“Let’s just shut down” – An Interview with Spokesperson Ray of Free Alabama Movement

By Annabelle Parker, October 2014
Q: How did you come about starting the Free Alabama Movement, what was the thing or issue that triggered it? And were you all in general population? You are still in solitary (the hole) now, right? Please elaborate on how it works from there, and what is possible, from there.

F.A.M. came about in stages and events that were somewhat unrelated to F.A.M. at the time, but

which ultimately served as seeds for the future. Small steps like coming into prison and joining a law class that was being taught by a mentor. Then, latching onto the coattail of a revolutionary PP and Black Panther named Richard “Mafundi” Lake and hearing phrases like “organize” over and over again.


And growing from a student in the law classes to a teacher. Then, taking on individual cases that started to open my eyes to the systematic approach in which the judicial system was incarcerating black youth in droves. At this time, I had  not even heard the phrase “mass incarceration.”

The next step along the process was when I got transferred to St. Clair prison, where a whole new world was opened up to me because cell phones were prevalent and so abundant. I was introduced to technology . . .  and started to learn about social media and new ways to reach out and interact with society.

By this time, I had learned that the law was not practiced as it was written, and that the criminal justice system did not really care about Justice at all.

Nevertheless, just having access to technology, I began a campaign to bring awareness to my case, and started a website called Innocentmanmelvinray.com. Being still just a tad bit naive’, I thought that I could reach out more effectively with the technology that the phone provided and get the kind of help I needed. Needless to say, this notion, too, was soon disabused.

But the one thing that this failure did do to help bring F.A.M. into existence was that it allowed me to see that there were many other people out there doing what I was doing, dealing with the same issues, but who were, likewise, not having the success that we deserved. That insight ultimately lead me back to what Mr. Mafundi always stressed: “organize.”
Realizing that there were literally thousands of “Innocentmanmelvinray’s” out there (the most poignant one that I ran across that stays in my mind is Davontae Sandford’s case), I started asking myself how can I bring these collectives together? That question sprung the concept of “FREE ALABAMA” into my mind. At that time, I was in solitary confinement and it was during that time that I had learned about the December 9, 2010, shutdown by the men in Georgia.I told myself that I could take that concept and build around it.

From my early days at Holman prison, I used to talk with two of my Brothers about how we needed to get a small camcorder into the prison. They used to laugh at the thought, because technology hadn’t shrunk camcorders then but I knew that the day was coming when they would be small enough.
From that point on, I began laying the groundwork for how I would start “organizing” my prison, and then my State, and how I would use a cellphone to record, interview, and document everything.

From reading Stokely Carmichael’s book, Ready For Revolution, I also knew that when the time came, we would be bold with our Movement. I wouldn’t allow anyone who did an interview to use a street name or nickname, because I wanted to dispel any pretense of fear in our Movement, plus, I wanted people who watched the videos to be able to go to court records in order to authenticate what people were saying about their cases and the injustices they had received — whether wrongful convictions, excessive sentences, whatever.
So when I got out of segregation I went to work. I started talking to leaders, explaining the philosophy, taking pictures, filming living conditions, and interviewing. I also started writing a manifesto. But in the process of all of this, the final thing that happened was that I read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. She has a passage in there that said that it would take a “Movement” to take down mass incarceration. That was the first time I had saw anyone boldly make that statement, and it crystallized for me what I was doing, and so with that, we went from FREE ALABAMA, to FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT.     
Then, I contacted the one person who I knew would support me 100%, because over the years we had worked on so many other projects together and I knew that this would be the culmination of all of our previous work: Kinetik Justice (g.n. Robert Earl Council).  
After I ran down everything to him he said what he always says, “Sun, what you done came up with now?? . . . I can CEE it though. Let’s run it.” And off we went and FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT was officially founded. We haven’t looked back since.
Q: We remember that the FAM first came into view with the work-strike actions inside St Clair. Can you tell us a little more on that please, and how it worked; did you get people to start thinking for themselves and such?

Well, the work strikes, which we call “shutdowns” are the heart of our Movement to end mass incarceration and prison slavery, because the modern Prison Industrialized Complex is an estimated 500 billion dollar enterprise that is financed off of the backs of people who are incarcerated. As most people know, what is taking place within America’s prison system is modern slavery. It’s a hard reality to fathom, yet it is so true.


