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On Political Prisoners & Prisoners of War In the U.S.

Toward Collective Effort and Common Vision:

The International and Domestic Contexts of the Struggles of Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War Held by the U.S.

by Owusu Yaki Yakubu

(reprinted from Can’t Jail The Spirit, 2002)


This is the fifth edition of a collection of auto/biographical sketches of Political Prisoners (PPs) and Prisoners of War (POWs) held by the U.S. (There are PPs and POWs held by the U.S. that are not included in this edition, for various reasons, e.g., some are unknown to us or couldn't be reached by us; some don't want the exposure; some missed the publication deadline.) It is issued as part of an on-going campaign:

- to counter the U.S. denial that there are PPs and POWs held in its prisons;

- to counter the U.S. policy of criminalizing the PPs and POWs, and to present

them within the context of the political struggles that they are part of;

- to encourage active support for the campaign to obtain the release of

all PPs and POWs;

- to generate awareness and understanding of, and support for, the ongoing

struggles with which these activists are engaged;

- to illuminate the link between the underlying conditions which led to the

imprisonment of the PPs and POWs, and the campaign to address the conditions

suffered by the over two million women, men, and the increasing number of

juveniles in U.S. prisons and jails, as well as the nearly four thousand prisoners

now slated for execution.


"In past editions the question of who was a political prisoner and a prisoner of war,

and thus belonged in this book, was settled in various ways. Of course, no such rule

has ever satisfied everyone and always some people were unhappy with various decisions." 1

For this edition of Can't Jail The Spirit, the following definitions have been used:

- A Political Prisoner (PP) is a person, sanctioned by The Movement, evolved in

character and deeds, who is held in confinement for support of, or identity with,

a people struggling for freedom from an oppressive government or against its

oppressive policies.

- A Prisoner of War (POW) is a sanctioned national combatant or ally of an

international armed conflict who is held in confinement for acts in support of a

people struggling for freedom, self-determination, or independence from an

oppressive, colonial, alien dominated, or racist governmental regime or its policies. 2

Our definitions of PPs and POWs have always sought to be consistent with internationally recognized criteria, and they have been conditioned by the development of the objective and subjective realities of our movements. As our movements become more mature, and as the contradictions between our movements and U.S. capitalist-colonialism sharpen, We'll no doubt witness the elaboration and broad acceptance of more or less standardized definitions of PPs, and POWs held by the U.S.

One aspect of movement maturity is the gradual elimination of inconsistency from the process of defining PPs and POWs, and the elimination of haphazardness from the process of determining who rightfully typifies such status. Since PPs and POWs are activists within larger political processes that are engaged by organized political forces, it becomes the responsibility of these organizations and their movements to define and sanction the PPs and POWs, that, as a rule, act under their authority. 3


Political Prisoners, (held by the U.S.) emerge through the process of domestic, non-international conflict - they are citizens/nationals of the nation who's governmental policies and practices they oppose; they struggle to realize their own vision of the way their society's social relations should be structured, and the kind of political-economic foundations that should inform these relations.

Many of the PPs held by the U.S. are Euro-Americans and other U.S. citizens who were politically conscious and active prior to their imprisonment. 4 They were imprisoned for actions undertaken in solidarity with peoples oppressed by the U.S., and a few acted as allies of such struggles. They were imprisoned for actions undertaken in opposition to U.S. domestic policies and practices which violate the human rights of peoples within and without U.S. borders. As PPs, they are afforded the protection of international human rights and

humanitarian law. 5

However, not all PPs held by the U.S. were politically conscious and active prior to their imprisonment. The existence of these PPs has been, and remains, problematic for the movements in opposition to the U.S., but they represent a problem the resolution of which will be a measure of the theoretical and practical development of our movements.

Prisoners of War (held by the U.S.) emerge through the process of international conflict - they are citizens/nationals of distinct peoples that are colonized by the U.S., and who fight for self-determination and (lest We be afraid to say it) socialism.

Native peoples inside the U.S. are dependent nations/peoples, who continue to struggle for land and sovereignty; the Mexicano-Chicano people within the U.S. are a dependent people, who struggle against U.S. colonialism for their land and sovereignty; the Puerto Rican people are colonized by the U.S., and they seek self-determination and sovereignty; New Afrikan ("Black") people inside the U.S. are a distinct, colonized people, struggling for self-determination, and sovereignty.

The United Nations' General Assembly Resolution 1514 defines colonialism as a crime against humanity, and those captured and held in the fight against colonial and racist regimes are to be treated as POWs. 6 General Assembly Resolutions 2621 and 3103 both recognize as legitimate activity the pursuit of self-determination against colonial and racist regimes, and entitle those engaged in these struggles the protection of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Protocol I to the Convention was added to entitle anti-colonial freedom fighters (i.e., those engaged in unconventional wars) to POW status, to protect them from the arbitrary action of the colonial powers, e.g., when colonial powers label POWs "criminals", deny them POW status, and deny the international character of their struggle for self-determination. 7

Native Nation, Mexicano-Chicano, Puerto Rican and New Afrikan peoples have waged continuous struggles against U.S. colonialism, and the U.S. holds POWs from each of these movements.


Most of us see an obvious need to distinguish PPs and POWs from the majority of "social prisoners," whose imprisonment is, in one sense or another, related to the oppressive and exploitative conditions generated by the U.S. system of capitalism, and who are subjected to inhumane conditions and treatment while imprisoned. We recognize that prisons and the entire "criminal justice system" in the U.S. function as instruments of counter-insurgency, genocide, and social control - that the particularly high incarceration rate in the U.S. is a result of fundamental and systemic political policies.

