'Your best self'
The Institute for the Critical Study of Society in Oakland hosted a meeting on "What is Revolution? A dialogue between California's women prisoners and Marxism." Below are comments from an African-American former prisoner, now a prison advocate and organizer with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.
Revolution to me is about what you would need to be your best self. The work we would do would be taking care of the whole of society.
In CRITIQUE OF THE GOTHA PROGRAM Marx said, "In a higher phase... can society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his (or her) ability, to each according to his (or her) needs!" That speaks to the type of revolution I have in mind: a world where people are treated as human. Especially when we talk about prisons and the inhumanity that is intrinsic in the prison culture.
I know what it's like to be inside, how human beings treat each other. Inside they want you to doubt you are human. After years and years of this some might come to act in inhuman ways.
In prison everything is arbitrary, one rule applies this day, but not the next. How do you find any balance in a situation like that? These arbitrary abuses take a toll on the guards, too. How can you do this type of work and then come home and be a human being?
That seems impossible. Frantz Fanon talked about this in WRETCHED OF THE EARTH, the sickness works both ways: for those who are inflicting the pain and those who are being oppressed.
Prisons are alienating. Yet some women have the ability to overcome the culture inside, that you don't trust, don't do anything for anybody, just take care of yourself. To be able to overcome that takes courage. To be able to organize, to promote political education, that is basically illegal. You'll get locked up in the Security Housing Unit.
Treating people as human beings is key. Holding onto your principles even in prison, reaching a helping hand to somebody under those circumstances has revolutionary potential.
Once you parole, you face big problems. How are you going to get housed, get a job? People with drug convictions have no access, can't get food stamps, can't get public housing, you certainly don't get any financial aid. Your family may live in public housing, and even if they are willing to take you, you can't go because they will lose that housing. You can't get a job, because you have no job skills. There are too many people in prison for the 3,000 jobs they may have for a population of over 170,000 in California.
A majority of women inside are domestic violence survivors, and have no support. Most likely you have severe medical problems if you've been there long, because there is no medical care inside. And we're talking about the part of the society that holds the highest burden of illness in general. You are trapped, tracked to go back.
I was able to not stay on that track because I was still connected to my family. And it still took a long time. The laws and rules put in place for parolees are not there to give people a chance to get back into society. People do change their lives, but it takes a strong individual to come out and deal with this.
Recently, I had a long discussion about Marx taking the side of the North in the Civil War in the U.S. Marx stood against anyone being enslaved and had a much more inclusive idea of freedom than I thought. We can look at that Marx as a launching pad: that's Marx, now we have to build on the struggles, for example the struggles to access healthcare in prison. The medical advocacy letters all of us write after every visit are frustrating, because you have to write letters for three years for somebody to get a tooth filled.
The self-clarification Marx talked about is what do you stand for, not just what you're against. That's what we need to talk about, what do we stand for and how does that relate to the revolution. What are we doing about what we stand for?
Published by News and Letters Committees