Every individual, group, or organization that fights "against" oppression and "for" justice must constantly struggle against all external and internal forces that places the completion of their mission in jeopardy. External forces can aptly be described as threats while internal forces should be described as weaknesses. We in the VAPOC (Virginia Prisoner of Conscience) believe that Weaknesses are always more dangerous than Threats. Thus, it is with this understanding in mind that we will always struggle against are greatest danger: 'our own weaknesses.' This Communique is designed to give an analysis of both the threats to and weaknesses within the VAPOC with the fundamental goal of building a more effective instrument to combat all forces of oppression.
In 2016 The Virginia Prisoner of Conscience was born. Initially VAPOC was created as a consciousness movement with the mission of raising the sociopolitical consciousness of prisoners in Virginia prison system. We believed that once armed with knowledge & theory prisoners could become active participants in their own liberation. The idea was motivated by Amnesty International's definition of a 'Prisoner of Conscience' which is:"anyone imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views. It also refers to those who have been imprisoned and/or persecuted for the nonviolent expression of their conscientiously held beliefs"The VAPOC knows that race & class are inextricably linked to the gross over representation of poor and minority people in Virginia's prisons and that they both contribute to disparities in punishment. Therefore, we assert that every Virginia prisoner, because they're in a system that is essentially racist and beholden to values of classism is a Prisoner of Conscience. However, just "Being" isn't an empowering enough phenomenon to change this miserable condition that we're forced to endure daily. What's absolutely imperatives to our receiving justice is "action." Thus, we are trying to empower all VAPOC with the capacity to be impelled by their conscience, which we believe begins with a proper education of the conditions every prisoner currently finds themselves in. Therefore, our first step is to educate.Once properly educated we believe the natural human spirit to resist oppression will be activated.
Mission, Vision, Strategy
The VAPOC is a Prisoner led organization that's working to End Mass Incarceration in Virginia. Our number one goal is ending Truth in Sentencing in Virginia. This begins with repealing 53.1-195.1 of the Virginia code which prevents 95% from parole eligibility. We organize with other organizations, groups, and individuals outside of prison to achieve this mission. We educate and politicize loved ones of prisoners. We build relationships with statesman in "all"branches of government. We promote Unity and Solidarity with all other Criminal Justice Reformers because we understand that we share the same commitment and that injustices are interconnected. Thus, no mission in this struggle is insignificant.
II. Internal Realities of VADOC
There are many internal realities that we must consider when attempting to apply theory to action in the VADOC. Many of Virginia's prisoners and outside organizations who have worked to change the conditions of this system have consistently fallen short of the long term goal, leaving many with the belief that we are powerless to change our condition. The VAPOC knows that any instrument designed to resist oppression "must" have a proper analysis of the material conditions that the oppressed find themselves in along with that of the Oppressive force they are opposing.This Communique is an attempt to arm all of the resistance with a proper analysis of the Material conditions within the VADOC. Is is also necessary to let The People know about VAPOC's current direction.
A) Economic Reality
The VADOC is a Prison Industrial Complex. Multinational Companies are allowed to sell prisoners and their loved ones goods & services. Meanwhile the services that are being provided to prisoners at the expense of the state are in constant reduction. Food Service, State Property items, Health Care, etc suffer reductions in funding annually. Food portions continue to shrink. State issued clothing is being reduced continually. Medical services continue to cut corners. Consequently prisoners are left with the burden of purchasing those goods & services form the State commissary (Keefe co.) in order to experience the most basic level of comfort. However, Many of the prisoners in Virginia come from low income areas. Most are doing time with little to no support. Support often times depends in large part on how long you've been incarcerated. Thus, prison jobs become extremely valuable- especially to those who've been imprisoned the longest. The state knows this and often times exploits this. Prisoners have to be charge free for a period of time to get work. The more "privileged" the job is, the longer the period of being charge free. Approximately 60% of the prison population is unemployed. So, once a prisoners has gotten a job they are always looking to reduce the risk of losing it. The state knows that there's a large labor force in prison and that "EVERY" worker is replaceable.
B) Social Reality:
There are approx. 37,000 prisoners in the VADOC on any given day. 92% of the population is male and 8% is female. 62% of the population is Afrikan American, 37% is White, and 1% is other (VADOC classifies the Hispanic population as White). Of the population 1% is under the age 20, 9% is 20-24, 31% is 25-34, 27% is 35-44, 21% is 45-54, 6% is55-59, 6% is 60+. Of the population the offense category distribution for both male & female are: 58% violent crime,27% Property/Public Order crime, 15% Drug crime. There are 45 prisons in Virginia.
