Prisons Are for Burning: Negotiations from the Door of the Cell
By Neal Shirley /

On April 16, 1968, a multi-racial group of five hundred prisoners sat down in the yard of the Raleigh, NC Central Prison and began a work strike. The State Corrections Commissioner temporarily placated the men with hollow promises. Authorities continued to pander to the prisoners’ demands with promises of bargaining and negotiation, but the impatient men armed themselves anyways, looting material from one building to make “torches, spears, clubs, and crude maces.” When the state finally attacked, the prisoners were already well-surrounded. Despite the prisoners erecting a “wall of fire” with stolen gasoline, and fighting back with short-range weapons, it was ultimately a massacre: 83 prisoners were shot, six killed.

In a media puff piece aimed at blaming the prisoners for the violence, the State Corrections Commissioner arrogantly showed his strategic hand, declaring, “By keeping the inmates uncertain as to whether I would appear to bargain with them, we had bought time which was rapidly running out. But there had never been the slightest possibility that I would personally negotiate with them. They had precluded conversation when they demanded it.”

On February 20, 2015, over two thousand prisoners rioted and overran the facility in which they were being housed in Willacy County, Texas. The vast majority of mostly immigrant prisoners broke out of their barracks and set fire to three buildings. When guards used non-lethal force and tear gas to subdue the rebellion, the prisoners defended themselves with steel pipes. Federal and State authorities stepped in to negotiate, while media rushed to find a legible cause, identifying medical neglect as the specific and singular origin of an uprising that rendered the entire facility uninhabitable. The prisoners were moved to new facilities, after being promised a thorough investigation of medical conditions.

A lot happened between the uprising in Raleigh and the riot in Texas. Since 1968, the rate of US incarceration has increased more than sevenfold: counting only adults, one in one hundred Americans are in jail or prison at this moment. The United States now incarcerates significantly more people per capita than any other country in the world. If the statistics home in on specific demographics, that rate of incarceration is much, much higher: one in three black men, for example, will go to prison in their lifetime.

No system of oppression and control this large can exist without outbursts of rebellion and conflict. The key to control, however, is not batons, riot shields, tear gas, or superior fire power. For many reasons of state and economy, a government is limited in this regard – it cannot simply treat its own cities and neighborhoods as it does far-off Arab villages, to be bombed into the stone age without a second thought. Whether in the rec yard of the modern prison or the streets of West Baltimore, one-dimensional methods of brute force often fail to control and contain, sometimes pathetically so.

Wherever the decadence and misery of twenty-first century capitalism spills over into the riots, rebellions, and occupations that have come to define our generation, this process of negotiation and dialogue seeks to return its citizen-subjects to the democratic fold. The greatest ally the state can find in this process is those earnest managers of protest and social change that claim to profess (and thereby shape) the values of the rioters themselves, all while proposing and initiating their own, more palatable methods.

Prison is a unique, semi-permanent “state of exception” in our day and age, a temporal and geographic arrangement that suspends the discourse of citizenship and rights while still necessitating that discourse to sustain itself. This paradox uniquely defines our generation and the contemporary politics of protest we encounter, and in particular applies to those marginalized urban territories so occupied by police that they resemble an archipelago of giant outdoor prisons.

With respect to the prison rebel of 2015, as well as the ghetto and anti-police rioters that grace the nightly news cycle, it seems unlikely that such democratic management can ever succeed. The target of the protest managers’ discourse is the dutiful body of the citizen, but in these revolts the protagonist has already stepped outside of that role entirely, sometimes by “choice” and willful courage, often by virtue of having been forced outside of that uniquely privileged prison cell by the dual forces of race and economy. The calls for “Peace!” screamed by leftists and protest-ambulance-chasers echo with an increasingly hollow timbre off the thin walls of democratic citizenship.

If we’re on the same page – let’s work with prisoners to abolish prisons – then I hope you’ll find my column fascinating and useful. I’ll try to bring my experience in the anti-prison movement to this, and keep y’all posted on what’s going on in the contemporary struggle against incarceration in the United States and internationally. See you next time!

Nealshirley web

Neal Shirley has been involved in a range of (anti) prison related groups for about eight years. Most recently he’s been involved with a project that corresponds with prisoners and solicits and disseminates their news and analysis across North Carolina's prison system. He co-authored the book Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South. He makes a living doing food service work and teaching mixed martial arts to kids of all ages, and spends his free time fighting in cages and scheming new ways to deep-fry southern delicacies.

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Prisons Are for Burning: Negotiations from the Door of the Cell