Category Archives: From the Archive

LGBTQ Prison Organizing

by Will McKeithen

Organizing by and for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, intersex, and gender diverse prisoners in Washington has a long but largely undocumented history. In recent years, several groups have emerged both inside and outside prison walls to support LGBTQ+ inmates. In 2016, prisoners at the Monroe Correctional Complex’s Twin Rivers Unit founded the LGBTQ+ support group TRU Unity. TRU Unity holds weekly meetings to discuss LGBTQ+ history, relationship skills, coming out stories, and homophobia and transphobia in prison. In 2017 and 2018, TRU Unity organized a PRIDE celebration, including speeches by prisoners and non-incarcerated LGBTQ+ non-profits and community groups. LGBTQ+ folks at other Washington prisons have begun organizing similar groups. 
Free world queers and allies have also been organizing. In 2015, several activists founded a Black and Pink chapter based in Seattle and Tacoma. Black and Pink is an open family of LGBTQ+ folks inside and outside of prison working together to end prison. Black and Pink’s Seattle-Tacoma chapter focuses on supporting pen pal relationships between LGBTQ+ folks who are locked up and their queer family outside. In 2019, Black and Pink will work to support LGBTQ+ prisoner groups like TRU Unity. 
This archive documents these new and ongoing efforts to abolish prisons and champion queer liberation.

Will McKeithen is an organizer with the Seattle-Tacoma chapter of Black and Pink, an educator, and an author.

Archival materials from PRIDE can be found here. Be sure to check out the blog by Amber Fayefox Kim, “the musings of a trans woman in prison” in Washington.

Western Prison Project

by Brigette Sarabi

Western Prison Project (WPP) was founded in 1999 to support and build an organized, grassroots movement for prison and criminal justice reform led by people directly affected by the criminal justice system: prisoners, former prisoners, family and friends of prisoners and communities disproportionately impacted by the prison industrial complex. For its first six years, WPP supported grassroots organizing and advocacy in six western states: Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Nevada.

WPP viewed racial and economic justice as critical to prison and criminal justice system reform. WPP mailed out thousands of copies of the quarterly newsletter Justice Matters and prisoner support packets to link prisoners to resources that could offer support. A committee of prisoner activists advised the organization on its work. WPP also organized with grassroots groups led by former prisoners or family members of prisoners, and offered resources and assistance to build the strength of these groups. WPP had three primary program areas: public education; organizing and mobilization; and capacity building for the grassroots groups it worked with.

In 2004 WPP merged with one of its partner groups, Survivors Advocating for an Effective System, which organized crime survivors. This was the first time a single group brought together all those directly affected by the criminal justice system, including crime survivors, in the knowledge that communities most affected by crime were also the communities most targeted by the prison industrial complex. In 2006, WPP became the Partnership for Safety and Justice and decided to focus its work in Oregon, where it continues to work for criminal justice reform today.

Brigette Sarabi was a founder and former director of the Western Prison Project.

Check out past issues of Justice Matters in the WPHP archive.

Video: Discussion with George Jackson Brigade members

Members of the George Jackson Brigade at NWFF, February 18, 2018 (L-R: Mark Cook, Janine Bertram, Ed Mead)
L-R: Mark Cook, Janine Bertram, Ed Mead

On February 18, 2018, members of the George Jackson Brigade met at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle on the occasion of a screening for the film “Gentleman Bank Robber: The Story of Butch Lesbian Freedom Fighter rita bo brown.” After the film screening, members of the GJB Mark Cook, Janine Bertram and Ed Mead answered audience questions and discussed the George Jackson Brigade, prisoners, prisons, activism, and related topics.

The discussion was recorded – you can watch it in its entirety at  our archive below:
Discussion with George Jackson Brigade Members, Janine Bertram, Mark Cook, and Ed Mead

To find out more about the film, visit the filmmaker’s website.

Prisoner Publications, 1975-1995

by Alexis V. Capestany

Between 1975 and 1995, activist prisoners in Washington published a half dozen different publications and contributed to several others focused on prison conditions and social change. Written and edited by incarcerated people, these publications covered legal issues about the rights of people in prison, discussed problems with living standards, highlighted their efforts to end sexual violence and participate in strikes or other protests against abusive prison conditions, and commented on events of national and global significance outside of prison. Begun as Washington moved from a paradigm of reform to one of punishment, the newspapers were vital sources of information and analysis that were produced as mass incarceration came of age in Washington. Through these papers, incarcerated people in the state could create dialogue with each other and challenge what they saw as the injustices of a given prison administration.

Each publication had a similar audience—other incarcerated people and their loved ones or supporters on the outside—with a similar goal but often with a different way of presenting information. Prisoners turned to newspapers to express their frustration or outage at the oppression they experienced. Prison often denies people the ability to share their history or trauma with broader audiences, and these newspapers helped overcome the traditional controls of the institution. Across the different newspapers, incarcerated authors tell how often the prison system was used to punish rather than reform, repress one’s own sense of control of their own body, and prevent rehabilitation. Such controls impeded the ability of incarcerated people to write for the newspapers, publish material in a timely manner, or allow relevant information to come to light.

Included in these papers were reports on guards, legal cases, changes to prison policy, and current events both inside and outside of prison. These papers helped incarcerated people by encouraging them to have a voice, to be heard, to examine their role within the penal system, and to provide emotional and legal support for the human rights of people in prison. As time went on, legal support was especially critical, since new laws continued to impact the lives of incarcerated people and their families. These papers helped to develop a sense of community and reliance on one another through a common understanding of marginalization.