C) Cultural Reality:
I have obviously never been in any of Virginia's women's prisons and so I can't speak about their cultural reality. However, In the men's prisons there are two major institutions among the prisoners that they most identify with: Street Organizations (gangs) and Religious Organizations. There are four gangs of major significance in the VADOC: Bloods, Crips, Gangsta Disciples (*GD*), and White Supremacists (all of the white supremacist groups function as one group in the VADOC because they're so outnumbered). Of these the Bloods have the largest numbers at every prison with the Crips and GDs varying at second and third depending on the prison. The White Supremacists are almost always last with there being a couple of prisons that are the exception. Those are Augusta Correctional Center and Pocahontas Correctional Center. These are prisons that white prisoners request to be held. Black prisoners, being primarily form Urban areas, typically request to go to prisons in the central & eastern areas of the state. There are many religious groups in the VADOC. However, the three with the largest members are Christianity, Islam (Sunnis), and Nation of Gods & Earths. The, Catholics, Jews, NOI, Moor Science Temple, Rasta, etc. are also a force but nothing like the former. There's also a tendency for prisoners to identify with the city they come from. Guys from the surrounding rural areas often times identify with the city closest to their area. Since the introduction of the Jpay system and Global Tel, more and more prisoners are not connected to their loved ones of their communities.
D) Political Reality
Prisoners in the VADOC aren't able to vote. Prisoners aren't able to write petitions. Prisoners aren't able to start political/civic groups. Prisoners aren't allowed to organize our labor and Prisoners aren't allowed to engage in any form of protest. Prisoners are only allowed to seek redress for their grievances by using the inmate grievance procedure which is explained in Operating Procedure 866.1 "Offender Grievance Procedure," or by writing letters and filing complaints with other government agencies and civic groups tasked with regulating and resisting certain areas in the prison. Once prisoners exhaust the grievance process they can choose to take legal action if they have the material forces (resources) to produce a lawsuit. This is the extent to which Prisoners can engage politically in the VADOC.
E) Environmental Reality (internal & external)
Environment in prison describes both the physical and mental location of the prisoner. The Physical environment varies according to security level and age of the prison. Lower Security level prisons are much more open and place many more resources at the prisoners disposal. Higher Security Level prisons place more resources at the staff's disposal. Security Levels 1&2 prisons are made up of dormitories while Levels 3-6 are composed of cells. Older prisons have larger recreation yards but lack the modern features of the newer prisons like central air, computerized intercoms, and slots on doors to feed prisoners while locked down. Most of the newer prisons are being built in the western region of the state while many of the older prisons are in the central and eastern portion of the state. In the Western Region the prisons are run primarily by white staff while in the Central and Eastern region they're run by primarily black staff. However, there are several prisons in the Eastern and Central region that have a racial demography of staff that's evenly divided. Western Region prisons tend to have more malfeasance while Eastern & Central tend to have more nonfeasance & misfeasance. The impact this has on the psychological location varies with the environment. The Central and Eastern Region prisons tend to have a lot more criminality among the prisoners in the prison environment, while the west tends to have more criminality among the staff. This breeds a sense of contentment among more of the prisoners in the Eastern & Central regions with their conditions compared to a sense of discontent among prisoners housed in the Western region. Also, depression exists in epidemic proportions in Security Level three prisons and higher. It's at these prisons where prisoners are serving long term sentences. Add to this the fact that many prisoners are coming into the system with undiagnosed mental disorders like PTSD. These illnesses are exacerbated by the repressive conditions existing in the VADOC. Thus, many prisoners are not only self interested but also self defeated!III
A "S.W.O.T. Analysis" of the Virginia Prisoner's Internal Reality:
The greatest strength that we have in developing the ideology and organization of Virginia Prisoners is that many, because of their criminal lifestyle prior to coming into the prison, don't have an allegiance to the state. Many actually repudiate the state and the law it creates. Thus their criminal behaviors were acts of resistance against their oppression. However, we must change from a criminal "street" mentality to a Revolutionary Internationalist Mentality. Another strength is that many Virginians support ending Truth In Sentencing policies here in Virginia as indicated by VCU's poll conducted in 2015. 2 out of 3 Virginians support reinstating parole in Virginia and so we don't have to build popular support for our mission because it's already there. The Virginia Prison Justice Network, of which we are a part, is also a Strength. Prisoners have a place where they and their families can be made aware of all the activities involving the the Criminal Justice struggle here in Virginia, and how to get involved.