However, imprisonment in the U.S. must also be seen within the context of the demands of

social-revolutionary struggle, and the need for "agency" on the part of the imprisoned individual/activist:

"But so far as the struggle is concerned, it must be realized that it is not the

degree of suffering and hardship involved, as such, that matters; even extreme

suffering, in itself, does not necessarily produce the prise de conscience required

for the national liberation struggle." 8

To characterize all prisoners in the U.S. as "political" simply because they have been imprisoned by an oppressive society - to reduce all violations of U.S. law and resulting imprisonment to the nature of the society - doesn't define Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War. Such reductive characterization doesn't address the political capacities of those imprisoned. And, it reflects, at best, a liberal political perspective.

Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War make conscious, thoroughly rooted decisions to serve the people; they adopt new, humanist values and morality, a radical political perspective, and new forms of practice which give their every act a subjective, functional political meaning within the context of national and social revolutionary struggle.

No matter what our political tendency or movement, We all look toward the development of a radical political consciousness and practice by all of the people; We look toward active political engagement, and an assumption of responsibility for social life, to be undertaken by all of the people - and some of the people are being held in U.S. prisons and jails.

Our political tendencies and movements, and those imprisoned, have reciprocal responsibilities: The prisoners look to us to serve and protect them; We look to them for conscious political initiative and the formalization of their relations with us and, through us, with the people as a whole, and with the process of social change. When "social prisoners" begin to transform themselves into socially responsible and politically active individuals; when they begin to educate in their "communities" to assist others in a similar process of transformation; when they begin to organize against repressive conditions; when they attach themselves, even informally, to political activity, organizations and movements outside the walls - and when they are labeled as political activists by the prison authorities, targeted by the state and placed in Control Units, denied parole, or otherwise persecuted for their political beliefs and actions - We must acknowledge and embrace them as Political Prisoners and/or as Prisoners of War.

The Domestic and International Contexts

The U.S. denies that there are Political Prisoners (PPs) and Prisoners of War (POWs) inside its prisons. It claims, in particular, that the activists it now holds, imprisoned in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, are mere "common criminals." This policy of criminalizing political activists is designed to obscure the political context of their acts, and the political character of their status as imprisoned activists of domestic and international conflicts which afford them the protection of international law, and place the U.S. under the scrutiny of the international community.

However, "common criminals" aren't charged, for example, with "seditious conspiracy", as were some of the people you'll read about in this book. All of the people in this book are further distinguished from "common criminals" (or, from what We prefer to call "social prisoners" or "imprisoned nationals"), by their treatment at the hands of the federal and state governments, judiciaries, and prison officials.

Although the U.S. continues to deny that it holds PPs and POWs, and to stand on the policy of criminalizing their individual and collective character, representatives of each branch of the U.S. government (i.e., executive, judicial, and legislative) have broken ranks and made public acknowledgements to the contrary, e.g., Andrew Young, when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; federal judges; U.S. Representative Cynthia McKinney and others in the U.S. Congress. Anyone even remotely familiar with U.S. history, and with the treatment of imprisoned activists, would be obliged to acknowledge their status as Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War. So, why does the U.S. cling to its policy of denial and criminalization?

The U.S. is a capitalist society, and capitalism generates inequalities in all social spheres; its citizens are inspired to oppose the present structure, and to seek a new one.

By denying the presence of PPs and POWs in its prisons, the U.S. seeks to mask the existence, depth, and intensity of struggles by an increasing number of its citizens, as they fight to fundamentally change the inhumane and exploitative character of the U.S. socio-economic order, and its international policies and practices. These U.S. citizens - those now held as Political Prisoners, and those who will be tomorrow's PPs - fight for their own vision of a U.S. society free of all forms of oppression, and they act(ed) in solidarity with, and/or as allies of, the struggles of Peoples that are oppressed by the U.S., inside and outside its borders. Despite the basic domestic or internal character of this social revolutionary conflict, it also has an international character, in that it's about the exercise of human rights - and the repressive response of the U.S. violates international human rights law, and obliges the international community to intervene. The US. seeks to avoid open discussion of its liability and obligations under international law for the violation of the human rights of its citizens; it seeks to avoid public discussion of the inherent inhumanity of the capitalist system.

An inclusive description of the context out of which PPs (and POWs) acted, which underlies the U.S. policy of denial and criminalization, was given by Bo-Rita D. Brown and Therese, in an earlier edition of this book:

"A common thread that runs through the following bio-graphies of [North American]

political prisoners is the decision to take action; action to support self-determination;

action against racism; action against U.S. military and nuclear policy; action against

apartheid in South Africa; and action in solidarity with workers and poor people

around the world.

Some of these people came from working class or poor communities. Some

were already ex-cons. Others were college students. No matter where you were in

the 60s and 70s, you were influenced by the struggles for freedom and social

justice of these decades.

These political prisoners were active in movements for civil rights, labor,

women's and children's rights, against the Vietnam War, and also supported Native

[Nation], Black [New Afrikan], Puerto Rican, and other [oppressed Peoples"]

liberation struggles. Along with thousands (maybe millions) of others they opposed

repressive U.S. policies. There were mass demonstrations throughout the country,

marches on Washington, D.C., student strikes, sit-ins, burning of draft cards, other

civil disobedience, and some bombings of military and corporate facilities.

