Life in Prison: Where Does the Line of Solidarity Begin and End?

Life in Prison: Where Does the Line of Solidarity Begin and End?

Today, as I returned to my housing unit from the noon meal, I witnessed something that bothered me greatly.  I observed a number of FCI Petersburg inmates removing an old, (presumably less-secure) fence and installing a new (presumably more-secure) fence at the entrance to the recreation yard.  They were there working hard, jackhammers, forklifts, and other supplies in hand. 

While I understand that these prisoners work in the facilities maintenance department and that these sorts of tasks fall within their work purview, it still bothers me that they — fellow federal prisoners — would be involved in the act of enhancing the fences and bars of the institution which contain all of us.  I had the same feeling when they engaged in the same project about a year ago.  That time they replaced existing fencing and gates with a more secure variety.  They also installed new cameras and put in some very annoying secure turnstile entrances to the Recreation Department.  This time they will complete the job by removing the rest of the old chain-link fence and replacing it with the more sturdy bars topped with razor wire (picture circular spools of barbwire, but topped with razor blades as opposed to sharp barbs).

The question which comes to mind — no, the internal debate and conflict which comes to mind — is whether prisoners should be involved in constructing new security or monitoring measures, the purpose of which is to better keep us in the prison or to make our lot in life worse.  This same work detail frosted the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit windows not too long ago so that those locked in the hole would not be able to look out their windows.   Shouldn’t there be at least one iota of solidarity and brotherhood amongst all of us who are locked up and locked down?  We all know that there will be bootlickers and stool pigeons.  And we know that there will be snitches.  But should the average federal prisoner be involved in such actions?  I think not.  To me it is offensive.

Yet, the problem becomes more pervasive.  You see, it’s not the boot lickers, snitches, and stool pigeons who are engaging in this sort of construction (and attacks upon their fellow prisoners’ psyches).  It is the average prisoner.  It is the prisoner who doesn’t usually bend to the administration’s will.  It is a friend of mine who runs a gambling ticket.  It is another guy with whom I play in a sports league.  These are not informants, they are regular prisoners.  Yet, they are involved in ideologically damning activities on the part of the prison administration.

Let me state it clearly: I am not advocating for active resistance against prison administrators.  This is not the answer.  What I am advocating is far bolder.  I am advocating for prison administrators to not place prisoners in such a position.  It is the duty of prison administrators to not place those under their charge in positions such as this, irrespective of whether or not those on such a work detail can appreciate the significance of their actions.

In 1998, at USP Allenwood, a facilities work detail was asked to install steel bars along with the windows of the main hallway, which had only tinted glass looking out onto the (secure) recreation yard.  They refused based upon principle.  They were thrown into the USP Allenwood Special Housing Unit for their refusal, for their ideological objections to the ordered task.  So too was the next work detail, when they refused to perform as ordered.  After the second group willfully went to the SHU for refusing to engage in such activities, the prison administration finally realized the error of their ways and had private contractors construct the fence.  Ironically, the installation of the bars appeared to create an increase in violence at USP Allenwood, perhaps because it fostered an expectation of the same.

While many would argue — and most certainly correctly — that FCI Petersburg is no USP Allenwood, we are still prisoners.  We are still locked up and locked down.  We are still brothers.  And as brothers in chains, there should be some level of camaraderie and solidarity.  There should be some level of honor and personal dignity which does not allow for prisoners to construct security or monitoring devices designed to keep their fellow prisoners locked down.  It just isn’t right.  Most of us won’t sell out a friend for another cup of soup, and, in the same breath, we won’t construct devices that help to collectively repress our own kind; prisoners, that is.

So, I leave you with two questions.  One, should prisoners be duty or honor-bound to not engage in the construction or application of measures that aim to keep their fellow prisoners locked up or locked down?  And two, what should this resistance look like?  I leave it up to you to decide.  Leave your comments below.

Editorial Note: When covering touchy matters, such as prisoner solidarity, we feel it important to specify that the Prison Law Blog does not advocate for any sort of individual or group demonstrations.  The concepts presented in this blog post are ideological concepts, nothing more substantial.  As such, individual phrases or statements should not be taken out of context.  If clarification is sought for any of the comments made therein, we are more than willing to clarify.