the following was written for publication in feedback, to share with comrades inside.
How did it come to be that folks regularly demonstrate at the jail? How and why do people you don’t know write to you when you’re locked up out of the blue? Where does this little publication come from, and how did it get started? Because these are questions that people currently inside the Durham jail might ask, and because it is vital to keep up on history, from ancient times to the recent past, I’m going to try to briefly tell y’all about the brave inmates who got this all started.
On September 19, 2012, exactly five years ago, 33 courageous detainees on housing unit 5C at Durham County Detention Facility signed and mailed a letter of petition to Durham County Sheriff Michael Andrews. Fed up with numerous facts of daily life, but especially the jail’s failure to provide adequate basic necessities such as toilet paper and soap, writing materials, and its ongoing use of unsanitary food trays and drink dispensers, they mailed the petitions to others, also, including media and the state department of health and human services.
A short article about this petition/ protest ran in the September 22 edition of the Herald-Sun newspaper. This article was a clarion call to a small, multi-racial, multi-generational collective of people who were trying to figure out how to intervene with purpose in Durham’s political landscape.
To quote the last page of the detainees’ petition: “Our protest is simple. All we ask is that we be allowed adequate supplies to maintain proper personal hygiene, cleanliness, to be able to correspond with attorneys, courts, family members, and to be free from undue harm by the bacterially hazardous food trays and drink dispensers. It is unconscionable to think that in our progressive humane society that “pretrial” detainees should be treated with disdain, indifference, and such basic disrespect.”
Here it was: a group of detainees taking the stage of history and speaking up for themselves. We got in touch, we talked to friends, family and loved ones at the jail, and we did what they initially asked us to do, which was “amplify their voices” by creating a blog/website (called amplifyvoices.com). People inside wrote back to those of us outside—a lot. Soon, more petitions came from other pods, along with more news, stories, analysis, manifestos and art. We were asked what our name was, and we began to call ourselves Inside-Outside Alliance.
The bravery displayed by those 33 signers cannot be overestimated. In fact, the person who sent the petition to Chris Wood at the Department of Health and Human Services, was told by Mr. Wood that “submitting petitions could be construed as inciting a riot.”(Sound familiar? Oh, they’ll get their riot someday…) Certainly detainees at DCDF had written petitions before. They didn’t know that this time, people outside were going to notice. They did it anyway, even though we are all taught to believe that nothing we do matters, that we cannot alter our conditions, that we cannot ignite a social war against official society. And those locked up? They’re simply told they ain’t shit. But those 33 didn’t believe that. And from that petition began this group, in which people outside have the back of people inside.
Many people who were instrumental in the founding of Inside-Outside Alliance, due to their tremendous analysis, wit, artistic talent, creativity and bravery, have moved on from DCDF and even from Durham. To all of those, I send a heartfelt thank you for leading the way. The same goes to others–detainees and family members, former prisoners and random activist-types–who have given their time, energy, and intellect along the way. People will continue to move through the jail system, and move through this city, but the idea of IOA—that struggles are being waged inside of jails against conditions and against an inhumane and white supremacist system—will remain. Who better than the detainees and prisoners to speak for themselves about the brutality of that system, and ways to overcome it and make the world anew? That, at its core, is what IOA is.
As I have done before, I will (very humbly) paraphrase the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara (who was talking about Vietnam and the need to wage anti-imperialist war): We need to create 2, 3, many IOAs! From a modest beginning, we have a modest vision, in the words of James Connolly: We just want the Earth.
Forever in struggle and with much love,