During these years a prisoners' rights movement also developed, led by

Black [New Afrikan] prisoners and with close ties to the Black Panther Party and other

community groups. Many of these North American political prisoners worked with

the prisoners' rights organizations. They came to better understand the integral

part that prisons play in the economic plan of the ruling class to control all, and

criminalize those they cannot control or do not need.

People spent many years in these public movements. They experienced

the repressive, illegal and often violent response of the government to legitimate

protest and the empowerment of ordinary people. Examples include the FBI/

COINTELPRO murders of most of the Black Panther Party leadership, and widespread

use of the Grand Jury to conduct witchhunts into, and disruption of, legal

organizations. Still believing they could make a difference, several groups of activists

in different parts of the country independently decided to take up clandestine

activity. This included armed resistance, expropriations, and sabotage. Others

in the pacifist and religious communities came together to engage in ongoing,

organized acts of civil disobedience. They all were acting in solidarity with

existing struggles and in pursuit of their visions of a new society.

This vision included helping to change oppressive practices developed

over centuries, which promote hatred and inflict psychological as well as physical

violence. The vision included ending racism and cultural genocide; ending sexist

patterns which result in the commonplace abuse of women and children and

the feminization of poverty; ending homophobic fear that fosters a violent

reaction towards lesbians and gay men. The vision included stopping the

thousand year old practice of anti-Semitism, and changing patterns where age,

physical ability, appearance, and mostly wealth are the measure of a person's

worth. And, most importantly, eradicating the profit motive which is at the root

of all of these problems today, and which destroys the environment and leaves

people starving and homeless." 9


The U.S. is a capitalist-imperialist state and the peoples that it denies independence seek to exercise self-determination and build socialist societies.

By denying the presence of PPs and POWs in its prisons, the U.S. seeks to avoid the domestic and international repercussions that would result from an open discussion of the existence of struggles for self-determination waged by oppressed Peoples under its control. It wants to continue to mask its existence as a modern colonial empire, engaged in internationally recognized wars with Peoples fighting against a racist, colonial, U.S. regime. Those fighting U.S. colonialism (Native Nations, Puerto Ricans, New Afrikans/Blacks, and Mexicano-Chicanos) all seek self-determination, and have the protections afforded them by international human rights and humanitarian law. (At the conclusion of the Special International Tribunal on the Violation of Human Rights of Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War in United States Prisons and Jails, held at Hunter College, New York, USA, December 7-10, 1990, a panel of international jurists found that "the Black [New Afrikan] and Mexican people living within the borders of the United States, and Native American and Puerto Rican people, have the fundamental right to exercise self-determination and to seek and receive support from other opponents of repression." and "the evidence presented before us strongly supports the claim that Black [New Afrikan] people living within the borders of the United States are a distinct people entitled to self-determination.") 10

The terms "empire," "imperialism," and "colonialism," especially with reference to the U.S., have been sanitized and generally aren't used or discussed in U.S. classrooms or by its media. The last period during which the reality of the U.S. as an imperialist power was a subject of public debate was at the close of the 19th century (1898), as the U.S. seized Hawaii and Puerto Rico. But, the U.S. is, by any other name, an empire - a capitalist-inspired, settler imperialist state.

By "empire," We mean that the U.S., through purchase and conquest (war), established itself and extended its territorial possessions on the North American continent (and beyond), and through policies and practices known as "imperialism," dominates other nations/peoples through direct and indirect control of their lands and natural resources, and their political, economic, and cultural life. U.S. imperialism, even in its origin, is distinguished from "classical" or "pre-modern" imperialism by being an international expression of capitalist production, which systematically accumulates capital through the organized exploitation of labor and resources (sometimes euphemistically called "the penetration of markets"), integrating productive structures of dominated societies into an international/globalized system of capitalist accumulation. 11

The practice of imperialism is often called "colonialism," a form it assumes when citizens of the imperialist country settle in dominated territories (or, when dominated peoples are "settled" within the boundaries of the imperialist country), erect arbitrary borders, impose political and economic systems upon the dominated peoples, and suppress and distort their cultural and social life, usually promoting policies of "assimilation," which have the ultimate aim of weakening the peoples and reducing their resistance to colonial oppression.

One of the main tools of colonialism is "racism," or the ideology of "white supremacy," i.e., socially constructed beliefs that humanity is divided into a plurality of "races," and that the "white race" is inherently superior to all other so-called "races." The basic biological fact is that "races" don't exist. "Racism" and/or "white supremacy" are used to stigmatize the colonized peoples as inferior and subhuman, to rationalize their exploitation and oppression, and to protect the privileged position of the colonizing peoples.


Europeans came to what's now the North American continent with the object of building and extending empires. They knew that the land was already occupied, but felt that they could purchase land, or simply conquer, enslave, push aside or eliminate the indigenous peoples. The English settlers who became the dominant power on the continent began to openly express their designs, as they increased in population and came to control more territory. For example: In the 1740s, Benjamin Franklin was contributing to the outlines of a plan for an American empire; South Carolina Chief Justice and plantation owner William H. Drayton, espoused his vision of an American empire in 1776, and claimed that his generation had been chosen by God to build it; George Washington described the U.S. as a "rising empire" in 1783, which was the same year that Thomas Jefferson offered plans for the U.S. conquest of the southern portion of the hemisphere. 12

From the establishment of the first permanent English colony in Virginia in 1607, a continuous state of war has existed between the U.S. settler-imperialist state, and 1) the Native Nations and Peoples of the continent and hemisphere (with particular reference to the Mexicano-Chicano peoples, Puerto Ricans, Virgin Islanders, and others in the Caribbean), and 2) the African peoples brought here as an "imported" exploitable labor force, who became a domestically colonized people.

