions they feel like are part of a movement, they realize that it almost feels like a martyr situation where people are willing to confront state power or fascists and then there’s literally no one to help them or work with them when they’re in prison.
I think as a person is in prison longer, the needs often change. Prison degrades and haunts individuals, so I think the longer you’re in, the more it’s necessary. And understanding that statistically most people that go to prison come out, but we also obviously have situations where we have people with intense cases, political cases, where they potentially have life sentences, or they technically have access to parole but it’s meaningless because they get rejected all the time. I think the needs of long-term prisoners are slightly different than short-term. A short-term prisoner might have their eye on their out date, and so they don’t want to basically catch a new case, or catch new time. I think we see situations like Jared Chase where his release date has been pushed back, so he is already supposed to be out of prison, but due to interactions with the cops inside, his sentence has been extended to I believe 2019, which is obviously problematic in a lot of ways.
J11: What forms of solidarity were most important to you while you were in prison, and what could have been done better or different?
D: I think having access to people I could call and e-mail (when they finally instituted that) was really important. The fact that I knew I had a crew of people that I could rely on, that when I was bundled up and put in transit I knew that people were looking where I was, that they would reflect on the fact that they didn’t hear from me, and would be looking out for me. I liked feeling that there were these people, my family, my friends, even people I didn’t know around the country and the world, that were willing to make a phone call, to e-mail the BOP or bother them to have lawyers that were willing to come and visit me while I was in transit. I remember there’s this one time I was at Oklahoma City and my partner at the time, I found out later, paid a lawyer to come in and visit me just to get me out of the segregation unit, and for me to let the lawyer know what was going on, and that lawyer was able to relay it to my long-term lawyers and let them know. So knowing that people gave a crap about me, that I had an outlet, that I had friends that I could ask for things that made my time a little easier, that people were willing to basically pressure those in power on my behalf, that was really affirming and supportive.
As far as how things could’ve been done different, I think we learned the hard way. Because my communications were monitored, it was really hard for me to make specific requests and so of course people want to do right by you so they don’t want to do something that puts you in harm’s way. I remember for instance when I first got to the CMU, I remember thinking how awesome it’d be for people to have a support demo outside, and how that would’ve probably flustered the Bureau of Prisons, like “this dude’s from New York and he’s somehow able to mobilize people to be in the parking lot banging on pots and pans and making noise.” It’s not something the prison gets a lot of, in the Midwest and often in rural areas. But I always thought that would be something I would love, but it was pretty much impossible for me to ask, since my phone calls, even my legal visits were all monitored on some level. They’re obviously not supposed to monitor legal visits but I think it’s imperative that people with cases that are scary to the prisons understand that more than likely their phone calls and legal visits are potentially going to be recorded. So we just realized along the way that there’s basically just going to be a whole bunch of things they can’t communicate to me, and I can’t communicate to them.
J11: Can you speak more about your time in the CMUs and other tactics that the state used to try to silence and isolate you?
D: I was in the Communication Management Unit at both prisons, both CMUs. I was at the Marion one for twenty-six months, I got moved into general population at Marion and then the government concocted some fake reason to throw me back in the CMU, and I spent the remaining twenty-one months of my sentence at Terre Haute, Indiana. I think a lot of what it had to do with is that I was put there because I was in a sort of vulnerable position. I had a terrorism case, I had a violence case, since they consider arson violence, and it came with what they call a public safety factor for what they consider a greatest severity offense. So it’s the kind of case that has a lot of highlighting and asterisks on my file. I’m not a Muslim and I have a terrorism case, so when they opened up the second CMU at Marion, they put a few people in there that could basically make some point to just say, “oh no, it’s not a Muslim unit.”
They put myself and Andrew Stepanian from the Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty case, they had sovereign citizens which are from all different races and nationalities, they put an old neo-nazi from “The Order,” a group that engaged in targeting people and armored car robberies. So they put a few of us in there as their “proof” that these CMUs were not just Muslim terrorist units. I was doing academic work with a university in the Midwest, Antioch University, I was doing a Sociology Degree so I was writing a lot about my case, and I think they found those documents and saw the amount of mail I was getting, and essentially when the place I was at was asked for nominations, it was pretty easy for them to send me there because I was vulnerable because of my case. I was at a low-security prison, but it was very easy for them to put me there.
I think part of it was I wasn’t breaking any of their so-called rules, but I was writing a lot of political stuff, I was writing about the drug war, about fellow people in prison that I had met, as well as how basically fraudulent and bogus prison is and what prison does to people. I had met a ton of people when I was at FCI Sandstone that were there basically for crossing the border and who had five to seven year sentences. I met a bunch of people who were being put away for crazy thirty and forty year sentences for meth. It just opened up my eyes to a whole other element of the prison world. So I wrote a lot and I put it online through my friends and family. They were unable to give me incident reports, they were unable to stick me with that. So they just put me in a place where I think they thought I would just roll over and do quiet time.
It didn’t really work that way, I felt like I was doing quiet time and I got sent to the CMU, and that really lit a fire in me again, and I decided I was gonna go to war with them over the next five years, which is pretty much what I did. The other thing they did in terms of isolating me and silencing me was – there are particular aspects about the CMU that were pretty onerous in terms of communication, so they did things like limit the communication in CMUs to (when I first got there) one phone call a week, which you had to sign in a week in advance and you could only call one person. They made the visitation so bad it was like four hours a month. It was really kinda hard for me to ask people to come 2,000 miles to essentially come for this horrible, non-contact visit.
They monitored all the communications, I think they had people in the units that were rats, who were willing to help the government out, and they did an immense amount of rejections of my mail. So my mail going out was monitored obviously and recorded and all that, but really my mail coming in, if it was political. They were very broad in their use of rejections. I had something like 100 magazines and newspapers rejected over the time I was in prison. I pretty much gave grievances for all of them, which was my way of being a bit of an asshole and a stubborn bastard. I basically grieved every single time they rejected anything from the prison level up to DC, which is crazy. It takes like nine months, and at that point you’re allowed to sue. Obviously I didn’t sue on any of my magazine rejections, but I basically pissed them off. I wasn’t able to get Earth First! Journal or Rolling Thunder or a lot of the magazines that to this day really don’t publish anymore.
J11: A topic that has come up for us a number of times is continuing support for people as they’re released from prison. How was your transition, and what was helpful for you? What would you want other people to know about post-release support?
