Speaking Truth to The People
Building a Mass Movement against the Prison Industrial Complex With Current and Former Political Prisoners
By Lawrence Jenkins & Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin with Garrett Felber
Garrett: How did you two get into contact?
Lorenzo: Lawrence and I met because I had been looking for years for a sincere revolutionary
prisoner who I could influence. I was really unsuccessful for years. I could tell that he didn’t
himself understand how he was railroaded into prison and how the system was doing to him what it was doing to a number of young Black people. I was trying to educate him with what I knew in terms of revolutionary politics, in terms of building a new kind of revolutionary prisoner movement that's based in the communities, instead of these allied separate organizations that claim to support prisoners, and also to give him whatever tools I had learned in terms of the steps to activism. I realize that things change and they always do, but so much of it is still the same except now we have mass imprisonment. When I went to prison in 1969, there were about three hundred thousand prisoners. Now we are talking about almost two and a half million prisoners.
Lawrence also is an introvert and is a bit afraid of that, but we need people who have
gathered political education and are willing to give it to others. It’s one thing to have [the
knowledge]— but to have someone you do political education with, me being an older
experienced activist having gone through this stuff, and being able to talk to him about things
one should avoid, things you should do and so forth—it can be a very necessary and valuable
thing. If you convince one person who is sincere, then you may be able to go ahead and build
around that person or have that person be a link to the streets and to the prisons and that can
fundamentally change a lot of things that need to be changed in this period.
Lawrence: Initially when Lorenzo first wrote and introduced himself to me and about who he
was and about his background and the organizations that helped him win his freedom, I think my initial thought was like: Damn, I am connecting with a movement elder that I can really learn
from and really get not just an understanding [of] my situation a bit better but really an
understanding of who I am as a revolutionary and why I feel so committed and indebted to the
movement. He listened, and he was patient and he was upfront about how I was thinking and
moving at that time.
I think one of the first things that really stuck out was his concern about me putting myself in danger. During this time, I was in solitary confinement for a situation where we had to stand up for a brother who was attacked by the guards, and we ended up taking the unit hostage for hours—it made national news and we were being tortured in the hole. In that moment, a lot of the tactics the state was using on us in the prison were things that I didn’t know how to defend myself against at all. I didn't understand prison litigation and grievances and I didn’t understand why the repression was so deliberate and intentional on me and the brothers that all went to the hole. Lorenzo really helped put all of the situations I was going through at the time into perspective.
I shared more about my case, being involved in an officer-involved shooting where I
defended myself after being targeted by racist police officers. He gave me confidence to really
understand the reality that I defended myself against state violence, and I was still fighting and
resisting against that. It really took away a lot of fear that I was having around concerns that I
made the situation worse for myself or those that I’m organizing with. By speaking about it and
by standing up, I was resisting what the prison and the state wants us to be—silent about
the injustices that are being perpetuated on us. Up until that point I was being silent, and I
really wasn’t resisting to the level that was needed for me to come out against the system
that threw me away for thirty years. The education around the history of political prisoners
like myself, learning about Martin Sostre and Lorenzo’s connection with him, and Garrett
sending me literature, really helped. Examples of how Lorenzo and Martin were organizing back
in the sixties and seventies helped me frame my situation a little better.
From there, we started taking political education seriously as soon as we started to see
how effective the tools were. Our allies and comrades in the community started taking us
and our situation more seriously, beyond just writing us letters or getting us to speak about
our stories or situations on panels here and there. They started seeing it for what we see it
is—it's a war. The more I was able to come to terms with that through conversations with
Lorenzo and study of political education and the history of how the state has designed the prison industrial complex to carry this thing out helped me to solidify my stance as a political activist inside and as a leader inside of prison with a lot of influence.
Garrett: You brought up Martin Sostre, who connects all three of us. Lorenzo, when you
talked about finding one person to impart this knowledge upon who can then form a link in
the chain, I was thinking about how Martin did that with you; at the time you met Martin
you were half his age. How do you see the connection between Martin’s relationship with
you during fall of 1969?
Lorenzo: First of all, Martin Sostre stands as a really important historical figure at that moment.