Starting out, what I did was to evaluate our options, which included litigation, hunger strikes, letter writing campaigns, etc., among others, while at the same time tried to get a better understanding of the system as a whole, and look at the option that gave us the most power to make a change. When I looked at what the men had done in GA, I realized that using labor strikes as a tool of Economic Empowerment gave us our best option and most leverage.

With Alabama’s economy being stagnant and down with the larger economy due to the Recession, I knew that we could have a real impact if we organize around our labor contribution. And with that, I started researching just how much of a contribution we were making to the system. I started with the kitchen here at St. Clair because I used to work for several years at Red Lobster. Using my knowledge from the industry, I realized that in just the kitchen alone, we filled over 60 jobs, with a total labor contribution of approximately 1 million dollars per year. We have people stealing sandwiches just to survive or get a shot of coffee in prison, who were giving the ADOC over 1 million in labor per year. 
All totaled, the ADOC is getting about 2 to 3 billion dollars from us in Alabama. Work release deductions, the value of everything we produce, filing fees, store, incentive packages, co-pays, fees.
When I started showing guys these numbers and putting them in terms and a format that they could understand, it made the organizing that much easier.

Once I started looking at the industries here, and started receiving more input and assistance, the numbers really started adding up. In the chemical plant alone, I was able to show the guys that they were producing 25 million dollars-worth of chemicals each year.

When I would show them invoices and then point at their shoes, or ask what they had in their box, it was an undeniable proposition to ask of them if they were being fairly compensated.

The kicker was the fact that most of us weren’t being released and had no opportunity for release, no matter the sentence. Then, the ADOC helped my cause even further when a popular old-timer, Eddie Neal, was denied parole again after already serving almost 40 years. Mr. Neal had two disciplinary tickets in 40 years, and the last one was in 1996. Guys started accepting what was going on with the parole board — they didn’t care about a clear record, good behavior, education, or anything. They were part of the exploitation-for-labor system. All I had to do was help explain to them what they were seeing. They did the rest.

We have to start being honest with ourselves about our conditions and the fact that we aren’t doing anything about it. Giving money to a lawyer is a pipe dream. Being a mental slave to ignorance, which causes one to be dependent upon a lawyer or a judge to administer justice for a constitutional violation is hype. We have to start looking for ways to create our own opportunities. Developing our own politics. That’s what FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT (and now FREE MISSISSIPPI MOVEMENT) are all about.
Q: On the website of the Free Alabama Movement [freealabamamovement.com], we can view films and photos you made and posted on YouTube about the things you were struggling to improve or get rid of, and this is a powerful means to make clear what you are grieving and what you are up against, right? Is it more effective than grievances (which you no doubt must file in order to be able to go to court, but that is a very difficult way, especially from prison with no income).
Really, as I said, the videos were something that I had envisioned long before I envisioned F.A.M. I

Picture of a sink inside St Clair CF, Alabama, picture: F.A.M.

knew that society had no real idea of what conditions were like in prison, because I see the commentary about us having “air conditioning and eating steaks.” So, initially, the videos were  designed to show people how inhumane conditions in prison were.


As I spent more time in prison, certain things started to stick out to me: mainly how the ADOC lies and controls the narrative about prisons through a media that is denied access to the prisons, and that the media is force-fed a narrative that they weren’t questioning.

When officers assault the men (and women), we were faulted. When conditions were complained about or lawsuits filed, the ADOC “lied or denied.” So, I was determined to change that narrative. But then, in 2012, I finally stumbled across the Dec  9, 2010, actions in GA, and the two things that stuck out the most to me were: (1) they were ostracized in the media, and (2), they were beaten after their peaceful shutdown. The GDOC accused them of all types of false motives, and then went in after the fact and brutalized them. I knew that I had to document all of our grievances and produce proof for the public of why we were protesting. I was not going to allow ADOC to control the narrative in the media about our legitimate complaints.