D: It’s interesting, I think the release thing is getting a lot more attention these days from our community because I think we’re getting better. We have a lot more people going to prison, a lot more people come out back into the movement, and we’re sort of learning the hard way how rough re-entry is. Most of the programs that exist for re-entry don’t work so well for politicized individuals for a lot of different reasons. For instance, maybe people come out and they already have good housing, maybe they have a college degree or something like that, maybe they even have job prospects, but usually people are coming out of prison with some struggles? And sometimes it’s everything: it’s housing, it’s legal difficulties, it’s ‘stay-away’ orders from felons or co-defendants.
My situation was such that I was married, I had a place I could go to live, and I got six months in the half-way house. I also had a crew of people that were really amazing in their dedication and fundraising. So when I got out I had a couple thousand dollars, actually more than a couple thousand, to buy some clothes, to buy a computer, to buy shoes. It had been six years, so I needed to replace some things. I was really good at that level. I had my material needs met, I was at the half-way house and came home on the weekends, we’d order takeout food because I wasn’t really allowed to leave. I also did very well, like I was remanded back into custody for writing an article basically about the CMU, and I had lawyers so they were able to get me out of prison the next day, which is really amazing.
But I struggled psychologically, they say you leave prison but prison doesn’t leave you. When I first came home I just had a lot going on and I had a hard time. I was at the half-way house, and it was kinda hard for me, they wouldn’t let me see a shrink or a social worker. I had some contacts from the movement that were willing to get me some access to mental health care. The half-way house, which is essentially a contractor of the government, would not accommodate that. Essentially what happened was I had a lot of two-steps forward, one-step back. And then I had a bit of crisis based on some stuff that went down in my personal life, and at that point it was kinda essential that I see someone. A friend of a friend who was a social worker offered. Because I wasn’t actually even able to go to her office, she came down and met me every week in a coffee shop near my job on my lunch hour. That’s the kind of thing not everyone has access to, and I felt really supported and spoiled by the whole thing.
And then when I was able to get out of the half-way house I saw this person in a professional capacity for three or four years. My problem was more feeling lots of anxiety, having a real hard time with crowds, and that’s the sort of stuff that everyone’s struggle when they leave prison is going to be different. I used to tell myself, “oh you only did six years,” and I was living with men that did thirty, forty years, or life. I thought I was going to get out and everything was going to be peachy keen and fine, but when I got out it was really tough, I got out and I felt like I was still in. I was really sensitive to any kind of offense, everything hurt my feelings and I wanted to fight all the time. I sort of stayed out of trouble, but inside my head it was just rolling emotions.
So I think when people come out we need to reach them where they’re at. Some people are going to get out and they’re going to have amazingly hard times with every aspect. They’ve been in a long time, they might be like, “I’ve never seen a smartphone, I’ve never seen a computer.” I taught computers in CMU and I dealt with men that had pretty much never even seen a computer or used the internet, so it can be really challenging. My situation, I was in for six years, and I had never seen an iPhone, but I certainly understood what a phone was and how to use it. So my ability to get back into things was good on that level. But everyone is going to have different situations. In New York in the last year there was a political prisoner that was in for thirty-seven years. His name is Maliki Shakur, and he came home and he took like a fish to water with phones, I mean he’s good on the smartphone, he texts, he sends photos, he knows how to use it. His housing situation was aided. But I can’t imagine he has a lot of great job prospects, hasn’t been out in the job market for thirty-seven years.
Then you have people like Zolo Azania who gets out and has a crew in the Midwest that have been helping him. Everyone’s going to have a different time, a different struggle. I don’t know if we need to have an organization, but I try to help people when they get out, and I try to help their support crews in getting through some of these issues around housing, legal support, health care especially for older folks, mental health care, all that kind of stuff. I think it’s something that we’re just starting to deal with, I know there was a wave of people that had shorter sentences like the Tinley Park Five, Jason Hammond, and the other people in the NATO Three case, they all got out.
My co-defendants and myself, a ton of us got out after serving anywhere between two and seven years. And we’re all out there in the world as felons trying to get some work, trying to deal with the issues that work presents when you’re a felon. So I think we just have to reach people where they’re at, to start sharing more information. People that are out, who are on probation and are felons, need to talk to each other more, and kinda prepare for when we know people are getting out to help them: materially, but also just as a sounding board. I talk to people when they get out if they’re able to talk to me, and just try to hear them out and see them through the tough times.
J11: How has serving years in prison changed your perspective and your practices around prisoner solidarity?
D: Well, like I said, I did a lot of prisoner support before I went to prison. Maybe something like eight years. I started doing prisoner support in the late Nineties. I did prisoner support for Rod Coronado and a number of other animal rights and eco-people. I did support for Jeff Luers. One thing, probably the main thing, is that I realized that charity-based prisoner support that is like a group doing stuff on behalf of people on the inside can be really problematic. I think regardless of whatever people on the outside think, people that are doing time know what prison is like, and are better able to decide how they need to do their time.
I know a lot of times you have political prisoners or people, political cases or politicized individuals that are very vocal, they decide to buck, so to speak. They do hard-time, they are bucking within the administration, and that’s definitely one way to do time. It’s sort of the way I did my time. I felt like what I was doing was really minor, but the way the government responded to it was so insane. But everyone needs to do their time the way they need to, and I think that when groups on the outside put expectations onto people, I think that’s problematic. I have some good co-defendants, they reported to prison, they kept their heads down and they did their time. I think at the same time that we understand that people need to do their time they way they need to, we also need to recognize that part of the time they use things like the CMU or the special management unit or supermaxes is to scare people.
So I think we do need people that are willing to struggle in prison, and not just put their head down. I’m cool with my co-defendants doing their time, a lot of them kept their head down and had their eye on the clock, and were trying to perhaps lessen the impact on their families. But I also thought that in my situation I felt like I was faced with an intolerable situation, and I thought, “who better to fight back than myself?” I mean – I’m in prison, I’m someone that doesn’t want to look askance when there’s horrible stuff going on, so I thought I was in the right position. So I think the model of working with prisoners, not for them, getting rid of that charity mindset.
