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Historians note that prisoners have been treated inhumanely throughout American history

On the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison rebellion in 1971, Process speaks with seven scholars of the carceral state about prisoners’ organizing in the 1960s and 1970s and movements protesting mass incarceration today. This is the first of a three-part series, guest edited for Process by Jessie Kindig. Check out parts two and three.

Process: What kinds of demands and visions did activist-prisoners from the 1960s and 1970s propose? What was won, and what goals were not realized?

Heather Ann Thompson: Prisoners have been treated inhumanely throughout American history and in every region of the country and they have always resisted. With increasing determination after World War II, and in conjunction with the rise of the black freedom struggle nationally, prisoners became particularly active in the 1960s and 1970s. On the one hand their demands very much mirrored those of activists on city streets—they spoke out against racism, against the violence directed at them by officers of the state, for better living and working conditions, for greater access to education, and for better medical care. On the other hand, as people under the full control of the state, their demands often and most pointedly focused on fundamental human rights—they demanded time and again to be treated like people.

Garrett Felber: The Ruffin v. Commonwealth ruling of 1871 established that a prisoner, “as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being the slave of the State.” This meant that nearly a century later prisoners were still denied basic constitutional rights and had little access to the courts. But the demands to basic constitutional rights of the early 1960s expanded dramatically alongside broader transformations within the black freedom struggle by the latter part of the decade. This included anti-colonial critiques of the Vietnam War, labor demands such as unions, a minimum wage, and workmen’s compensation for prison labor, as well as intersectional analyses drawn from women of color feminists. Most importantly, the movement asserted prisoners’ humanity and demanded dignity. For example, the Attica Liberation Faction ended its manifesto in 1971: “We are firm in our resolve and we demand, as human beings, the dignity and justice that is due to us by our right of birth.”...

Read entire article at OAH Process blog