Website front of the Free Alabama Movement

After getting some guys to overcome their fears of repercussions for going on camera, something unexpected happened: the Men began to open up about our conditions in ways that they never had before. It sparked conversation, opened up debates, and it revealed to guys the fact that most of us had NEVER been heard before about our circumstances, our cases, or our desires to be free, to be fathers, to receive education, etc. No one, prior to F.A.M., had given us that chance to speak in our own words. So guys opened up and gave us something that can never be taken away. For the first time, WE TOLD OUR STORIES, IN OUR OWN WORDS,WITH OUR OWN DIALECTS AND PHRASES. And we posted it all over YouTube, Facebook, and anywhere else we could find a space.

Q: You made connections with people inside MS prisons and now they too are organizing peacefully in a similar way? Please elaborate.
Yes, it is correct that we made connections with people in Mississippi who are organizing FREE MISSISSIPPI MOVEMENT and Non-Violent and Peaceful Protests for Civil and Human Rights. But we have also made contact with people on the inside in Georgia, Virginia, and California, and we have also connected with families and organizations in Florida, Arizona, Texas, Washington, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

In fact, the people in Mississippi, and in particular, a woman named LaShonda Morris, found us because of our media. She was looking for someone to help who was about this work of confronting mass incarceration and prison slavery for real and not just talking. Thankfully, she found FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT, and we have ALL been blessed by her efforts, because she is serious about what she is doing, and she has connected us in ways and with people that we never would have been able to do on our own.

On November 22, 2014, FREE MISSISSIPPI MOVEMENT will host a Rally and Information Session in Jackson, MS, and we are confident that the future is bright for FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT & FREE MISSISSIPPI MOVEMENT UNITED/UMOJA.

Q: On the website for the F.A.M., freealabamamovement.com, you mention that you work in a nonviolent way. Can you tell us why you put emphasis on this, and what you mean with nonviolence?

Well, first and foremost, FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT, and now, FREE MISSISSIPPI MOVEMENT are about Freedom. We are about getting people out of prisons where we are being warehoused, exploited and abused, so that we can return home  to our communities.

But at the same time, we also acknowledge that some of us have made mistakes or have shortcomings that we needed to address, and we want opportunities to correct them so that when we are released, we can be better sons and daughters, better husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and be assets to our communities.

In addition to our mistakes, we have also been demonized by the media, by police, by prosecutors, and by prison officials, So, we have taken it upon ourselves to demonstrate who were and the changes that we have made.

No one wants violence brought into their communities. People want and need answers to violence, so it is important for us to demonstrate that we are Non-Violent, we are Peaceful. Some people have committed violent crimes, while others have committed crimes that are labeled as violent, but where no one was harmed, while other people have been wrongfully convicted of violent offense. But, whether you are innocent, guilty, mentally ill, or whatever, no one is getting out, and the prison system wants to justify our incarceration by telling society that we are “violent predators,” “killers,” “dangerous gang leaders and drugs dealers,” etc. These labels are applied 20, 25 years after the facts, after change, after maturity, after education, repentance, and after some children have grown from 18 to 43, yet no one can get out because the D.A.’s will still get on T.V. and revert back to a 40-year-old crime and argue that the person 40 years onwards still exists, even though this D.A. has no up-to-date knowledge of who this person is decades later.

So we are taking this platform and we are going to do our interviews to make our presentations to the public. We are going to make our complaints against this system to the public, and then we are going to back that up by demonstrating to the public that we can now address our issues Non-Violently and Peacefully.
Violence is nothing more than a thought process. It is part of a chain of options that human beings arrive at when confronted with a problem. What we have done is that we have educated guys about this chain, and provided them with alternative remedies to solving problems without resorting to violence.

Our Brother Earl “Tyrese” Taylor started a program at St. Clair called Convicts Against Violence, with an emphasis on Education and Mentoring. With this program, we were able to reduce the violence level down to what one might see at a work release, from right here at a maximum security prison.

But the ADOC didn’t want this, so they removed the warden who allowed us to implement this program, and replaced him with a Black warden,  Warden Davenport, and the first and only program he disbanded was C.A.V. Now, 4 1/2 years later, St. Clair has reverted back to one of the most violent prisons in the entire country. This is why F.A.M. stepped in, to again stop this State-engineered violence, and what happened?  Over 5000 Men across the State jumped immediately on board and supported it. The State responded by labelling myself, the co-founder, and F.A.M. as a security threat group. Lol. We have NEVER had a single incident of violence, yet we are a threat. Not to the security, but to the system of mass incarceration, prison slavery, and the exploitation of people.

