There were already more than four million men and women in US Federal, State and Municipal prisons, with numbers growing every day. Although new, mostly private jails were constantly being constructed, they rapidly overflowed with inmates thanks to the War on Drugs, the Patriot Laws, three strikes legislation and the despair of the young and the inner cities. In that vast prison population languished millions of young people, Blacks, Latinos, poor women, for the most part more victims than criminals. Since the 1960’s all kinds of revolutionary literature had been circulating samizdat among the inmates. More recently, Fish graffiti had appeared on the walls.
Even more harsh and humiliating conditions were provoking bloody riots—always brutally put down. But now the strike outside set off a general riot, and the contagion passed from prison to prison. Four million of the condemned, the tortured, the humiliated, the desperate rose up, defied the authorities, attempted mass breakouts. Among these millions of rioters the gross majority were guilty of nonviolent and victimless crimes: petty drug traffickers or simply users. They knew all too well that they were scapegoats for the big drug dealers, who never got arrested and whose laundered money was keeping the stock exchange afloat and financing supersecret projects of the CIA.
Many young inmates were facing 10 years to life sentences thanks to mandatory sentencing and ‘three strikes’ rulings. Most of these desperate men and women had nothing to lose and now they sensed a chance for freedom. Among them were also thousands of ‘politicals’ — Army refuseniks, ecological guerrillas, arrested strikers, antiglobalist protesters, Fishies — all held without trial as “terrorists” under the Patriot Laws. These inmates had serious organising experience and support from outside movements. As the strike spread everywhere, correction officers and private guards were quickly overwhelmed, as were police reinforcements. The national guard units securing corporate facilities against the strikes and occupations were now ordered to secure the prisons.
There were hostage crises, negotiations, standoffs in nearly every jail in the country. A national network of striking prisoners was established by Internet, sharing accurate information about what was happening ‘inside.’ Inevitably there were massacres of both guards and prisoners.
On the outside, relatives and friends of prisoners were organizing (as were the families of the guards). The authorities refused to receive their delegations or sent them back with vague promises. Here and there they lost patience and rushed the prison gates, more or less armed. Besieged within and without, prison guards were demanding evacuation by helicopter. The correction officers’ unions, a powerful lobby, put pressure on the state legislatures. They vigorously opposed government proposals to send in the Air National Guard to “free” the hostages by “surgical strikes.” The stalemate could not continue indefinitely. One by one, state by state, hundreds of American Bastilles were torn down, the newly liberated dregs of society emerging into the light, joining the mass of rebels fighting for a new ‘outside’ world where factories, schools and offices would be less like prisons. . .
Very little crime was reported at that time. In the midst of momentous organised struggles, a curious calm and order reigned. Everyone went about their business, which was often everyone’s business: supplying free milk for the children, setting up soup kitchens for the strikers’ families, keeping the ambulances, hospitals, transport and emergency services running, organising for self-defense. A serious sense of purpose was in the air, which did not exclude a good deal of exuberance among people experiencing freedom and responsibility for the first time. The impending crisis provoked more good humor than depression, although the jokes were mostly ironic. People thought less about their own petty resentments. It felt good to be alive and wonderful to be young.