I think a lot of that is happening with work that people do on the prison labor front, understanding that it’s a mutualistic relationship. A lot of old-time prisoners, long-term political prisoners or whatnot, have a lot to offer. I have some really interesting relationships with people in prison from both when I was in prison and when I got out. I definitely do support for prisoners, but they’re certainly not limited to the anarchist movement. I feel like my rapport with older leftists is very good and it’s not sectarian, and there’s no belief that I support everything they think: I’m definitely not interested in the tenets of Marxism or state-building. But I engage people on things that we have in common.
So getting away from the charity mindset, working with prisoners and helping them get their voice out there when they can’t do it themselves. But always understanding it in a context of mutual aid and solidarity and not in the context of thinking of them as just a poor person that needs help. I’m sure there are a lot of innocent people in prison – whatever innocence means – but we got to also recognize that our comrades have agency and they made choices, and we’re supporting them through the consequences of that stuff and the repression. But we don’t have to think of people as victims.
J11: So you mentioned that you were doing prisoner solidarity both before and after you went in. Do you want to tell us more about the prisoners that you’re actively supporting?
D: I got politicized through this organization that was run out of the basement of a bar in New York City called Wetlands, and it used to have these monthly or weekly meetings. So a large part of the first meeting I went to was an animal rights thing. There was someone there speaking on behalf of Rod Coronado. I got very involved in writing him. I did support for people in the Santa Cruz Two case, and a bunch of different environmental saboteurs or animal rights prisoners. That was definitely my politics at the time, limited to that, and so I wasn’t really interested in interactions with people.
I lived in Eugene, Oregon and I was friends with Jeff Leurs (“Free”), and was part of his support committee. When he got sentenced to twenty-two years and eight months, I had actually written a bunch of long-term political prisoners, almost out of desperation, and asked them for help. I realize now, and laugh at myself for having the nerve to write all these prisoners and ask them for help when they’re doing all this time, but I got a lot of really great answers from people like Marilyn Buck, and I think Leonard Peltier. There were a bunch of people that were willing to give me some advice on that. So being exposed to that out of a need, I sort of started to pay more attention to the political prisoner world.
I’d been involved for a while, doing stuff kinda related to Anarchist Black Cross political prisoner support. Since I’ve gotten out, I’ve mostly been focused on two different things: support for long-term New York State political prisoners, and then also mostly younger and newer cases from the anarchist movement. So I help out a little bit on the Cleveland 4 and NATO 3 case, I’ve made myself available to talk through legal issues that people are dealing with, helping people get lawyers for different situations. I also have been heavily involved in trying to get some of the long-term Black Panthers in New York out. It’s like Herman Bell, Jalil Muntaqim, Robert Seth Hayes, and also (not a Black Panther but a long-term New York person) David Gilbert. So I write most of those individuals, and I work with them on basically trying to raise their profile and fight back attempts from the Policemen’s Benevolence Association (basically the pig union) and the Fraternal Order of the Police, who are very actively campaigning against the Black Panthers that are going up.
So I try to do a little mix of both. My ideas about prisoner support are rooted in that we have to definitely support our comrades that we struggle with, that we fight with. I think it’s disingenuous to be part of a movement that, if your movement is effective, you are definitely coming into contact with law enforcement, and so to not see through that situation where you have comrades that are getting popped for various things, I think it’s kinda fraudulent. It’s just cheerleading if we’re not willing to support our comrades, so that’s my mindset for why I do political prisoner support, or prisoner support for Cleveland 4, or NATO 3, or Eric King, people like that. And like I said, the rest of my time I mostly spend working on the long-term New York political prisoners, but I tend to be one of these people that finds myself drawn to different campaigns if friends are asking for help.
J11: So you’ve been doing this for a long time. What are your hopes and visions for prisoner solidarity in the years to come, and how can June 11th as a project fit in to that?
D: That’s a good question. I think June 11th is a great thing. I’m not sure if people know, but I was involved in the beginnings of June 11th in 2004. June 11th is the day Jeff Luers was sentenced to twenty-two years, eight months in 2001. And he got that for burning three pickup trucks at Joe Romania Chevrolet. There was actually a very spirited rally and march, and cops got a little crazy in 2003, people in Eugene sorta pulled off this act. But in 2004 we decided we wanted to do a worldwide thing. So we did this International Day of Solidarity and Action for Jeff Luers and the FBI sort of aided our efforts by releasing what they called “an eco-terrorist bulletin,” and so there were all different events around the world, there were 57 of them, and all the domestic ones were messed with by the FBI. There was a tremendous amount of law enforcement attention paid to it, to even a film screening in Worcester, Massachusetts.
I was actually in New York at the time, and we went around ticketing SUVs with these fake tickets, and in Eugene they had a bunch of very large events. And so we did it in 2004, we did it in 2005, and then I got indicted and the people that were part of Jeff’s crew extended it to a day of action for eco-prisoners. I think it’s a good thing, and I think that things change, and days of action morph. I understand going from the Eco-Prisoners, to Marius and Eric, and now Marius and Long-term Anarchist Prisoners. I think these sort of days are good in terms of rallying support, and reminding everyone that we have people inside. I hope that there’s material gain that can be made for people in terms of raising funds and raising awareness.
From my own personal perspective, I think it’s important for anarchists to not just do prisoner support for anarchists. I think that there’s a broader world out there, and that when we limit ourselves just to people that share our ideology or our identity, we’re really limiting ourselves in some ways from mutualistic work, as well as lessons we can learn from elders that are inside. I think also when we consider when we’re doing work that’s limited to anarchist prisoners, but then we’re asking other people to care about anarchist prisoners, it seems a little empty if we’re not engaging in some sort of mutualistic prisoner solidarity with other movements.
I know it’s probably not something that many people want to hear, but I do think that when we focus on just anarchist prisoners invariably, we end up focusing on a lot of white people, which when we’re considering the racial identities or racial makeup of the prison system in the United States, it is largely a black and brown and red thing. And I just think we need to be addressing in our work the white supremacist culture that we are in. That said, I think June 11th is something to support, and I think it’s a good opportunity to rally support for anarchist prisoners, and I think it should continue. In terms of my hopes for prisoner solidarity movements or whatnot, I think we have a situation in the next couple of years where we have an opportunity to get a lot of the old-timers out on parole. I think we have a limited time to do so.
