Prison Activists Come of Age
by Bell Gale Chevigny
The Nation magazine, July 24 / 31, 2000
This Goliath is so enormous that the Davids are flourishing,"
says Ellen Barry, whose work with prisoners won her a MacArthur
"genius" award, referring to California's prison industrial
complex. Promoting a book of prisoners' writings from San Diego
to Berkeley deepened my conviction that the nation's contradictions
over incarceration are sharpest there. California leads in numbers
incarcerated, the clout of its prison guards' union and the punitiveness
of its ballot initiatives, but the Bay Area also leads in numbers
and inventiveness of prison activist groups and coalitions.
The Bay Area saw the spectacular rise in the sixties of a
prisoners' movement and its bitter splintering in the seventies,
which drove away all but the die-hards. "Activists then,"
Barry says, "attributed a false glamour to individual leaders
inside, mostly poor men of color," like George Jackson and
the Black Panthers. When prison leaders ran afoul of the law,
Barry says, "many in the movement felt disillusioned and
threw out the baby with the bathwater." Says Dorsey Nunn,
another activist, "When the left backed away, the right filled
the vacuum with the prison industrial complex."
The growing crisis prompted Angela Davis and some thirty others
to call a conference, "Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison
Industrial Complex," in September 1998. Drawing an unexpected
3,500 old, young, sharply diverse and hitherto scattered participants,
the event strengthened the networks fighting against prison expansion
and for alternatives to incarceration. Seasoned organizers, knowing
they are facing nearly insurmountable odds, now talk about a groundswell
of opposition that has not yet crested, an incipient prison movement
very different in range and sophistication from the old. Prison
activists, predominantly women, are reaching out to embrace new
groups-farmers, workers, the urban poor, victims, even baseball
fans-and adapting economic, legal, dramatic and therapeutic approaches
to think afresh about prisons, prisoners and community. One of
ten children in an Irish Catholic family, Barry, now 46, saw some
of her brothers suffer police brutality in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Working in an NYU Law School clinic with women prisoners at Bedford
Hills Correctional Facility, she noted that they gave priority
to their children's problems. In 1978 Barry founded Legal Services
for Prisoners with Children (LSPC) in San Francisco. "I was
committed to providing direct service, responding to needs identified
by women prisoners themselves," she says.
Organizations for women prisoners proliferated in the eighties,
fueled by both the women's movement and the exploding incarceration
rate of women. When LSPC began, there were just over 1,000 women
in state prisons; today there are more than 11,000, and according
to Barry, at least as many in jail and three times that on probation
and parole. Yet women's prisons-including the world's two biggest,
in California-are built without regard to women's gynecological
and other health needs. In settling Shumate v. Wilson, a class
action of women prisoners denied adequate healthcare, brought
by LSPC and others, California's Department of Corrections agreed
to make improvements, but they have been minimal.
LSPC may have accomplished more by working with Ted Koppel
and his crew to get into Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla
for a six-part Nightline series last October. Koppel let the women
speak at length about their circumstances, then questioned authorities.
He confronted medical director Dr. Anthony DiDomenico with many
women's accounts of having to submit to unwanted pelvic examinations
in exchange for treatment. On camera, the doctor replied that
the women liked the exams: "It's the only male contact they
get." DiDomenico was reassigned to research, California's
women prisoners received much media attention and legislators
began drafting bills against sexual abuse and for better medical
care of incarcerated women.
After a client's release, LSPC's close work continues. Harriette
Davis, imprisoned for killing her abusive husband, joined LSPC's
staff after her release, earned her RN degree and helped establish
a leadership-training institute for the National
Network for Women in Prison, which Barry co-chairs. The curriculum,
developed by and offered to formerly incarcerated women, cultivates
"an honest and respectful model of leadership," Barry
says; it helps women recover from various kinds of abuse while
learning policy and advocacy skills.
LSPC's holistic approach to prisoners and dedication to community
education and activism changed the life of Dorsey Nunn, 47, one
of the state's most imaginative organizers of the African-American
community. Drugs led to young Nunn's conviction for felony murder
in 1972 and a decade-long tour of California lockups during the
waning years of the earlier prison movement, which he credits
for his political education and determination to do something
later for his community. "I found my whole Little League
baseball team behind bars," he says, "except for one
player!" Freed in the eighties, Nunn met Barry and other
activists through his energetic paralegal work with men in San
Quentin for the Prison Law Office. They turned out in force to
testify for him in 1990 when he slipped back into drug use and
was arrested. "There was nothing more painful," Nunn
says, than to have disappointed so many good people. "I never
want to be in that position again. Thank God for a moment of clarity.
I recognized I had to change."
After completing drug treatment, Nunn began paralegal work
with LSPC. As part of his job he returned to his hometown, East
Palo Alto, then the "murder capital" of the United States,
to develop with four "homeboys," including ex-convicts,
a vigorous grassroots community drug-recovery program, Free at
Last; later he added U-Turn, an innovative project for youth aged
16 to 24 on probation and parole. By 1998 the burgeoning project
employed some thirty people and had gained funding from San Mateo
At the same time, Nunn sought to revive public interest in
l prison issues. In one largely white group after another, he
met l either indifference or fear; "burly and black,"
Nunn says, he l looked like the prisoner of their nightmares.
