Dorsey Nunn on Hugo Pinell and the Agreement to End Hostilities: An old man’s opinion

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“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but because conscience tells one it is right.” – Martin Luther King

by Dorsey Nunn

Since my release in October 1981, my deepest commitment in life has been to fight for the full restoration of civil and human rights of formerly incarcerated people and for those who have the current misfortune of occupying cages. It is through this lens that I attempt to come to grips with the tragic murder of Hugo Pinell and its possible ramifications.

Dorsey Nunn speaks at the Aug. 23, 2011, rally prior to the historic Assembly hearing in Sacramento on solitary confinement following the first mass hunger strike. – Photo: Bill Hackwell
Dorsey Nunn speaks at the Aug. 23, 2011, rally prior to the historic Assembly hearing in Sacramento on solitary confinement following the first mass hunger strike. – Photo: Bill Hackwell

When I was a younger, more aggressive and fearful prisoner, I would have intellectually embraced all the arguments associated with the notion of self-defense and self-determination. It would have been a reach for me to find and embrace the lofty goals of common good and political movement.

As a prisoner, there were too many occasions when I would suffer in silence and never raise critical questions about violence. Who and what did it serve? After all, prison by design is the place that more often feeds pain, suffering and human differences than it does our compassion and commonality. What does this tragedy mean to our collective community and to our common good? What does it mean to our human rights movement?

When the Agreement to End Hostilities was produced, some of us immediately embraced it – both inside the prison as well as those who have already run the gauntlet. We knew it made it safer for people occupying cages, as well as giving organizers on both sides of the walls something tangible to hold up to younger people walking in the wrong shoes and in the wrong direction.

In addition, the Agreement has been a concrete support for our arguments in the arena of public discourse about the need to end long term solitary confinement and torture. We laid that inspirational document before the public as we spoke about the resilience of the human spirit to co-exist. It has been a powerful tool for broad-based organizing, enabling us to attract people to the cause across racial, geographical and economic lines.

When the Agreement to End Hostilities was produced, some of us immediately embraced it – both inside the prison as well as those who have already run the gauntlet.

As a prisoner, I could imagine things outside, but I could not accurately see beyond the fence and wall. Nor do I assume that now I can accurately assess the political landscape on the inside. However, I must offer an assessment that I would have felt absolutely uncomfortable with someone offering me as a prisoner.

I know this assessment does not offer much comfort to those of you who have had so many years taken away, who die a little every day in prison. Nor does it offer much relief from the confusion that prison madness generates.

But over the course of the last two weeks I have taken the opportunity to think about how far we have moved the dial over the last 34 years and how dramatically the political landscape has changed on the outside. When I walked out of prison, the prisoners’ rights movement had fundamentally imploded. In the absence of a vibrant movement, people were rounded up by the tens of thousands.

The Agreement has been a concrete support for our arguments in the arena of public discourse about the need to end long term solitary confinement and torture.

But in the last three decades I have witnessed a protracted struggle to change the criminal injustice system. We have developed potent arguments that resonate with the public, and introduced terms and frames to advance the cause of prison reduction. People have accepted, if not outright embraced, terms like “prison industrial complex,” “mass incarceration” and “school to prison pipeline.”

Due to this changed landscape overall and in particular to Prop 47, there will be people who will never see the inside of a prison for crimes many of us endured long sentences for. As a result of the Ferguson uprising, many people will never do a day in the county jail for arbitrarily and capriciously imposed fines.

Draconian policies that were implemented in the “tough on crime” era are slowly being rolled back. Everything from policing, court practices to imprisonment are being questioned, even by mainstream politicians on both the right and the left. Hell, recently I even heard President Obama speaking to the issue of long term solitary confinement.

If the commitment to common objectives as embodied in the Agreement holds, there is a real possibility that the end of long term solitary may be in reach for California, and possibly nationally. Much of this progress would have been difficult, if not impossible, if the daily news feed was about senseless acts of prison violence. Nor could it have been made without the wise leadership and council of people inside of cages.

Most great people suffer from not knowing they are great and powerful. I hope you see our common connection to power and know that we do have the momentum to slow the high rate of incarceration and misery for the next generation.

If the commitment to common objectives as embodied in the Agreement holds, there is a real possibility that the end of long term solitary may be in reach for California, and possibly nationally. Much of this progress would have been difficult, if not impossible, if the daily news feed was about senseless acts of prison violence.

Some of the more difficult problems in any community are the contradictions and conflicts that arise internally. The Agreement to End Hostilities is one thread in a fabric that could lend itself to shielding a community from the unjust practices of government.

Once a wise man told me we must love our people more than we hate our enemies and our detractors. I suddenly realize that the reason so many critical thinkers are silent is not because it is more comfortable, but because it is safer.

Dorsey Nunn, who was himself formerly incarcerated, is executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and a founder of All of Us or None, an activist organization for formerly incarcerated people. He can be reached at dorsey@prisonerswithchildren.org or at LSPC, 1540 Market St., Suite 490, San Francisco, CA 94102, 415-255-7036.

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