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Real Cost of Prisons Comix in the Prison Legal News

Real Cost of PrisonsBy Gary Hunter
Prison Legal News
April 2010


Three stories, 90 pages, and infinite information about how rampant prison construction is destroying America. That's what The Real Cost of Prisons Comix brings to the table.

The impact of unchecked prison construction has been a blight on American society for the past three decades. From 1975 to 2005, the number of citizens imprisoned in this country rose from under 300,000 to over 1.5 million. With 2.3 million men and women currently behind bars, "Šthe U.S. incarcerates residents at almost seven times the rate that Canada sends people to prison, 5.8 times the rate of Australia, 8.6 times the rate of France and 11.9 times the rate of Japan." These are just some of the staggering statistics that have the U.S. simmering at critical mass both socially and economically. All of this information is found on just the first page of the introduction to The Real Cost of Prisons Comix.

Before the 1980s, small towns mostly eschewed proposals to build prisons in their areas. Large-scale political and social mismanagement coupled with tough-on-crime policies now have small towns offering incentives to prison builders. These towns are led to believe that prisons are a good source of jobs and economic stability. In truth, "80% of new prison jobs go to folks who don't live, or pay taxes, in the prison town." Seldom do imported prison workers buy homes in the towns where they work. Divorce rates climb. Juvenile jails tend to grow, and local populations sometimes suffer shortages as prisons take priority in water and electrical consumption.

Large cities don't fare much better. Parts of Brooklyn, New York cost the government $1 million a year on law enforcement alone. Non-violent drug offenders account for 58% of all U.S. prisoners. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. prisoners are people of color. A picture-graphic pie chart unfolds the chilling reality of how blacks compose 13% of the U.S. population, account for 13% of all drug use, 35% of all drug arrests, 55% of all drug convictions and 74% of drug-related prison sentences.

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix reveals how nearly two-thirds of female prisoners have children. More than 50% have been physically or sexually abused or both. In the state of New York, 79% of the female prisoners are black or Hispanic and 93% of the women incarcerated for drugs are black or Hispanic. Yet blacks and Hispanics, male and female, make up only 33% of the state's population.

One in every 50 black women in the U.S. has permanently lost the right to vote due to a past criminal conviction. In some studies the mental illness rate for incarcerated women is as high as 25%.

From a political standpoint, no administration or political party is guiltless. From the Rockefeller laws in New York to former Governor Pete Wilson's 3-strikes law in California, politicians of every ilk have infected our society with a malignant lock-em-up mentality. From Reagan to Clinton, our highest elected leaders have marginalized minorities and eroded human and constitutional rights with the hue and cry of the "war on drugs" and the "war on crime."

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix also educates readers as to how sentencing alternatives have been effective at reversing the rampant deterioration inflicted by tough-on-crime politics.

Placing juveniles in community service and allowing communities to determine how funding is distributed in their neighborhoods has had a positive impact on what were previously high-crime areas.

Lois Ahrens had a vision. Use "comic books ... and plain language to explain complex ideas." Her concept ushers in a visionary view for impacting social dynamics. People scurrying day-to-day to earn a living have little time to invest in ongoing formal education. Leisure hours are spent relaxing, not trying to change the world. Few people spend free time reading sociology books, but a comic book can be read in minutes. Give that comic book some teeth and those minutes might translate into major social change. In short order, ordinarily disinterested people become armed with life-changing information.

In The Real Cost of Prisons Comix, writers Ruth and Craig Gilmore, Sabrina Jones, Ellen Miller-Mack, Susan Willmarth and author/artist Kevin Pyle help Ahrens bring elementary explanations of extremely complex social systems to ordinary people. This is because real-world solutions require intervention by real people, and such intervention can't be born from ignorance.

The Real Cost of Prisons Comix offers a substantive and sensible response to a troubling trend of incarceration and social injustice. Knowledge is power. Empower yourself.

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Source: www.realcostofprisons.org
 
Paul Wright, Editor
Prison Legal News
P.O. Box 2420
West Brattleboro, VT 05303
802 579-1309
pwright@prisonlegalnews.org
www.prisonlegalnews.org
 




Printmaking as Resistance?

By Eric Triantafillou
Brooklyn Rail
May 2010

Grace à Josh MacPhee. His latest book Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today (PM Press), is a treasure trove of prints expressing a wide range of social and political sentiments from do-it-yourself printmakers in the U.S. and abroad. It is also a window through which one can begin to see, from the standpoint of Left artists, some of the problems that arise when attempting to construct radical politics from everyday art practices.

(“Direct Action,” Molly J. Fair, , 2009, screenprint, 14.5×11.)

Two things set Paper Politics apart from other collections of political graphics. First, as MacPhee states in the introduction, “Every print in this book was printed by human hands.” Many were also disseminated in public spaces by these same hands. Why is this significant? “We rarely see any evidence of the human hand in our visual landscape, just digitally produced dot patterns and flickering electronic images,” says MacPhee, “handmade prints [have] affective power…they jump out at us because of their failure to seamlessly fall in line with the rest of the environment.”

Second, MacPhee has asked many of the artists in the book why they continue to print by hand and included their answers alongside reproductions of their work. These short texts are illuminating. They offer the reader a glimpse into the desires, motivations, intentions, joys, frustrations, and self-understandings of Left printmakers. But more importantly, perhaps, they outline a conception of oppositional politics from the standpoint of “engaged” cultural producers. Although these texts were written by individuals with differing levels of investment in, and views about, the relationship between art and politics, several express the belief that the process of printing and disseminating by hand constitutes an act of political resistance.

This resistance takes the form of embracing what MacPhee calls “anachronistic” printing methods: e.g., screen, relief, and block printing, lino and woodcut, monotype, intaglio, lithography, etching, engraving, stenciling, and letterpress—all printing technologies that were developed before the 19th century. As relics in the twilight of analog reproducibility, these older methods are seen as running counter to ubiquitous digital technologies and logics of mass communication—billboards, bus ads, television, the internet. While the conceptions of printmaking as resistance vary, they arrive at similar conclusions. For example, Matthew Curran writes, “When I’m cutting out stencils I’m resisting the machine.” Dylan Minor substantiates this claim: “In a world of late capitalist consumption, where mass-produced commodities and highly designed products are naturalized, the creation of hand-made objects becomes an overt act of resistance.” In these and similar statements in the book, resistance is rooted in the idea that the processes of producing and disseminating handmade prints, and the social relations these activities engender, are somehow at odds with capitalist social relations and modes of production.

(The cover for Paper and Politics.)

