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Another Voice: Drumbeat of the unfree emanates from inmates

By Stephen Cooper

Above the din of disturbing news – that discordant banging you’re hearing, steadily getting louder and louder, that you can no longer ignore – that’s the drumbeat of the unfree.

Dehumanized by the labels “prisoner,” “inmate” and “convict,” these men and women are, just like you and me, or any mortal – irrespective of flaws, frailties, even felonious acts and misdemeanors – endowed with the right to be treated with dignity, decency, and respect.

Advancing 10 specific demands as a rallying cry in prisons nationwide, these brave incarcerated souls are striking by not eating, refusing to do prison work, engaging in sit-ins, and taking part in myriad other acts of nonviolent resistance that could, nonetheless – given the carceral, contentious environment they’re taking place in – quickly trigger violence (even reprisals, including the nefarious, all-too-frequent imposition of solitary confinement).

So what can you do? At a minimum, read the list of demands; they’re not long and considerable thought and effort went into crafting them. Since the very act of striking places the safety of the strikers in greater jeopardy, it’s the least you, as a civic-minded, compassionate citizen, can do.

Once informed, please support and amplify these reasonable demands for prison reform. As conscientious, justice-loving Americans, we must, all of us, collectively join the call to implement this list of humble reforms through the power of our pocket books, our votes, our voices, and our resolve.

All of us have a part to play in pressuring legislators, correctional officials, and all the many state and federal bureaucrats with clout, to end unseemly, unsatisfactory “slave labor” practices behind bars; these are grossly unfair regulations which pay nothing (or next to nothing) for work done in prison – even indisputably back-breaking, life-threatening, heroic work.

We must demand an end to the insidious institutional racism that keeps so many of our brothers and sisters, disproportionately black and brown-skinned, languishing behind bars – unfairly, unproductively, disconsolately, for far, far too long. In the purported “land of the free” and “home of the brave,” we have to end our horribly destructive, dysfunctional reliance on physically and psychologically ripping our people apart from their friends, family, and communities – often setting them up to return to prison again later.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. poignantly observed that “(there) comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men (and women) are no longer willing to be plunged in the abyss of despair.” It is this dark and ominous feeling that currently dominates morale inside America’s prisons today; danger is the foreseeable consequence.

Stephen Cooper is a former Washington, D.C., public defender.

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