Thoughts from the Outside: What is needed for prisoners to remain sane

October 7, 2023

by Faruq

A Marxist recently responded to my 2019 essay on George Jackson and the origins of Black August. Though his connection with George Jackson is not through a prison experience, his response invigorates Jackson’s ideas. He wrote:

“Deep in the ‘hole’ of the Adjustment Center he [George Jackson] would need to go to ‘subjective mind’ to think out and to write, his greatest weapons being pen and paper. Going to theory to maintain his sanity, he was forced to face ‘subjective reason.’ ”

In the midst of the experience of long-term solitary confinement, an inhuman isolation amounting to torture, Jackson’s ideas spoke to us Black prisoners, raising the most profound philosophic question: how can we re-assert our humanity, our status as human beings. Inspired by Jackson’s perspective, we united with others and created an unprecedented cross-racial solidarity.

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It was objectively expressed in a series of hunger strikes in 2011-13. When we heard that 30,000 prisoners responded to our call for a hunger strike, it brought such enthusiasm, it’s hard to express. I felt that we won, we broke the walls of isolation. We broke the self-perpetuating gang designation enforced by the prison system to keep us fighting each other. This quantitative response was an objective validation of our subjective reason.


The immanence of our drive to re-create our humanity was reflected in a victory in the legal arena, a 2015 settlement that ended the use of indeterminate solitary confinement and established a court oversight to ensure prisons’ practices conform to the Constitution.

However, a federal appeals court panel ruled on 24 August 2023 that oversight established by the 2015 settlement should be lifted and that the prison can go back to their previous policies, to throw people into solitary based on hearsay and outright lies. While the legislature passed a law that would limit the use of solitary in California to no more than 15 consecutive days and no more than 45 days in a 180-day period, our “progressive” governor, Gavin Newsom, vetoed it.

There is a difference between subjective reason and its objective, immediate reflection, for example in the legal arena. Subjective reason is the source which finds its immediate venue for changing conditions in legal or legislative actions. But we must never forget that subjective reason is an ongoing awareness that one’s own subjectivity can re-create the world based on ever new human relations in their totality, not just in law. Marx’s revolution in permanence is just such an awareness of the ever-present multidimensional drive to overcome social barriers to realize freedom in our everyday activity.

Subjective reason, or revolution in permanence, is necessary to prevent falling into fixed moments in our liberation. What is granted by the legal arena can be taken away again by new laws. We have seen not just in our case. See it, for example, in current efforts to take away all vestiges of the Civil Rights Movement’s victory in establishing voting rights, or taking away a woman’s right to reproductive freedom. To maintain our sanity we too, as my comrade stated, must go to theory and face subjective reason.

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