For many of the artists in Paper Politics, art is politics. “I see my art-making practice as the embodiment of my politics,” writes Dylan Minor. But there are clearly differing ideas about the relationship between art and politics and what constitutes resistance. Dan Wang hints at a conception of resistance that puts some distance between art-making and politics. “In a world in which capital dictates obsolescence,” he writes, “any practical grasp of that which has been shed by the industry of mass communication seems at least contrarian. And, depending on what one prints, of course, contrarianism can very quickly become resistance.” He seems to locate the resistant capacity of hand composition, printing, and dissemination, not in its aesthetic dimension (its form), or even in the different social relations these processes might engender, but in “what one prints” (its content). This suggests an art that is instrumentalized—propaganda—the means-ends dimension of art. This is a conception in which art-making is not the embodiment of politics, but rather, a means to an end, an instrument that is used to reach a particular goal or set of goals.

Whether it is in its form, content, or the tension between them that hand printing and dissemination are understood as resistant, for many of the artists in Paper Politics the horizon of this resistance begins in the field of cultural production. Referring to the money, greed, and materialism of the art world, Sam Sebren writes, “Artists themselves must take responsibility for breaking down this system.” And Dylan Minor refuses “to acquiesce to the dominant modes of contemporary art.” But resistance is not limited to the world of art. For example, Claude Moller says that his prints “act like guerilla PR generating publicity and power for low-income activist groups,” and “use readily available resources, audacity, and improvisation to flip the weight of the system against itself.” The intent here is clearly that the work can have broad implications across diverse social contexts.

In order to better understand some of the internal logics of printmaking as resistance, I think it would help to look at the ways hand printing and dissemination function in relation to three categories: quality, quantity, and accessibility. Think of these as conceptual tools. None of these categories function in isolation of one another—they are all interrelated.

Quality

Printmaking as resistance is understood as a qualitatively different activity that uses qualitatively different tools to intervene in the physical world. These activities and tools are used to create new objects and new meanings in order to establish new relationships that are qualitatively different than the relationships and products that result from working with digital processes. The physical qualities of hand composition are seen as being a more direct, less mediated, and thus more authentic expression of lived experience, particularly in their ability to express affective qualities. For example, Sam Kerson writes how the sensitivity of linoleum “takes an impression of our feelings, our emotional state, and our mood.” Elka Kazmierczak describes how the temporal dimension of hand processes can be therapeutic: “The time it takes to carve a meticulous design is my time for self-reflection, meditation, and healing. I enjoy thinking with my hands.” The tactile, visceral, and permanent qualities of hand printing, in which the medium is the message, are opposed to newer, mass-oriented, virtual forms of communication. “Why do I still etch when I could just use the Internet, Twitter, and YouTube?” asks Reynolds, “My rage is inscribed line by obsessive line in a matter that is as lasting as the history it depicts.” And Dylan Minor writes, “Unlike the ‘aura-less’ reproductions that Benjamin described…I turn to the hand-printed image to confront an ever-increasing digitized environment.” These last two statements suggest that the digital processes of mass-produced forms of communication efface the trace of the human touch. It is this trace—the ability of older, analog print media to register the artist’s temperament through direct handwork—that these printmakers inscribe with resistant qualities.

Quantity

The category of quantity in printmaking as resistance functions in two related ways. First, it is related to the number of prints that are produced, and second, to the work’s intended or potential audience—the number of people the work reaches. Jesse Goldstein explains that because we live in a culture that privileges the “one” (the artist-as-genius) and the “many” (the market), printmaking is the art form that is best suited to the “few” (one’s friends or community). He goes on to say, “Making 30 or 40 or even a hundred prints for an event is a nice way of being part of a shared space. This is production at a human scale.” Dylan Minor echoes this: “Although the print has the potential to be either a reified fine art object or a mass-produced commodity, my own work is printed in small (often unnumbered) runs, creating a body of accessible, yet non-elitist images.” And Brandon Bauer, working against the elitism of the single art piece, experiments with various print media to explore the idea that “the use of multiples in art making is an egalitarian or democratic practice.” Because they rely on hand processes, analog printing methods are limited in their capacity to produce large quantities. These built-in limitations are seen as antithetical to the hegemonic logics of mass state or corporate communication. An advertising agency whose goal is to reach as many people as possible is unlikely to print an etching 500,000 times by hand when they could scan the original and offset print it in less time for less money. Conversely, printing small quantities by hand is understood as resisting art as mass-produced commodity and its logics of mass communication. Printing small quantities by hand is also understood as countering the cult of the lone artist producing a single, unique piece.

Accessibility

Hand-printing processes, small print runs, and local distribution are ostensibly more democratic because they are accessible on multiple levels. As Sam Sebren writes, “It is hands-on, real work. It is affordable to make anywhere, anytime, with few materials. You don’t need an expensive computer, printers, and inks.” And Claude Moller says, “It is a cheap, accessible, and participatory way to compete with corporate and government propaganda.” Most hand printing methods are fairly easy to learn, can be self-taught, and use inexpensive materials that don’t require a lot of space or machinery. For example, you can rub cooking oil on a paper drawing to get it transparent, expose it on a screen using sunlight, wash out the screen in a sink, and print on the floor. Because handmade prints can be fairly cheap to produce, many artists either give them away or sell them for very little. Accessible also means who gets to see them. A lot of the images in Paper Politics are, as Nathan Meltz says, “handmade papers adhered to walls, stencils spray painted on concrete, and flyers stapled to telephone poles.” That is, they’re publicly accessible, both physically and at the level of comprehension, in a way that galleries and gallery art are not. Resistance as printmaking is an attempt to create new conditions under which others can access art. It is also about breaking down the dominant logic of exchange that dictates the division between the producers and consumers of art, while increasing possibilities for expression, communication, and participation.

Concrete Labor vs. Abstract Society

Several artists in Paper Politics express the idea that processes of hand printing and dissemination constitute a potentially liberating form of labor. It is as a qualitatively, quantitatively, and accessibly different form of labor that these processes are understood to be resisting capitalist society. For example, Dylan Minor writes, “Through the creation of the artisanal craft of the relief print, I begin to escape this colonizing space via an act of emancipation.” Jesse Goldstein says, “When you operate at the human scale, other non-commodity logics become possible…instead of speaking to a market, you might choose to speak with/in a community.” And Claude Moller claims that, “With control of production in the hands of creators, the [screen printing and dissemination] process is also very empowering, a good example of unalienated labor.”

Statements like these clearly express a desire to overcome the dominating character of a commodity-producing society. They locate this potential in a transformation of the way value in a capitalist society is socially produced and consumed, and aim to redirect their own labor toward more “human” ends. This is done by opposing the abstract character of capitalist society with concrete counter-principles. When Jesse Goldstein writes that printmaking functions on “the level of community…friends…people you share some parts of your real life with. Not an abstract whole, but a more modest some,” the idea seems to be that the “abstract whole” is being resisted from the standpoint of the concrete “some.” The abstract qualities of capitalist society (digital processes, mediated relations) are opposed by concrete qualities (analog processes, immediate relations), while abstract quantities (the masses, the market) are opposed by concrete quantities (friends, community). The abstract is understood as false, unreal life, whereas the concrete is authentic, “real life.”

