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Building prisoners’ political power

October 31, 2013

by Gabriel Huerta

On Aug. 23, 2013, 50 hunger strikers from the Ad Seg unit in PBSP were sent out on a special transport to a temporary Ad Seg unit in New Folsom. Many of us were already on our 47th day of fasting, not an ideal time for anyone to be traveling, let alone all wrapped up in chains.

But myself, personally, I’ve come to enjoy these moments where I can see the outside world, live in motion and feel a part of it. But there was something else going on here, something that had been growing steadily throughout this whole protest, and that’s the unity we’ve been having that really shines when the adversity is turned up.

Nobody who experienced this trip can deny the sincerity of that unity that goes beyond race and regional groups. We’re all here for one another, a prisoner class with one foe – and that’s the CDCR (California Department of Corrections), the CCPOA (California Correctional Peace Officers Association – prison guards) and related groups. If we can hold onto this spirit and let it spread to the lower level yards, then we can actually start changing things – and I’m not talking about just the SHU.

But there was something else going on here, something that had been growing steadily throughout this whole protest, and that’s the unity we’ve been having that really shines when the adversity is turned up.

One thing we’ve been talking about, besides what Ed Mead discusses in his editorial in the September 2013 issue of Rock newsletter – I completely agree with him that these prisons could not function if prisoners withheld their labor – is the formation of a prisoner PAC or PAC-like fund to give us some sort of political participation. I know we can get this off the ground with prisoners initially contributing $5 or so and then outside support to where businesses and even celebrities can contribute as well. See the letter (below) by Jesse Perez which articulates it all very clearly and which I fully endorse.

Rally at Ammiano hearing on hunger strike against SHU torture Sacramento 082311 by Revolution, web
Adding a prisoner PAC to the power of the people who support prisoners’ rights could turn the volume way up so prisoners can voice their political opinions loud and clear and counter the power of the CCPOA, the guards’ union. This is a rally on the Capitol steps in Sacramento prior to the first hearing, on Aug. 23, 2011, chaired by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano. – Photo: Revolution

 

We prisoners throw enough of our money at these worthless magazines which the COs (correctional officers) routinely just walk in and throw away as trash a few months after we get them. Surely we can sacrifice some of that or a few junk food canteen items to build this fund. We spend a fortune on a lot of things that don’t even benefit us. Let’s finally create something that will benefit us. We have the attention of the legislature now. Let’s start to push the things they can actually help to change, including the board reform (those blanket denials), family visiting, our weights, restitution and a lot more.

Let us not forget the previous Three Strikes proposition that we were actually winning until CCPOA launched a last minute media blitz that turned the tide against us and narrowly defeated the proposition. So that should tell us how powerful these media blitzes can actually be. CCPOA union dues are about $80 a month per member, so that’s a powerful war chest there, but it’s about time we get on the board here and put our numbers to work. There’s a whole lot of us!

We have the attention of the legislature now. Let’s start to push the things they can actually help to change, including the board reform (those blanket denials), family visiting, our weights, restitution and a lot more.

I also want to urge everyone to write to Assemblyperson Tom Ammiano (State Capitol, P.O. Box 942849, Sacramento, CA 94249-0017) and Sen. Loni Hancock (State Capitol, Room 2082, Sacramento, CA 95814) thanking them for their committed support and also giving them a story of how these years in SHU have affected you and your relationship with your loved ones.

Send our brother some love and light: Gabriel Huerta, E-80766, D3-222, P.O. Box 7500, Crescent City, CA 95532.

Prisoner Political Action Committee proposal

by Jesse Perez

Merely days after the suspension of the historic California Prisoner Hunger Strike of 2013, which lasted an unprecedented 60 days and saw record prisoner support across the state, the task of tactical and strategic re-assessment – imperative in any protracted struggle and at key junctures of the same – is well underway.

As our reps have publicly made known, we are gearing up for the upcoming battles in our overall struggle to abolish the state’s practice of long-term solitary confinement in both the political and legal arenas which, given the prisoncrats’ resistance to change, are very likely the forums where the matter will ultimately be decided, one way or another.

The task of tactical and strategic re-assessment – imperative in any protracted struggle and at key junctures of the same – is well underway.

With that in hand, the occasion recently arose to submit to some of our reps the idea of creating a prisoner Political Action Committee (PAC) aimed at, in the short term, bolstering the tactical momentum gained in the latest strike and, in the long term, competitively establishing our voice in the one area where it all goes down: the public policymaking process of the California Legislature.