Campaigns that are not specifically focused on political prisoners but sort of are focused on the prison system as a whole are important, I think not only on their own accord, but also that those kind of campaigns could end up helping the political prisoners, whether they’re the old-timers or the new folks. I’m thinking about groups like RAPP (Release Aging People in Prison). That’s a group that exists in New York and a few other places, and they’re addressing the fact that people have been put in prison for insane sentences, these 25 to life sentences. And they’re beating back this punishment idea that America has, where if someone does something wrong according to the system, they have to be punished, and it’s just this lifelong thing. What groups like RAPP and others have done has done more to change the narratives around prison than sometimes the somewhat narrow focus of the political prisoner groups.
So I hope in the next five years we get a significant amount of the old-timers out, and I think we have a lot to do in terms of the current anarchist prisoners. From my understanding a lot of them do not have access to adequate funds, and in situations like Jared Chase where it’s been very difficult to maneuver through the complexity of having someone that’s suffering from a terminal illness that affects his cognition and his judgment, at the same that he’s being kept in the SHU in segregation, that is rapidly contributing to that situation. So I think the anarchist movement can really gain a lot and get a lot better at supporting its prisoners. That said, I think June 11th can be part of that, and I think it should.
J11: Are there any other projects you’re involved with or things you have interest in that you’d like to share with us?
D: Yeah sure. I’ll just tell you about one project I work on: it’s this calendar called Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners. We are currently collecting submissions until June 7th, from people that are incarcerated. It is a calendar that is in its seventeenth year. It exists as an educational thing about prison and prisoners, but also exists as a fundraiser. So last year we raised a bunch of money, we gave it away to different groups, like that group I mentioned, RAPP, a group called Addameer which works with Palestinian prisoners, and a group called the Unist’ot’en Camp, which is an indigenous homestead in Canada made up of Unist’ot’en people that are basically resisting development in their territory.
We’re right between calendars right now. We’re working on the 2018 calendar, but if you check out certaindays.org online, you can find it on Facebook and Twitter too. You can see our call for submissions, as well as bookmark it for later because our calendars come out in August. We also usually get organizations to sponsor prisoner calendars. The prisoner calendars are a lot cheaper, so groups will give us like $100 and you can send us prisoners’ names and we will send them virtually free of charge. That’s pretty much what’s got my attention right now. Like I said, I’m working on supporting a number of different anarchist prisoners. Trying to help them increase their capacity to raise money, get books, get birthday cards, stuff that makes their days a little more passable, and support them in whatever they’re working on.
In our latest interview for the June 11th International Day of Solidarity with Marius Mason & All Long-Term Anarchist Prisoners, we spoke with anarchist prisoner Sean Swain.
Sean is an anarchist prison rebel held captive since 1991 for the self-defense killing of a court official’s relative. In fall of 2012, Sean was blamed for widespread sabotage at Mansfield Correctional as part of the Army of the 12 Monkeys. He continues to organize, write, and contribute weekly segments to The Final Straw radio program.
We talk about Sean’s history and experiences in prison, outside support as essential to breaking the control prison imposes upon its captives, the Army of the 12 Monkeys’ campaign of diffuse sabotage at Mansfield Correctional, Sean’s critique of and participation in hunger strikes, the upcoming republishing of two of Sean’s books, prisoner self-organization, the Palestinian hunger strike, and making every day June 11th.
JUNE 11TH: Can you start by telling us about yourself and your experiences with prison?
SEAN SWAIN: I grew up just north of Detroit in the ‘burbs. I was in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts; probably nobody was more obedient with the program than I was. I went into the army and spent two years miserable and traumatized, and not long after I got out, the ex-boyfriend of the woman I was living with at the time kicked in the door. I stabbed him and killed him, and he was the nephew of the clerk of courts. What actually happened doesn’t really matter, because if you ever kill anybody more equal than you, you go to prison. I’ve been locked up since 1991. The more I protest that I didn’t commit a crime, the longer those bastards keep me held hostage. Go figure.
I had a writing scholarship before I came to prison. Because I was a writer, I was writing for prison reform groups and other reformist stuff. That kind of annoyed prison officials. I had a psychologist at Toledo once tell me that the most annoying thing to people who run prisons is somebody who is articulate; they hate that. As a result, it created this situation where prison officials hate me more as time goes on. You would think they’d just let me go. That’s what I would do.
J11: Can you speak to the importance of prisoner support as part of the anarchist project and specifically to the necessity of long-term prisoner support?
S: I hope I can give you a sense of what it means to be the beneficiary of prisoner support. It’s not about the funds, which are certainly nice, and it’s not about the visits, which are also nice—it’s about a sense of identity, too. It’s about validation. The prison complex does what it can to define each of us as offenders and inmates and criminals; they impose identities on us. It’s much easier to reject that kind of pathology when there’s a base of support—when there’s a group of people who know you and define you differently. Because of those relationships and those connections, I’ve spent most of my prison time not in prison. What I mean is: I’m real to people on the other side of the fence. I’m present in their lives on that side of the fence. That makes the prison fence somewhat irrelevant.
I’m reminded of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote about how he marveled at his captors’ blunders when they confined his body in the jail, but let his thoughts slip out through the bars right behind them when they left for the day. For me, prisoner support isn’t “prisoner support;” it’s more like mind and identity reclamation. I exist on the other side of the fence, and I have meaning out there, which gives me meaning and purpose for getting up in the morning. I care about those people and they care about me; they make it possible for me to participate in changing the world. These people have reduced prison and captivity to a question of geography. I happen to be on this side of the fence, which is really meaningless, since my physical body isn’t what makes me dangerous to our common enemy. In many important respects, my physical captivity has become of practical irrelevance. People out there have made that true.
J11: Earlier this year you went on a successful hunger strike for more than fifty days. Could you tell us more about that?
S: I have to begin with the disclaimer that I have consistently said hunger strikes are stupid; they are. They rarely work, because prison officials—going all the way back to Margaret Thatcher with the IRA hunger strikers in something like 1980—they’ll either let you die (if they can get away with it), or they’ll torture you until you eat if they can’t get away with killing you. They’re ruthless sociopaths. You can’t really appeal to the consciences of ruthless sociopaths because they don’t have any.
This hunger strike was a partial success because I got my communication mediums restored after fifty days without food. That wasn’t because of their concern for my health or any other such nonsense; it was because of outside forces that came into play. There’s a website (blastblog.noblogs.org) where Ohio prison officials’ home addresses were posted; it might still be there. They decided I’m somehow responsible for that. I run the internet with my tin-foil hat from my prison cell, I guess. Anyway, after 32 days on hunger strike and no negotiations at all, I handed them the obituary I had written. That said, essentially: Swain’s dead. The prison director killed him, and they’re denying it because they want to get security around their homes before they announce that Swain’s dead.