One way of understanding this attack on the abstract from the standpoint of the concrete is through the concept of commodity fetishism. First developed by Marx, commodity fetishism refers to forms of thought that remain bound to the forms of appearance of capitalist social relations. [3] When Dylan Minor writes, “The tactility and expediency of the [handmade] print is paramount to its capacity to circulate within wide audiences, without being contained by capitalist social relations,” we can see how the immediate (unmediated) thingness of hand printing is seen as being that which renders it non-capitalist. Hand printing is seen as a natural, purely material, creative process that is not socially and historically mediated. Because of this, hand printing (concrete labor) is understood as being separate from or outside abstract, artificial capitalist social relations. However, Marx showed how the commodity contains an abstract dimension in the form of objectified social relations. The commodity is both a thing and a form of social mediation. It is the concrete and the abstract dimension, which, in a constant state of tension, constitute the social dynamic of capitalist society. This means that when the artists in Paper Politics champion the concrete and identify capitalist social relations with the abstract alone they are seeking to overcome the existing social order from a standpoint which actually remains intrinsic to that order.

(Chris Rubino, Old Ideas Happen in Old Buildings, 2004, screenprint, 18×24.)

Paper and Politics

We can see how the concrete is understood as a counter-principle to the abstract in the images in Paper Politics. For example, Chris Rubino’s print “Old Ideas Happen in Old Buildings” at first appears to be inverting the logics of printmaking as resistance by locating the source of the problem (“old ideas”) in old forms (the Capitol building). The idea that politics can come from sites and sources other than the federal government is conflated with the idea that thought can be liberated simply by a change in one’s settings—in this case literally one’s concrete settings. Another example is the print “Direct Action” by Molly J. Fair. In it two birds transport a wrench with a piece of string. The wrench is a tool associated with human hands and manual labor. It is a consummate symbol of the concrete. It is used to fix a problem—immediately, spontaneously—free of any mediation that would abstract its value or purpose. Direct Action uses an object of analog labor to symbolize an activity—a politics—that is meant to be qualitatively and quantitatively different than an activity that is mediated and indirect (e.g., electoral, representational politics). These two images also suggest a concretely accessible politics. Whereas the Capitol building might symbolize the abstract inaccessibility of representational politics to all but the anointed (e.g., politicians, corporate lobbyists, etc.), the wrench is an infinitely accessible tool that requires little foreknowledge and can be used by just about anyone. It symbolizes a do-it-yourself politics.

Looking at the art in Paper Politics, it is clear that analog printing techniques are exceptionally good at expressing affective qualities. Reading the artists’ statements, it is also clear that these printmaking techniques and the social relations they ostensibly engender are understood as forms of self-liberation. If an artist chooses to compose and print a small number of pieces by hand, and then give them to friends and neighbors, there is no question that s/he is engaging in relations that are qualitatively, quantitatively and accessibly different than those of the dominant art market and the larger society. There is also no doubt that these do-it-yourself activities allow one to preserve some semblance of immediacy and connectedness in a society that is increasingly mediated and alienating.

Embracing “anachronistic” print media and dissemination while disavowing digital processes and mass dissemination may be a way of saying NO! to market logics. But beyond this negation, it is not entirely clear what effect these acts of disavowal have on capitalist production and social relations. If the concrete dimension is the standpoint from which do-it-yourself printmakers claim to resist capitalist social relations, and, as I have briefly outlined above, that standpoint, contrary to being outside them, is actually an integral part of constituting those relations, then what exactly is being resisted?

While it is difficult to imagine what a political art practice that was able to escape the fetishization of the concrete would look like, or if this is even possible—and while this problem may only be resolvable in theory—at the very least, some attempt could be made to explain, as opposed to simply valorizing, hand composition, printing, and dissemination. If the claims of printmaking as resistance in Paper Politics are to gesture beyond an individual’s feelings—if prints on paper are to express a politics of social liberation—it would help to better understand the limits of these artists’ claims by explaining how do-it-yourself printmaking functions as a form of value-producing labor in capitalist society.

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For more from Summer Brenner:

 

Spoken Word

2004 Because the Spirit Moved.
A CD of poems, sitar, percussion, and guitar. In collaboration with Arundo Salon’s poet, GP Skratz and musician, Andy Dinsmore.


Forthcoming

Brenner, Summer. Nearly Nowhere, PM Press.

Brenner, Summer. My Life in Clothes, Red Hen Press.


Additional Articles, Essays, and Poems

Writings have appeared in numerous anthologies, including: Wreckage of Reason: Anthology of XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century; Petaluma Poetry Walk; American Poets Say Good-Bye to the 20th Century; The Unmade Bed; Cradle and All; The Stiffest of the Corpse; Deep Down: New Sensual Writing by Women; American Poetry Since 1970: Up Late; Rising Tides: 20th Century Women Poets, et al.

Essays, poems, and stories have appeared in journals, including: Beatitude, Big Sky, Carbuncle, Contact Quarterly, Dance Scope, Exquisite Corpse, Ginosko, Northern Lights (London), notus, Pangolin Papers, Poor Magazine, Processed World, Shuffle Boil, Stooge, Three Penny Review, WebDelSol, Woodstock Journal (October 2004 Surprise), Y.A.W.P., Yellow Silk, Zyzzyva, et al.


Theatre and Performance

Theatrical and performance work include three professional readings of The Missing Lover (directed by University of California-Berkeley professor, Peter Glazer) in association with Z Space and New College.

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Bolivarian blasts

By Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April 2010

Venezuela Speaks! attempts to counter the one-dimensional focus of the Western media on president Hugo Chavez by highlighting the central role that grassroots social movements have played in pushing the Bolivarian Revolution forward.

As one activist explains: “With Chavez or without Chavez, it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”

Edited by three Venezuela specialists, Venezuela Speaks! is made up of in-depth interviews with 29 radicals and activists – from women’s groups, the indigenous movement, student groups, community media and trade unions.

By working in communal councils and cooperatives, building education centres, taking over factories and conducting land occupations, these people have forced the profound changes that have occurred on Chavez’s watch.

Their impressive gains include cutting extreme poverty in half, reducing the infant mortality rate by 40%, recognising the economic value of housework, a literacy drive that taught 1.5m people to read and write and the introduction of free higher education.

The dominant thread running through all the testimonies is the critical relationship between grassroots movements and a sympathetic government.

Interviewees continuously refer to the problem of what they call “the bureaucracy”, that is, conservative forces still in the government who are either deliberately or inadvertently slowing down the country’s transformation from a representative democracy to something approaching a participatory democracy.