Each of the peoples "encountered" by Euro-American colonialists had exercised self-government and sovereignty until they found themselves victims of colonial violence; each were subjected, without their consent, to the imposition of U.S. citizenship, and to policies designed to undermine their nationalities and to assimilate them into Euro-American culture; each experiences contemporary forms of oppression and exploitation that is re-characterized as "racism" or otherwise placed in the bourgeois framework as an incidental, "domestic" issue.

The original settlers (especially the English) came to this continent to occupy the land. Initially, the usual methods of land acquisition were through some form of compensation, agreement, or treaty. The Native Nations had no concept of individual land ownership, and no individual could dispose of the nation's land. From their perspective, they were simply allowing the European settlers to occupy and use the land, and their agreements usually contained provisions which "reserved" a portion of the "loaned" land for exclusive use of the indigenous people. In 1643, the Dutch entered what was probably the first treaty between a European and a Native nation, the Mohawk. This method of land acquisition, i.e., through treaties between European and Native independent peoples, was adopted and practiced by the English settlers, and the newly established "United States" (after the settlers fought for their independence from Britain), for more than two hundred years thereafter.

Although the English colonies, and later, the United States, continued to slaughter and force the native peoples off of their land, and came to adopt a concept of the indigenous peoples as "pupils" and "domestically dependent," the latter never lost their nationality and their right to self-determination:

"The Indian nations had always been considered as distinct, independent, political

communities, retaining their original natural rights, as the undisputed possessors

of the land, from time immemorial. ...the settled doctrine of the law of nations is,

that a weaker power does not surrender its independence - its right to self-

government - by associating with a stronger, and taking its protection...." 13

In 1871, the U.S. Congress passed an Act, which held that Native Nations would simply no longer be recognized as "independent powers with whom the U.S. may contract by treaty." Over 50 years later, in 1924, Native Nations had U.S. citizenship imposed upon them, in disregard for the principle of international law that "conquered" peoples must be given the right to elect to maintain their nationality, i.e., their political status and allegiance. And, they have continued to struggle to determine their own destiny.


In 1821, Texas (and Mexico, and most of the Southwest), was part of the Spanish empire. Spain sought settlers, and awarded land in Texas to Stephen Austin. Soon thereafter, Mexico acquired its independence from Spain, and Texas became part of the Mexican republic. By 1835, there were over 30,000 settlers from the U.S. in Texas, who were officially citizens of Mexico. A year later, after a war with Mexico, these settlers declared Texas an independent republic. In 1845, Texas was admitted to the United States - and many in the U.S. began to call for U.S. acquisition of all of the Mexican land from Texas to California.

Mexico and Texas disputed the border between the two countries - Mexico claiming the border at the Neuces River, and Texas claiming it a the Rio Grande. The U.S. President, Polk, ordered the U.S. Army to the Rio Grande, allegedly to “protect Texas.” This was an obvious pretext to start a war with Mexico in order to occupy more Mexican land. War against Mexico was declared by the U.S. in 1846, and in 1848, Mexico “ceded” to the U.S. lands now called California, Nevada, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, and Utah.

In effect, the ceded land became colonial territory occupied by the U.S., with a large population of Mexican nationals, who had U.S. citizenship imposed upon them without their being consulted as to their choice of political status: “Thus began the Mexican sojourn into internal colonialism. Mexicans were now to be excluded from civil society. The usual patter of U.S. federalism was initiated, i.e., the incorporation of the land by the settlers, and the exclusion of the native inhabitants. …[Another] example of this occurred in the cases of Hawaii and Alaska. …

“Mexicans, on the other side of the U.S.-imposed border, never recognized it as a legal border…

“…There is a historical problem created 50 years ago which needs to be resolved and no racist legislation, no tortilla curtain, no militarization of the so-called border, no attacks on bilingual education, no attempts to set back the clock on representation by challenging of congressional districts, no moves to continue to seize Mexico’s natural wealth as evidenced by NAFTA at the expense of the indigenous and popular masses of Mexico, can stave off the final solution: a Mexican solution to the Mexican National Question.” 14


In 1898, Spain recognized the independence of Cuba, and “transferred” Puerto Rico (along with Guam and the Phillippines) to the U.S., through the Treaty of Paris. The Puerto Rican people have never accepted that treaty as legitimate, because it “violated the clause of the Autonomous Charter which required the approval of the Puerto Rican House of Delegates of any treaty enacted by Spain which affected the interests of Puerto Rico. Consequently…the North American domination of Puerto Rico is founded on illegality. There the treaty as well as the application of North American laws to Puerto rico and the Puerto Ricans, are null and void.” 15

In July 1898, Puerto Rico was invaded by the U.S. Army, under the command of Nelson Miles. The U.S. has since claimed that Puerto Rico “belongs to, but isn’t part of” the U.S. In other words, Puerto Rico is a colonial possession of the U.S.