Go figure, since they attacked F.A.M. and our Non-Violent and Peaceful Movement, 4 men have been murdered in 2014 alone, and the Equal Justice Initiative, led by Bryan Stephenson, has filed a class-action lawsuit and been calling for the removal of Davenport. This lawsuit was not filed against the entire ADOC as is usually the case, but exclusively against “Bloody St. Clair.” So that should tell you how bad things have gotten.

Stopping violence is easy, and we didn’t receive any funding from the ADOC to run our program. But violence pays. 80% of all people who enter ADOC are functionally illiterate. Education teaches better decision making. We can teach that if they didn’t obstruct our efforts. They will claim that they offer schools, but if what they were teaching was working, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

More and more prisons are removing educational programs and replacing them with factories. Some, like Bibb Co., don’t even offer GED classes. We have to organize against this profit motive, because no one is going home so long as we submit to being exploited for labor and living under inhumane conditions that we should be outraged about. We have to return the narrative to Education, Rehabilitation, and Re-Entry Preparedness, because the State narrative has caused too much pain, destroyed too many communities, destroyed too many families, and destroyed too many people who have something of value to offer society — even in the lessons learned from our mistakes.
Q: We also read that you have written a Bill titled ALABAMA’S EDUCATION, REHABILITATION, AND RE-ENTRY PREPAREDNESS BILL.
Can you tell us a little about the background and aims of this Bill? And can outside support help promote it?
Did any politician approach you yet and (how) would you want to work with someone from politics who takes your issues seriously?

Let me answer the second part of your question first. No, we have not approached any politicians, and we have no intentions or desire to. If what we are doing is going to work, we have to make it work ourselves. The men and women have to understand that the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) has created an economy that is bases on Free/Cheap Labor to compete in the global market against cheap manufacturers like China and Indonesia. The problem is that they have incarcerated over 2.5 million people and they have created a system that is TOTALLY dependent upon US. If we stopped working, then their current model of prisons, including private prisons stopped working.

They are now making over 500 Billion dollars off of our labor. They don’t have a way to replace that. People in society don’t work for free. This system was created by politicians, they are the ones getting the kickbacks, they approve the contracts, and they are the ones who invest their pensions into the stocks of these corporations. So, it makes no sense to solicit them. Would you give up a multi-billion dollar enterprise in exchange if you didn’t have to?

The money that they are making off of our labor is the money that they are using to fund their prison budgets. Nationwide, prison budgets total 86 billion dollars, so where is the remaining 414 billion dollars going? Ask the politicians??

If we take our labor off our the table, then the States are left with normal budget intakes to pay for prisons. Believe me, when we take our labor back, only then will prisons get back to Corrections and Rehabilitation. Every system in America will start back giving good-time, and even the Federal Prisons (who started the profit-based model with Unicor) will have to go back to granting parole.    Additionally, we will finally be able to bring political prisoners like Mumia, Iman El Amin, Larry Hoover, Mutulu, and so many more home.

Funny how we “CONTROL” a 1/2 trillion dollar market, but we go to bed hungry at night. Our bill, which we call the “FREEDOM BILL,” will be the model of what prison will look like after we take control of our situation. If they (the State) ever want to see their assembly lines roll again, then our Legislation will be the functional equivalent of a “labor contract.”
No freedom, no labor !!!
Our Bill, as it is titled, will place Education, Rehabilitation, and Re-Entry Preparedness at the forefront of our stay in prison – not free labor. Voting rights will be restored. LWOP and Death Sentences will be repealed, and conjugal visits will be a part of rehabilitation. Also, media will have unfettered access to prisons. With alternative media like VICE, TruthOut and others, everything will be out in the open.

But our Bill won’t just give out a free pass, people will have to “earn” their freedom through completion of a curriculum that will address the needs of the individual. No GED/Diploma: You have to get one. No skill or trade: Gotta get one. No life skills: Time to grow up and learn what it takes to be a man and provide for you family and community.