Encyclopaedic in scope, with a superb introductory history, extensive footnotes, a helpful list of abbreviations, explanatory maps and photos, Venezuela Speaks! caters equally to newcomers and those with a pre-existing knowledge of the subject.

Activists working for change in the developed world will no doubt be inspired by the personal accounts of struggle. There is certainly much to learn, especially the realisation that the social movements that propelled Chavez into power were decades in the making.

However, the book also raises an uncomfortable question: if often poor and uneducated activists in Venezuela can make such radical changes in the face of such powerful and repressive forces, why can’t we do the same in the relative freedom of Britain?

An astonishing achievement, Venezuela Speaks! deserves to become a landmark study of contemporary Venezuela.

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Sober Living in Beats, Breaks and Big Smiles

Beats, Breaks and Big Smiles
April 09, 2010 

Even if hardcore punk nor straight edge is your cup of tea, I totally recommend you to read Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge, and Radical Politics by Gabriel Kuhn. It's a surprisingly critical and interesting read about sobriety, straight edge and politics. Here you get to hear both positive reports as well as quite negative tales about straight edge and about sober living in radical groups.

And if you live in the Gotenburg area I think you should come to Nordengården on April 28th, when Gabriel Kuhn will come and talk about the book. More about that event here.

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Author of new straight edge book talks about Reno's role in its international history

Reno was one of the influential cities behind the rise of the worldwide philosophy called "straight edge" that arose out of the punk rock music scene. I had an email conversation about this and more with Gabriel Kuhn, currently based in Sweden, about his new book, "Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge and Radical Politics."

Mark Robison: For a readership that likely has never heard of straight edge or has heard of it only in relation to gang activity in Reno, what is the philosophy of straight edge?

Gabriel Kuhn: The history of straight edge spans 30 years by now, and a number of interpretations have developed. On its most basic level, straight edge means to abstain from alcohol, nicotine, and illegal drugs. However, there is a variety of "stricter" definitions. To some, it means to abstain from all intoxicants, so – depending on your understanding of "intoxicants" – this would include abstinence from caffeine, certain prescription drugs, possibly refined sugar, and so forth. Some straight edgers also see non-promiscuous sex as a part of their straight edge identity, while others simply call for "responsible" sexual conduct or don't consider sexual conduct a central aspect at all. Especially since the 1990s, straight edge has also been inextricably linked to veganism by a number of people.

I would also make a distinction in terms of motivation. For some people, straight edge has always been a very personal choice: it helps them to lead a healthier and more independent life. We might call this a more "individualistic" approach. For others, straight edge has always been linked to the way they interact with the world: it helps them to avoid exploiting other creatures and ecosystems and to remain accountable for the consequences of their actions. We might call this a more "political" approach.

To make one final distinction, within the "political" approach, there is a fairly wide range of stances reaching from modest attempts to set an example to rather aggressive and self-righteous bullying.

Mark Robison: In the timeline of straight edge history at the start of your book, Reno gets three mentions, one of the most of any city in the world. But it's not discussed in the heart of the book. Do you have any thoughts on Reno's straight edge scene now or historically?

Gabriel Kuhn: Writing from an international perspective, I think that people have two main associations when it comes to Reno and straight edge: they know 7 Seconds as one of the most important and influential straight edge bands of all time; and, in recent years, they have heard about the accusations of straight edge crews acting as "gangs." Both aspects seemed noteworthy in the introduction, but since the book neither focuses on the Youth Crew era that 7 Seconds pioneered (roughly, the first big wave of straight edge in the U.S. in the 1980s) nor on the sensationalist gang issues, neither was explored in more depth. However, this has little to do with Reno. The book has a decidedly internationalist outlook, and no single U.S. city receives particular attention.

I have to be very careful when commenting on the Reno straight edge scene because I'm not very familiar with it. I've visited Reno a couple of times, but it was always very brief, and I do not have well-established connections there. I would say that the scene that developed around 7 Seconds has left a very positive impression on many people, including me. Today, it is sometimes forgotten that Positive Force DC, the long-running and much respected activist community, was inspired by a Positive Force group founded in Reno in 1984 – the first one ever.

As far as the contemporary scene goes, as I suggested, I know very little about its development. However, since I know a fair amount about the workings of corporate media, I'm not letting some dramatic reports on violence-prone straight edge "gangs" cloud my perception. From all I do know, Reno has a straight edge scene that covers the whole range of straight edge identities described above. It is not surprising if media outlets focus on confrontational individuals, but how representative they are for the wider straight edge community is a whole other question. You always find belligerent straight edge kids next to mellow ones, I assume that's no different in Reno than anywhere else.
 
Mark Robison: In the National Geographic Channel special from 2008 that highlighted Reno's straight edge scene, some parents were worried when learning their kids had gotten into straight edge while others were very supportive because of the anti-drug, anti-alcohol and anti-casual, conquest-oriented sex philosophy. If a parent came to you saying their child was getting into straight edge, what advice would you have for them?

blog post photoGabriel Kuhn: Very interesting question, since I have never really thought of myself as a parents' counselor, but here we go: first of all, I would assure them that such a choice is generally comforting and not alarming. Whatever the exact definition, straight edge can keep kids from some of the most self-destructive paths they can embark on, and I assume this is something that any parent feels happy about. If people are really concerned about violent behavior or "gang" associations, I guess they could always talk to their kids about what straight edge means to them and about how compassion should guide their actions and not arrogance.

In any case, it is not straight edge that will get kids into trouble. A certain straight edge scene or crew might serve as a vehicle for kids to get into trouble, but my guess is that they'd get into trouble anyway. People who beat up on others in the name of straight edge would beat up on others in the name of whatever. Venting frustration or living up to patriarchal values is obviously more important to them than straight edge. In other words, straight edge might be used as an excuse for violence, but it will never be the cause of violence. To the contrary, I am convinced that a compassionate understanding of straight edge can be one of the most effective means to prevent such behavior.

Mark Robison: A relatively new Reno band named Contend is reportedly working on an EP for Catalyst Records. Where does Catalyst fit in with straight edge's history?

Gabriel Kuhn: Especially if one is interested in the political dimensions of straight edge, Catalyst has had an enormous significance for straight edge history – particularly in the U.S., but also internationally.

As I briefly outlined above, the 1990s saw a strong politicization of straight edge, with animal rights and environmental concerns becoming ever more prominent. Roughly speaking, this went two ways: some people developed a strict moral code around these beliefs, sometimes tying them to ideas of "naturalness" and "innocence" that fed into very conservative politics, including homophobia and attacks on abortion rights; others focused on expanding the relationships between straight edge and political activism in more complex ways, spawning many encouraging and inspiring projects and initiatives.

Catalyst Records played a crucial role for the latter tendency, managed to build international connections and continues to provide an important platform for political straight edge. The label's website offers one of the most insightful discussion forums for politically oriented straight edge to this day.