The greatest weakness is our lack of socio-political education. Our lack of education has produced a Culture among us that is highly apolitical and opportunistic. The Street Organizations thus aren't organizing political action but rather oppressing their fellow prisoners because of this apolitical "survival of the fittest" mentality. Religious leaders emphasize "other worldly" activism and alienation from those outside of their group. Religious chauvinism is a crippling component of the cultural reality in here. Prison leaders haven't raised their social and political consciousness to a level where they can truly lead a revolutionary struggle against their oppressor. Thus, many of the potential warriors are reduced to being soldiers in a war against other oppressed communities. This is self destructive and ends up with them waging a war that is dependent on their exploitation by the state. Prisoners in Virginia don't respect political prisoners in the same way that they respect drug dealers, religious leaders, and "Big Homies." Prisoners in Virginia don't trust one another, are afraid to confront the agency, and possess a nihilistic worldview.
There is an opportunity to exploit the media promotion of reformist organizing & activism. The more images and messages that appear in the mainstream media, the more prisoners are forced to at least begin thinking about them. It is our job to make the connection between the struggles being "advertised" and our struggle. Remember, many of Virginia's prisoners are opportunistic and can only see the value of their immediate struggle. So we have to become shrewd enough to convince them that these struggles impact them while also allowing them to raise their sociopolitical consciousness. This requires the VAPOC to develop their sociopolitical sophistication. Your understanding of theory, and the reality that it exists in, must constantly be improved. As the conditions change, our ability to adjust theory to these changes must be sound. The technologies introduced into the VADOC give us an opportunity to communicate with political organizations and activists in society. This allows us to join & develop organizations with the public. We can actually build coalitions with those in society and be heard in real time. This is an amazing opportunity to keep the public aware of the day to day conditions existing in the prisons across the state. Removing the veil of secrecy so often used by the agency to mislead, hide, and deny facts concerning us and our daily struggle in these prisons. There's a great opportunity to use social media to organize our families and supporters into one great unified mass. It also allows for us to be more efficient in communicating with large groups of people at once thereby, building the momentum of our movement.
The greatest threat to our success is the Oppressive Force itself, that is the Elites and the State apparatus that they own. The state is an instrument used by the elites to reconcile the conflict between them and us: The Working Class! In particular the poor, low-wage, menial wage worker -- an existence that describes many of the families of prisoners. Many of us, prior to our imprisonment, refused to live a life of alienation by selling our labor to an institution that takes the overwhelming amount of the value that we produce and then leaving us scraps or just enough to produce the labor power/energy for us to come back to work and continue to make you rich. Although we couldn't explain this phenomenon scientifically we, even in our opportunistic mind, instinctively knew that we didn't wanna "slave for Mr Charlie." Thus, we became a threat to the elites.
If we're not willing to give in to the system, we'll live like our ancestors in the past (especially the 60's & 70's) and then we might Rage Against it! Therefore, as we've become more of a threat to them, they've in turn become an even greater threat to us. This is the role of the Chemical war (Crack & Heroin) campaign and the modern prison system: "containing and neutralizing the most threatening populations." In Virginia it's young black men from low income communities who your society has absolutely nothing for- anything of meaning anyway! Only a subsistence menial wage position. We only want to have a living wage, access to quality healthcare, education, housing, equality before the law, and a government that doesn't poison us and then criminalize our addiction. If we truly had this, many of us would have never been criminalized. So the threat is the elites and their State Apparatus. Now we have to guard against our threats by getting educated and being organized.
IV Our Position
The VAPOC see ourselves as members of the global community who happen to be imprisoned in the State of Virginia in the United States. This means that we consider all peoples of the world as members of our community and we as members of theirs. We believe that there's one cause behind the suffering of the masses within our global community -- the global oligarchy through Corporations, protected by their network of Client States that have preyed on the resources of indigenous populations. As a result, our earth's air & waters are poisoned, lands are ravaged, the animal and plant populations that inhabit these biomes are poisoned and threatened. Human populations are victimized by social systems that emphasize competition over cooperation causing people to behave in the most primitive manner in order to survive. All of this while we're trained to masquerade behind the veneer of civilization. We believe that truly civilized societies recognize that human rights are those that protect the most basic right for human existence: The right to Live. Thus human rights are economic in nature. Men & women need food, shelter, healthcare and work before they can enjoy secondary nee