Because Blast! Blog was out there, that scared them. They realized that if that got posted online, people might actually get mad enough to do something. The deputy warden came in around 6:30 one morning and he was pissed. He said he was getting calls from exotic area codes giving him death threats. At the very least, fifty days of that nonsense was annoying enough for the state to make some concessions, so I have my communications restored. They never should’ve been suspended in the first place.
I really hate hunger strikes because, in a sane world, we wouldn’t threaten to hurt ourselves to get what we deserve. We’d hurt the fascists who have it coming. To me it’s a lot more psychologically healthy to punch your enemy in the face than it is to refuse food. The problem is, they neutralize you before you get your hands on the ones who’ve really got it coming: senators, judges, corporate executives, and the NSA guy who’s recording this. Those people.
J11: For years you’ve contributed regular segments to The Final Straw (an anarchist radio show). What has this meant to you, and what do you hope it could mean to others and to the wider struggle?
S: It’s strange, because when you’re doing the segments—I’m calling on the phone, just like when I’m talking to you. I don’t necessarily get a whole lot of feedback. It’s almost like putting a message in a bottle and flinging it into the ocean; you don’t know where it ends up. What’s funny is that it seems to have an impact on the way the prison administration deals with me. I get a lot of feedback from listeners, but I get a good sense of the impact it has on the people who are holding me captive. That’s kind of cool. I’m hoping it impacts how people view—not just prisoners, but the relationship that people out there can have with prisoners (or should have with prisoners): that there’s something potentially of value in interacting with people who are in here.
J11: We’re looking forward to the publication of two of your books (How Emma Saved the World and Last Act of the Circus Animals) in the coming months. Can you tell us more about those stories?
S: Last Act of the Circus Animals was co-written with Travis Washington, who is another prisoner. It stemmed from some conversations we had. He actually started it; I was really jealous because he hadn’t really done any writing before that, and I was writing all kinds of stuff. He came up with this excellent metaphor of animals who are in the circus, in cages, and they start talking to each other. There’s one panther in particular who starts raising the consciousness of the other animals as to the real nature of the circus. He came up with what’s actually the first chapter of Last Act of the Circus Animals. I read that, and that’s all he was going to publish, and I said: No, this is just the beginning. He didn’t have any confidence in his ability to write what I was proposing, so he suggested that we write it together. I took over the writing aspect of it and he and I worked on the remainder of the story … it’s kind of a metaphor.
Anthony Rayson was the first publisher/distributor who put that out in 2007, probably over the course of about two and a half years. It ended up everywhere. I was getting mail from Russia; people in Russia had read Last Act of the Circus Animals. It was reviewed in the UK in a publication. In every prison I’ve been to, somebody has walked up to me at some point and said: Are you Swain? Are you the guy who wrote Last Act of the Circus Animals? They expect me to be taller, I guess. It’s cool that’s it’s everywhere.
With How Emma Saved the World, I deliberately set out to write something as subversive as it could possibly be for young kids. It’s a story about a little girl who jumps on the couch. She’s told not to, so she goes into a whole series of investigations in order to find out why it is that she can’t jump on this couch. She then undertakes to teach the adults what it is that they’re missing.
The idea behind it is that kids know something we’ve forgotten, and what they know is valuable. It’s valid; their experience of the world is valid. It’s very subversive in the sense that Emma, the main character of the story, is self-deferring, so to speak. She defers to her own sense of how things ought to be rather than deferring to those who are supposedly in authority. Hopefully, if that book gets published far and wide, and a lot of kids read it, we’ll have a whole generation of kids who are pulling the fire alarms at their schools in the next few years. That could be really exciting.
J11: What forms of solidarity have been most important to you while you’ve been in prison? What could’ve been done differently, or better?
S: In 2012, when the Army of the 12 Monkeys happened at Mansfield . . . I haven’t talked about that yet. We’ll probably get to that. After that happened, the ODRC engaged in a regimen of torture under the supervision of the FBI. (The FBI was actually involved in some domestic torture stuff: surprise.) In response to that, there were some people who set up a website called Blast! Blog (blastblog.noblogs.org); I’m not sure if it’s still there. The people who’d been involved in that torture regimen had their home addresses posted there, with pictures of their homes and Google Maps features so people could find the quickest routes to get into their houses. . .
Prison officials at the highest levels of the ODRC have told me that they know I’m behind that; they hold me responsible for what’s going on on the internet. Their entire procedure has changed in the last two years. To give an example: in segregation now, they have big-screen TVs. They have programs. They have people who pass out crossword puzzles. Segregation is no longer called segregation; it’s a temporary housing program. On top of all that, it’s now policy that you only go to segregation for violence. Anything that’s nonviolent—you don’t go to seg anymore. There’s no longer long-term segregation. Any kind of long-term punishment happens out in population, in a special housing unit where you get programming.
Everything that was going on when I went to segregation after the 12 Monkeys thing and the whole torture regimen occurred—all of that has changed now. They’ve done a complete about-face, and there’s other reforms, like the whole three-tier system they had before—it was pretty draconian—it created a revolving door so people couldn’t get into lower security . . . That’s all been undone. All of that came about, I believe, as a result of prison officials. First there’s the implied threat of their home addresses getting posted online (I’m sure nobody likes that). On top of that, nobody likes to be seen as a torturer. Nobody wants to be publicly exposed to their kids and their wives and their neighbors and coworkers; nobody wants to be seen that way. In that way, Blast! Blog had a huge effect, I think. It really changed the way the entire Ohio prison system works.
That’s one thing; the website is another. Friends of mine put together SeanSwain.org, and that broadcasts my voice to a much larger audience than just within the prison system. Whether or not anybody’s actually going to the site—I think possibly, maybe, five people keep visiting there—but prison officials don’t know that. Once there’s a web presence, they simply assume that seven billion people on the planet are going there on a regular basis. It has an impact on the way they behave. I think, on top of all that, there’s the added unconscious fear in the back of their minds that it’s going to set a trend—that other people are going to start doing this. Not just the website, but Blast! Blog. Theoretically—I’m not advocating this in a recorded phone call—but things like that have implications beyond the prison complex. You have the same kind of tactics that were employed by Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty. If you start having corporate executives’ home addresses posted all over the place . . . This is something that has much wider implications. Possibly.
