Incarceration Nation: How US Political Prisoners Live in Hellish Conditions
The US has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. TRNN’s Ben Norton speaks with Nino Brown, of the Jericho Movement and ANSWER Coalition, who says American political prisoners are ignored, while they try to survive on dirty water
BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.
I’m here with the organizer Nino Brown. He organizes in the Boston area with a few different groups, including the ANSWER Coalition and Jericho. Jericho is a movement to free political prisoners in the U.S. And here we’re going to talk about the state of political prisoners in the United States.
Frequently when we hear about political prisoners, media outlets talk about them as if they only exist in other countries, as if the U.S., which has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but 5 percent of the world’s population, we — the impression is that we don’t have political prisoners. Of course, that’s not true. There are political prisoners from the Black Power movement who are still incarcerated after decades, from the Native American movement, and from other movements.
So we’re going to talk today with Nino about some of the organizing around freeing political prisoners. Thanks for joining us, Nino.
NINO BROWN: Glad to be here.
BEN NORTON: So can you just talk about the state of political prisoners in the United States?
NINO BROWN: Well, currently I think, as you said, the United States has dozens of political prisoners that are, they’ve been incarcerated primarily because of their beliefs. They go against American capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, what have you. And they’re really soldiers from a past era movement. The Black Power movement, American Indian movement, Chicano movement, and so on and so forth. So today we have movements like Jericho that are trying to rekindle the general movement, consciousness around political prisoners, because we still have to deal with the fact that we have only 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated.
And those who are incarcerated from the past large social upheaval, we have just gems of knowledge, you know, important people to the movements and communities just rotting behind cages all because they chose to challenge American power, capitalism, racism, patriarchy, such as Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier. Most recently Red Fawn. She was an indigenous woman who was entrapped by the FBI during the Standing Rock movement. So we have not only political prisoners who are, you know, older, elders, but we have new political prisoners entering the United States prison system every year.
BEN NORTON: Yeah. And The Real News, in fact, we work with Eddie Conway. He frequently, you know, produces shows and hosts for us here at The Real News. He was himself an incarcerated political prisoner for decades. Can you also talk about some of, some of the recently released prisoners like Herman Bell, and others who are still incarcerated, specifically from the black liberation movement?
NINO BROWN: So, we still have — well, recently, Herman Bell came out and was being harangued around the conditions of his release. About two, three years ago Sekou Odinga came out, was released. But we still have Jalil Muntaqim, Mumia Abu-Jamal, and many others from the Black Power movements that are still incarcerated.
And there are others in the broader social movements that we don’t hear about, like the past, Weather Underground, like David Gilbert. However, the list of new political prisoners, that’s yet to be, not explicated, but just itemized, you know.
So I consider folks who were involved in the anti-Trump protests, who are facing charges, some of whom are incarcerated, as political prisoners. I may not know all their names, but the conditions of why they were incarcerated is inherently political because they chose to take a stand against what they see to be a rising fascist government movement.
BEN NORTON: This is a reference to the J20 protest, on January 20 of last year, 2017. There were more than 200 protesters who were all just rounded up, kettled by cops, and all charged with a variety of charges. Some of, some of, some major felonies that could have led to decades in prison. Some of the prisoners have had their, some of the detainees have had their charges thrown out. But there are still dozens more, and the trials are ongoing, with almost no media coverage.
I think what’s fascinating as a journalist is we have all these corporate media outlets that have rebranded in the age of Trump as part of the Resistance, as anti-Trump. The Washington Post has “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on the top of its newspaper. But they have no interest in these activists who put their bodies on the line to protest Trump at the inauguration, and in some cases faced decades in prison.
NINO BROWN: Exactly right. So we’re trying to do with Jericho is really expand what do we mean by political prisoners, in addition to highlight the fact that the United States is not an exceptional nation, where it can point and wag its finger at other countries for having political prisoners, when they have prisoners right here in the United States. I know in Massachusetts we have several friends who are friends of Jericho who are facing repression inside prisons just for speaking up around their basic basic human rights and conditions of life.
BEN NORTON: Let’s talk more about this, because what’s interesting is there are two narratives, I think, that need to be debunked. One, that the U.S. doesn’t have political prisoners. But two, also that the conditions that these people are under are somehow humane. I mean, we’re talking about absolutely horrific, inhumane conditions that violate international law in every single way. Can you talk about some of the conditions that some of these prisoners in Massachusetts are forced to live under?
NINO BROWN: So an example that Jericho is really focusing on now is the prison in Norfolk. MCI-Norfolk. This is the same prison that Malcolm X went to when he was Detroit Red, a criminal, gangster, et cetera, and transformed his life, became Malcolm X.
And fast forward to today. In 2011, all the state environmental agencies said that the water filtration system in Norfolk was defunct. And you know, the president said we’re going to fix it, we’re going to change it. 2017. Nothing has happened.
The Boston Globe put out an exposé of what was going on in the prison after the prisoners began to agitate, organize around their own conditions, and expose the system, expose the prison system, for its inhumane treatment of them.
So what the prisoners are being subjected to is being, they’re drinking black, are forced to drink and bathe in black and brown water, sometimes gray, that has high levels of manganese, iron, and other harmful chemicals. All the while while these prisons are forced to labor, to work, otherwise they face the hole, solitary confinement. Another medieval form of torture, I would say.
All the while they train these guard dogs, who are drinking clean, bottled water.
