Days of Revolt: The Revolutionary, Caged
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, host Chris Hedges continues his conversation with two black revolutionaries and former political prisoners, Eddie Conway and Ojore Lutalo, to discuss their resistance within the prison system
CHRIS HEDGES, HOST, DAYS OF REVOLT: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt.
In this segment we’re going to discuss resistance inside the prison system by black radicals who created in essence the vast network of solitary confinement cells known as management control units to isolate them from the rest of the prison population so they would not teach revolution. And their presence saw the rise of numerous techniques, including the infusion of SWAT teams, all sorts of psychological mechanisms to break people down, to snuff out a movement that the state found to be deeply disruptive, especially in its internal colonies, as Malcolm X called them.
Joining me in the studio are two revolutionaries who spent tremendous amounts of time not only in prison, but in solitary confinement, Ojore Lutalo 28 years in prison, 22 of those years in isolation, and Eddie Conway 44 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, seven years in isolation. Is that correct?
So you both went into the prison in the 1970s. What year exactly was it, Ojore?
OJORE LUTALO: Well, it was in the early ’70s.
HEDGES: Early ’70s. And you?
EDDIE CONWAY: Nineteen-seventy itself.
HEDGES: Nineteen-seventy itself. And this was a time when the state was making war against radical leftist movements, not only the groups you were in–Eddie was a member of the Black Panthers. Ojore was a member of the Black Liberation Army–but the American Indian movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement, as well as even white antiwar radicals. And just as they were attempting to break these movements outside prison walls, once you arrived inside prison walls, it became personal. They were going to break these movements by breaking you, and that’s largely what solitary was about, to break you psychologically, to isolate you from the rest of the prison population so that you couldn’t raise political consciousness among younger prisoners who were coming into the system.
And we still have about 150 black radicals [incompr.] and others, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who remain behind prison walls. What were the techniques–let’s start with you, Eddie–by which you were able to resist in this almost perfect totalitarian state?
CONWAY: Well, I think initially my first seven years were spent in solitary confinement, because you really had to fight back and you had to resist. And resisting could be something as simple as refusing to leave the dining room if you’re not finished eating. And that was considered an act of resistance, an act of [incompr.] And you were attacked for stuff like that. So–.
HEDGES: By the guards.
CONWAY: By the guards, right? And so pretty much what we did was, like, every time they pushed, we had to push back. And it led to a lot of combat, it led to a lot of conflicts, and it led to a lot of segregation time. But at some point they got exhausted and they stopped attacking us.
HEDGES: You were physically assaulted by a guard whose baton you took.
HEDGES: And you were charged with not only assault but theft, theft of the baton.
HEDGES: And was that the incident where your jaw was broken?
CONWAY: No, that wasn’t, but there was another incident.
HEDGES: Right. You were pretty badly beat up.
CONWAY: Yes. Yes. I’ve had my shoulder broken, my jaw broken, etc.
HEDGES: I think that’s something that many people outside the system don’t understand, and that is that just as our militarized police forces can carry out indiscriminate lethal force on the streets, they carry out indiscriminate beatings and very brutal beatings within the prison system itself. And there was an interesting article in The New York Times recently where they interviewed prisoners from the Clinton Correctional Facility and in the immediate aftermath–so this is where we had the prison escape by Richard Matt and David Sweat. And in the hours afterwards, prisoners were taken to broom closets, badly beaten. Plastic bags were put over their heads until they suffocated, all of this while they were handcuffed. Other prisoners were slammed against walls, slammed against bars themselves, heads banged into walls.
And this is kind of the currency within prisons, where the goal is to make everyone obedient and everyone subservient. And you, Ojore, spending 22 years in isolation, which is almost unfathomable, what were the mechanisms by which you retained your humanity and retained your ability to resist?
LUTALO: Well, see, I went to prison as a revolutionary, and as a revolutionary I came to terms with the process [incompr.] captivity, plus I always had a strong sense of self and purpose and had an ideology, right? And so that sustained me through the 22 years. When everybody else abandoned me, it was on me to come up with survival tactics, right?
HEDGES: What were they?
LUTALO: I created what I call a cell program. I would get up in the morning, I would read, write, exercise, start working on my collages, right? And that was a big part of my survival, right, about creating collages, right, about political commentary, what’s going on with–.
HEDGES: This is where–I’ve seen them–it’s where you would rip up newspapers and magazines and write political messages.