The prisoners were just building up in terms of population and they had no rights. They also
knew, having looked at the years of reporting on the civil rights movement and the Black power
movement, they knew that there was a movement in the streets that was representing a real threat to the way the system was being run back in the day. What he had been doing, trying to reach prisoners on the inside with political education and trying to stop the officials from doing these things from what they were doing, his ability to file writs of habeas corpus and other legal
actions against prison officials, as well as civil rights lawsuits against prison officials, forced
changes inside the New York state prison system. When I met him, he was telling me and young
people that he was winning the lawsuits to change the conditions for prisoners, and he wanted
other people to file similar cases all over the country in order to have a national application for
what he was doing legally.
Sostre wanted the prison movement to become as much of a central radical movement as
any of the other movements of the day. He succeeded at that—a living example of someone who
was challenging the system in that setting but not as some type of savior/hero, rather inviting
others to work with him in whatever capacity they could. It was really important to me and
changed my life, and it changed the lives of others.
Garrett: You mentioned earlier a lot of things have changed in the last 40, 50 years, but
some remained the same. Can you elaborate on some of the changes you’ve noticed while
talking to Lawrence?
Lorenzo: We are dealing with a different stage of history, and a different kind of social
organization of people who are in the system. We are talking about mass imprisonment now–the largest prison population in the world, the longest prison sentences in the world, and the account of fascist obedience from the population at large to accept the idea of imprisonment due to there supposedly being no alternative.
They are building a fascist police state, which has always been used against Black people.
When you look at history, and specifically at the creation of prisons in the country ever since the
destruction of chattel slavery, you are looking at a tool, a weapon, against Black and poor people
in the US particularly. They have already brainwashed people to accept the existence of prison.
We have to talk about the wholesale destruction of, and of course organize, a mass movement
against the prison, and all these abolitionists and so forth have to come together in some form of
radicalized street movement. For me, the most important change in prisons is the scale and scope of prisons in terms of the level of oppression, for instance the so-called “behavioral
modification” in prisons, where they are using psychotropic drugs, solitary confinement, and
long-term solitary confinement. There has not been a mass movement to fight this tooth and nail.
The state has also taken over the agenda and subverted the movement in this period;
everybody thinks it’s just got to be legal action and legal reaction, and the strategy done by
attorneys or politicians and some in the elitist forces. The strategy must be done by the
communities that the prisoners are from, and it's got to be done by the prisoners themselves and
their allies. That’s who it’s gotta be done by. It's the same thing I used to say when I was in
prison as an organizer and activist and when I was getting out of prison—if you are going to
have a prison movement, it has to be community-based. It has to deal with racism and it has to
deal with the material conditions that people are forced to live in that cause them to commit so-
called “crimes.” I think that until we wake up to that realization, this is where the movement
itself needs political education.
Lawrence: I like to think about abolition as an action. It clearly means to do away with
something, in this case to do away with the prison industrial complex (PIC). To me these are
things that call for action. In my experience with the PIC and state violence, I have no other
option than to see this for what it really: domestic warfare being carried out on me and my
community and those of us locked up inside. The reality is we have to treat this situation as
such, and not leave it to be something that we simply theorize around, or talk about, or imagine.
We got to really treat this situation as a real attack and to resist it as such. When we are doing
political education with the movement and the community, they need to understand with sincere commitment what a struggle like this entails and how serious it is when prisoners accept allies and comrades in struggle from the community to share this struggle with us. There is a lot of history to it and a lot of resources that the state has put into maintaining conditions that suppress resistance—to perpetrate genocide, to displace, and to dispose of Black and oppressed and poor communities. We can’t tiptoe or be passive about that. It does call for more radical organizing, more sacrifice, more sincere commitment, and more active solidarity. That's something that I hope we can be more successful with in our political education in building a mass movement along those lines.
Garrett: What message would you want to share with readers of The Abolitionist both
inside and out about what you both have learned through each other and this relationship?
Lorenzo: I think we need to understand one thing: we don’t need a hero. What we really need is
movement systematic movement in the streets, in the communities, and in the prisons as well.
We deal in the streets, deal among poor people themselves. We put poor people in control of the
movement. We have to unite prisoners, the families of prisoners, and their communities along
with abolitionist activists to build a mass movement on the outside while we build our prisoner
movements with political education and organization on the inside. That's what I tell Lawrence
when I talk to him, and anybody else for that matter, in terms of dealing with prisoners’ issues
and not to continue to allow people who have no concern with prisoners or our communities as a whole to take over the agenda—to hijack the agenda and collaborate with the state. We can't allow that.