So here we have a clear example of just a gross violation of human rights where prisoners who are, you know, workers, a part of the working class, predominantly black or brown, agitating around their own conditions just to get clean water, and are being thrown into the hole, are being repressed. Some of our friends have written letters to them and had our letters intercepted.
BEN NORTON: That says everything, the symbolism of that. You have human beings who are incarcerated, who can’t get clean water, but dogs, dogs that are being trained, get better quality water, get water bottles. It just shows the priority.
NINO BROWN: Yeah, I mean, the United States doesn’t have really a priority over human life, period. Particularly when it comes to political prisoners, just because their, I think their existence and their fight pokes holes at the narrative of U.S. exceptionalism, or the fact that we have, or the idea that we have some sort of democratic system. I would say it’s more oligarchical. It’s more of an oligarchy with democratic trappings.
But I think you’re exactly right. This is why we’re out here demanding that the prisons have clean, potable drinking water. Moreover, they have their visitation rights returned to them. There has been a shift to lower the number of visitors you can have and create more loopholes for prisoners to interact with their families, in addition to higher charges for calling in.
This is all on top of the fact that the prisons are outside of Boston, outside of the city. So not too many families have the resources to travel all the way to MCI Norfolk on a weekly basis just to engage in basic human interaction with their families.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, and let’s talk more about this. This is a huge racket. It doesn’t get much media coverage. You’re talking about how private corporations are profiting from providing, you know, food and other resources that should be provided but are not adequately provided to incarcerated people. So you know, you have companies that, where you can buy chips and other kinds of food, and they’re charging astronomical prices.
We also have calls that are charged ridiculous rates per minute, and these incarcerated folks, their families and loved ones, have to raise large sums of money so that their incarcerated loved ones can try to get access to some food and some calls while corporations make a lot of money off of this.
NINO BROWN: Yeah. I mean, recently we tried to, we helped to start a campaign called the Deeper the Water campaign. One of our friends, Tim, he’s formerly incarcerated in MCI-Norfolk. And once he got out, hit the ground running to organize to get clean water to his friends in prison in MCI-Norfolk. So we organized a campaign to flood the canteen, to raise money so that the prisoners can buy the water in prison directly themselves. And you know, it seems a basic, you know, basic measure.
However, once we started to do that, the prisoners who were buying the water inside with the money that we were able to send to them, they were being targeted for repression, you know, because the guards see a threat. And you know, when they see that people care about you on the outside, in that, you know, you still have some of your humanity left, and are still going to struggle, that’s a threat to them. It’s a threat to their profits, because they’ll be exposed in all sorts of lawsuits.
But I think exactly right, you hit the nail on the head in terms of how do they maintain the system. It’s a system of super exploitation and super profits. So you have the prisoners working for a dollar, two dollars, maybe, on top of being charged for purchasing things inside of the prison with their own money. And the recreational activities are not subsidized by the state, but they’re subsidized by the taxes that they levy off of these prisoners.
So you have prisoners carrying the burden of their own incarceration financially, on top of families already being strained by this downward spiral of capitalism to provide resources to their loved ones in prison.
BEN NORTON: And then finally, I want to come to a conclusion here, but I want to take a step back and just talk about the prison-industrial complex in this country. And we both stress this, but again, the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population, and 25 percent of incarcerated people on this planet. It’s just baffling to think of that parallel.
And this is, this problem you’re talking about is not isolated to just Massachusetts. This is a problem everywhere, and it’s not just for incarcerated citizens. This is equally true for undocumented folks who are being forced into these facilities. They’re increasingly privatized.
So there’s a lot we can talk about, but I’m wondering if you can just wrap up here just reflecting on how the, how we should think about the American prison-industrial complex, American exceptionalism, and maybe you can even throw in, like, the war on drugs. Because many of these folks who are incarcerated, it’s not even necessarily for violent crimes. It’s for folks who were involved in trading drugs, or buying or using drugs. And we have this war on drugs that has led to a massive influx in this problem.
NINO BROWN: Yeah. I mean, I’ll start there with the, with the war on drugs. You know, it’s not a war on drugs. Drugs have continued to proliferate in our society to such a degree that we have, you know, such things as the opioid crisis. Drugs are still being used in prisons themselves, being used as weapons of war for these prison guards. So that whole veneer of a war on drugs is just that. An illusion.
It’s really a war on, undeclared war, on black, indigenous, poor working class people, Chicano people, Latino people. And the way that they frame it as being around crime, it just distracts from the, from the focus, from the content of this being about social control. You know, that there was a counter-revolution following the radical ’60s and ’70s that saw, saw the need to suppress this radical, this radical uprising from the black population, from Latino populations, oppressed people generally. And prisons provide the perfect mechanism to maintain that social control in working class communities, but moreover to bolster capitalism, right.
So as we see globalization in the 1980s, and the really, the birth of neoliberalism, where production goes global, right, there’s this false notion that production has just disappeared. And it actually hasn’t. It’s shifted into prisons where prisoners are making anything from Nintendo 64 cartridges, to furniture, to things for Starbucks. You know, belt buckles.
So it’s a way for them, for the capitalists to super exploit prison labor while at the same time maintaining social control and pacification over the oppressed communities, whether it be through recidivism, militarized policing in the communities that these incarcerated folks come from. It’s really just a way to control labor, but also to make super profits, all the while claiming to be fighting drugs, claim to be fighting crime, and so on and so forth.
BEN NORTON: We’re going to take a pause here for our conversation. I’m here with Nino Brown. Nino’s an organizer with the ANSWER Coalition and Jericho. In the second part we’re going to continue our discussion on the prison-industrial complex in the United States.