J11: You mentioned the Army of the 12 Monkeys, but we haven’t heard a lot about that yet. Can you tell us more of that story?
S: It’s an interesting thing. I was at Mansfield, which is in the middle of Ohio, in the middle of nowhere, and seemingly out of nowhere, there were fliers in every single block. They had some pretty cool graphics on them, and they were listing all the things prisoners can do to disrupt the orderly operation of the prison. In my own thinking, what was really significant about all this is that they didn’t really pose any argument as to why prisoners ought to resist the system or rebel; they just assumed that prisoners would already know. There didn’t seem to be any kind of political line that was promoted, and there didn’t seem to be any real demands. It was just—seemingly—rebellion for its own sake. At first—you have these thousands of fliers everywhere, describing all of these actions that prisoners can do, and at first, nothing happened at all. Almost as if the whole prison compound, the whole population, was wondering if this was some sort of practical joke.
There was a two- or three-day lag, it seemed, and then immediately after that, there were staples in locks all over the prison. Somebody crammed potatoes down the drain in the kitchen and collapsed that. That cost them six figures; they had to dig up the entire floor of the prison and re-lay all the cement, and then three days after they did that, somebody poured dry cement down the pipes and collapsed the plumbing again. So we’re talking about six figures followed by six figures. When you think about all the locks you have in a prison setting, and you start jamming staples in locks, it becomes really disruptive, because nobody can perform the functions of their job. They can’t get into their offices. So you had all of that going on, and then somebody lit the kite box on fire, which is kind of symbolic, because the kite box is the box you put communications in so that prisoners can communicate with staff. So that was lit on fire. The OPI factory (the penal industry factory) was shut down continually by disruption and sabotage of the machinery, so they were getting no production done. This went on for quite some time.
Two weeks into it, the FBI was there on site. So you have Bloods, Crips, Gangster Disciples, Aryan Brotherhood—these prison organizations that have been around for decades, and I’ve never seen the FBI show up. Two weeks after the 12 Monkeys disruption began, the FBI was there doing ideological profiling, and they came and got me. I was taken away. There were three of us: myself, Blackjack Dzelajilja, and Les Dillon. They had us in the special management unit for about a year.
We were subjected to a special regimen that other prisoners had not been subjected to. It was really terrible: sleep deprivation, starvation rations, extreme cold, you name it. Under filthy conditions, they’d cut the soap rations in half and then cut them in half again. They suspended laundry service . . . It was terrible, and then they were messing with communications. They were actually photocopying all my outgoing mail for a year. They had thousands and thousands of pages. In fact, the FBI now has something like 12,000 pages in my files. The last time I contacted them, they said I could get a three-disc set for $40, which is roughly what it costs to buy the Sex Pistols box set. I would recommend, if you ever have the money, to probably go with the Sex Pistols; you can’t really go wrong with that.
As a result of all this, they sent us off to the super-duper-max. The 12 Monkeys materials, by the way, are still out there online somewhere. But if it could happen at Mansfield, it could happen at any prison, at any time. I think that’s what really upset them: that this happened seemingly out of nowhere, and it reminded them of just how powerless they are. At any time, they could lose control of an entire prison. Somehow I was responsible for that.
J11: What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced in prisoner solidarity, and what do you think we could collectively be doing better to support prisoners?
S: I don’t like to be critical anytime people are attempting to do something; I would prefer to be critical of people who are attempting not to do anything at all. Having said that, there’s been a focus in the past (and I’m not saying just anarchists—particularly with reformist groups) of attempting to get legislative things accomplished in order to help prisoners: trying to get reforms instituted through things like the Corrections Institution Instruction Committee in Ohio, and other things like this (lobbying efforts and so on). It seems that what all those have in common—that anarchists typically don’t do—is that this is an effort to do for prisoners what prisoners don’t do for themselves.
If there’s something we need to consciously focus on, it’s getting prisoners involved in their own liberation: getting us to realize consciously what power we possess, personally and collectively, and getting us to act for ourselves. That is far more beneficial, especially for a long-term project, than anything you see in this liberal/lefty/reformist approach to things; that has never really worked. I think we have that going for us; it’s our inclination to do that kind of stuff anyway. I would like people out there to not assume that prisoners aren’t down for doing something for their own liberation, but to assume that they are, and then to act accordingly. Like I said, those materials are still everywhere. They’re out there.
J11: Do you see ways in which June 11th can contribute to addressing these challenges? What are your hopes for June 11th this year?
S: It seems to grow in its visibility every year, and that’s something I like. Particularly among people who are doing things. It’s all good and fine, I suppose, if this starts to get coverage in mainstream media, and poor, delusional hierarchs all over the world start seeing some different kind of orientation or trajectory regarding prison and imprisonment . . . But I don’t know that that’s ever going to go anywhere. What I like is that it seems the anarchist community all over the world is becoming more and more aware, and more and more involved, in June 11th actions, activities, and events. I think the next step is to make every day June 11th; that would be cool. The more June 11ths we can have in a year, the better off I think we are.
It seems to me that it really is to everybody’s benefit to oppose this kind of pathology. Prisons, like the military, are a bulwark of this whole hierarch collusion. It’s one of the main pillars that prop the whole thing up. If we can take away the power to punish, then the whole system unravels, essentially. To be against prisons is really to be against the state; I’m hoping people start seeing the convergence.
J11: What are your broader hopes and visions for June 11th in the years to come and prisoner solidarity in general?
S: My hope is that a lot of things converge. Maybe this is too optimistic, but I’d like to think that we could succeed, and succeeding means the prison-industrial complex goes away (probably not without a fight) and the state goes away (probably not without a fight). My hope is that we develop strategies that cripple the systems of our enemies. That’s my hope.
J11: Are there any struggles or moments in the recent past that have inspired you?
S: A couple: there’s the 12 Monkeys thing, which I already talked about, but there’s also that callout that happened last September for the work stoppages that happened across the country. I don’t hold much stock in widespread work stoppage as a tactic or strategy in and of itself, but I think it’s something that can be used as a springboard for something else. For instance, now that the callout for the September work stoppage last year had pretty decent success—that identifies, for people out there, people they can work with in here (and maybe take things to the next level and the next level and the next).