LUTALO: And all I had was magazines and glue, Elmer’s glue. And then I would do a lot of outsider interviews with people on a national and international level, right?
HEDGES: You didn’t wear a prison uniform.
LUTALO: Yes, I did.
HEDGES: But wasn’t there times when you were–.
LUTALO: At one time you could wear civilian clothing.
HEDGES: No, but weren’t you naked in the cells [crosstalk]
LUTALO: Oh. Well, at one time they put me in a mental health unit for six days. They held me incommunicado in the mental health unit for six days and took all my clothing and left me standing next to a puddle of rainwater–when it rained outside, it would rain into the cell. And it was freezing cold. The lights stayed on 24 hours a day. I was under camera watch. You know.
HEDGES: Eddie, I know that you attempted to organize prisoners. Maybe you can explain a little bit about that, what you did once you got into the prison system.
CONWAY: Okay. Let me just go step back one second, but I will answer that.
I think their goal was not the obedience and subservience. I think their goal was to dehumanize every prisoner, because you have a dehumanized prisoner, then you can control him in the environment.
One of the things that was happening was we were getting paid nine cents an hour. So I organized a united labor prison union and we demanded minimum wage, which at that time probably wasn’t that much, four or five dollars an hour. But it was that effort that got the most reaction from the guards and the administration when prisoners decided that they were human beings and they deserve to be paid for their labor in spite of what the Thirteenth Amendment says, that says that we could be subjected to slavery as prisoners.
The reaction was hostile and swift, and eventually they locked us all up and shut the prison down and everything because we wanted to be treated like human beings. And it was every place that we organized. We organized a library because we wanted to learn. We pushed for control of a radio that we could talk to each other. Everything we organized that would enhance our humanity they attacked.
HEDGES: The interesting dilemma we face at the moment is that because the mechanisms by which reform are made possible no longer work, that attempt to organize around the minimum wage issue is–I’m asking, I guess, but I suspect is the last weapon we have to break the back of mass incarceration, where we in the United States hold 25 percent of the world’s prison population and are 5 percent of the world’s population, because it is based on a system of neo-slavery. Prisons function like plantations, and prisons would not be able to sustain themselves without the highly undercompensated or even free labor. As you know, everything in the prison is virtually done by the prisoners, from the barbershop to the cooking of the guards’ foods to shining the–one of the most highly paid jobs in the New Jersey prison system are the bootblacks, the people who shine the boots of the guards all day long. And if they had to compensate at minimum wage, the system would collapse. And I’m wondering if that, in your estimation, is the primary mechanism now that we have to fight back against the system of mass incarceration in the United States or there are others. What do you think, Ojore?
LUTALO: I think we need to organize. That’s the only solution to the problem at this point.
HEDGES: Inside and outside.
LUTALO: Inside and outside.
HEDGES: But organizing around minimum wage?
LUTALO: No, no, no. Organize against oppression, ’cause, like, inside [incompr.] prison you don’t have any jobs.
HEDGES: Right. That’s a supermax prison.
LUTALO: Supermax, no. It was just–it was lockdown.
LUTALO: So we’d have to organize.
HEDGES: And that’s–lockdown means 23 hours a day.
LUTALO: No. No. But for prisoners in the management control unit it’s 23 hours one day and one day out. So you have to organize. It has to be on a political level. And that’s what administrators are afraid of.
HEDGES: What does that look like?
LUTALO: What’s that?
HEDGES: I mean, what do you mean, organize?
LUTALO: Organize? You have to educate people about the realities of their oppression and the fact that we don’t control the economics in our own communities, right? And you have to give people hope, a reason to struggle, something to struggle for.
HEDGES: But isn’t the only mechanism prisoners have by which they can fight back are work stoppages?
LUTALO: Well, there’s no work inside of [incompr.] prisons. So we have to organize on another level.
CONWAY: And I’m going to have to disagree. And I’m disagreeing because even in those supermax, ultramax–we have one here in Maryland–when you take away the prison labor, it stops working. In the supermax, even though guys are behind those doors 23–somebody’s in the mess hall cooking the food, somebody’s in the laundry washing the stuff, somebody’s in the commissary bagging up the stuff, somebody mops the floor, somebody brings the shell. In Cumberland, Maryland, say, for instance, you don’t get out your cell. You go in a little telephone booth shell that rolls from cell to cell. Somebody rolls that shell down there. Somebody cleans it later on. Somebody picks up the trays. See, all of that stuff is work that we do that sometimes we don’t recognize that if we stop doing all of that work, the prison system would collapse.