Lawrence: With that, it's important for us to really leverage our collective power, our
knowledge, our abilities, our skills, and learn how to effectively use these tools to leverage
resources outside of government control. As an artist, I try to utilize art to raise awareness and
political consciousness and also to bring in more resources to help with mutual aid. Getting the
community to understand that we don’t need the state’s permission, nor will the state fund the
revolutionary activity that this action calls for. To end imprisonment and to get people out, we
can’t be afraid to collectively create new processes and new tactics. We are at that point where
we have to figure out alternative means to advance our struggle to abolish the PIC, to help us
survive genocide in cages, and not only to help us ultimately get free but to stay free.
When you're talking about the PIC, and all of its appendages and mechanisms of
oppression that are dependent on us to come crawling to it for some kind of relief, aid, or help,
the community has to provide alternatives for prisoners in particular not only for when we are
inside but for when we get out. That's why our work is developing political education
programs and organizing trainings and developing leaders for the struggle for liberation
and for the freedom movement: We can get out and easily transition not only to a secure
situation after imprisonment but also continue our work in the movement. It's a prolonged,
multi-generational struggle that’s going to have many stages of development. In turn, we are
going to have to have these conversations at multiple points and strategize and re-devise tactics
as the material conditions change and we’re changing around them. Our work will be met with
repression. They will try to suppress us, they will try to do things to counter what we are doing,
because that is what the PIC is designed to do. We got to be able to endure those attacks and
sustain our movement and our progress going forward.
Lorenzo: As we fight back and build a movement, we’ve got to have some practical demands
concerning defunding the prison system and using that money for the people. We have to have
some practical demands, and we have to think about it in terms of building a mass movement to
pressure the people in power right now, so that they are forced to take funds and see that those
funds go to poor communities instead of the prison system. Right now, they don’t have incentive
to do away with prisons. They don’t have any pressure on them to do away with them until we
build a movement strong enough to force them to do that. We need to win some demands, first of all, that educate the masses of people and also push those in power.
Lawrence: We also need to combat the contradictions that mass media put out about what the
PIC is designed for, by putting our political education and our narrative out there so the people
can align and put energy behind those demands. We need to expose how the PIC is torturing
people, through various different ways of doing that, putting that truth out and speaking that truth to the people. As Lorenzo always says, “not speaking truth to the power establishment, but
speaking truth to the people” about the reality in here, which will help them make more informed and conscious decisions about how they align themselves with the necessary actions that are needed right now.
Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin is a writer, activist, and Black anarchist. He is a former member of the
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party, and Concerned
Citizens for Justice. Following an attempt to frame him on weapons charges and for threatening
the life of a Ku Klux Klan leader, Ervin hijacked a plane to Cuba in February 1969. While in
Cuba, and later Czechoslovakia, Ervin grew disillusioned with the authoritarianism of state
socialism. Captured by the CIA in Eastern Europe, he was extradited to the US, put on trial, and
sentenced to life in prison in 1970. He was introduced to anarchism whilst in prison, inspiring
him to write Anarchism and the Black Revolution in 1979. Released after 15 years, Ervin
remains politically active.
Lawrence Jenkins is a political prisoner, agroecologist, educator, artist, organizer, and activist.
He co-directs Liberation Media Northwest, a prisoner-led online platform for incarcerated/non
incarcerated writers, artists, and organizers centering prison abolition. He also helps to organize
books to prisoners to facilitate political education in solidarity with Study and Struggle, Seattle
Mutual Aid Books, and Noname Book Club. Lawrence is currently planning and developing a
self-help legal defense program, prisoners’ lobby, and legal clinic for prisoners in Washington
This article was originally published in The Abolitionist Newspaper Issue 37 on Housing Justice and prison industrial complex Abolition as a part of the Fishing Line Column. The Abolitionist Newspaper is a bilingual (English/Spanish) publication dedicated to the strategy and struggle of prison industrial complex (PIC) abolition. Started in 2005, The Abolitionist is sent to thousands of people imprisoned in jails, prisons and detention centers in the US and in some countries internationally. It is free to prisoners and is supported by paid subscribers on the outside. Each paid subscription by a non-imprisoned person sponsors a free subscription for at least one prisoner. Subscribe today! https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/abolitionistnewspaper. You can also sign a loved one or a comrade up for a free subscription to the newspaper by using this link: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSfmTjPTWrqBphW2FKOupc2w5ycr0AlvRi_rmn3_K9frV0fK7w/viewform