Bryant Arroyo: On the inside, speaking out on prisons

Joe Piette, Bryant Arroyo, and Ted Kelly

SCI Frackville, Pa. — Even from within the confines of a state correctional institution in rural Pennsylvania, Bryant Arroyo is on the move. Just in the last few months he has spoken at Harvard University and Haverford College, testified at a roundtable discussion on prison conditions in Center City Philadelphia and been the keynote speaker at the 2018 Yale Environmental Forum.

“I’m on tour!” Bryant exclaimed in one of our recent phone conversations.

That conversation, like all the speeches he delivers live from a prison phone booth, are interrupted intermittently with a monotone prerecorded message: “This is a call from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections … .” `

The calls are disconnected after fifteen minutes. At the roundtable event in Philly this spring, Bryant was only able to answer one question from the group before getting cut off. That’s why his Yale address was prerecorded and hosted on PrisonRadio.org, where many of his addresses can be heard. Each recording contains a voice that is thoughtful and deliberate as it recites highly poetic rhetoric.

In person, Bryant is energetic and talkative. His jovial demeanor isn’t constricted by that deep maroon jumpsuit he is forced to wear. He’ll clap you on the shoulder after making a joke or gently grab hold of your forearm as he gets more emphatic. If ever he pauses, it is to great effect.

It was during one such pause, in the midst of talking about the “distractions and divisions” that keep our class from organizing itself, that Bryant leans in close and punctuates his point:

“Because I hate to break it to you, but you’re in prison, too.”

He’s not referring to the fact that Joe Piette and I are sitting with him in the visitation room at SCI Frackville, where Bryant is currently living out a sentence of life without parole for a crime he did not commit. (He is still fighting to overturn this unjust conviction.)

We sit together on molded rubber seats in the packed chamber where prisoners are huddling together with their visitors. Some of them are eating lunch with their children and grandchildren. Others are sitting silently, facing a blank wall together, arms intertwined with their spouse’s. It’s a Sunday morning. These loved ones surrender their car keys and wallets, turn out their pockets and willingly cross over the gated threshold that separates the “free” from those in bondage.

The person we came to see is a Puerto Rican man who grew up in Lancaster, Pa. His father owned a grocery store that was bought out from under them by gentrifying land-grabbers when Bryant was a child. His family was left scrambling for a steady source of income. By the time he was supposed to be in tenth grade, Bryant had dropped out of school to find work.

He speaks passionately about the lessons his father taught him about the grocery store customers, many of whom were desperately poor, disabled and elderly. “We treat them with respect when they walk in this store,” Bryant’s father would insist, regardless of the person’s background. “We serve them and they serve us,” he’d say, pointing up at the light above their heads — a reminder of how the bills got paid.

Bryant doesn’t hesitate to name the people who created the conditions of destitution and misery in his community. Bryant calls them “the corporate raiders.”

When he says, “I hate to break it to you,” he’s talking about power in our society. The people don’t have it. The corporate raiders have seized it from us.

Roots of the struggle

A man who has now spent a quarter of a century behind bars, Bryant Arroyo knows what it is to experience powerlessness. He is one of the 2.2 million people who are imprisoned right now by the United States government, and therefore he is a member of the most oppressed sector of the working class in this country. He describes the position of the prisoner as being “completely indigent.”

This is a clear echo of the political platform that “prisons are concentration camps for the poor,” reverberating from a time in history when Workers World Party maintained an active Prisoners’ Solidarity Committee. This committee was so organized and well-respected among prisoners that in September 1971 it was invited to send a representative into the Attica prison yard to assist those rebels in negotiating for their demands.

It’s an event that WWP First Secretary Larry Holmes described as “the Black Liberation Movement’s Paris Commune moment.” The Attica demands included the right to a union, vocational training, pay scales, a limited-hour workweek, health care and injury compensation — in short, to be considered workers. “This is a class issue,” the Attica statement said.

In his address to the Yale Environmental Forum, Bryant began:

“As we struggle to put people, and not corporations, in charge of our lives and governance, who seek real and sustainable victories toward that goal, it is vital that we link our dissent, our strategies and our vision, to their roots.”

He warns that any action that is “insufficiently informed by the history and worldview that brought us our present will greatly exhaust our energies and weakly reward our hopes. In the critical work of ending corporate dominance and building democracy, we must always be against the threat of de-radicalism.

“These strategies need to reflect an understanding of the current rule of law that puts we, the People, subordinate to the propertied few, organized in their corporate forms, and they must reflect our commitment to reversing that law.”

On the move

With this worldview, it should come as no surprise that Bryant has been a thorn in the side of prison officials. Highly litigious, never hesitating to issue a grievance when his rights are violated, Bryant also defends his fellow inmates as stridently as he defends himself. He helps them draft their own grievances, research statutes relevant to their cases and strategize for their parole hearings.

Since he has no shot at getting paroled himself, the Department of Corrections ironically has one less threat they can hold over Bryant’s head. Even so, for all his procedural confrontations with prison staff, Bryant has never once been sent to the Restricted Housing Unit — except to assist his fellow prisoners who were placed there. This is remarkable for 25 years and counting, given how impulsively guards throw prisoners “in the hole.” This torture method is even more egregious when one considers the severe lack of mental health resources in U.S. prisons.