The reps were receptive to this idea but had reservations: Chiefly, is the actual prisoner population support even there? An entirely legitimate question. To get a gauge on an answer, it was further suggested that an article outlining the idea and requesting feedback on it from the prisoner population could be disseminated. That being the precise intention here, the idea is as follows:

Recognizing the plain realities of the political process that underwrites this purported democratic society, two factors directly relevant to our struggle stand out: Namely 1) we cannot vote, and 2) economic investment is the lubricant that pumps out favorable – or unfavorable – laws from the legislative pipelines. Not much, at this point, can be done about the former, which is by no means saying anything one way or another about the merits of pursuing efforts to change that in the future; the latter, however, can be sought and attained now.

The occasion recently arose to submit to some of our reps the idea of creating a prisoner Political Action Committee (PAC) aimed at, in the short term, bolstering the tactical momentum gained in the latest strike and, in the long term, competitively establishing our voice in the one area where it all goes down: the public policymaking process of the California Legislature.

The idea would be to formally register a prisoner PAC, an act protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as intimated by the High Court in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, 93 S.Ct. 375 (2010), which would give us competitive access to the political arena by way of independent expenditures that would focus on promoting our political interests.

Such expenditures would have to be primarily funded at the onset, at least, by the prisoner population. Yes, we are not well off and some are barely scrapping by – if that. But prisoner contributions required to get this idea off the ground are reasonable and, more importantly, entirely do-able.

Consider this: The overall prison population is just above 100,000 and if that number of prisoners each contributed $5, surely this pales to the amount most spend in the canteen each month or to the sacrifice of starving yourself or blowing your release date for supporting a work stoppage. That would bring $500K to our political war chest.

Or, in a more conservative estimation, if the 33,000 who initially supported the latest strike contributed a similar amount, that would still place a notable sum, $65K, in our political war chest. Further, such estimates don’t even take into account likely contributions from non-prisoner sources, such as informed voters for whom the tough-on-crime rhetoric jig is up, natural allies such as small businesses that stand to gain from effectively opposing the prison industrial complex, and family and friends, so an actual final tally could top $1 million worth of independent expenditures.

Now, independent expenditure PACs are prohibited under federal regulations from making direct contributions to the official campaigns of candidates for office. So, dismiss any misplaced belief that your contribution would end up in the pocket of some politician. What the regulations do allow is PAC independent expenditures towards purchasing space in the media – TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, etc. – to run ads educating the voters in support of or in opposition to candidates for office.

For those who don’t follow politics, that is mostly how it works. Lawmakers, or politicians, are more responsive to the narrow interest of the few who support them by financially investing in their political career, directly or indirectly, than the broader interests of the many who support them with their vote. Why? Because the vote is influenced by the information – accurate or not – that voters are exposed to via political ads. Such expenditures can be, and should be, very strategic.

For example, say Tom Ammiano, chairperson of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee and a demonstrated supporter of our cause, decides to run for state Senate once his term is up and is constitutionally ineligible to seek another term in the Assembly. Our PAC can make expenditures to run ads opposing the candidacies of his political rivals because Ammiano has already shown he is responsive to our interests even, quite incredibly, without even the specter of receiving financial support for his political aspirations from us. The likely tactical edge gained by instituting a well-funded prisoner PAC in the run-up to the impending legislative hearings should be clear at this point.

Not only is an idea like this a natural progression of all our efforts so far, but to pull something like this off would send a strong message to the world of state politics. No longer can the interests of the working class poor – our families and us – be wholly ignored without political consequences.

Another of the concerns that came up with this idea was how do we know individual contributions are actually being put to work for them? The answer is simple enough: complete transparency. More specifically a website would be developed where the instant a contribution is received, the name and exact amount contributed by every person would be posted along with the overall sum total of all contributions as well as when, where, how and why any contributed penny is expended or used. In this way anyone and everyone could ask their people to simply go online to confirm whether their contribution was received and if it is being used to push the line for them in the political arena.

Furthermore, to completely eliminate the development of any degree of skepticism among any and all the sub-sectors that collectively make up the overall prison population regarding contributions made, we can opt to delegate their management to a neutral party, such as a willing political science professor and his/her students, while still basing such management on the consensus coming out of the decision-making process already in place within the infrastructure of our movement.

The above, then, is the prisoner PAC proposal as currently envisioned. Any feedback, critique, suggestion, commentary etc. in support or opposition would be welcomed and considered.

In conclusion, I submit this personal observation: Not only is an idea like this a natural progression of all our efforts so far, but to pull something like this off would send a strong message to the world of state politics. No longer can the interests of the working class poor – our families and us – be wholly ignored without political consequences.

Send our brother some love and light: Jesse Perez, K-42186, CSP-Sac. B8/119, P.O. Box 29002, Represa, CA 95671.

 

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