In 1917, the Puerto Rican people, like others before them, had U.S. citizenship imposed upon them, without ever being consulted as to their political status: “While every attempt has been made to de nationalize and de-‘Puerto Ricanize’ Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans have resisted. Puerto Rican resistance has taken many forms, from direct political action, to cultural resistance and civil disobedience. For their resistance…Puerto Ricans have had to pay a heavy price, including massacres, bombings, imprisonment and assassination of their people…” 16


Africans began arriving in the English colonies of North America, in large numbers and by force, in approximately 1619. Twenty years later, the disparate peoples, originally from different sovereign African societies, were being forged into a single, new people - a new nationality - by the circumstances of their collective oppression. With ties to the historical realities of the societies from which they’d been taken, Africans in America now shared a new material and cultural reality qualitatively distinct from that of their captors, so that they shared social, cultural, economic and political experience, under a system of colonial repression, unable to exercise a self-determined existence as a people. Through law and social practice, this new, African-descended people was excluded from the civil society of the settlers, and held in colonial servitude as “slaves”.

Over the course of the next two hundred years, this new African-descended people had developed all of the attributes of a national group, yet they lacked the sovereign government that would allow them de jure recognition as a nation by the dominant world community.

However, they existed and acted as a nation - an oppressed nation - because they exhibited a “national spirit” and a sense of “patriotism” that inspired their movement to free themselves, as a people, of the rule of the U.S.

That they were recognized as a distinct people, de facto, by the U.S. is shown by the circumstances surrounding their initial grant of formal independence, during and after the international conflict between the Confederate States of America (CSA/Confederacy), and the United States of America (USA/Union).

Commonly known as the “Civil War,” the conflict between the CSA and the USA was waged to determine the dominant form of the exploitation of labor and capitalist production on the continent. (In December 1860, the state of South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed by the states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. They formed the CSA on February 2, 1861, and were later joined by Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee.)

The CSA sought to extend plantation agricultural production, based on colonized/“slave” labor, and the USA sought to maintain the Union, extend capitalist production based on small farms, industrialization, and the exploitation of wage labor. This objective was expressed by the U.S. President, Lincoln, as “preservation of the Union, with or without slavery.” Lincoln, who took office in March, 1861, had already urged the U.S. Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment that would permanently bar that body from ending “slavery” in any of the United States, hoping that this would bring the seceding states back into the Union. The amendment passed, and was sent to the states for ratification on the day that Lincoln took office. It had been ratified by three states when the CSA attacked the Union’s Fort Sumter, and opened the armed conflict.

The issue of the emancipation (independence) of the Afrikan people within the U.S. came to the surface and became pivotal during the war, as both the Confederacy and the Union sought to incorporate Afrikans into their armed forces. Moreover, the USA pursued the independence of the New Afrikan people as a necessary means of undermining the agricultural economy of the Confederacy.

In August of 1861, a Confiscation Act was passed by the U.S. which “freed” all Afrikans then involved in the conduct of the CSA war effort. In July, 1862, another Confiscation Act was passed, which: “freed” all Afrikans under the control of persons convicted of treason against the U.s., and who made their way to the lines of Union armed forces, authorized the incorporation of Afrikans into Union armed forces, at the discretion of the President; authorized the colonization (relocation outside the U.S.) of all Afrikans so “freed”. It’s important to note, in this regard, that Lincoln and the Union were expressing a long-established tendency that recognized the distinct character of the New Afrikan people, and which sought their relocation, in whole or in part (e.g., the colonization of “free” Afrikans).

The issue of relocating Afrikans within the U.S. was discussed most widely and seriously/first, after issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, in January of 1863, and even more so after passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865.

The Emancipation Proclamation declared all Afrikans in states then in rebellion against the Union to be free, and further authorized the incorporation of Afrikans into Union armed forces. However, neither this Proclamation, nor any of the earlier “confiscation acts” actually freed any Afrikan. These were all mere political documents and war measures, none of which offered any social, political, or economic rights or privileges to Afrikans within the imperialist state, and which effectively left unchanged the status of Afrikans in areas of the U.S. or occupied by Union troops - until the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The 13th Amendment removed the municipal law of the U.S., which effected the colonial status (“enslavement”) of the New Afrikan people within its borders, leaving us as a free people, on territory claimed by the U.S. Once declared independent, by and of the U.S., We could not again be (“legally”) incorporated into the U.S. without our informed and freely expressed consent.

At the end of the war with the CSA, the U.S. was confronted with two major problems: 1) what to do with the now independent Afrikan nationality within its borders; 2) how to bring the states of the CSA back into the Union with assurance that they would conform to the demands of the new system of capitalist production. All discussion of the relocation of the Afrikan population came to a halt as the Union realized that it could prosecute a reconstruction of the U.S. on its terms only by using the voting power of the Afrikans.