In this difficulty Nunn found his opportunity. "He has a
way of putting issues that doesn't freak out people in the middle
who might turn around," says Vincent Schiraldi, president
of the Justice Policy Institute. "It's non-threatening and
believable, authentic, deep." You're not "bumping up
against ego with Dorsey," Schiraldi added, so Nunn can bring
people into effective coalitions. When Propositions 184 ("three
strikes and you're out") and 187 (depriving illegal immigrants
of healthcare and education) generated separate struggles in 1994,
Nunn says, "I tried to marry the issues. I'd tell folks it's
the same monster-racism." Later he brought up convict labor
with labor groups and challenged environmentalists to consider
"what type of waste is twenty-three new prisons?"
Now program director for LSPC, Nunn is generating dialogue
among those most affected by the prison crisis and least visible
to policy-makers: California's black communities. To help them
absorb information on the criminal justice system and to move
them past the pain and shame that separate them from their incarcerated
young, Nunn has created a portable styrofoam "Healing Wall,"
modeled after the Vietnam War Memorial. In each community he collects
names, photographs and stories of their missing persons: prisoners-often
three or more generations of them-and people who were murdered
or kidnapped. He posts these on the wall beside statistics on
numbers of blacks killed, incarcerated, on parole and disfranchised.
"Thirteen percent of African-American men can't vote because
of felony convictions," Nunn exclaims. "That's a dramatic
statistic, but we need African Americans saying so to our politicians
and demanding community resources."
In East Palo Alto's Senior Center recently, Nunn raffled off
fifty-four bikes "in the name of absent fathers," bikes
repaired by San Quentin prisoners; to win one a child had to bring
along a man. Ex-prisoners explained the materials on the wall,
then Nunn began to address the large crowd, beginning by asking
for a show of hands of those who had relatives in prison, would
go to college, had seen their mothers battered, had relatives
killed and expected to go to prison. At the last question, three
children raised their hands. Nunn had his starting point for a
rousing conversation about race and criminal justice.
Another ex-con advocate for prisoners, a 53-year-old assistant
sheriff named Michael Marcum, is stirring unlikely dialogue among
violent men through the Resolve to Stop the Violence Program.
Founded with Marcum's advice by the unorthodox San Francisco County
Sheriff Michael Hennessey, RSVP seeks offender accountability
while reaching out to the victim and the community. It is a classic
"restorative justice" project, though groundbreaking
in its application to violent offenders.
Marcum's own evolution is a restorative justice parable. At
18, he killed his abusive father in Oakland and turned himself
in, fully expecting to go to the gas chamber. But prison conditions
shocked him into wanting to survive to change them. He helped
organize the interracial United Prisoners' Union, which petitioned
to get California's "civil death" statute (which deprives
prisoners of all their rights) revoked in 1969, though most of
its attributes have since returned. Free and working for Hennessey
on rehabilitation programs, Marcum rethought prisoners' needs.
"At first I pushed political education-we had to find our
dignity before talking about accountability," he says. "But
seeing people coming out, failing, going back, seeing some brothers
hurting their women, my priority became making prisoners accountable
and helping them to survive outside."
A mid-nineties encounter with Jean O'Hara, whose daughter
and grandson were murdered, pushed Marcum's thinking further.
"We on the left had written off the victims' rights movement
as a pawn of the right and three-strikes politicians. It was humbling
to hear Jean say she could only deal with her loss by feeling
that it contributed to change, so she was going into prisons to
tell her story." At the same time, in learning about restorative
justice, Sunny Schwartz, the county jails' program administrator,
realized that it was "not practical or ethical" to help
offenders "without giving the victim voice and helping with
"The sheriff lets us think outside the box," Schwartz
says, so she and Marcum consulted for eighteen months with "former
gang members, victims, Buddhists, Orthodox rabbis, feminists,
former homophobes, people for and against the death penalty,"
to develop the uniquely holistic RSVP. Offering therapy and social
services to violence victims and their families, it assigns men
charged with violent crimes (except first-degree murder) to a
sixty-two-bed open dorm in County Jail #8 in San Bruno to participate
all day, six days a week, in RSVP before or after sentencing.
Roughly half have committed domestic violence; the others, crimes
that might have earned them sentences of up to twenty-five years.
The average jail stay is three to six months. On top of constant
education, drug-treatment and job-counseling sessions, every Wednesday
the men listen to victims. "It empowers the women to look
perpetrators in the eye and tell their stories," says Schwartz,
"and it builds empathy among the offenders."
RSVP devotes Mondays and Thursdays to manalive ("men
allied nationally against living in violent environments"),
a therapeutic program for violent men developed by Hamish Sinclair
as a complement to the battered women's shelter movement. In County
Jail #7, I watched circles of men re-enact and analyze moments
in their lives when their "male-role belief system,"
or conviction of male superiority, was threatened, tempting them
to reassert it by making someone else inferior through physical
or verbal violence. Veterans in the program helped newcomers see
nuances of violence in acts like refusal to hear out another person.
