As activists who engage in arrestable direct actions, we are familiar with how the criminal (in)justice system works, at least for us. Our friends take the scary and difficult step to risk arrest, putting themselves on the line to resist ecological and political injustices in the communities we work in, and are carted off to jail. This “visit” in jail comes, typically, with a jail support team who cater to our needs, making sure that there is always someone on a jail support line to answer our calls, sending us books and letters, and, many times, raising enough money to bail us out.
While supporting our friends is vital for any campaign built around resisting oppression, (particularly, in these cases of extraction, capitalism, and exploitation), there must be a paradigm shift in how we view our work and how we continue doing jail support. This shift must reflect the realities of how jails and prisons function, meaning an understanding of which communities are disproportionately affected, and the ways that the prison-industrial complex intentionally targets and incarcerates these communities.
Jail support, then, needs to extend past the bubble of traditionally privileged activism and move also towards supporting money poor people, low-income people, people of color, undocumented people, and queer & transgender people. We need to use our privilege as folks who have the ability to move in and outside of prison walls with relative ease, to directly resist state violence against oppressed communities.
This reevaluation of how we think about jail support is only possible by an honest appraisal of our campaigns and movements. Getting arrested is a scary thing for anyone, but we need to be conscious of the “choice” we are making and the privilege attributed with that “choice” as we enter jail. While by no means universal, our level of privilege extends far beyond our “jail support” team. Ecological direct action campaigns have generally been populated by significant amounts of middle to upper-middle class white activists. For many of us, going to jail is a carefully made decision with often times months to prepare ourselves. We have infrastructure before, during, and after preparing the most effective ways to make our time in jail as easy, safe, and short as possible. We receive letters, make phone calls, and get out with the ability to still find a job and/or housing.
For most prisoners, however, this level of choice, support, and preparation are not there. Prisons and state-sanctioned violence have particularly targeted communities of color, poor communities, and especially queer and transgender communities of color, making incarceration a fabric, and threat, of everyday life. These communities are funneled into jails and prisons all across the country without a bail fund, without a jail support team, without any infrastructure that activists tend to take for granted. While we must interrogate how we exist as we enter jails and prisons, understanding the lack of financial and emotional support that many prisoners have, we also must understand our existence outside prison walls, as people usually not targeted by police, who don’t experience the constant threat of state violence, including the creation of laws to continue targeting us and expanding prisons, and the inability to regain access to housing and employment.
This acknowledgment of our position has to be more than an expression of guilt or an exercise of “owning our privilege.” It is a challenge to show that our ideas of collective liberation are more than rhetoric. We must prove with not just words but action that we are committed to creating a model of jail support in which we make ourselves available, present, and accountable to those incarcerated, and that means more than just our friends or those imprisoned for “crimes” we deem “political.” In order to act in solidarity with communities constantly affected by the Prison Industrial Complex (as opposed to just giving it lip service), we need to understand that it was built by and for the maintenance of white supremacy. We need to therefore actively engage in anti-racist politics and struggles, work with and support communities who are disproportionately affected by the police and the prison-industrial complex, as well as resisting the construction of new prisons, stronger police forces, and other strengthenings of repressive infrastructure.
In the struggles occurring throughout Appalachia, and in other regions built around resource extraction, the connection must also be made between big pharmaceutical companies and coal companies pumping drugs into these communities, and an increase in federal mandatory minimum sentencing and drug-related incarceration. We need to support the creation of rehabilitative programs and spaces, as well as harm-reduction practices, in order to move away from the concerted efforts of Big Pharma and prisons to incarcerate drug users. We, ultimately, need to take a step back and listen to those who aren’t being bailed out in week, to plot and take directions from prisoners to make prisons more tolerable, or as Angela Davis states, “to make prisons obsolete.”
This is why all of us at RAMPS have dived head first in Stories For South Central , a project designed to shine a light on the conditions in South Central Regional Jail, and to provide a platform for inmates to document their experiences on their own terms. Beginning with visiting inmates affected by the January MCHM chemical spill, we have heard gut-wrenching stories of brutal and arbitrary discipline, violence from correctional officers, widespread illness from chemical poisoning and dehydration, and a lack of basic human dignity inside the jail. We have also read letters detailing inspiring acts of resistance and mutual aid. Most of these stories are posted on the Stories from South Central website, http://storiesfromsouthcentralwv.com, but the work encompasses far more than just posting letters on a website. We are striving to continue to work with inmates to confront the depravity of the jail and to make South Central tolerable and dignified for everyone presently locked in the cages in that facility.
We hope by broadening the conversation about jail support, we are a small piece in expanding “support” to prisoners all over the world. There is not justice, environmental or otherwise, until we live in a world without cages. The work against prisons is bigger than just South Central Regional Jail, than Appalachia, than the US. It’s a travesty that happens almost everywhere in the world — and so must be the resistance. In the words Eugene Debs “I say then, as I say now that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”