From the May-June 2022 issue of News & Letters
Below we print talks by Faruq and Urszula Wislanka given to the San Francisco Bay Area Local of News and Letters Committees as a retrospective/perspective on our involvement in prison issues. It was given to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the historic prison hunger strikes that ended California’s permanent solitary confinement. Faruq, a Marxist-Humanist correspondent for many years, participated in these events. Urszula has been a prisoner rights activist for decades and is an editor and founder of The Fire Inside.
Historic hunger strikes: 10 years after
Faruq: The historic hunger strikes at Pelican Bay, which started 10 years ago, accomplished the end of the use of indefinite solitary confinement. Nobody thought that far ahead, nobody imagined that we would win. California was globally infamous for its widespread use of solitary confinement, which is torture. A remarkable few demonstrated how much heart they had in starting and sustaining the hunger strikes for 60+ days. Then we made a stand and mustered the courage to go against the tide. In our conditions then, there was no future, no possibility of ever getting out.
When the news reported 30,000 prisoners joined the strike, we didn’t feel isolated anymore. It was like the miners trapped in a mine cave in Chile, who expected to die but got a message that broke through that they would be rescued. It takes heart to make change, but you have to accept consequences for what you must do.
RADICALNESS OF CROSS-RACIAL SOLIDARITY
Suddenly everybody was able to see “all of us or none.” My heart goes out to Todd Ashker, who is still paying for crossing the racial line. Our cross-racial solidarity took aim at the practice of falsely and perpetually “validating” us as gang members. That solidarity took aim at the way some prisoners lost any self-respect by falling prey to the prison making snitching, or naming a fellow prisoner as a gang member, the only way to get out of the security housing unit (SHU).
Our demand, to be “Validated as Human,” speaks to every movement now challenging the degradation of the human being under capitalism.
In the SHU you’re in a situation that without the guy next door you might not exist. I heard a guy crying, I hollered for him. You have to say “Man down. He can’t breathe!” or no one will come for a long time. He had a busted gall bladder. He was surprised at what I did and thanked me. He thought that because I’m Black I wouldn’t care. Our reaching toward the Other comes from a place where we’re not asking for something in return, but in hopes that the other person won’t allow racism to prevent him from beginning anew with what it means to be human. What kept me going for so long was a forlorn hope. I had read in the POW Journal written by a captured Black Liberation Army member and other underground journals the importance of literature, specifically the historic legacy of a people wanting to be free, which is predicated on the need to go beyond political democracy to really engage the idea of self-determination. Choices outside of prison aren’t deep enough.
Karl Marx comes alive when you try to understand what it means to be human. Capitalism’s anti-human direction can undermine the significance of a moment of human solidarity. That’s why we have to hold true to the Idea. The victory of coming out of the SHU was so unexpected, so sudden, that it took the wind out of my sails. When I walked out of SHU, that was a tremendous release. Outside now, I see a new level to the prevailing falsehoods we were fighting then. Outside we pretend we really have choices.
I see, even among fellow ex-prisoners, how self-interest takes over again. How can they fall into gaining some privileges at the cost of other fellow human beings? That’s how capitalism seeps into every crevice of our lives. To live, one has to compromise. The SHU compelled me to excavate Marx’s philosophy. Marx gave me insight into the dynamics of human relations that shapes his humanism. The struggle of labor against capital is the struggle against the anti-human isolation of individuals. I see every day, on the street, the deadly effects of that isolation in the people capitalism has discarded.
We have to keep alive the high point in that moment of human solidarity from 10 years ago. To keep alive the very Idea of social humanity demanding to be “Validated as Human” in Marx’s sense of being free, not only politically, but in our everyday life activity. That last sentence is the most essential to define concretely. Marx warned us that all human relations are based on abstractions.
Listening to women prisoners with Marxist-Humanist ‘ears’
Urszula: Dostoevsky’s adage, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” is by now a truism. The most brutal environment in today’s society is a prison. Further, it is now well documented that race is a huge factor in who is sent to prison, for how long, and into what conditions.
Gender affords another insight into the ills, not just of the prison system, but the whole society. Women prisoners’ experience, and their reflection on it, offers a unique perspective on the critical questions we are all facing.