They practiced techniques of communication that would build equal
relationships. Last winter RSVP graduates and former victims performed
Uncommon Ground, a play based on their stories, to packed theaters.
I his book Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, Harvard's
Dr. James Gilligan theorizes, like Sinclair, that the 'patriarchal
code of honor and shame generates and obligates male violence."
Because punishing violence, Gilligan argues, not only fails to
stop it but is based on the same patriarchal code, the keepers
are as trapped as the kept. In Jail #8, the initial hostility
to RSVP by officers assigned to the dorm is eroding. "It's
emotional physics," says Schwartz. "They report that
they experience a better quality of life on and off duty. Instead
of yelling all day, many end up helping to refine the program-it's
redefining the law enforcement role." Conducting an assessment
of the nearly three-year-old program, Gilligan is collecting recidivism
data; he already knows that in 1998 there were six fights per
week between prisoners and eighty-three cases of prisoner-to-staff
violence in a non-program dorm, and no incidents of either kind
in the RSVP dorm. "They're demonstrating that violent people
are more amenable to growth than people imagine," he says.
He and Marcum hope that the project will lead to the replacement
of many prison cells with community-based corrections.
The San Francisco Giants are the cause's improbable champions.
At the second annual "Stop the Violence Day" game this
past September, 45,000 fans were given community resource packets
about handling violence, and the Jumbotron flashed images of battering
with the message: VIOLENCE IS LEARNED - IT CAN BE UNLEARNED.
While RSVP aims to reduce incarceration from within, other
activists seek to check the state's building boom, responsible
for twenty-two new prisons in the past fifteen years. This means
taking on the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association,
the state's most powerful union, as well as the California Department
Ruthie Gilmore, now 50, an African-American professor of geography
at the University of California, Berkeley, was catapulted into
thinking about the politics of race, crime and prison in 1969,
when, she says, "my cousin was murdered and his wife subsequently
arrested in the context of the FBI Cointelpro war against the
Black Panthers." Gilmore's research led her to challenge
the conventional wisdom that economically depressed areas can't
resist prison-produced benefits. Her study of the town of Corcoran,
where two new prisons were built between 1988 and 1998, demonstrated
that the population below the poverty level nearly doubled while
the town barely grew.
What Good Is a Prison?, a brochure produced by the California
Prison Moratorium Project (CPMP), co-founded by Gilmore, contrasts
Corrections Department promises of local prosperity with facts
like these: More than 60 percent of the new prison jobs, including
all the best-paying jobs, go to outsiders, most of whom end up
living outside the prison town; most local businesses don't benefit,
many suffer and some collapse; only those selling land for the
prison profit. For others, the anticipated increase in land values
drives up rents, which stay high even when benefits don't materialize.
Reaching out to California's Central Valley, where most of
the new prisons are concentrated on formerly agricultural lands,
CPMP discovered grassroots opposition in places like Tehachapi,
Wasco and Ridgecrest. "They're asking larger questions,"
Gilmore says, "such as, Why is there an endless supply of
prisoners?" In Tulare County, Stop This Outrageous Prison
(STOP) has beaten back five prisons over the past ten years. In
Farmersville recently CPMP put United Farm Workers citrus workers
in contact with STOP; together they defeated the City Council's
prison proposal. Gilmore emphasizes the importance of forging
coalitions within rural areas and across urban/rural divides.
In California, Gilmore says, "the country and the city are
demographically quite similar." In January rural and urban
activists met at Berkeley to consolidate their common concerns.
Gilmore also initiated the Freedom Winter coalition, which
fought Proposition 21, the juvenile crime initiative that passed
on March 7. No one resisted it more ardently than the targeted
youth; "Schools Not Jails" is the rallying cry of young
people of color who for years have protested budget priorities
that make California first in prison spending and forty-first
in education spending. They drew media attention by confronting
the corporations that funded Proposition 21. This grassroots struggle
has taught them organizational skills and strategies that will
serve them in what organizers like Robin Templeton are likening
to a revived civil rights movement. As California is the Mississippi
of the prison industrial complex, it is here, she observes, that
change must begin.
California's Goliath has set a terrifying standard for the
rest of the country: Prison construction is booming, violence
behind bars raging and youth facing harsher sentences, while the
incarceration rate of women and people of color is disproportionately
high. In early July, however, California Corrections reported
a small drop in the prison population for the first time in more
than twenty years. This first decline in the country reflects
in part the influence of activists like the Bay Area Davids. But
this is only a beginning. Ex-prisoner advocates must continue
opening minds. RSVP is attracting queries nationwide. Dorsey Nunn
will carry his Healing Wall to Southern California. LSPC is helping
engage international human rights interest in US women prisoners.
The Prison Moratorium Project is developing new California contacts,
and Colorado has opened a branch. Everywhere, new attention to
the impact on communities and the future of children is drawing
people into new alliances, fertile coalitions. The struggle is
uphill and long, but there is simply no alternative.
Bell Gale Chevigny, with a Soros Justice Fellowship, compiled
Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing (Arcade), a PEN American
Center Prize Anthology now in paperback (see www.doingtime.org).