There will be exceptions, because there are exceptional cases. But the way things work right now, no one knows when they will be released, if they will make parole, or what they can do to guarantee that when they have served sufficient time, addressed their issues, that they will return home to their family. Our  Bill will provide that certainty for most, and it will give that comfort to spouses, children, etc., of when the loved one will return home. They will know, they will be a part of it, and they will be able to engage in activities like family visits, conjugal visits, parenting classes, etc., that will keep families together when a member of the family has made a mistake. If we are producing 500 billion dollars to live with rats, spiders, mold, abusive officers, and serve decades on end, with no end in sight, then surely we can unite and make a stand.

No doubt they can afford to pay us for any labor that we perform. Otherwise, something has to give. If we can clean them up, we can tear them down.
However, we come in Peace.
Q: Can you tell us a little on your support for the women incarcerated in one of the worst prisons in this country, Tutwiler Prison for Women?
Our hearts go out to the women at Tutwiler. I mean, you add all of the issues that go on in prisons that they suffer equal to men, then add on the fact that they are raped by men, assaulted by men, impregnated by men, and forced to have abortions, or forced to give birth. And after 20 years of abuse, only 6 officers prosecuted, with the most time being 6 months. One got 5 days.


F.A.M. organized a Protest Rally at Tutwiler. We created a Facebook-page to support them. I have personally interviewed approximately 25 women who have served time at Tutwiler either online or on my radio show.


Due to the DOJ being inside of Tutwiler, we have not been able to contact them directly. But we support them and they are a part of F.A.M. My plan was to draft a section on Women’s Rights for the FREEDOM BILL, but we never got cooperation from some of the women who had served time at Tutwiler who we connected with. They were too busy to help the women they left behind. I am bitter about that, and I let them know it.

Nevertheless, F.A.M. stands firm in our convictions. We aren’t going anywhere without our Women. If they can’t get speak right now, fine. We will reserve their places until they can.
Q: Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for those inside California’s (and other states’) prisons? Inside its Secure Housing Units (SHU’s)?
To our Brothers and Sisters in California, we say Stand with us and form FREE CALIFORNIA MOVEMENT. The economics of your system is the same as ours. We are all making the same license plates, cleaning the same feces off of the walls, cooking the same scrambled eggs, doing the same electrical work for free. The same people who are investing their pensions in private prisons and mutual funds in Alabama, are the same ones who are investing in California.

Serving 30 years in Alabama is the same 30 years in California. Your influence carries great weight here in the South, It’s time for us to unify across State boundaries because that’s what mass incarceration has done.

These systems can’t function without our labor. They used the drugs to fund the Iran/Contra war. They then used the “war on drugs” to justify mass-incarceration. Then, they turned the prison population into modern slaves. Now, it’s our turn to act. We have to leave the crops in the field. We have to make them turn their assembly lines off. Since they are the ones getting paid, it’s time for them to cook the food, clean the floors, take out the trash, do the maintenance and everything else.

If we are to do any more labor, then we have to state our terms and conditions, and foremost amongst them is that we must be afforded an opportunity to earn our freedom. If we must work, then we must get compensated for our labor. If we must remain here without tearing these walls down, then we must be treated humanely.

My message is not just to the men and women in these solitary holes. I, myself, am in one right now. My message is to the whole 2.5 million victims of mass incarceration and prison slavery. Everyone !!! All of us around the country, let’s just shut down. Wherever you are, just stop working. If you are in solitary confinement, spread the word to those rotating in and out. When they try to lock up those who organize and lead the shutdowns in population, don’t even give up.

Some men can’t survive solitary confinement, and the administration will threaten them if they participate in the shutdowns. So let’s just clog up the cells.

Let’s all just shut down and see how their 500 billion dollar system works without us, and then see if they change their tune about our FREEDOM. EVERYBODY !!! Just shut down.
Thank you Spokesperson Ray for your encouraging and strong, bold and outspoken activism and advocacy!

You can contact the Free Alabama Movement via:

www.Freealabamamovement.com,
Email:
freealabamamovement@gmail.com or freemississippimovement@gmail.com
Facebook group: FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT
Twitter @FREEALAMOVEMENT

FREE ALABAMA MOVEMENT, P.O. Box 186, New Market, AL 35761
On YouTube.