“In Black Reconstruction in America, [W.E.B.] Du Bois quotes a letter written by Charles Sumner: “…the question [of giving the vote to Afrikans] has become immensely practical in this respect: Without their votes we cannot establish stable governments in the Rebel States. Their votes are as necessary as [were] their muskets.” Du Bois also quotes Wendell Phillips on the subject: ‘The African must be given the franchise because we have no other timber to build states with, and unless we build with [them], we must postpone reconstruction for so many years.’ “ 17

However, as stated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1847 case of Dred Scott, Afrikans in the U.S. weren’t citizens, and thus couldn’t vote. The consideration of imposing U.S. citizenship upon Afrikans could only arise if it were clear that Afrikans had a prior and existing distinct nationality, i.e., political status, and allegiance. Ignoring this, and acting only on its own interests, the U.S. trampled upon principles and customs of international law, and adopted the 14th Amendment to its Constitution, which imposed U.S. citizenship upon the newly independent Afrikan people, and passed it in 1866. Before it was ratified, in 1868, the U.S. Congress passed the first of several Reconstruction Acts, in 1867, which established provisional governments in the former CSA, and declared universal male suffrage - which resulted in having over 700,000 Afrikans and some 660,000 Euro-Americans as registered voters. Nevertheless, even the ratification of the 14th Amendments didn’t ensure the franchise for Afrikans. This required the passage of the 15th Amendment, in 1870.

Clearly, Afrikans could not have been rightfully “enslaved”/colonized; as free people(s) wrongfully “enslaved”/colonized, and with an acknowledgement of freedom/independence now made by the colonial state, no “legal” act by that state could preclude other options and impose upon a free people citizenship in the U.S.

If, prior to the 14th Amendment, We stood as a free people, allegiance couldn’t be imposed upon us - We had the natural right to freely choose our future state relationship. The 14th Amendment excluded that free choice and imposed a new form of colonial dependency (unique form of neo-colonialism) and our status with respect to state affiliation and our future relation to the U.S. still remains to be settled.


The social oppression common to PPs, POWs, and “social prisoners” was given a new dimension in the 1970s when, because of their political beliefs and activities, growing numbers of “social prisoners” were placed in control/isolation units within U.S. prisons. The purpose of these units was best expressed by a former warden of the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, Ralph Aron, who admitted that they were designed “to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in society at large.”

Over the past two decades the number of prisons with control/isolation units has increased, and many states have built new “supermax” prisons, which have the sole function of confining “troublesome” (i.e., politically conscious and active) prisoners. The construction of prisons is part of a prison industry that’s the second-fastest growing industry in the U.S., and most of these new prisons are intended to house the country’s youth: “It has been said that because of the time it takes to fund, plan, and build a new prison [the U.S. is] building prisons for today’s fourth graders.” 18 If present U.S. imprisonment rates continue (468 per 100,000), and estimated 1 in 20 of U.S. children today will serve time in prison during their lifetime. Today, it’s no exaggeration to say that the purpose of the U.S. prison system is to control revolutionary “attitudes” in the society at large.

As the social-revolutionary thrust of the 1960s led to the imprisonment of PPs and POWs, it also led to a rise in the number of social prisoners - especially the vastly disproportionate imprisonment of oppressed nationalities. Prisons increased their role (within the mix of law enforcement, judicial, legislative, industrial and financial systems) as instruments of counter-insurgency and control of the domestic population, as the U.S. responded to political, economic, and social crises with a domestic “structural adjustment” of the its capitalist system.

U.S. structural adjustment included the virtual end of welfare, an end to low income housing, reduction in expenditures on education, slashing of health care, food stamps, job training, and all other social programs - and corporate “downsizing” that’s left untold numbers unemployed or marginally employed. To enforce this policy, police forces have been increased, militarized, and charged with waging wars on “crime and drugs” which in reality are wars against the people. Judicial and legislative arms of the government are used (as they always have been) to facilitate changes in the U.S. political economy, with the passage of repressive laws and the particular targeting of oppressed peoples for “discriminatory” treatment by the courts, whose function is to “Lock away those who might indict a system of inequality. Lock away those who would scream for a fair distribution of wealth. Lock away the faces of color that have been forgotten - those which could testify to the apartheid that quietly flourishes in the United States, the same kind of apartheid that the world declared inhumane when it existed in South Africa.” 19

There’s increasing public discussion of the role of prisons in the U.S., much of it within the context of what’s called the “Prison-Industrial Complex” (PIC), and the “racist” practice of police and courts, which results in the disproportionate imprisonment of oppressed nationalities.

The term “PIC” refers to a union between prisons, law enforcement, the judiciary, politicians, and industry, and to the enormous amounts of money spent and made to add stability to U.S. capitalism, while also controlling the population within its borders.

In the initial stage of its contemporary form, the PIC involved a concerted effort by the states to turn prisons into “factories with fences.” Laws were repealed which restricted interstate trade of prison-made products, and laws were passed to allow private industry to build and operate inside prisons, and to contract prison labor to state, military, and private industry.

Later, the U.S. began the privatization of prison construction and operation (as it now privatizes schools and other public institutions and services, and pushes similar privatization as part of its “globalization” strategy). Businesses contract with the states to operate prisons at lower costs than the states could. In the process, they generally provide inadequate services to prisoners (i.e., poor food, health care, and educational opportunities), and they hire poorly trained, low-wage staff (from areas that have been economically depressed by U.S. structural adjustment) whose treatment of prisoners increasingly results in charges of brutality.

Whether under state or private control, the labor of prisoners is being exploited for commercial production in sectors which now include internationally traded products and services (e.g., computer circuit boards, shoes and clothing, automotive parts, food, telemarketing and telephone reservation systems for hotels and airlines, data entry, golf balls, soap and other toiletries, furniture and print shop operation), for companies that include General Electric, American Express, Starbucks, Microsoft, Victoria’s Secret, Best Western, Boeing and Trans World Airlines.

However, the contemporary form of the PIC, and the exploitation of prisoner labor as an adjunct to the development of the U.S. political-economy, and as a means of controlling U.S. domestic and nationally oppressed populations, has roots which go back to the 1860s.