Mark Robison: How would you describe the sound of straight edge music to someone unfamiliar with it?

Gabriel Kuhn: Given the long history that straight edge has already gone through, it has also developed into various musical directions. I do not want to bore readers with all the different subgenres that have emerged, but today, the musical range of straight edge reaches from grindcore to acoustic acts.

Traditionally, though, we are talking about fast, forceful, short and rather simple songs. A friend always tried to get me play the guitar by promising that he could teach me all my favorite straight edge songs in a couple of hours. I'm sure he was exaggerating – especially considering my lack of talent – but this might still give you an impression.

Things really changed in the 1990s, though, and a broad variety of straight edge music got established, sometimes with very complex and intricate song structures. However, most of it still relates in some way to the legacy of punk and hardcore, despite all other influences.

Mark Robison: The aggressive sound seems to conflict with the thoughtful, kind voices captured in your book. How do you explain that?

Gabriel Kuhn: Maybe "seems" is the key word here. I don't think there really is a conflict. The question relates to the history and meaning of punk and hardcore in general, and also to other "aggressive" music or art forms, in which you've always encountered kind people.

Aggressive music helps to vent anger. Being angry and being kind are no contradictions. They can be two sides of the same coin, the anger stemming from kindness being constantly upset and challenged in a world ruled by greed, competition, and a general disregard for the needs of others. Anger can of course trigger destructive behavior – both for yourself and others – but not if it is channeled in the right way. I believe that punk and hardcore, and hence straight edge, can help to turn anger into something positive: the music allows you to release a lot of negative feelings in socially acceptable, non-harmful ways, and you come out as a more composed, balanced and kinder person. In that sense, the meeting of aggressive sound and thoughtful, kind voices is no contradiction, but rather a very natural union.

Mark Robison: For me, the book was especially valuable for two things that could apply to any politically or morally motivated movement. It shows how easily a moral message can turn to aggressive bullying, and it shows how people can avoid the pitfalls of judging others and how they incorporate moral beliefs into a healthy, lifelong philosophy. What common denominators would you say helped those people who avoided having straight edge turn into a simple fad or even something negative and instead kept it a positive in their lives?

Gabriel Kuhn: One aspect I consider important might seem rather trivial, as it doesn't have much to do with convictions or principles. In my experience, people who are straight edge for a long time, and who are hardly impacted by the fads, are people who never enjoyed doing drugs and never gave in to peer pressure either. In other words, they never developed the habit of consuming drugs of any kind, which makes these substances just naturally absent from their lives. There are, of course, also those who've had really bad experiences with drugs and managed to turn their lives around with the help of straight edge. In this case, too, I think it's a deeply-rooted personal element that causes a strong and lasting commitment.

Most people who get into straight edge for a short time don't necessarily feel all that close to the straight edge life itself, they might rather be looking for an identity, a "brotherhood," something to derive individual worth and confidence from. Unsurprisingly, it is often these kids who become the loudest, the most obnoxious and the most judgmental. This is a common phenomenon when embracing something not because it corresponds with your inner needs, but because you are looking for an external label to affirm your supposed superiority over others. Of course there are also people who believe that their inner needs are categorically more important than those of others. I guess these are the ones who make lifelong straight edge ideologues. But I think they are few.

Anyway, to sum this up and to answer your question: I think people who keep straight edge something positive in their lives have a strong personal inclination to be straight edge, and are wise enough to see the difference between living a conscious life according to personal inclinations on the one hand, and elevating these inclinations to a moral high ground on the other. I strongly believe that straight edge can contribute to more justice and happiness in this world. Yet, to believe that it is the only or the most important way to make such a contribution seems absurd.

Mark Robison: Lots of bands from around the world are focused on or mentioned in passing throughout the book. What albums do you think people need to know if they are to be literate in straight edge music? And who's putting out straight edge music today that you're excited about?

Gabriel Kuhn: The first question is a big one. It kept me from adding a discography to the book, as the selection is inevitably so subjective. But alright, here are a few records I'd recommend: Minor Threat's self-titled EP and the album "Out of Step" for the beginning of it all; records like 7 Second's "The Crew," Youth of Today's "We're Not in This Alone" and Bold's "Speak Out" for straight edge in the 1980s; ManLiftingBanner's "Ten Inches That Shook the World" for early European straight edge; Earth Crisis' "Firestorm" EP, the Swedish "Straight Edge as F---" compilations, and "Imposed Freedom, Conquered Freedom" by Brazil's Point of No Return for developments in the 1990s and early 2000s. I'd also really recommend compilations like Commitment Records' "More Than the X on Our Hands – A Worldwide Straight Edge Compilation," and Emancypunx' "X The Sisterhood X"; these albums really provide an overview of the diversity and global spread of straight edge music.

As far as bands go that are playing and recording today, I'm really mainly worried about not mentioning all the ones that deserved to be mentioned, many of which I'm sure I'm not even aware of. I guess that I've personally become most curious about bands that break with straight edge stereotypes in whatever way, like Limp Wrist, Germany's The Tangled Lines or Portugal's Arm the Spirit. In the U.S., I thought 7 Generations and Gather were really interesting bands, but both of them broke up recently. Exciting new bands appear all the time, though. I'm also a big believer in supporting your local scene, so this is where I'd encourage everyone to start looking!

More about the book: "Sober Living for the Revolution" was published by PM Press in Northern California. You can learn more about PM Press here and you can read my review of the book here.

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'Sober Living for the Revolution' gives smart look at straight edge philosophy

By Mark Robison
Reno Gazette-Journal
April 9, 2010

“Sober Living for the Revolution: Hardcore Punk, Straight Edge and Radical Politics” was edited by Gabriel Kuhn, and despite the narrow subject of its title, it’s expansive in its discussions and will be valuable to anyone who thinks there’s got to be a better way for the world to be.

Straight edge is a philosophy of abstaining from drugs, alcohol, smoking, casual conquest-oriented sex and often meat.

Some straight edge scenes became “hardline,” turning macho-oriented and judgmental, even beating up kids who drink.

As London-based writer Laura Synthesis says in the book, “Some, like me, long ago stopped going to typical straight edge gigs since they had nothing to offer that one couldn’t get from a violent mugging by an anti-abortionist.”

Reno is mentioned in the book a few times as a straight edge hot bed.

It features essays and interviews from musicians and organizers, from Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Andy Hurley of Fall Out Boy to lesser known feminist, queer and anarchist straight edgers. Scenes are covered in Israel, Poland, Sweden, South America, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Any politically minded person could benefit from the lessons won and lost that are discussed in “Sober Living.” Here’s a tidbit from the book’s final essay, written by Mark Anderson of Positive Force DC:

“As always, we need to be careful lest we listen to a far too narrow set of voices and find ourselves caught in an echo chamber that communicates little more than our own self-satisfaction.”