There’s a current struggle that probably a lot of people don’t know about: the Palestinian hunger strike that’s happening in the occupier state of Israel. You have about 1,000 Palestinian hunger strikers. I don’t know how successful that’s going to be, because they’re up against a state that’s probably just as ruthless as Margaret Thatcher was. But the fact that there’s that kind of solidarity among prisoners there makes me hopeful that we can generate the same kind of solidarity with prisoners in this country.
J11: I’m really glad you brought that up. I haven’t heard much about it; it seems really impressive.
S: Isn’t it strange that here in the United States, we don’t hear anything that’s all that critical of Israel? Or anything that’s really sympathetic to Palestine? How strange.
J11: Are there any other projects or things you’re involved in that you’re excited about and would like to share with us?
S: I’m glad you asked. Right now, with the planned publication of Last Act as a book and How Emma Saved the World, I’m thinking ahead. I’d like to get Ohio published as a book. I’m thinking about this possibly for 2018, and then running for governor of Ohio at the same time, using that as my platform—getting enough funding from selling the book that we can get some bumper stickers and t-shirts and campaign pins and make a real fiasco out of the whole election process. That’s my next big dream.
by Michael Kimble
For me communication with comrades on the outside of these prison walls has been key in keeping me on point and sane in this artificial world of all-pervasive domination. We anarchists are not immune to the blues and the sometimes-attractive pull of resignation in the face of dizzying odds.
Communication means more than receiving letters and publications. It means survival. It means resistance. It means saving lives on the margins of prison society.
Through communication and acts of solidarity I have been able to save the lives of queer and non-queer prisoners whose life was threatened because of debts, and yes, drugs for the sick, with funds sent to me by comrades on more than one occasion. Without communication none of this would have been possible.
Communication has allowed me and many others to create projects that “aim toward the destruction of this social order – that is to say an insurrectional anarchist projectuality.”
The point of this brief statement is my attempt to show how far and extensive communication extends for those of us anarchists being held in these man-made tombs.
Communication now needs to extend to the pigs of capital and authority – that no longer will their oppressive, authoritarian and brutal acts go unpunished. Let’s communicate that!
Dare to struggle!
Dare to be free!
by Sean Swain
As humans, we are the lucky beneficiaries of three biological developments that greatly contribute to our long-term survivability. The first one is the structure of our jaw which is conducive to eating meat and taking in proteins that non-meat-eating mammals don’t get. That’s the only one of the three that’s irrelevant to the discussion.
The second of the top three biological developments that contribute to our long-term survivability is our cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is the outer-most layer of the brain, and is principally responsible for conceptual thought. Because of our cerebral cortex, we can imagine things that we cannot see. We can conceive of stuff we did not experience.
The third biological development that contributes to our long-term survivability is our opposable thumbs. Our opposable thumbs are pretty useful. They gave us the ability to carry things and to share with others. They gave us the ability to use and manipulate tools.
This is really important when you consider that we humans are, really, the least fit for survival on the planet, all things being equal. We are most dependent upon tools, upon stuff outside of ourselves. All other species pretty much get by on what they were born with. You don’t see beavers putting on scuba suits or monkeys in the rain forest wearing rain coats. No other species requires assistance in locomotion or cooks their food on barbecue grills because their digestive tracts are so sensitive. Just us. So, without the opposable thumb to develop all the tools we need, we would have sputtered out a long time ago.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not anthropocentrist. I’m not under any delusion that we humans are the center of the universe. We’re not. We’re not a special or superior form of life. We do have some benefits we developed – our jaws, our cerebral cortexes, and our opposable thumbs – and those have been very useful to us. But, in all fairness, we cannot perform a death-roll like an alligator or race a cheetah across an open plain or go toe-to-toe with a low-land gorilla. So, all other forms of life have their biological developments that have served them quite well too, and ours do not make us superior or special.
That said, of the three biological developments, two of them are relevant. As our meat-conducive jaw-line is not, we can start with our cerebral cortexes.
Because I have a cerebral cortex, I have it within me to imagine, however imperfectly, the experience of fighting the police in Greece and tipping over a cop car – even though I’ve never been there. I can close my eyes and smell the burning gasoline, hear the bewildered screams of a running police officer as he is chased by a masked rebel swinging a tire tool. I can imagine the rush and the thrill, the euphoria of seeing the billowing black smoke rising from the roof of the police station, and realizing what that means.
As humans with our big cerebral cortexes, we have the ability to transmit, one to another, our experiences, our feelings, our ideas. We do that principally through language. Language is a tool for this transmission of experiences and feelings and ideas, from one to another.
For this transmission to work properly, we must have agreement as to what sounds and symbols mean. For instance, if I use the word “elephant,” and by those collections of sounds, I mean to transmit to you the idea of a large, gray mammal with big ears and a long trunk, I have failed miserably if you imagine a yellow piece of fruit shaped sort of like a crescent and serving as a principle staple in the diet of chimpanzees. If I use the word “elephant,” but you imagine what I would otherwise call a banana, then we do not have communication. We have mis-communication.
We need agreement on the meaning of sounds and symbols, and then we can use them as tools – tools that are only properly used when shared. Unlike rakes or shovels or blow-guns, tangible tools, words are intangible tools that really only work in collaboration between two of us. Words are special tools used only in collaboration, which means they can only be used in social spaces, unlike rakes or shovels or blow-guns.
And, again, this all goes back to our cerebral cortexes. If you attempt to communicate some complex story to a golden retriever or to a lizard, you’re likely wasting your time. Not even dolphins or chimpanzees or crows can fully participate in the complex transmission of symbolic thought the way that we can, any more than we can death-roll like alligators or race cheetahs or beat up gorillas. As humans, with our big cerebral cortexes, we are singularly capable of complex transmissions of symbolic thought.
This means we have two different kinds of tools at our disposal. We have tangible tools we can grasp, like rakes and shovels and blow-guns, using our opposable thumbs; we have intangible tools that we can grasp with our cerebral cortexes. And I think it is probably worth mentioning that anything we can use as a tool, we can use as a weapon. That is, a weapon is really only a tool used for inflicting injury. Consider, a rake is a tool used for collecting leaves but can just as easily be used as a weapon to rip someone’s face off. Shovels are useful for digging holes but can also be pretty handy for cracking skulls. As to the argument that pens are mightier than swords, I once saw a guy stabbed in the neck with a pen in the chow hall, and he bled profusely into his mashed potatoes.