As We discussed above, after the Confederacy was defeated by the U.S., “reconstruction” was the task of bringing the seceding states back into the Union in conformity with the latter’s vision as to how to “make increased profit by a more intelligent exploitation of labor.” 20 In the former CSA, Afrikan labor remained the key to economic development, and “helped pay for the reconstruction of the South, the industrialization of the North, and the western settlement” between 1870 and the first decades of the 20th century. 21

One element in this new system of colonial oppression of Afrikans in the U.S. was the use of the labor of imprisoned Afrikans: “…In Georgia, at the outbreak of the Civil War, there were about 200 white [Euro-American] felons confined at Milledgeville [prison]. There were no [Afrikan] convicts, since under the discipline of slavery [Afrikans] were punished on the plantation. The white [Euro-American] convicts were released to fight in the Confederate armies. The whole criminal system came to be used as a method of keeping [Afrikans] at work or intimidating them. Consequently there began to be a demand for jails and penitentiaries beyond the natural demand due to the rise of crime. …Above all, crime was used in the South as a source of income for the state. …In no part of the modern world has there been so open and conscious a traffic in crime for deliberate social degradation and private profit as in the South since slavery …Since 1876 [Afrikans] have been arrested on the slightest provocation and given long sentences or fines which they were compelled to work out….” 22

Similarly, in the words of Lerone Bennett: “…[Afrikan] criminals were deliberately manufactured by the legal system which was an adjunct to the notorious prison convict system. On the slightest pretext and oftentimes with no pretext at all, young [Afrikan] men were sentenced to long prison terms and leased out to plantation owners, railroad builders, and other businessmen.” 23


The U.S. started keeping statistics on its imprisonment rate in 1925, when the rate was 79 per 100,000. In that decade, Afrikans were approximately ten percent of the population within the U.S., but 25 percent of the U.S. prison population. The 1920s should be noted for the social and political upheaval of the times, on the part of oppressed nations, organized labor, and the anti-communist campaign with which the U.S. responded - which included the use of imprisonment for political purposes and social control.

Not until the social-revolutionary thrust of the 1960s did the U.S. imprisonment rate begin to significantly increase, further indicating the relationship between imprisonment and the U.S. political agenda.

In the 1960s the U.S. faced imperialist struggles inside and outside its borders. It launched a “war on crime” which was a screen for the imposition of measures designed to control oppressed nationalities and ever-larger sectors of its domestic population, as people became increasingly active around social issues on a number of fronts.

In the 1970s the U.S. began to practice “low intensity conflict” around the world and within its borders, to respond to what was perceived as a permanent threat to the capitalist-imperialist system, at home, and abroad. Prisons and related institutions played their role in this conflict. Between 1972 and 1980, the imprisonment rate doubled. By 1991, it had doubled again, reaching 310 per 100,000. It reached the present rate 468 per 100,000 on the wave of a “war on drugs” and repressive legislation that followed the pattern set in the 1860s, and updated in the 1920s, 60s and 80s.

Today, there are over 2 million women, men and juveniles in the prisons and jails of the U.S. - over 1 million of them are Afrikans, and nearly one-half million are Latino. As stated in a recent report by the World Organization Against Torture, USA (WOAT):

- New Afrikan/Black males make up less than 7 percent of the population

within U.S. borders, yet they alone comprise half the prison and jail population;

- Nationality (“race”) plays a major role in the application of the death penalty:

Of 660 executed since 1976, 45 percent have been people of oppressed

nationalities, and 54 percent of those currently awaiting execution are of

oppressed nationalities;

- The U.S. is one of only five countries that execute juveniles, in direct violation

of the prohibition against this practice in several international human rights

instruments. There are now 74 juveniles on death row in the U.S., two-thirds

of them of oppressed nationalities; 58 percent of the juveniles sentenced to

death since 1976 were Afrikan or Latino, and 8 of the 17 juveniles executed in

the U.S. were Afrikan or Latino. 24

The WOAT report focused on the failure of the U.S. to comply with the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD0, and noted the importance of using international human rights standards and mechanisms to address and focus attention upon U.S. domestic compliance with this and other human rights instruments.

Shortly before the WOAT report was issued, Human Rights Watch issued a report on U.S. “Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs”. This report acknowledged that the “drug war” is waged primarily against New Afrikans/Blacks, and is “the single greatest force behind the growth of the U.S. prison population since the mid-1980s.” 25

The HRW report found that the U.S. is indifferent to considerations of respect for human dignity required by international human rights law, and that:

1) U.S. drug policies coupled with felony disfranchisement laws weakened Afrikans

with respect to the U.S. political process;

2) the high percentage of Afrikan women and men imprisoned undermines the

moral and social cohesion of Afrikan people;

3) disproportionate imprisonment of Afrikans and other oppressed nationalities

“contradicts faith in the principle of justice and equal protection of the laws.”

The HRW report also reaffirmed findings made by U.S. and British criminologists first reported in the 1970s and 80s, i.e., that there is no relationship between the U.S. crime rate and imprisonment rate; that there’s no relationship between the crime rate and the proportion of Afrikans or other oppressed nationalities; that there is a relationship between the imprisonment of Afrikans and other oppressed peoples, and their proportions of state populations. In other words, Afrikans and other oppressed peoples are imprisoned because of their nationality (“race”).