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A Christian Perspective on Prisons: An interview with Stan Moody

Very simply, as the nation with by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, neither the public nor the mainstream news media wants to know anything about prisons. Prisons are the depositories of our social programming and education failures. “Get them out of our sight.” The ultimate driver is cost. Only as the public becomes aware of the enormous cost of the revolving door of incarceration will they begin to pay attention to what is going on inside and how we might change the dynamic.

Thursday, May 13 2010

A Christian Perspective on Prisons

An interview with Stan Moody

Contributed by: angola3news

Stan Moody has served in the Maine State House of Representatives both as a Republican and a Democrat, pastors a small country church in Central Maine and served as a Chaplain at the maximum security Maine State Prison, where he ministered to inmates in the Supermax unit. He has authored several books on the state of the evangelical church in America, including No Turning Back: Journal of an All-American Sinner, Crisis in Evangelical Scholarship: A New Look at the Second Coming of Christ and McChurched: 300 Million Served and Still Hungry.

Moody has written several recent articles focusing on prison issues, including A Suspicious (and Lonely) Death in Maine State Prison’s Lockdown Unit, At Angola Prison, Does Jesus Christ Save?, and Maine’s New Capital Punishment Law: Solitary Confinement. For more, please visit www(dot)stanmoody(dot)com.

Angola 3 News: The Bible uses the word “prison” 116 times, and Psalm 69:33 reads, “. . . the LORD heareth the poor, and despiseth not his prisoners.” Throughout the Bible, prison and executions are identified as tools of oppression against the underclass and dissidents, including the early Apostles and Jesus himself. The Bible presents the liberation of prisoners as a social good, as illustrated by the following noteworthy passages:

* “Which executeth judgment for the oppressed: which giveth food to the hungry. The LORD looseth the prisoners.” (Psalm 146:7)
* “I the LORD have called thee in righteousness . . . to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” (Isaiah 42:6-7)
* “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me . . . to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” (Isaiah 61:1).

US popular culture often proudly makes reference to the Judeo-Christian traditions so prominent in US history, yet “Get tough on crime,” is still the winning political slogan of the day. How did society come to view incarceration as a social good, as something necessary to keep society safe?

Stan Moody: First, we have ghettoized ourselves into white, suburban group-think that builds on self-righteousness. We are probably the most self-righteous nation on earth, which precludes us from contemplating, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Tragically, the greatest social good in America has become the acquisition of wealth through “legitimate” means, such as self promotion and corporate empire building, where greed becomes an acceptable virtue. Those who take shortcuts to the American Dream are pariahs to be banished from the kingdom of us pedestrian wannabees who, in frustration, quietly cheat on our taxes and on our spouses.

Jesus makes it clear that His followers are to love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, leave vengeance and retribution up to God and visit Him in prison. “Inasmuch as you have or have not done it to the least of these my brothers, you have or have not done it to me.”

A cursory examination of our nation’s history will satisfy that the founders had no Christian theocracy in mind and, in fact, crafted a document that expressly ensured otherwise. Yet, people who advocate for the theocratic view are not listening. The best evidence that we are not a Christian nation is not in the actions of government but in the actions of our erstwhile evangelical state church that has embraced the Republican Party as God’s instrument for redemption. The vehicle for that redemption is a moral code rather than divine grace. Getting tough on crime is just another version of an anti-Christian moral code.

A3N: Why do you suppose prisons and prisoners’ living conditions are so far removed from the popular US consciousness today? How do US popular culture and the corporate media present the issue of human rights in prison?

SM: Very simply, as the nation with by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, neither the public nor the mainstream news media wants to know anything about prisons. Prisons are the depositories of our social programming and education failures. “Get them out of our sight.” The ultimate driver is cost. Only as the public becomes aware of the enormous cost of the revolving door of incarceration will they begin to pay attention to what is going on inside and how we might change the dynamic. Corrections has taken full advantage of this denial by essentially saying, “You cannot possibly understand what we are up against.” They have built incarceration into a growth industry that is sapping our national strength and shredding our decency.