HEDGES: Well, they also–isn’t it true that in a supermax prison like Trenton they’ll bring in minimum-security prisoners to do this work, right?
LUTALO: They do that.
HEDGES: It’s still prisoners doing the work.
LUTALO: They used to bring them in from Jones Farm.
LUTALO: They would cart the food in.
HEDGES: Right. I mean, I’m assuming neither of you have faith in the system, the legislative system or the electoral system, to bring about reform or not.
CONWAY: No way.
HEDGES: No. So what is the–how do we destroy the system of mass incarceration? I mean, what is the mechanism?
CONWAY: I’m definitely for prisoner labor unions. And they have tried this in other states. If you organize labor unions and you demand minimum wage, it takes the money off of the prison-industrial complex, and they can no longer afford to incarcerate people like that. They keep them long-term like that because below the maximum levels in the medium and the minimum levels, we’re making furniture, we’re making license tags, we’re making clothes.
CONWAY: Yeah. We’re training dogs. We’re doing all sorts of things that’s creating the wealth.
HEDGES: Fish. Raising fish farms.
CONWAY: Yeah, raising fish farms. And at the same time we are supplying a way in which the guard forces make a living.
CONWAY: You know. So if you take the money away from that, then they’re going to start letting people out.
HEDGES: Well, if you look at the 2010 work stoppage in the Georgia state prison system, that cost the state of Georgia–which I think only lasted, if I remember correctly, nine days–it cost them millions of dollars. And that, I think, goes back to what Ojore said. That’s not going to work until you raise the consciousness of those inside the prison. But we have seen now decades of attempts on the part of the liberal establishment to institute reforms, both in terms of policing and in terms of mass incarceration, and the situation on the streets and inside the prisons have only gotten worse.
LUTALO: What they do, see, like, they grant reforms, and then when everything become, like, peaceful, they take the reforms back.
HEDGES: I don’t know what avenue we have left. I mean, the largest influx now of prisoners are women. You’re seeing a larger and larger increase of poor white people coming into the prison system as they run out, in essence, of black bodies by which they can put in cages. Seventy-five thousand prisoners in this country live in isolation. Britain puts three to four people a year in isolation. And that kind of sophistication of control–and I know you went through it, Ojore. I mean, maybe you can talk a little bit about it. But it’s not just a matter of being in an isolated cell. It’s a matter of being woken up in the middle of the night, extreme hot, extreme cold. I mean, I know you’ve been–have spoken about being moved.
LUTALO: They used to wake us up every other morning with attack dogs. The security guards would be in riot gear. We were stripped [incompr.] back out of the cell naked and [incompr.] attack dogs pulling on a leash straining at our private parts. They was moving us from one cell to another cell and just repeat the same thing every other morning for months on end. Then another time they had me on what is called no contact status, whereas I couldn’t do anything with a group or another individual, right? I’ll have to go to the yard by myself [incompr.] by myself, right? So I was a victim of what you call no-touch torture.
LUTALO: So their goal was to break me psychologically. They placed me in a bloody cell after a prisoner had attempted suicide, took his blood and painted the cell red, right? And it was never-ending.
HEDGES: But I think we should be clear that it often works. People do break down.
LUTALO: Oh, people do break. But see, I studied psychological warfare. I studied their methods of breaking a person’s mind [incompr.] Eddie Griffin [he wrote a (?)] book called Breaking Men’s Minds, right? So I read that and I would circulate that amongst prisoners and the patrol units so they could prepare themselves to combat these methods of no-touch torture.
HEDGES: We also have the phenomenon of–which is not spoken about very much, prison executions, some of which never get reported at all. We just saw at California state prison Hugo Pinell, who was part of the San Quentin six, knifed to death. It was in the prison yard. Eddie? But that’s common. I mean, we just had a case in New Jersey where a 28-year-old prisoner in South Woods was, it appears, beaten to death. His body was returned to his family in Trenton completely covered with contusions, broken bones. And they said he died of a heart attack. That is a mechanism of control, creating a kind of climate of terror and fear, along with rape. An estimated 200,000 prisoners are raped in prison in the United States every year. And I think we should say that for many of these prisoners this is daily rape. It’s not a one-time incident, because you get these particular figures who prey on–they call them the new fish, you know, these young kids who come into the prison. So, much of the oppression that happens with–inside American prison systems are either tolerated or even orchestrated by the guards, but are carried out by prisoners themselves. And perhaps you can–and then we haven’t even spoken about informants. But maybe you can speak to that, Eddie, first.
