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+4 votes
or are we all prisoners? or do those statements devalue the specifics of prisoners' experiences?

obviously saying we are is both accurate and inaccurate in various ways, and perhaps works best as a way to a) draw connections between ourselves and the incarcerated, and b) make a point about the horrors of modern life.
so here i'm looking for people's meditations on the ways we are and aren't, and perhaps what that means for how to interact both inside and out.
by (53.1k points)
I need to go to sleep before I write my answer, but as someone who operates in the ambiguity of this, I approve this question!

I also am very interested to hear what others think, this opens up a larger question of metaphor and simile; when are they appropriate in our propaganda? When do they merely reduce our arguments to (at best) rhetorical flourish or worse, logical fallacies?

1 Answer

+5 votes
I think the context of who you are talking to and how is really important to this. When interacting with prisoners or former prisoners, I am careful about the impact my words might have on them by minimizing the trauma they might’ve experienced, or by overstating the level of repression and control we face on the outside (or our perceived importance in the eyes of the state).

I absolutely view myself as a prisoner to this society and civilization. I can no more opt out of it fully (and without the fear and most likely reality) of it encroaching upon my autonomy than could a prisoner of a physical prison choose to walk out the gates if they don’t like the conditions. I am here without my consent, I am forced to work to have money for more than basic survival, I am made dependent upon infrastructure designed to reinforce complacency and complicity. More and more I am watched everywhere, or at least might be – a sort of social recreation of panopticon. If this isn’t being a rpsioner I don’t know what is.

Similarly, I have frequently used the prisoner’s dilemma as a model for talking about conspiring against the state. The short of it being that in the long run it is in our best interest to not betray our comrades and find commonality than to sell each other short for perceived short term benefits. If folks want a longer description of what the prisoners dilemma model is here is the Wikipedia page on it:  

I could also recommend parts of the book “The Origins of Virtue” by Matt Ridley (I am also highly critical of aspects of the book, which is written from a sociobiology POV) possibly read in parallel to Mutual Aid by Kropotkin (who’s real-life prison break is the story told in the prologue to Ridley’s book).

On the other hand, I have friends who’ve spent long stints in prison for a variety of things, both political and “non-political.” I would not in a million years pretend that my experience of state control is the same as theirs, or as violent and all encompassing.  I am happy I have never spent time in prison, and while I think incarceration is something anarchists should always seriously consider the ramifications of, I hope to never experience it. Not that I won’t draw comparisons, but I am likely to use slightly less rhetorical flourish in doing so, and try to evidence a bit more humility than if I am writing something to be put out to the world at large (meaning, primarily those not incarcerated).

As to the are we all political prisoners? Are we all prisoners (presuming this means non-political prisoner) distinction, I don’t think it really matters in the context of talking about any of this. For those of us outside, we aren't part of this society because of some intentional action on the part of our beliefs, but because it is where circumstance has put us. To be honest, I think talking about political prisoners is unhelpful and detracts from that reality that prison is prison. It starts to lead us down a line of reasoning that distinguishes from of the good and bad prisoners, the deserving and undeserving of support. This isn’t to excuse actions or minimize what I see as commendable acts or positions of anyone (pp or not).

Certainly some political prisoners get lots more support from a wider base of people than inmates who are in for other acts, and I am more likely to actively support prisoners who are in for actions I support, but  do all political prisoners deserve support as opposed to all prisoners deserving support? And just how are we defining "political"? Is a white power inmate who was acting on his beliefs a political prisoner? What about folks like Fran Thompson, who is incarcerated for shooting a man who tried to assault her, entirely unrelated to her politics, but is often listed as such because of her previous involvement in environmental activism?  Does political prisoner just mean “prisoners whose politics I happen to like”? There are some political prisoners (or folks who could be labeled such) that I don’t want to support, just like there are some truly horrible people in prison for other actions who I want nothing to do with. The same could be said for folks outside the razor wire and concrete walls. None of that affects that I want to see prisons, and the society that creates and perpetuates them destroyed.
by (22.1k points)
edited by
I have and continue to correspond with prisoners in all levels of incarceration. One of them many years ago (don't remember who any more, or I'd happily credit him) referred to our existence on the outside as "minimal custody." I think that's a good description, that, while utilizing a slight rhetorical device, also does not minimize the horrors of institutional incarceration.
Ingrate::  thank you.  That was thoughtful, i appreciate the effort.
Lawrence's comment on 'minimal custody' strikes a chord, i wonder what your friends would think along that line?

The only thing i could think of was "longer leashes, bigger cages" - which seems almost flippant comparing inside and outside those walls.  And yet, the systems of control, both in and out of custody, sometimes boil down to that - the arbitrary granting and revoking of small privileges that make our lives marginally more or less tolerable.

Your final line reminds me of the Bastille, and that when the peasants stormed that political prison they didn't leave it as a museum or monument or a 'just-in-case-we-need-it'; They tore the fucking thing Down, brick by brick, stone by stone, prying the foundations out of the ground 'til there was nothing left for the bastards-who-came-after to use against them.  Something to remember, and hold close.
I honestly don't think they would disagree with ideas about minimal custody or "longer leashes..." but that is the sort of folks I am friends with. Part of my being careful is personal and not being an anarchist. SOme of them experienced/survived horrible things that I only know parts of. As a friend, when they are talking about the compromises they made, and the trauma endured, I don't want to flatten that in to a political point.

I feel similarly about overly politicizing things like poverty and homelessness. There is a value in doing so generally, but on an individual level it is depersonalizing.
I need to really think about this.  Shit.
There is a value in doing so generally, but on an individual level it is depersonalizing.

an important thing to remember in many contexts...