All tools are weapons. And I would suggest to you that, in some ways, the intangible tools we grasp with our cerebral cortexes can be immeasurably more dangerous than tools we grasp with our opposable thumbs.
Take, for instance, the weapons that our enemy uses. As I write this, I’m looking out of my cell window at the perimeter vehicle positioned directly across from my cell on the other side of the double fences, and I know that vehicle has a shotgun in the shotgun rack. Although I cannot see them, I know the enemy also has a compliment of Apache attack helicopters somewhere. Off in the distance, as this typewriter pecks out my thoughts onto this handy computer paper, I can hear the staccato pop-pop-pop-pop of shots fired at the not-so-distant firing range where the enemy practices.
But, you know what? I’ve never been shot. In fact, none of the enemy’s agents have ever so much as fired at me. I’ve never even seen the enemy shoot at another prisoner. The reason I have spent twenty-five years in custody without witnessing anyone get shot while trying to hit the fences is that, apart from the shotguns and helicopters, the enemy’s weapons include intangible weapons – the dual ideas of the enemy’s legitimacy and perpetuity.
This is what I mean: I’m surrounded by criminals and law-breakers, but it turns out that most of them broke the laws not because they recognize the laws as illegitimate, but because they generally recognize that the law sucks. Once caught, these same law-breakers recognize the authority of those who claim it and they submit to the punishments imposed on them in the belief that the punishments they receive are legitimate consequences of violating the laws. Further, there exists a shared sense among most prisoners that this system is perpetual, that it will go on forever, that it is immutable, and therefore resistance or efforts to escape would be futile.
These ideas have not been implanted so thoroughly by recourse to rakes and shovels and blow-guns. What the enemy has used is a powerful weapon crafted with words, a weapon called “mythology.” This “mythology” has to some degree paralyzed all of us, more so than we are paralyzed by the actual reality of the threats posed by cops or soldiers or attack helicopters.
This mythology might be the most powerful weapon that the enemy employs, one that we cannot smack with a rake or shovel, or shoot with a blow-gun. We have to attack this false mythology in another way. We have to develop weapons just as powerful, or more powerful, than the enemy’s.
That is, if we want to liberate ourselves and others from this false mythology that keeps us paralyzed, we have to develop a weapon that will work for that purpose, so others can use both their cerebral cortexes and their opposable thumbs in a way that will best bring about the future we would like to make manifest together.
The key to whatever activities we undertake, I think, is to demonstrate to ourselves and to whatever audience might be watching that the enemy’s systems are not legitimate and they are not unassailable. They are illegitimate and fragile.
We have the ability to develop and project an alternative mythology, a different “story to be in,” to borrow a phrase from writer Daniel Quinn. In developing a different story to be in, and in projecting it, we will be taking back from the enemy the power and authority over words, exercising our own power to define what words mean rather than deferring to the enemy’s self-serving use of them. This is a kind of collective “re-orientation” to language itself. By challenging and dismissing the enemy’s claimed legitimacy and perpetuity, we take back our power to form a new narrative, one where the old “good guys” are exposed for the swindle they’ve been committing on us all.
In this struggle between competing narratives, the truth is on our side. And the truth is dangerous.
The fact of the matter is, our enemy’s systems are not perpetual. They will not go on forever. The fact is, humans have been around for about four million years and this hierarch delusion has been foisted upon us for roughly eight thousand years – that’s a fraction of one percent of human existence. That means that humans lived in other ways for the vast majority of our existence. Further, after only eight thousand years, this hierarch delusion is falling apart. Their own experts use terms like “unsustainable,” which means it cannot keep going. It has, in a very short time, done great damage not only to the environment, to the planet we inhabit, but has devastated our ability to live lives of general happiness and purpose. So, this system is not just unraveling before our very eyes, but it is a system we really have no reason to keep around anyway because it has never worked as advertised and it never will.
This thing is about as perpetual as the Titanic.
As to the system’s legitimacy, it seems laughable that some small group of privileged elites should assume some right to rule the vast majority and to impose rules that clearly benefit those who make them. Not only are these elites miserable failures in creating anything that resembles “order” after eight thousand years of passing law after law for achieving the “order” that eludes them, but I am aware of no argument that has ever been presented as to why any of us have some kind of “duty” to obey those we never agreed to obey in the first place. Such a hijacking of our autonomy and freedom can never be “legitimate,” so all such decrees and demands and laws are absolutely unlawful and invalid, serving as nothing more than tools to impose the will of the ruling opportunists onto the rest of us. The fact of the matter is, the true enemies of real peace and real prosperity are those who maintain this oppressive system at our expense.
Everyone alive has a sense of their own suffering and their own trauma, a sense of their own experiences of diminishing returns for their obedience and compliance. What they do not connect is that what they experience is a universal suffering and trauma, to lesser or greater degrees, and that the source of it is the very system of authority they have been indoctrinated to worship. So, if by our words and by our symbolic acts, we can make larger and larger numbers of those currently hypnotized and mesmerized fully aware of the system’s invalidity and vulnerability, we can provoke wider and wider rejection of the system.
This is fatal to the enemy’s program.
Consider, this massive, sprawling, global machine only functions optimally if it manages to maintain a hundred percent participation, all of us performing whatever roles have been assigned to us. That optimum performance is diminished if even one of us stops performing that assigned role, and the machinery gets progressively more clunky and cumbersome with each one of us that bails. Also, it becomes progressively more unmanageable with each of us that becomes actively opposed to the machinery’s operation. That is, the more that we seek to sabotage the operation of the machine, the more that this sprawling system of centralized control and distribution breaks down.
So, we can certainly use our opposable thumbs to pull the proverbial fire alarms in a number of imaginative and highly-disruptive ways, but such actions will not even occur to us until we use our cerebreal cortexes for something other than hat-racks. And that means we have to win the battle of ideas, the war of conflicting narratives.
The hierarch delusion cannot possibly win from here. Every day, there is an increasing dissonance between what the program promises and what it delivers, between the narrative and the reality. Every day, there arise billions of opportunities to puncture the hierarch mythology, not with rakes and shovels and blow-guns, but with words.
Our words are our weapons.
The truth is dangerous.
Anarchist Prisoner Sean Swain
Warren Corruptional Institution
May 6, 2017