CONWAY: Yes. I mean, there are certain benefits and privileges that a certain class of prisoners get for carrying out the wishes and the duties of the administration. Say if you’re hostile, they will–or say if you’re organizing, you’re a political organizer, they will direct the people that they have under their control, whether through the use of bringing in drugs to them or giving them some other benefits, they use those people to attack progressives, activists, revolutionaries, or just prison organizers that’s organizing in an area in which they don’t want that to happen. That happens a lot. Then also probably they use prisoners to do things that they want done and reward them by transferring them to other institutions with lesser security and so on.
HEDGES: In the prison I teach in, they give them a cheeseburger. And they say there are prisoners who will sell out another prisoner for a cheeseburger.
CONWAY: Yeah. Well, I’ve seen prisoners turn in their best friends to go to the camp center, sometimes friends that they’ve known for ten, 20 years. And they will snitch on them, inform on them, so that they can be transferred out, and their friend will end up in the supermax or maximum security and in with a longer sentence.
HEDGES: And I’m just going to close, Ojore by asking you–and if there’s time, Eddie, maybe you can comment–as to whether they’ve been successful, whether that successful assault on radical movements outside prison walls, which has eradicated those militants that fought for significant social change, has been successful inside prison walls as well.
LUTALO: It has up to a point, because I’ve seen people who came into [incompr.] strong leave weak. I’ve seen people who came in weak became strong. So a lot depends on the individual, his internal composition psychologically.
HEDGES: But in terms of a radical consciousness, do you think the prison system has been successful in essentially keeping the majority of the prison population in darkness?
LUTALO: Yes, mainly because, like, the revolutionary element, they remove them from general population. So they don’t have anybody to show them another way or give them that particular book they might need to read.
HEDGES: Which is why you were 22 years in solitary.
LUTALO: Exactly. They told me–I told them that I haven’t done anything. They said, you could if you wanted to. And that’s thought crime.
HEDGES: Right. Right.
LUTALO: But, again, that isolation is effective in terms of breaking some people.
HEDGES: Right. Well, it’s also effective in quarantine, keeping radicals quarantined.
LUTALO: Most definitely.
CONWAY: But, you know, the other side of that too is that a lot of activists have been developed in prison as a result of them putting us in the prison system. A lot of mentors have been developed. And it’s the change in methodology of organizing, but organizing still go on. But the one thing that also shows a failure of prison is that the rebelliousness of the street organizations, this–a tremendous amount of street organization participation in the prison system, and they’re rebelling. And they’re rebelling and they’re resisting. And they resist the guards as well as they resist society in general, without direction in most cases, but still rebellion.
HEDGES: I mean, the question we have to ask now is whether the state has pushed people on the streets and in the system. And prisoners are leaving prison now in debt, that they’ve just gone too far and that we may see the rise of a new revolutionary movement born out of this repression and hopefully informed by your own revolutionary activity. I don’t know if you see this coming or not.
LUTALO: I see it coming within the walls Trenton State Prison. I see it coming within the confines of /rɑːli/ state prison. Prisons don’t have a choice. They say, what are we supposed to do? You took everything from us. What’s left was to organize and rebel. Well, if the element is not there to feed them, it becomes more difficult, feed them that political knowledge, you know, through organizing in terms of a [phone (?)] strike or things of that nature, right?
CONWAY: And we’re definitely, as in America, on the verge of a change. I mean, there’s a new kind of sense of urgency to make changes, to challenge, whether it is environmental or whether it’s in immigration or whether it’s the trans communities or whether it’s Black Lives Matter or Occupy or so on. There is a sense–or against the national security state–there’s a sense that things are wrong and this is not working and it’s not working in the interests of the majority of the people. And people are starting to question that. And the questions eventually will lead to answers. They might not learn from our example, but they’ll learn from reading and studying and so on. And I think that’s why you have such a surveillance state developing, because it’s not just now people on the ground, but it’s also the greater population of white people also.
HEDGES: Right, because they didn’t stop with poor people of color.
HEDGES: Once they finished with them, they’ve turned on the poor working class and even the white middle class. They don’t have any self-imposed limits.
HEDGES: And so let’s hope they follow your example.
Thank you very much.
And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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