I have had the privilege of speaking directly with prisoners during the last several decades, and now for over 25 years with women prisoners. I heard them articulate the most profound, philosophical concepts as they spoke concretely of their experience. The injustices dealt specifically to women are legion: survivors of domestic abuse are notoriously treated as criminals for daring to defend themselves and their children; victims of the “war on drugs” with its “snitch” laws, mean in practice the man caught with drugs can get a lighter sentence by snitching on others, while women who might know nothing about the drugs, get the full brunt of “the law”; women who seek medical assistance for a miscarriage are more and more often charged and convicted of murder. That’s just the tip of an iceberg.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN?
A common thread in my conversations has been the question, “What does it mean to be human?” It is not an academic debate for women prisoners, but an urgent, practical matter. In the very first issue of the publication of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, The Fire Inside (FI) in June 1996, Charisse “Happy” Shumate asked: “Have they forgot we are human?” For her, being human meant becoming a “we” person, focused not so much on getting herself (“I”) out of prison, but fighting so no one (“we”) would have to suffer what she went through. Shumate became the lead plaintiff and the face of a class action law suit that put California’s women’s prisons on trial for medical neglect and abuse (Shumate v. Wilson).
After viewing depositions from various women prisoners, the prison bureaucracy settled for a few reforms rather than face an open public judgment of the depth of their barbarous inhumanity which would have come out in court proceedings.
Prisons, and the whole legal realm, are predicated on the false idea of an isolated individual. A crime is prosecuted in the name of an abstraction, namely “society,” in ways that are plainly unjust. “Removal from society” is supposed to be the punishment. Setting aside the fact that many guards view their job as administering punishments, the very fact of isolation, of having one’s social ties broken, compels many prisoners to consciously recreate their social connections with others, beginning with other prisoners. Shumate’s “we” was not opposed to the individual, but a conscious reassertion of a social individual who recognizes themselves as such.
This new sense of “we” comes from an opposition to the prisons’ attempts to break you, to destroy your sense of self. Women recreate themselves through their relations with other prisoners.
Some of the most transformative moments I witnessed were of women prisoners who got feedback on their stories after they were published in FI. In that first issue of FI, Linda Fields told about her friend, Anna, who died of medical abuse and neglect in prison. The feedback from that story helped transform her from a defeated, mourning person, to an advocate for others. Charisse Shumate discovered, in a domestic violence self-help group, that she was not alone. Hearing others’ stories so similar to her own transformed her from an individual isolated by her abuser to a fighter for all prisoners.
This process of redefining ourselves is crucial for the whole society. It means questioning the very essence of who we are as human beings. The struggle for recognition of that essence never ends. Solidarity is one expression of the opposition to that myth of the isolated individual.
“No one gets free alone” is the theme of the 25th anniversary issue of FI, with a memorial to Charisse Shumate. Our celebration of that anniversary underscores the persistence of the recreation of our relationships with others as the path to redefining our essence and overcoming existing barriers to freedom.
As women prisoners have demonstrated over the years, their conscious recreation of their connections to others was at the heart of their own transformation as human beings, a discovery of what is the human essence. That search for the human essence is not limited to prisoners, but an insight for all. Entering prisons, as Dostoevsky advised, along with the added dimension of gender, provides a new perspective on how to gauge a society. As Marx said in 1844, in “Private Property and Communism”:
The direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person is the relation of man to woman. … In this relationship, therefore, is sensuously manifested, reduced to an observable fact, the extent to which the human essence has become nature to [humankind], or to which nature to [them] has become the human essence …. From this relationship one can therefore judge [humanity]’s whole level of development.
Marx poses this measure to warn against perspectives for the future that limit the fight against alienation—which defines capitalist society—to achieving collective property or communism. The human essence for Marx is the multidimensional drive humans have to freely determine their life activity and to mutually recognize each other’s freedom to do so. That freedom idea is the absolute opposite to the alienated activity of isolated individuals as they sell their ability to labor, their life activity, to the capitalist.
Marxist-Humanists begin from a concept of human essence as free life activity. That perspective, in all its dimensions, needs to come fully forward. This humanism is the unifying thread in various movements. The concept of human essence is not as fixed or given, but is a self-developing, self-creating idea, that not only captures the meaning of women prisoners’ experience (or any movements’ participants), but, to paraphrase Franz Fanon, is for us to be able to finally create a society fit for human beings.