“When the prison doors are opened the real dragon will fly out.”
-Ho Chi Minh
The movements to end mass incarceration were re-invigorated in early September as a settlement in the class action lawsuit Ashker v. Governor of California was reached, a major step in ending indeterminate, long-term solitary confinement in all California state prisons. The settlement should result in a dramatic reduction in the number of people in solitary across the state of California and become a model for other states moving forward. (For example, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections, 2,300 people were in solitary confinement in Illinois in 2013, about 5% of the prison population.) The suit was filed in 2012 on behalf of prisoners held in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, often without any violent conduct or serious rule infractions, many for more than a decade, and all without any meaningful process for transfer out of isolation and back to the general prison population. In addition to limiting the amount of time a prisoner can spend in the Pelican Bay SHU (Security Housing Unit), of particular importance is the creation of a behavior-based system; prisoners will no longer be sent to solitary based solely on “gang affiliation,” but rather based on serious rules violations.
Central to this agreement was the incredible organizing that took place inside prison walls. The prisoners’ victory in this struggle to limit the use of solitary confinement was led by the prisoners themselves – by their ability to organize massive support for their demands within the prisons, including embarking on two hunger strikes in 2011, and another in 2013 that became the largest prisoner hunger strike in history with over 30,000 prisoners across California and the country refusing food! Their battle against solitary is a long-standing struggle to abolish a torturous practice that was designed to repress and attack the powerful prisoner-led movement in the 1960s and 70s.
The 1960s and 70s were a robust time for prisoner-led organizing and resistance. Across the country people behind bars were educating, organizing, writing, creating and theorizing revolution and social change. During these decades there were countless strikes, rebellions, and numerous other challenges to state control and the racist, inhumane conditions that accompanied imprisonment. These contributions inside were an integral element to the organizing that was happening on the streets during this era and the prison movement was vital to strengthening the theory and practice of liberation. An important aspect of the current struggle must be to learn from a previous generation. Some of the most vibrant voices of this period are contained in the Freedom Archives.
The Freedom Archives is a non-profit educational media archive located in San Francisco dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of historical audio, video and print materials documenting progressive movements and culture from the 1960s to the present. Offering a youth development program that encourages engagement with these historical materials and provides media production training, the Freedom Archives also produces original documentaries and educational media for use by schools and organizations as tools for community building and social justice work. Materials housed at the Freedom Archives include: weekly news, poetry, music programs; in-depth interviews and reports on social and cultural issues; numerous voices from behind prison walls; recordings of diverse demonstrations and activists; and pamphlets, journals, newspapers and other print materials from many radical organizations and movements. Many of these materials are digitized and free for use on the website.
Amplifying the voices of prisoners is a core value of the Freedom Archives. One of the primary ways we do this is by using archival materials to create educational resources that help cultivate foundational knowledge for understanding and advancing the prison movement. In addition to familiarizing people with important events, leaders and thinkers, and information, linking the past and the present allows us to expand our analysis beyond mass incarceration as just an unfortunate phenomenon or as the result of poor public policy, but as a key component of continued state repression. To that end, we have created short video documentaries about the Attica Rebellion and George Jackson and an audio tribute to recently murdered political prisoner Hugo Pinell (of the San Quentin Six) to help ground younger generations in how important prisoners have been and are to movement building and theorizing radical social change. In 2013 we published a book Out of Control: A 15-Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons that chronicles the inspiring story of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), who organized against control unit prisons and related inhumane practices at the notorious federal prison in Marion, Illinois beginning thirty years ago. We are excited that the web version of this book allows readers to view, read or listen to archival materials referenced in the text and, if you wish, download it to your computer. This interactive resource allows a fuller and more engaging understanding as the primary sources speak directly to what you are reading.
In addition to our educational resources, one can make use of our digital search engine which allows for increased access and user-friendly exploration of our holdings. Inside many of our collections are the voices, writings, poems, statements and interviews of political prisoners. As the United States claims it has no political prisoners, our robust collections serve not only to challenge that fundamental untruth but also to illuminate and disseminate the voices of former Black Panthers and people in the Black Liberation Movement, Puerto Rican independentistas, White anti-imperialists, Native Americans, grand jury resisters and many others. Video showing the strength and determination of the women formerly held in the underground Lexington Federal Prison; statements capturing the unyielding defiance of Puerto Rican prisoners of war and the beauty and hope of political prisoners Marilyn Buck’s poetry are but some of the powerful and impactful content contained in the Freedom Archives.
Over the past 15 years, the Freedom Archives has become a national and international source of media of great interest to young people and students, but also to teachers, diverse community organizations and media outlets, filmmakers, activists, historians, artists and researchers. Our materials are regularly used in schools and as tools for community building and social justice education. As you find yourselves developing curriculum and lesson plans, consider including some of the progressive voices from our collection. Our full collection is searchable at search.freedomarchives.org. We also maintain an email lists that disseminate important news, updates and writings about prisons and from current and former political prisoners on our website. For example, we were able to use this organ to play a role in publicizing the state’s recent settlement as well as the hunger strikes of previous years.
Connecting lessons of the past with current political resistance is a vital task for our movements today. How can we best support the work that is occurring on the inside? How can we make sure that our work is consistent with the values and goals of prisoners? How can we most effectively disseminate their ideas? As we grapple with these questions across the country, the Freedom Archives exists as an important resource to preserve the past, illuminate the present and shape the future. As the voices inside continue to grow in intensity, we endeavor to support and amplify the power of the dragons that will one day fly to freedom.
Nathaniel Moore is the archivist at the Freedom Archives. He lived in Champaign from 2007-2011.