During this time period, people incarcerated in Washington used strikes, shutdowns, and other protests to confront sexism, abuse, discrimination, and political oppression. The newspapers focused most of their attention on the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, which experienced a tremendous amount of turmoil and upheaval in those years. The papers focused on how activists, indigenous, and people of color prisoners were particularly targeted. The case of Jimi and George Simmons, Native American (Muckleshoot/Rogue River) brothers and prisoners at Walla Walla who were accused of killing a prison guard during a 1979 riot, was of attracted particular attention. George Simmons was convicted in 1980 and committed suicide the next year. Jimi was acquitted in 1981 and released in 1983. By that time, Walla Walla had embarked on a far more punitive path.  

In the early part of this period, writers for the Red Dragon and the Anarchist Black Dragon newspapers expressed their ideas in the revolutionary language common among radicals of the time period. As activist prisoner Ed Mead wrote in 1982, “The prisons of the nineteenth and twentieth century have unquestionably been instruments of class coercion and terror, wielded selectively against the poor, uneducated, the minorities, the people, in short, most systematically victimized already by the structure and operations of economic and social institutions.”

As time went on, these papers had to adapt to survive, especially as activist efforts on the outside shrunk while the prison system continued to grow. Yet the publications never lost their political mission. Both The Abolitionist (begun in 1987) and Prison Legal News (begun in 1990) championed prisoner rights as they provided critical legal analysis and political tools for prisoners seeking to understand, resist, or change their circumstances.  

Although focused on Washington, these papers had a national impact for two key reasons. First, key editors and authors were transferred to different prisons around the country, connecting them to activist prisoners in Arizona, Illinois, and elsewhere. Furthermore, many of the issues described in these papers could be found in prisons across the nation. Thus, these newspapers provide a unique window into the experience of mass incarceration from those who lived it—and contested it—first-hand. They are necessary sources through which to understand the experience of prison in Washington and how it has changed over time.

The Washington Prison History Project archive contains copies of multiple prisoner publications, from Washington state as well as the greater Pacific Northwest area. The following publications were written and produced by incarcerated people. The dates listed in parentheses refer to the issues available in the archive, not the full years a given publication existed.

  • The Abolitionist (1987-1988)
    A monthly publication, The Abolitionist featured news and culture relevant to people in prison. It published information about court cases and legal or political changes pertaining to incarcerated people, and encouraged people to act in response. The paper also included book recommendations, poems, comics, and meeting dates for family and friends to show support.

  • Anarchist Black Dragon (1978-1979)
    The archive includes only two issues of this polemical newspaper edited by Carl Harp. A radical critique of prison, the Anarchist Black Dragon was particularly focused on conditions at Walla Walla following a series of strikes and counter measures at the prison. Harp was found dead in his cell of an apparent suicide in 1981.
  • Chill Factor (1982)
    The Chill Factor was a prisoner rights newsletter produced by people incarcerated at the Arizona State Penitentiary. Though convicted in Washington, Ed Mead spent several months incarcerated in Arizona and contributed to this newspaper.

  • Northwest Passage (1976)
    Northwest Passage was a radical newspaper produced out of Bellingham, Washington. The one issue contained in the archive includes several prison-related issues, especially those concerning radical activists.

  • Prison Focus (2014-2015)
    Prison Focus is the quarterly newsletter of a California-based volunteer-run prisoner support organization that works to end solitary confinement and other abuses in the California prison system.

  • Prison Legal News (1990-1993)
    Founded by Ed Mead, Dan Pens, and Paul Wright, PLN provides news and analysis of legal and human rights issues relevant to incarcerated people. The publication is still running and is now located in Florida, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center.

  • Red Dragon (1980-1982)
    A polemical newspaper, Red Dragon featured prisoner writings on international and national current events and how they relate to the struggles within prisons. The paper paid special attention to prisoner strikes and their aftermath, including how the state adjusted prison management in response as well as the demands activist prisoners continued to pursue. Red Dragon also included comics and poems by incarcerated people.

  • Rock! Working to Extend Democracy to All (2012-2015)
    The Rock! was a publication produced in support of the rolling hunger strike in California prisons to end long-term solitary confinement. Issues featured articles by participants in the hunger strike, as well as some of their outside supporters.

  • Sunfighter (1975)
    Sunfighter covered the nationwide radical prison movement. The one issue contained in the archive includes numerous articles by incarcerated people as well as other participants in radical movements.

  • United Families and Friends of Prisoners (1977)
    Born out of the Walla Walla prison strike of 1977 in Washington, the United Families and Friends of Prisoners was a monthly publication supported by the American Friends Service Committee and featured brief updates on and analyses of legal cases, sentencing policy, and prison conditions.

  • Washington Prison News Service (1982-1983)
    Founded in the Washington State Penitentiary, this newsletter was edited by two radical prisoners: Danny Atteberry (a member of Men Against Sexism at Walla Walla) and Bill Dunne. Each issue featured brief descriptions of prison conditions and legal cases. The paper tried to coordinate with women incarcerated at Purdy but folded after Atteberry and Dunne were transferred to different prisons.

Alexis V. Capestany is a recent graduate of the University of Washington Bothell with an interest in human rights, restorative justice, and one day becoming a defense attorney.


From the Archive

The Washington Prison History Project archive gathers materials produced by or with currently or formerly incarcerated people and others about the development and conditions inside the state’s prisons.

Central to this collection is the series of prisoner-produced newspapers that appeared between 1975 and 1995. These publications–authored and edited inside of prison–are essential historical records. They record how incarcerated people understood or participated in the tremendous protest, reform, and punishment characterizing Washington prisons in those years. They provide a sense of how incarcerated people understood, protested, or otherwise participated in such a tumultuous period in the history of incarceration–both in Washington and around the nation.

The archive also features a number of materials from activists, journalists, and others about prison conditions, prison construction, and prison reform.

Some materials FROM THE ARCHIVE: