[Prison journal]: Fifth entry

I arrived this week at JCI 45 minutes early, having come from speaking at the DC Queer Studies Symposium at UMD. I decided, since it was such a nice day, to spend the time in the parking lot of the prison, to read the material we were about to discuss, namely the writings of George Jackson, the Black Panther Party, and Slavoj Žižek. While I lightly roasted in the warm April sun, I heard a loud voice. The voice was being carried by some form of PA or megaphone, as it sounded distant and mechanized. It took only a second for my ears to tune in and hear a male voice, give commands in a tone that could only be described as mockingly bored.

‘When I say fire, you’re going to fire 5 rounds in 10 seconds. Fire!’

Then a barrage of gunfire. If each person was firing 5 rounds then there must have been more than 20 shooters because the fire was consistent for the entire 10 seconds, with a few stragglers having their say at the end. When the shooting stopped, the announcer would issue new commands for a requisite number of shots in a specified time, then pause, then command the shooters to ‘Fire!’

This went on for the entire 45 minutes I sat in the car reading George Jackson’s harsh indictment of prisons and American racism.

Without a doubt, the prisoners could hear the shots too. They could hear it in the yard as they enjoyed the first sunny, warm day in recent memory. They could hear it in the cell blocks and common spaces farther from the main gate. They could likely hear it during Friday prayer services for Muslims, which is always held at the same time. Even after entering the facility, negotiating my way through the various security checks, and took my seat waiting for a escort to the ‘annex’, I could hear the fire. As I waited to be walked to my building, four officers came in, and walked right over to me. I had been perched up on a low table next to the ‘Weapon Load/Unload Station,’ so as they came in the building, one by one they approached me. Then one by one they removed their Glocks, and methodically emptied three clips of ‘tactical style’ Federal Reserve ammunition into small boxes. As each shell clicked and slid out, another rose up to take its place until all were returned to their box. Though unrelated, while I sat next to the unloading table, another officer came in with a black milk crate which he seemed to be struggling with. When he placed it on the ground, he did so roughly, allowing the crate’s content to loudly bang on the concrete. It was full of manacles; leg and arm shackles for prisoner transport.

I sat there for another ten minutes, watching shotguns shelved, pistols unloaded, shackles placed away, radios handed in. Doors opened. Doors closed. Visitors would get let in, no longer to be held on the other side of a massive, remotely controlled, door which slides horizontally on a track. As I sat, amidst the gun fire which could still be heard in loud burst every 30 seconds or so, I wondered how routine this had all become for both prisoner and guard. How routine was it for your afternoon ball game or stroll around the fenced perimeter to be punctuated continuously by a hail of bullets? Is it a not-too-subtle method of reminding the prisoners about the state’s monopoly on violence? Is it state-mandated that marksmanship practice conveniently be held on a beautifully sunny day?

I ponder this as I maneuver the various people, doors, procedures and cultural performances until I make it to the school. This whole process takes about 15 minutes. Then I put my things down in the room where the prisoner-coordinators sit and we chat until the students are all assembled in the class.

When class eventually began, there was a bit of tension. While everyone was—as they always are—very friendly and respectful, I could tell they were eager to talk. As soon as we began, [~Name Removed~], a black, dreadlocked, Marxist revolutionary with more political tattoos then a crust punk, began. He wanted to set the record straight as to George Jackson’s connections to the Black Guerrilla Family, a Marxist-inspired prison gang which is dominant at JCI. He explained that Jackson did not found the BGF, but rather that BGF was the logical outgrowth of the synthesis of three organizations: The Black Vanguard, Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. [~Name Removed~] told the class that the BGF was founded after Jackson’s death at Attica in 1971, and that while he was influential amongst the community, he was not the founder. The other older men in the class, especially [~Name Removed~] whom had know Jackson inside, nodded in agreement. In the back of the room, directly in my line of sight, three self-identified, young, BGF members kept eagerly discussing the text in hushed tones and occasionally looking straight up at me as if to read my face for clues.

The students were keen to re-discuss Foucault’s thesis on the changing nature of power—we had talked about the previous class—and to connect it to the way the prison officials have changed repressing inmate activity. They explained that in the past, they would identify the ‘elders’ who ‘inspired the youths’ (looking clearly at [~Name Removed~] when they said this), and move them around facilities to keep them off kilter. They explained that in the past, around the 1970s-90s, the prisoners were respected, and maybe feared, as a collectivity. Now they lamented, they had lost their edge, and through effective counterinsurgency methods, the prison was now able to pacify more people with less overt effort. Some students told stories of friends who became politically active and then were moved, or shifts in prison policy designed to break spirits; such as the shift from street clothes to hospital gown-inspired blue uniforms in the 2000s. They talked about the permanent cessation of ‘night yard’ where prisoners were allowed to be outside in the cool night air.

This of course moved into a discussion of prison resistance. We spoke of the California mass prisoner hunger strike, and I told them of the similar efforts currently ongoing in Greece, providing them with a six page packet made up of letters from imprisoned anarchist militants reacting to the strike. I also provided them a lengthy communiqué from the EZLN, one from al-Shabab claiming the attack at Garissa University, and the complete ‘panopticon’ chapter from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish.

I had some time to speak to [~Name Removed~], whom I have really grown to like chatting with. He’s the man responsible for ‘ghetto starbucks’—an accidentally vegan combination of instant coffee, sugar, ‘creamer’, and some form of chocolate powder—and whom I recently wrote a ‘character reference’ letter for. He told me that he has began day trading through his girlfriend using his knowledge of the markets and her ability to buy things on the outside. He reads the market via a daily subscription to a financial newspaper (for $450 a year!) and tells her what to buy or sell each day. He said he’s doing OK at it. He’s in my class and also studying engineering and helping to teach a GED class.

I have noticed an interesting pattern with [~Name Removed~], my neo-nazi student known often as [~Name Removed~]. Since we have been talking more and more about black power and black Marxist groups in the last 2 classes, as a regular contributor to discussion typically, over these classes he has been uncharacteristically silent. In the rare times he does contribute, he keeps trying to make comparisons between structural violence (e.g. racism, economic inequality, class) and the cause of crime, as well as commentary infused with anti-Russian, pro-Ukrainian jest.

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