Open the Gates, Smash the State: A Snippet of Contemporary Prison Movements

On August 21st, 1971, George Jackson, best-selling author and founding member of the Black Guerilla Family was shot to death in the San Quentin prison yard. Prison officials said Jackson had been trying to escape from the isolation unit where he was housed. Three guards and two white prisoners also died in the alleged escape attempt (Reither, 2016).

Kinetic Justice FAM Co-Founder

Two weeks later, on September 9th, 1971, the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York exploded in a fury of violence and rioting. Members of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Black Muslims, and white radical prisoners had formed an alliance and seized control of the facility. Over the course of the next four days, more than forty people would be killed by the state police in an effort to retake the prison (ibid.).

Thereafter, for the next 40 years, an aggressive policy of indefinite solitary confinement would sweep across the nation’s prison system to silence the voice and activities of those prisoners who fought for racial equality and justice behind prison walls. According to Bonnie Kerness, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Project:

In 1975, after the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the prisoners’ rights movement, Trenton State Prison (now New Jersey State Prison) established an administrative isolation unit for politically dissident prisoners. The warden and his staff decided to use this technique, which was modeled after a unit in Soledad Prison in California. The Management Control Unit housed those prisoners who had not broken institutional rules, but who were, as a result of their political convictions and expressions, seen to be a threat by prisoner administrators . . .  (Kerness, 2013).

For many, the Attica rebellion and death of George Jackson was considered to have marked the beginning of the end of prisoner led social movements. However, in 2011 and 2014 the California Prisoner Strikes would prove otherwise as some 30,000 prisoners of all racial backgrounds united in protest of the unjust administrative process that Kerness and many others across the nation have written off and rallied against on behalf of the countless prisoners who had been placed in solitary confinement.

By 2015, the synergy surrounding the Hunger Strikes had garnered enough political clout to force the California Department of  Corrections & [r]ehabilitation to enter into a settlement agreement in a landmark federal civil rights case, Ashker v. Brown, which effectively abolished indefinite solitary confinement. Since “virtually all of the over 1600 prisoners then languishing in indeterminate SHU[s] [have been] released back into general population.” (Jamaa, et al)

Notably, there were two other crucial aspects that came of this progressive movement: (1) the Agreement to End Hostilities, which is a binding agreement between all California prisoners to end the decades-long conflict that fueled many gang wars; and (2) the energy and strengthening of the ‘belief’ that the prisoner-class–as a collective–has the power to abolish many of the oppressive and inhumane aspects of their incarceration. Moreover, the latter would eventually inspire the nation’s prison population to engage in a series of resistance strategies to undermine the prison industrial complex. 

On September 9th, 2016, the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising, prisoners across the nation engaged in collective behavior–a series of protests against their captivity, exploitation, and the poor living conditions in many American prisons. According to David Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project, it was the “largest prison strike in recent memory.” (Lussnhop, 2016) BBC News Magazine, CNN. com and The Guardian estimated the number of inmates affected ranged from 20,000 to 50,000, to as high as 72,000, and affected an estimated 46 prisons in eleven states (Wikipedia, IWW).

There were a number of anti-incarceration and prisoners’ organizations such as Critical Resistance, the National Lawyer’s Guild, the Industrial Workers of the World Labor Union, and many many others that endorsed and supported the protest. At the center of them, all was the Free Alabama Movement (FAM).

In 2013, Alabama prisoners Melvin Ray and Robert Earl Council (aka, Kinetic Justice) founded FAM and began organizing fellow prisoners throughout the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) to launch a series of direct action campaigns. FAM’s defined goals, beyond improving prison living conditions and [demanding adequate] medical care, include[d] reducing overcrowding through prisoner releases; ending unpaid prison slave labor; overhauling the Parole Board and establishing parole criteria; and abolishing the death penalty and sentences of life without parole. (Reutter, 2016)

In January 2014, with the assistance of family and supporters, FAM members successfully staged the first of a series of non-violent protests and work strikes at three ADOC facilities. (ibid.) Shortly thereafter, Melvin, Robert Earl, and our founder, Ivan Kilgore, were introduced by a mutual friend who, after reading Ivan’s latest book, Domestic Genocide; The Institutionalization of Society, and having taken interest in partnering with our organization, suggested we join forces. 