“There is always the room to debate politics, points of view, strategies and tactics. To confront differences and questions is a good thing. Any struggle for liberation demands free and open debate of ideas and practice.” 26

While carrying on necessary debate, We must also forge a collective effort to free all PPs and POWs, and to wage our common social-revolutionary struggles. We must cut through the boundaries of our present ideologies, political trends, and sectarian tendencies. We’ll all win - by working together - or We’ll all continue to tread the mill.

Collective effort to force the U.S. to admit that it holds PPs and POWs will also shape a new awareness and understanding of social reality, and inspire a new sense of social responsibility, for all those that the campaign touches and mobilizes.

Collective effort to de-criminalize and humanize the PPs and POWs will also contribute to the shape of a new political identity and a new humanism for millions and tens of millions of people inside the U.S. borders and throughout the world.

Collective effort to free all of the PPs and POWs, and to change the conditions of social prisoners, will influence changes in the U.S. judicial and legislative systems and, in the process, inform an advance towards people’s democracy.

Collective effort in the engagement of on-going self-determination and anti-capitalist struggles ties it all together - collective effort and common vision for a new social order, a new humanism, and freedom from oppression for all peoples, the world over.

Dare to struggle! Dare to win!

Freedom for all Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War!

Self-Determination for all Oppressed Peoples!

End the capitalist oppression and exploitation of all peoples!

Owusu Yaki Yakubu

CROSSROAD Support Network

reprinted from Can’t Jail the Spirit: Political Prisoners in the U.S. (5th edition, February 2002)


  1. Can’t Jail The Spirit

  2. See the Glossary, below, for definitions of terms, e.g., “Sanctioned”

  3. See: “Notes on the Promotion of Knowledge and Respect for the Laws of War, or, Meeting the Obligations of International Humanitarian Law,” CROSSROAD, Vol. 3, Nos. 2-3 (Chicago: Spear and Shield Publications, Nov. 1991), pps. 9-16.

  4. We try to avoid the use of the terms “black” and “white” with respect to identity, because We believe they reinforce and reproduce the ideology of race/ism. We prefer to use terms that identify nationality, e.g., “Euro-American” rather than “white” and “New Afrikan” rather than “black”.

  5. See: Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, U.N. Doc. No. A/32/144 (1977), 16 International Legal Materials 1442 (1977); International Covenants on Human Rights (i.e., the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights).

  6. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 1514, UN Resolution Series.

  7. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2621, UN Resolution Series 11970-1971 at 49 (Dusan J. Djonovich, ed. 1976; United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3103, Resolution Series I 1972-1974, at 170 (Dusan J Djonovich, ed. 1978); Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, U.N. Doc. No. A/32/144 (1977), 16 International Legal Materials 1391 (1977).

  8. Amilcar Cabral, quoted in “On Captured Citizens, Political Prisoners, and Prisoners of War: A New Afrikan Perspective,” CROSSROAD, op. cit. p. 3.

  9. Can’t Jail The Spirit, 4th Edition, pps. 151-152.

10. CROSSROAD, op. cit., Note 4, p. 16.

11. Michael Parenti, Against Empire (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1995), p. 3.

12. See: The Rising American Empire, R.W. Van Alystyne, and America’s Road to Empire: The War With Spain and Overseas Expansion, H.Wayne Morgan.

13. Chief Justice John Marshall, Worchester v. Georgia 31 U.S. 515 (S. CT. 1832).

14. Jose Lopez, Can’t Jail The Spirit, 4th Edition, p. 15.

15. Dr. Luis Nieves-Falcon, Can’t Jail The Spirit, 4th Edition, p. 104.

16. Jose Lopez, op cit., p. 16.

17. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction In America, quoted in, “The 13th Amendment: Instrument of Legalized Slavery and the Re-Subjugation of New Afrika,” Notes from a New Afrikan POW Journal, Book Two (Chicago: Spear and Shield Publications, 1977).

18. Andrew Hartman, “U.S. Prisons Mean Money,” The Humanist, Nov.-Dec. 2000, pps. 6-10, at p. 6.

19. Ibid., p. 10.

20. 13th Amendment, op cit. (Du Bois)

21. Lerone Bennett, The Making of Black America, quoted in “13th Amendment,” Ibid.

22. Ibid. (Du Bois).

23. Ibid. (Bennett)

24. Racial and Ethnic Discrimination in the United States: The Status of Compliance by the U.S. Government with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, World Organization Against Torture. USA, October 2000.

25. United States Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, Human Rights Watch, May, 2000.

26. Marilyn Buck, “Prisons, Social Control, and Political Prisoners,” CROSSROAD, Vol. 9, No. 3, Fall 2000, p. 20.


Glossary of Terms (PP/POW Definitions)

Sanctioned: The PP or POW has been vouched for by a recognized formation within the Movement.

Movement: e.g., the New Afrikan Independence Movement and formations within it; the Puerto Rican independence movement; the Native (American) Nation movement; the Euro-American Anti-Imperialist movement - all such movements together constitute The Movement

National: a citizen or person professing allegiance to a government or authority not recognized by the detaining power.

Ally: a person acting under a command responsible to a government or authority not recognized by the detaining power, and/or who professes allegiance to the unrecognized government or authority.

Held: detained presently, meaning the person may not have been originally imprisoned for political reasons but is being held presently for political reasons/activities.

Evolved in Character and Deeds: (see “Held”), i.e., social prisoner-turned-revolutionary.

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