Panel discussion about political prisoners in the United States

On Mandela Day, July 18, people in Indianapolis honored the revolutionary memory of Nelson Mandela. The day included a panel discussion about political prisoners in the United States followed by a rally demanding an end to prison abuses in Indiana. The event, organized by the New Afrikan Liberation Collective and IDOC (Indiana Department of Corrections) Watch, began at a local church. Attendees heard from Kilaika Shakur of George Jackson University, Erick Khafre of Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March, Bilal Sunni Ali of the Jericho Movement, and LaToya Wall of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party.

LaToya Wall opened the panel discussion: “I grew up poor, and when you grow up poor you have schools that don’t care about your success. You make mistakes. Along the way, you lose your fear, and you’re left with anger and rage. I’m not going to hurt another human being—I direct that anger and rage into something positive, something bigger than myself. I fight to help a brother or sister, to make things better for our kids. Slavery is indeed alive and well. They’ve only changed the language of slavery into the prison system vernacular.”

Erick Khafre reflected on the connection of prisons to capitalism: “This whole dynamic of capitalism and imperialism and dominant white power is a huge human rights violation. The fact that African people were brought over here for capitalist exploitation is the biggest human rights violation in the history of the world. The second phase of slavery exists in the prison-industrial-slave complex and mass incarceration. The resistance to this system is getting stronger—that’s why you and I are here today.”

After the panel discussion, attendees moved downtown to rally outside the Indiana Government Center, where IDOC’s central office is located. Activists unfurled banners reading “Prison Lives Matter!” and “End IDOC’s dehumanization and murder of inmates!” Activists read the demands of prisoners, including an end to oppressive mail restrictions that prevent prisoners from receiving mail that is not on lined notebook paper, meaning that holiday and birthday cards are banned and that photographs of loved ones must be copied onto paper that is unsuitable for photos. Prisoners also demand an end to the refusal of medical attention by prison doctors and intolerable and unlivable conditions, with buildings lacking ventilation reaching well over 90 degrees in the summer while prisoners are denied cold water and fresh air.

In spite of the presence of a dozen uniformed state police watching and photographing the peaceful gathering, workers passing by the demonstration expressed solidarity, raising their fists in the Black power salute and raising their voices in agreement with the prisoners’ demands.

In September 1918, Hoosier socialist Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating the Sedition Act by delivering a principled anti-war speech. At the hearing, he addressed the judge, saying, “Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on Earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

One hundred years later, we echo these words and stand in solidarity with those oppressed by the racist criminal injustice system. End mass incarceration! Free all political prisoners! Shut down prisons and white supremacy!