Within a matter of days, FAM and the UBFSF began forming a national strategy to promote our activism and gain support for our organizations’ respective goals. Together, our incarcerated counterparts took contraband cell phones and began hosting a national blog talk radio show from our prison cells (Ivan was in California State Prison-Sacramento, aka, New Folsom, at the time). Whereas, a number of prisoners, advocates and entertainers from across the nation would discuss issues of mass incarceration, police brutality, education reform, and the REAL about what’s happening in American prisons. 

Realizing the public would be distrustful of their allegations of rogue prison guards, etc., Melvin and Robert Earl filmed and recorded over 60 videos and interviews in the ADOC, which ranged from unconstitutional living conditions to the warden saying he didn’t give a fuck about prisoner rights. (Google/Youtube: Ivan Kilgore-Free Alabama Movement; Free Alabama Movement) Needless to say, this eventually set fire to the seats of Alabama Senator Cam Ward, Alabama Governor Robert Bently, the U.S. Department of Justice, and would cause the guards at several Alabama prisons to strike and refuse to report to work after the warden and several guards were stabbed in a riot at the William C. Holman Correctional Facility. (Democracy Now, 2016)

Since the movement has gone viral! Here, we have observed how the theory of technological determinism was instrumental in catapulting this prison movement onto the national and international stage. With the advantage of cell phone video technology and other technological advancements, such as social media, podcasting, and the print press, the once unsubstantiated/denied excessive force claim or, in the instant matter, the unconstitutional living conditions within the ADOC, were irrefutable and, thus, prompted national and international outrage. 

As the moments grew and prisoners around the nation began protesting, conducting worker stoppages, etc., we were better able to organize these events with the assistance of the IWW who, at the urging of Black anarchist and former Lorenzo KomBoa Ervin, formed an Incarcerated Worker’s Organizing Committee (IWOC), which quickly burgeoned into a national/international organization, to assist us to combat, among other things, penal slavery.

In conclusion, learning of the foregoing, coupled with what Ivan teaches in our internship programs, allows for free world activist to both identify and place in context the four stages to which Armand Mauss defined social movements are developed: (1) the “incipient” stage–that is, when the public takes notice of a situation and defines it as a problem; (2) when they began to organize–or, in Mauss’s words, to “coalesce”; (3) if successful they (i.e, social movements) are incorporated into institutions– they become “bureaucratized”; and (4) they “decline”(Ferris & Stein, 2014).


Democracy Now! (2016). Alabama Guards Stage Work Strike Months After Prison Uprising at Overcrowded Holman Facility.

Ferris, K. & Jill Stein. The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology. W.W. Norton, 4th ed., pp. 477-78.

Jamal, Sitawa N. et al. “Statement of California Prisoner Representatives on Second Anniversary of Ashker V. Brown Settlement.” The Abolitionist, Winter 2018. Issue 28. Organizing Against Fascism, p.2.

Kerness, B. “The Hidden History of Solitary Confinement In New Jersey Control Units.” Solitary Watch, March 13, 2013.

Lussenhop, J. “Inmate Strikes Enter the Fray for U.S. Prison Reform.” BBC News Magazine, October 3, 2016.

Reutter, D.M. “Alabama Forced to Confront Criminal Justice Reform.” Prison Legal News, May 2016; Vol. 27 No. 5.

Reiter, K. 23/7: Pelican Bay Prison  & the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement. Yale University Press, 2016, p.3. Industrial  Workers of  the World, endnotes 77-80; see also SPR (2016) Strike Tracking & Retaliation Support.

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