Visit http://www.RGJ.com/blogs/data for an interview with Kuhn.

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A wrong that must be righted: behind the bars of Angola

The London Evening Standard
March 10, 2010

Bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River, the Louisiana State Penitentiary is the biggest prison in the United States. They call it The Farm. It was built on the site of a former slave plantation, many of the enslaved coming from the part of Africa that gives another name to the prison: Angola, an institution now famed in legend and song, where certain prisoners are known to have spent their whole lives.

Robert King
Lone ordeal: Robert King, a former Black Panther member, served 29 years in solitary confinement before becoming the only one of the Angola 3 to be released so far
 

Huckleberry Finn once floated his raft downstream under a full moon, and some of the most punished inmates often think of that. Two such men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, have been thinking about it during periods of solitary confinement that have lasted for almost 40 years.

Is solitary confinement a form of state-sponsored torture? Recent Presidential candidate John McCain certainly thought so, in relation to his own two-year incarceration in Vietnam. “It's an awful thing, solitary,” he says. Yet during all the years of McCain's freedom, the years of family, politics and Republican glory, Wallace and Woodfox have been penned in cells nine feet long.

There are two and a half million people in American prisons, 25,000 of them held in solitary confinement. The plight of Wallace and Woodfox — and of Robert King, in solitary at Angola for 29 years and now released — is the subject of this year's best documentary film, In the Land of the Free, which shows the cases of the Angola 3 to have been a horrible series of miscarriages.

Angola
Trapped: Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, right, remain in solitary confinement in Angola

The film is dedicated to the late Anita Roddick, who made Angola her last great campaigning cause, and it proves not only the likely innocence of these men but raises profound questions about the use of solitary confinement.

The power of this magical film is to lend an ear to injustice, in the tradition of the great campaigning films of the past. And it leaves you feeling that “solitary” — a system loved by patriots and Republicans everywhere, most recently at Guantánamo — is actually an offence against the US Constitution and a blatant example of that “cruel and unusual punishment” outlawed in the Bill of Rights.

The story is astonishing. Woodfox was a petty criminal who lived in New Orleans. Wallace was much the same, only harder-core, eventually being convicted of armed robbery. By the end of the Sixties, each man was a long-term prisoner in the New Orleans Parish Prison. At the time of his conviction, Woodfox escaped, making his way to Harlem, where he got involved in the Black Panther movement. When caught, he was placed in the Tombs Penitentiary in New York, a hotbed of Panther insurrection. Then, one day, he was taken to Angola, where he was kept on the same landing as Wallace.

Angola
Behind bars: Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola

King, another burglar in the New Orleans prison system, became a Panther after witnessing on TV a shootout involving the police and black revolutionaries. But it would be some years before he found himself incarcerated at Angola with Woodfox and Wallace, who in the meantime were framed for the killing of a prison officer on 17 April 1972. It was the first killing of an employee at Angola for nearly 40 years.

The prison officer's name was Brent Miller. Angola was a cauldron of hatred at the time: new young prisoners were routinely raped and brutalised, and Angola was said to be the bloodiest prison in the whole of the United States.

Newly politicised, Wallace and Woodfox tried to create a “unity of purpose” at the prison, putting an end to the regime of brutality and prisoner-run “security”. There was a work strike in the cafeteria the day of Miller's death, and the young officer was left alone in one of the dormitories with more than 100 inmates, who trickled away to breakfast, leaving him alone with an old black prisoner. He was stabbed 32 times.

Nothing provokes the anger and recklessness of prison authorities like the murder of one of their own. There had been many terrible brutalities at Angola, but the murder of Miller — a 23-year-old who left behind a young wife — set some terrible wheels in motion. His colleagues, thirsty for immediate vengeance, rounded up four men known to have associations with the Panther movement. It was quickly established that one of them had been placed in the frame by the prison authorities and was actually elsewhere at the time of the killing. Another man, Chester Jackson, turned state's evidence in return for a plea of manslaughter.

He said he had held the victim down. That left two remaining radicals, Wallace and Woodfox, to carry the can. “I trusted they had the right people,” said Miller's wife, a widow at 17 years old.

An all-white jury in Saint Francisville, Louisiana, took no time to find both men guilty of murder. It is now clear they were convicted more due to the over-zealous needs of Miller's fellow officers than on evidence. The chief witness, a prisoner called Hezakiah Brown, initially said he saw nothing. Later, prison officers visited him in the night, telling him “you will get your freedom” if he would bear false witness against the two men. “You could put words into his mouth,” the warden later said.
Immediately after testifying in the case — swearing he saw Wallace and Woodfox stabbing the victim — Brown was moved to a low-security part of Angola, a house on the grounds indeed. For the remainder of his prison term, as documents confirm, he was given a weekly carton of cigarettes.

Vadim Jean's documentary is painstaking in its efforts to look again at the evidence, and the results are visually as well as morally compelling. Angola, with its swampy environs and brutal atmosphere, is straight out of Stephen King's Green Mile by way of a dozen old blues songs.

The effort to stand up for black rights would not go unpunished in such a zone, and that is what the film so subtly, so carefully, so powerfully brings you to see. As well as the disqualification of the main witness, there was the question of a bloody fingerprint found beside Miller's body. It matched neither of the accused, but the Angola authorities, despite having the prints of every prisoner on file, made no attempt to match it with the true killer.

Wallace and Woodfox were found guilty and placed in solitary confinement, where they have stayed for the past 37 years. Lost to mercy. Lost to justice. And lost to reason in what Americans like to call the most democratic nation on earth. They were soon followed into those kennels by King, another man suspected of being a ring-leader in a black militant conspiracy.

The film is not one-sided, and it spends time with those who believe that these men were plain guilty. Over those long years in solitary, the three men, two of them still in Angola, tell (by telephone, or directly to camera) of the days passing into years as they tried to remain sane.
It was only in the 1990s that a new generation of lawyers and activists saw the horrid scale of the injustice, both in relation to the original conviction and in the manner of the punishment.

These men were scapegoats and there are those, as the film shows, who will still do anything to oppose their bid for freedom. When King was eventually freed, in 2001, you could see he was a man whose life had been ruined by forces beyond himself, though his spirit appears to have survived. “I may be free of Angola,” he says, “but Angola will never be free of me.”

Vadim Jean, born in Bristol, a former Evening Standard Most Promising Newcomer Award winner, should be garlanded again for In the Land of the Free. It does that thing we hope that art can sometimes do, seeking to right a wrong, willing a single vision into a cloudy subject, in that way introducing a notion of justice and clarity that was long missing. The film allows us to look back upon a terrible period of brutality and suspicion, on all sides, to see that there may indeed have been a number of victims surrounding the murder of Brent Miller. The supposed perpetrators are two of them, and over the entire period of my own life they have languished alone in a terrible prison. They are still there today, wondering what it must be like to be Huck on his journey downstream.

