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Prisoner Self-Determination

By: 
Toussaint Losier
Date Published: 
,

When The Prisoners Ran Walpole: A True Story In The Movement For Prison Abolition
By Jamie Bissionette with Ralph Hamm, Robert Dellelo, and Edward Rodman, South End Press, 2008

One thing the movement for prison abolition seems to lack is a good sense of its own history. This includes not only the past thirty-five years of unchecked prison expansion, but also the particular moments when ending the legal slavery (that incarcerations comprise) has been a true possibility.

Bissionette offers us a window into this past through a keen analysis of the rise and fall of the National Prisoners’ Reform Association (NPRA) – an organization that sought to address prisoners’ needs through a labor rights framework – in Massachusetts Correctional Institution Walpole during the early 1970s. This was a moment when Walpole prisoners and their outside allies forced radical correctional reform onto the agenda in Massachusetts in a way that ultimately left outside observers with unfettered access, and prisoners in charge of the day-to-day operations of this maximum security facility.

When Walpole’s prisoners successfully negotiated the end of a 70-day lockdown and work strike, the guards’ union walked off the job on March 9, leaving the prison in the hands of the NPRA. Rather than allowing it to descend into chaos, the prisoners were prepared to run Walpole, even bringing in teams of civilian observers to monitor how their management functioned. This would last until May 18 when the state police violently intervened, moving in to take back the prison for the state.

This three month takeover of Walpole has long been an almost mythic tale in Bay State activist circles. However, it’s one that Bissionette brings back down to earth, grounding it in the experiences of those who were directly involved, to such an extent that one outside advocate and two prisoners are listed as co-authors. This is essential, as two of the core lessons of this book are the importance of prisoner self-determination in the development of rehabilitative programs, and the need for racial equity in the leadership of efforts to shut down Walpole.

Perhaps one of the most important contributions of this book is its insight into the growth of Black Consciousness among prisoners during the course of the Walpole takeover. Drawing on the memories of Reverend Edward Rodman and Ralph Hamm, Bissionette describes how Black prisoners developed their own analysis of racialized incarceration, particularly through a Black history class conducted with student activists and members of the Boston chapter of the Black Panther Party. Although a relatively small percentage of the prison population, Hamm and others would play a key role in the takeover through Black African Nations Towards Unity (BANTU), the first cultural organization for Black men in the state’s prison system and the means through which Black prisoners would ensure racial parity within the prisoners’ union.

Swept up
Bissionette draws out dozens of other historical lessons, from the dangers inherent in a rights-based agenda, to the very real power wielded by prisoner labor strikes. Perhaps one of the most relevant issues presented is the tension between correctional reform and prison abolition, two goals that are often seen as oppositional by radical activists.

In contrast, reform and abolition are presented as two points along the same strategic continuum under John O. Boone, a prison administrator committed to phasing out prisons who was hired as the state’s first Black Commissioner of Corrections in January, 1972. Before racist political pressure forced him out a year and a half later, Boone had officially recognized the NPRA’s bargaining power, shut down the Department of Corrections’ notorious departmental segregation unit, and established furloughs, among other innovative programs. Yet, by the end of his career, Boone had come to conclusion that all prisons had to be closed.

While Boone would be radicalized by the events at Walpole, Bissionette warns how outside advocates got so caught up in cleaning up Walpole’s inhumane conditions that they lost sight of the NPRA’s abolitionist objectives. For her part, she presents commitments to reform and abolition as secondary to what the prisoners understood as their own fight for dignity and self-determination, objectives that went beyond simply reform and abolition to a deeper struggle to assert their humanity.

In spite of its important lesson, this book also struggles with some of the problems that are prone to accounts of failure, rather than success. How much can prisoner reform be used to advance an abolitionist agenda? Can a labor rights framework still be used to build prisoner self-determination? And can this be done in a way that overcomes the opposition of prison guards, another group of laborers whose livelihoods is generally understood to depend on maintaining, rather than ending, the slavery of prisons?

Instead of providing answers, Bissionette challenges those of us on the outside to find our own by joining the cause advanced by those on the inside. As thousands of prison abolitionists meet in Oakland in late September for the tenth anniversary Critical Resistance conference, it is a challenge that we must continue to take to heart.