• The Asylum Issue

    Prisons Are For Burning: Give Them Hell

    The Asylum Issue

    With a decade of organizing experience corresponding with and providing support for incarcerated folks, Neal Shirley gives us the scoop on struggles on both sides of the wall with Prisons are for Burning.

    Nealshirley web

    Neal Shirley has been involved in a range of (anti) prison related groups for about eight years. Most recently he’s been involved with a project that corresponds with prisoners and solicits and disseminates their news and analysis across North Carolina's prison system. He co-authored the book Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South. He makes a living doing food service work and teaching mixed martial arts to kids of all ages, and spends his free time fighting in cages and scheming new ways to deep-fry southern delicacies.


    Prisons are for Burning

    Give Them Hell

    Hey y’all! This month we have a guest piece written by two friends involved in a struggle against the jail in downtown Durham, NC. Every week for months, people have been meeting at the jail and making noise for those inside, in response to a lockdown at the facility. This is a compelling snapshot of one small struggle in one small town, a tiny piece of this larger puzzle of uncompromising anti-prison politics in the US.

    Will Durham’s Ongoing Anti-Prison Campaign End a Jail-Wide Lockback?

    By JJ McAfee and James Stephens

    “We’re gonna give ‘em hell ‘til they open every cell.”

    On Friday, April 17, this chant echoed through a downtown corridor in Durham, NC, as a motley crowd gathered outside of the unsightly building many residents would rather forget is there: the county jail. This was the first of a series of weekly jail protests that have happened every Friday since. Although there’s something routine about the jail protests, what happens each week varies. Hundreds of people have participated since April, sometimes chanting, sometimes marching, sometimes waving to prisoners, and sometimes urging passing drivers to give a honk of support. What began as a direct response to a measure that affected all inmates – a jail-wide lockback that allowed for just six hours per week out of cells – has become a way to bring people together and buoy the spirits of those inside. It also has proven effective in all but ending the lockback.

    Our group is called the Inside-Outside Alliance (IOA); it is unaffiliated with any non-profit or party, and supports resistance struggles inside the jail. After the lockback began, we employed a variety of tactics alongside former inmates and family and friends of inmates – to put pressure on the sheriff, who oversees the jail, and the county commissioners, who control the jail’s money. Besides protesting, we disrupted county commissioners’ meetings and signed up to speak at them, organized call-in days to commissioners and jail staff, and made sure  the story kept appearing in the local media. Finally, on October 1, the day before our 26th consecutive Friday protest, jail officials began allowing everyone out of cells 8 hours per day – just 1.5 hours short of what they’d had prior to the lockback. 

    Although this might seem like a victory, and thus a reason to lay off the protests, we have decided to keep them going. For three years we in IOA have communicated with people inside the jail and published their work at amplifyvoices.com and in newsletters. We have  also shown up regularly at the jail during visitation hours to talk to folks, but nothing really galvanized others to become deeply involved until the lockback. 

    Dora, 21, whose father has been in the jail for a year, does not want to stop protesting. As she wrote in a recent issue of a newsletter distributed to people inside and outside, “My family and I got involved in the protests because I have my father and several other family in jail and it really hurts and kills me to see not only what is being done to them and how they have been treated, but to every inmate in there.” For her, as for many other families, friends, and supporters of prisoners, it’s not just about the conditions endured by one person they know in the jail but about how everyone is being treated – and about the ‘justice’ system itself.
    The Friday jail protests have not shut down any highways or scuffled with police, but they have been confrontational. Irked after callers “blew up” his phone one day to tell him they support the prisoners, the chair of the county commissioners said publicly that these protests – which take place across the street from the performing arts center, the downtown jewel – were “embarrassing.” Immediately, his words were turned against him on protest signs. During visitation hours, detention officers have tried to stop young children from writing chalk messages on the sidewalk to their dads in the windows above. Now, those same children – and people of all ages – write boldly with chalk at Friday protests, at times completely covering the entry plaza of the jail with messages of love, solidarity, destruction and revolution. During a recent visitation, we spied a detention officer snapping photos of messages written in Spanish, perhaps to go ‘Google Translate’ them. The next Friday, protesters covered the plaza with loving and incendiary messages in as many languages as we could.

    As people looking for ruptures, we don’t wish to propagate a weekly protest model that could become stale and routine. But we don’t believe what is happening here in Durham is stagnant. The Friday jail protests have provided an opportunity for many people to meet who otherwise would not have: longtime and new activists; people who’ve been in and out of jail and prison as well as their families and friends; divinity school students; queer youth; anarchists and troublemakers of many stripes; human rights advocates; and more. Recently, on a Friday when people were being particularly loud, a chant rose up: “This is what community looks like!” At first we tensed, having heard a similar tired chant so often before (usually with the word democracy in place of community). But upon reflection, we actually felt it kind of fitting. These protests have in fact created a space for a kind of community. And as they continue to happen they just might strengthen our collective muscles to revolt against the existing order.

    JJ McAfee runs, reads, and spends lots of time with teenagers. Once in a blue moon, she tweets.

    James Stephens lives and plays in Durham, NC. He likes to play sports of all kinds and enjoys being in loud places (like demonstrations) and quiet places (like woods and libraries) equally.

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