In the Land of the Free premieres at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on 24 March before general release on 26 March. The festival (www.hrw.org) runs 17-26 March at the Ritzy, ICA and Curzons Soho and Mayfair. For more information about the campaign, go to www.inthelandofthefreefilm.com

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37 years of solitary confinement: the Angola three

By Erwin James
The Guardian
Wednesday 10 March 2010

In 1972, three men in a Louisiana prison were placed in solitary confinement after a prison guard was murdered. Two of them are still there – even though many believe they are innocent

Angola prison, the state penitentiary of Louisiana, is the biggest prison in America. Built on the site of a former slave plantation, the 1,800-acre penal complex is home to more than 5,000 prisoners, the majority of whom will never walk the streets again as free men. Also known as the Farm, Angola took its name from the homeland of the slaves who used to work its fields, and in many ways still resembles a slave plantation today. Eighty per cent of the prisoners are African-Americans and, under the watchful eye of armed guards on horseback, they still work fields of sugar cane, cotton and corn, for up to 16 hours a day. "You've got to keep the inmates working all day so they're tired at night," says Warden Burl Cain, a committed evangelist who believes that the rehabilitation of convicts is only possible through Christian redemption.

  1. In the Land of the Free
  2. Production year: 2010
  3. Countries: UK, USA
  4. Cert (UK): 15
  5. Runtime: 84 mins
  6. Directors: Vadim Jean
  7. Cast: Samuel L Jackson
  8. More on this film

Undoubtedly there is less violence and abuse among the prisoners under his wardenship than there was under his predecessors. But Angola is still a long way from being a "positive environment that promotes responsibility, goodness, and humanity", as he proclaims in the prison's mission statement. In fact at the heart of Cain's prison regime is an inhumanity that would make Jesus weep.

For more than 37 years, two prisoners, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, have been locked down in Angola's maximum security Closed Cell Restricted (CCR) block – the longest period of solitary confinement in American prison history.

Having experienced the isolation of "23-hour bang-up" during my own 20 years of imprisonment, for offences of which I was guilty, I can attest to the mental impact that such conditions inflict. My first year was spent on a high-security landing where the cell doors were opened only briefly for meals and emptying of toilet buckets. If decent-minded prison officers were on duty we were allowed to walk the yard for 30 minutes a day. The rest of the time we were alone. The cells were 10ft x 5ft, with a chair, a table and a bed. You could walk up and down, run on the spot, stand still, or do push-ups and sit-ups – but sooner or later you had to just stop, and think.

As the days, weeks and months blur into one, without realising it you start to live completely inside your head. You dream about the past, in vivid detail – and fantasise about the future, for fantasies are all you have. You panic but it's no good "getting on the bell" – unless you're dying – and, even then, don't hope for a speedy response. I had a lot to think about. When the man in the cell above mine hanged himself I thought about that, a lot. I still do. You look at the bars on the high window and think how easy it would be to be free of all the thinking.

Such thoughts must have crossed the minds of Wallace and Woodfox more than once during their isolation. They are fed through the barred gates of their 9ft x 6ft cells and allowed only one hour of exercise every other day alone in a small caged yard. Their capacity for psychological endurance alone is noteworthy.

Wallace and Woodfox were confined to solitary after being convicted of murdering Angola prison guard Brent Miller in 1972. But the circumstances of their trial was so suspect that there are no doubts among their supporters that these men are innocent. Even Brent Miller's widow, Teenie Verret, has her reservations. "If they did not do this," she says, "and I believe that they didn't, they have been living a nightmare."

One man who understands the nightmare that Wallace and Woodfox are living more than anyone else is Robert King. King was also convicted of a murder in Angola in 1973, and was held in solitary alongside Wallace and Woodfox for 29 years, until his conviction was overturned in 2001 and he was freed. Together, King, Wallace and Woodfox have become known as the "Angola three".

The case of the Angola three first came to international attention following the campaigning efforts of the Body Shop founder and humanitarian Anita Roddick. Roddick heard about their plight from a young lawyer named Scott Fleming. Fleming was working as a prisoner advocate in the 1990s when he received a letter from Wallace asking for help. The human tragedy Fleming uncovered had the most profound effect on him. When he qualified as a lawyer, their case became his first. "I was born in 1973," he says. "I often think that for my entire life they have been in solitary."

Through Fleming, Roddick met King and then Woodfox in Angola. Their story, she said later, "made my blood run cold in my veins". Until her death in 2007 Roddick was a committed and passionate supporter of their cause. At her memorial service King played two taped messages from Wallace and Woodfox. In the congregation was film-maker Vadim Jean who had become good friends with Roddick and her husband Gordon during an earlier film project. "Anita's big thing was, 'Just do something,'" says Jean. "No matter how small an act of kindness. Listening to Herman and Albert's voices at her memorial was like having Anita's finger pointing at me and saying, 'Just do something'." And so he decided to make In the Land of the Free, a searing documentary, released later this month.

The story Jean's film tells is one that has resonance on many levels. All three men were from poor black neighbourhoods In New Orleans. They grew up fearing the police, who would regularly "clear the books" of crimes in the area, according to King, by pinning then on disaffected young black men. "If I saw the police, I used to run," King says. He admits to being involved in petty crime in his early years, but "nothing vicious". Eventually King was arrested for an armed robbery he says he did not commit and was sentenced to 35 years, which he began in New Orleans parish prison – and there he met Albert Woodfox.

Woodfox had also been sentenced for armed robbery – and given 50 years. On the day he was sentenced he escaped from the courthouse. He made his way to Harlem in New York, where he encountered the Black Panthers, the revolutionary African-American political movement. He witnessed the Panthers engaging with the community in a positive, constructive way, educating and informing people of their rights. He says it was the first time in his life that he had seen African-Americans exhibiting real pride, pride that emanated from the young activists, he says, "like a shimmering heatwave".

Two days later Woodfox was caught and taken to New York's Tombs prison where he saw first-hand the militant tactics of imprisoned Panthers who resisted their guards with organised protests. In Tombs, Woodfox was labelled "militant" and sent back to New Orleans where he joined King on the parish prison block, known – due to the high concentration of Panther activists – as "the Panther tier". There Woodfox became a member of the Black Panther party.

Outside, confrontations between the Panthers – described by FBI director J Edgar Hoover as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country" – and the police were escalating. In an attempt to undermine the influence of the Panthers in New Orleans parish prison, officials tried to shoehorn men they termed "Black Gangsters" on to the tier – men like Wallace, also serving decades for armed robbery. One day Wallace was suffering from the pain of ill-fitting shoes. One of the Panthers, on his way to a court appearance, took his shoes off and handed them to Wallace. "Right then I knew that that was what I needed to be a part of," he says. In the summer of 1971 Wallace and Woodfox were shipped to Angola.