There is a shroud of secrecy that envelops prisons. That shroud of secrecy is protected through a system of nepotism, patronage, and public ignorance and apathy. The public thinks of prisons as country clubs, while they are, in fact, crushingly boring places within high-tech boxes designed more for mass movement than rehabilitation. The human element has tragically been removed from most US prisons by a public frustrated in pursuit of its own dreams, thereby advocating for crushing the spirits of those getting what they enviously consider to be a “free ride.”

Both the mainstream press and the public it entertains are too pedestrian for relevancy in this volatile world in which we live.

A3N: How can people of faith shed light on human rights abuses in prisons?

SM: The best answer is to challenge the comfort zones of your denomination, the media, your friends and neighbors and your political leaders. Write, speak and live out your faith on the front lines of activism for human dignity, especially when it disturbs your comfort zone. Only through patient suffering can you convince others of the legitimacy of your beliefs.

Belief in the power of God to move mountains by touching one life will drive people of faith toward little victories, knowing they are cumulative. While Christian volunteers in prisons are legion, they scatter to the four winds when the subject of human rights is raised. As a Chaplain at Maine State Prison, I sometimes was criticized by management for not sticking to “Chaplain things,” meaning administrative and counseling duties. There was hardly a single volunteer who joined with me once I stood up for Sheldon Weinstein, who died of a ruptured spleen in segregation on April 24, 2009, a couple of hours after I requested a roll of toilet paper for him. He had been using his pillow case; he had no pillow anyway.

I speak as a Christian, believing that the willingness to sacrifice one’s own comforts in defense of the human rights of those in exile among us is the best barometer of the legitimacy of faith. “Touching a life” rarely brings press coverage, but it may well reap huge rewards in the grand scheme to which people of faith must demonstrate devotion.

We must take great care, however, not to be caught up in embellished stories. If we recognize our own need for redemption, we will see the whole person rather than his or her crime.

A3N: The Bible also makes several references to the persecution of the early Christians through physical torture and forced labor (II Corinthians 11:23), and solitary confinement (Acts 28:16). Quakers and other faith-based prison reformers developed Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary, self-avowedly “one of the most expensive and most copied buildings in the young United States . . . as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through ‘confinement in solitude with labor’.” This model was soon replicated nationwide.

Today, do you think that the practices of forced prison labor (recognized as legal slavery by the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution) and solitary confinement have any beneficial effects on the spiritual growth of people in prison? How has your outlook on this question been influenced by what you witnessed first-hand, working as a Chaplain at Maine’s maximum security state prison?

SM: Dehumanization is the most debilitating punishment that can be imposed on another human being. Prisoners are no exception. I can imagine a situation where prisoners are used for the crudest labor but are valued as human beings – treated fairly and consistently. On the other hand, I can imagine another situation where you have numbers of entrepreneurs in a prison who are making very good money but are working under conditions of arbitrary patronage and favoritism. Slavery does not always have to do with how much money you make. It may be possible to learn something of the value of human life even in the harshest of conditions.

I found at Maine State Prison that the biggest impediment to spiritual growth was idleness and lack of respect in work, in life and in interrelationships. Earn the right to clean the toilets, if you will, or to pick cotton, or to work in the kitchen, but know that you are respected for earning that right and will be respected for the kind of job you do and not because you are somebody’s “kid.” Know that you are valued as a human being and that the administration is always looking for a spark of hope to kindle.

I am reading In The Place of Justice by Wilbert Rideau. It is interesting that the cotton picking “slavery” at Angola seems to get far less space than the sexual slavery that stays beneath the radar of the administration and destroys human dignity.

A3N: The Maine State Legislature recently passed a bill that focused on the use of solitary confinement in Maine’s prisons. Initially, the bill sought to limit the use of solitary confinement, but The Free Press has reported that it was “seriously amended” to only call for more scrutiny of how solitary confinement is used. What do you think will be the impact of the bill?

SM: As a former Maine State Legislator, I was very involved with this bill and was the only former prison staff member to give testimony. The Committee ignored our plea for transparency and accountability and, instead, continued its blind, loyal support of the Department of Corrections, the very institution it has been entrusted to oversee.

It is incorrect to view this bill as having been “seriously amended.” The bill was killed with kindness by turning it into a resolve for the Department to study itself. A resolve is what a legislative committee does to kill a bill when it fears public uprising if it votes “ought not to pass.” Legislative resolves are akin to patents with claims so narrow that you would not infringe on them if you copied the design but changed the color. They are not worth the paper they are written on.

Sadly for this case, the resolve showed a failure of courage on the part of committee members on both sides of the aisle. The House and Senate chairs failed their constituents and the State of Maine.

The good news is that with the upcoming legislative session to begin in January, 2011, and with the election of a new Governor, there will be a bevy of new prison bills to debate. I have personally spoken to 6 gubernatorial candidates about the conditions at the Department of Corrections and the Maine prison system and expect that the next Governor will be far better informed than previously. Further good news is that the prison administration immediately began to implement some of the advances contained in the bill. This, after having expended their energies defending their previous policies, indicates that they are aware of the battle ahead.

Prisoners who “were not supposed to be there” were put back into population. Solitary confinement residents can now earn privileges such as up to 4 hours daily outside their cells, normal prison garb instead of orange jump suits, TV’s and radios, and contact visits. Sadly, there has not yet been a disposition with regard to those mentally ill prisoners held in solitary.

A3N: From the perspective of someone who has worked inside a prison as well as in the Maine State House of Representatives, why do you think that a stronger version of the bill was unable to be passed? Why did government officials and prison authorities oppose it?

SM: Corrections administrators in Maine have successfully sold the public on the falsehood that nobody understands what they are up against. From the Commissioner on down, with occasional exceptions, you have people who have come up through the guard system rather than professionals trained to be innovative in solving the larger problem of the waste of human life. The Governor and legislative committee members, convinced that they did not understand people convicted of crimes, consistently bowed to the wisdom of the “old boy network.”

I recently intervened in a law suit by a former guard against the State of Maine for the purpose of unsealing a deposition that offers a damning picture of the inside politics of Maine State Prison. I was successful in doing so and have studied it in its entirety. The closest I can come to describing it is that it ought to be subject to a RICO (federal racketeering) investigation. Over the next week or so, I expect to issue a public report. It is a fear-based culture that adheres to secrecy at the expense of both staff and prisoners. While there is very little skill in managing people, what distinguishes prison management the most and is most endearing to politicians is the ability to circle the wagons to put out fires.

The legislative committee of oversight has become an echo chamber for the Department of Corrections. It exhibits the height of denial and laziness to fail to listen to professionals who have put their personal reputations on the line in the pursuit of truth. Why would they listen to such people when it is their pattern of behavior to sacrifice their own integrity in the pursuit of political gain?

We are not done… This bill was the best thing to come along for prison reform in the history of the State for it showed the Department as the tired old system it is – a 19th Century culture housed in a 21st Century box… We will prevail, God willing, and we will see a day when our Corrections house is cleaned from top to bottom…

A3N: Any closing thoughts?

SM: The Eastern State Penitentiary was torn down, I believe, in 1973…Most of the prisons in the U.S. today, however, retain the Eastern State, 19th Century Quaker culture that punishment builds character. It has survived through a system of patronage and nepotism – getting rid of good staff people in favor of the corrupt. The high tech boxes that we today call prisons are designed to manage mass movement rather than to build community and self respect, with punishment being arbitrary, inconsistent and capricious in most cases, extended out of sheer boredom.

Prison staff believes and promotes the belief that they have dangerous jobs…I ran some statistics on jobs in the US…Prison guards hardly surface…At the top are commercial fishing and logging industries, both prominent in Maine but rarely heard to complain about danger…It might interest the readers to know that a prison guard has a lower death rate than do licensed drivers – lower than 21 per 100,000 population.

Studies prove that re-entry programs begun in the inside and carried over to the outside will cut recidivism rates by as much as 75%. Why, then, are we not implementing those programs? I believe it is because Corrections is protecting itself as a growth industry. It is only when the public begins to realize it is being fleeced, will it demand change. Meanwhile, we the people continue to elect arrogant obstructionists to public office in protection of the status quo.

Angola 3 News is a new project of the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3. Our website is www(dot)angola3news(dot)com, where we provide the latest news about the Angola 3. We are also creating our own media projects, which spotlight the issues central to the story of the Angola 3, like racism, repression, prisons, human rights, solitary confinement as torture, and more.