The civil rights bill had been signed in 1964, but seven years later Angola was still operating a segregated regime. Prisoner guards carried guns and were also responsible, according to well-documented sources, for organising systematic sexual abuse of vulnerable prisoners, which flourished in the prison's mostly dormitory accommodation. And violence between prisoners had reached such levels that Angola was known as "the bloodiest prison in America".

Woodfox and Wallace quickly extended the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers into Angola, establishing classes in political ideology and exposing injustices. They organised work stoppages, demonstrating to fellow prisoners the liberating power of acting with a "unity of purpose" and worked to eradicate the prevalent sexual abuses. But their political activities made them targets for the administrators. By the spring of 1972, tensions in the prison were dangerously high.

These were the conditions in which Brent Miller met his untimely death. That April, a prisoner work strike drew the attention of the guards who were called from normal duties to deal with the disturbance. Miller, a strong, athletic young man of 23, stayed behind alone. He entered a dormitory holding 90 prisoners and sat on an elderly prisoner's bed, drinking coffee and chatting. Moments later he was attacked and stabbed 32 times.

Two days later, four men identified as "black militants", including Wallace and Woodfox, were accused of the murder. It was quickly ascertained that one of the four had been inserted into the case by the prison administration. Charges against him were dropped. Another, Chester Jackson, admitted to holding Miller while the guard was stabbed to death. Jackson turned state's evidence in return for a plea to manslaughter. The case was tried in a town called St Francisville, the closest courthouse to Angola. The jury had been picked from the local populace, many of whom earned their living from the prison or had families and friends that worked there; all were white. Wallace and Woodfox were found guilty of Miller's murder, sentenced to life imprisonment without parole and taken from the court straight to Angola's CCR block to begin their life in isolation.

Robert King was brought to Angola from the parish prison two weeks after Miller's killing, as part of a roundup of black radicals. King had never met Miller and was in a prison 150 miles away when the murder took place. Yet he was investigated for the crime and identified as a "conspirator" before being transferred to lockdown on CCR alongside Wallace and Woodcock.

The following year a prisoner named August Kelly was murdered on King's CCR tier. A man named Grady Brewer admitted that he alone was responsible for the killing, which he said he carried out in self-defence. But King was also charged. The two men faced trial together in the same St Francisville courthouse where Wallace and Woodfox had been convicted the year before. The sole evidence against King came from flawed prisoner testimony. He and Brewer had not been allowed to speak to their attorneys for any length of time before their trial. When they protested, the judge ordered their hands to be shackled behind their backs and their mouths gagged with duct tape for the duration of their trial. The men were convicted and sentenced to life without parole. King later won an appeal; the federal court ruled that he had not been sufficiently unruly in the dock to warrant the shackling and gagging. He went back to trial in 1975, was re-convicted and immediately sent back to CCR.

When, after Scott Fleming's intervention in the case of Wallace and Woodfox in the 1990s, new lawyers reviewed the original trial of both men, discovering "obfuscation after obfuscation". The state had used a number of jailhouse informants against them, many of whom gave contradictory accounts of what they saw. One was registered blind. The key witness in the case was a man called Hezikiah Brown who testified he witnessed the murder. In his initial statement to investigators however, Brown said he had not seen anything. Three days later, when he was taken from his bunk at midnight by prison officials and promised his freedom if he testified, he agreed to say that he saw Wallace and Woodfox kill Miller. At the time Brown was serving life without parole for multiple rapes. Immediately after he agreed to testify he was given his own minimum security private house in the prison grounds and a weekly cigarette ration.

Wallace and Woodfox did not give up. They fought their convictions from their cells and in 1993 Woodfox was granted an appeal, forcing a new trial. The case was sent back to the same courthouse to be tried in front of a new grand jury. A local author, Anne Butler, who had published a book in which she detailed the case and was convinced that the right people had been convicted, acted as jury chairperson. No witnesses were called. Instead Butler was called upon to explain the case. Once again, the jury was composed of people who worked in Angola or were related to people who worked there. Butler's husband and co-author was Murray Henderson, who had been the warden of Angola when Brent Miller was murdered. It is worth noting that Henderson was a key member of the original investigation team and that, during that investigation, a bloody fingerprint was found close to Brent Miller's body. It was determined that it did not belong to Woodfox nor to Wallace, but despite the prison holding all the fingerprints of all the prisoners, no attempt was made to find out whose it was. The bloody print was also ignored at Woodfox's retrial. He was reconvicted and sent back to isolation in Angola's CCR.

It was 26 years before King won the right to another appeal. In 2001 the Federal court found that the jury in King's original trial had systematically excluded African-Americans and women and agreed that the case should be reheard. This time around the prisoner witnesses recanted and the federal court sent the case back to the district court for review. The state negotiated a deal with King. Reluctantly, and with his left hand raised instead of his right, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy; an hour and a half later he was freed.

In September 2008, Woodfox's conviction was overturned; the federal court ruled that his core constitutional rights had been violated at his original trial. Louisiana attorney general Buddy Caldwell could have set Woodfox free immediately. Instead he decided to contest the federal decision and Woodfox, now 64, was returned to Angola's CCR, where he remains. Herman Wallace, now 68, was moved to another Louisiana prison last year, where he too continues to be held in solitary confinement.

Today King, now 67, is still campaigning for justice for his friends. Albert Woodfox: "Our primary objective is that front gate. That is what we are struggling for and we are actually fighting for our freedom. We are fighting for people to understand that we were framed for a murder that we are totally, completely and actually innocent of." Robert King says he is free of Angola, but until his friends are free, "Angola will never be free of me."

Jean hopes his film will make a difference. "These men need help," he says. "Louisiana needs to be shamed into doing the right thing."

Further information: angola3.org. If you wish to help highlight the plight of the Angola 3, you can write to the Governor of Louisiana at the Office of the Governor, PO Box 94004, Baton Rouge, LA 70804, US.

In the Land of the Free is released on 26 March

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Short Bus on the Forum, KQED

Forum with Michael Krasny
Fri, Mar 12, 2010 -- 10:00 AM

My Baby Rides the Short Bus
Some parents of kids with disabilities say they don't want to be put on a pedestal for taking care of their children. We talk with contributors to an irreverent and honest anthology, "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids with Disabilities."

Host: Dave Iverson

Guests:

  • Jennifer Byde Myers, contributor to "My Baby Rides the Short Bus"
  • Sarah Talbot, co-editor of "My Baby Rides the Short Bus" and assistant principal at a high school near Seattle
  • Shannon Rosa, contributor to "My Baby Rides the Short Bus" and contributing editor of "Parents of Children with Special Needs" at blogHer.com

 

 

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