Educational materials for English language learners are nearly nonexistent. In a state where an increasing proportion of prisoners speak little to no English, Bryant is sometimes the only person on hand to translate. Bryant says the best tool he has at his disposal to help his fellow hispanohablantes [Spanish speakers] acquire more English is Workers World newspaper.

The back page of this newspaper — the Spanish Mundo Obrero section — is the key text in the ad hoc English as a second language instruction Bryant offers. There are over 300 imprisoned subscribers to Workers World in Pennsylvania, but some of them have access only to that one page.

For his fellow inmates, Bryant’s assistance means a renewed chance at winning their freedom. All this has led to prison officials wanting to get Bryant out of their jurisdiction whenever he makes too much trouble. He’s been transferred to several different cell blocks and even to other prisons.

In one move, he was sent back to SCI Mahanoy’s F Block, which is actually the first place he landed after his bogus conviction. One morning after the move, Bryant woke up in his cell and caught a glimpse of a remarkably familiar figure. Though the man was unsteady on his feet from decades in the hole, stooped and shuffling past the cell door, there was no mistaking the wise eyes, that intelligent face and those long black dreadlocks.

Word got around quickly that Mumia Abu-Jamal was back among the general population after 30 years in solitary confinement. His new cell was next to Bryant’s.

Prisoners flocked to Mumia like they have to every prophet throughout history. But Bryant kept his distance at first. He did not want to overwhelm the revolutionary who had finally, miraculously, emerged from the hell on earth that is death row.

Their friendship was eventually born out of Bryant’s unflagging compassion. He started dropping F Block survival tips to Mumia: what to wear on your way to the shower, which days to keep your cell clean for inspection, who you can trust, who to avoid. A bond soon formed and before long the two could often be spotted in the yard walking long laps around the track, talking and theorizing.

The former Black Panther and Philadelphia radio journalist turned to Bryant and said, “You know, B, you got a great radio voice.” Normally, that alone would be a huge compliment coming from an orator like Mumia Abu-Jamal. But Bryant was floored for an entirely different reason.

“Mu had no way of possibly knowing this, but my father was an AM radio jockey for WLAN. When I was a kid, I did impressions of him all the time.” While telling the story, Bryant breaks into a flawless parody of classic Spanish-language morning radio tags: “Buenos días, estás escuchando a 93.7 Ramón y Lucci. No toques esa esfera … .”

It seems fated that Bryant Arroyo would cross paths with Mumia Abu-Jamal and adopt him as his mentor. One of Bryant’s biggest heroes was Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the heavyweight boxer who won his freedom after being falsely imprisoned for 20 years. He had hoped to meet him one day, but this dream was never realized when Carter died of prostate cancer in 2014. “But Mu got to meet him, “Bryant says. “Hurricane went to see Mu. That’s just as good.”

‘The world’s first jailhouse environmentalist’

Years later, when Bryant Arroyo led an unprecedented kind of prison uprising, it was his friend and mentor Mumia Abu-Jamal who dubbed him “the world’s first jailhouse environmentalist.”

Writing in 2013, Mumia explained the background. “In 1998, a former Pennsylvania governor, Tom Ridge, invited an area businessman to join him on a trek to South Africa. He, John W. Rich Jr., was a power plant operator and a major landowner in the Mahanoy Susquehanna County area, a distressed, impoverished region where coal mines closed down decades ago. Rich met and made deals with the South African Sasol energy and chemical company, and before long, he announced plans for a major coal-to-liquid-gas project, literally right next door to the state prison in Mahanoy.”

An official notice from the Environmental Protection Agency caught Bryant’s eye among what he calls a “maelstrom” of other notices, regulations and advertisements tacked up on the bulletin board at Mahanoy. He pulled it down and asked one of the bemused superintendents that he wanted to see the environmental impact statement for this coal gasification plant that was slated to be built 300 feet from the prison he was confined to. The results were clear — this plant was going to poison everyone in the facility.

So Bryant went up against SESOL, Bechtel, Chevron, Shell, Jack Rich, Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell. He called it real “shoe-leather” organizing, walking the block and getting other prisoners to join him in stopping the construction of the plant. He managed to get the most precariously positioned inmates, LGBTQ folks, rival gangs and both Black and racist factions to cooperate with each other.

While circulating petitions among prisoners is expressly illegal, Bryant couldn’t find any reason that he couldn’t organize prisoners to send in their own letters. He changed the language in the text from “We,” “Us” and “Our” to “I,” “Me” and “Mine.” The censors could only shrug their shoulders. Ironically, individualism provided the loophole for revolutionary collective action.

When the local paper ran a front-page story about the prisoner-led campaign to fight the chemical plant, Jack Rich and his cronies were apoplectic. Later that same week, inmates at Mahanoy could hear deafening construction noises from just beyond the walls. At certain vantage points in the yard, it was clear that Rich was clearing the area for construction, leveling the earth and cutting down trees.

So Bryant responded by getting another 500 prisoners to send letters. All told there were 902 letters, sent from a prison population of 2,300. To visualize what an astonishing accomplishment this is, imagine walking a prison cell block, knowing every third cell was occupied by a prisoner who risked severe retaliation for writing a letter signing on to this movement.

The class contradictions were so stark that even some corrections officers in the prison quietly applauded his efforts, making small gestures of support from guard to inmate that are normally unheard of. Bryant says he learned “to judge a person by the content of their character, not the color of their uniform.” After all, he says, “We’re all locked in here together.” The prison guards’ union joined the opposition to the project.

In the end, the project was scrapped. Bryant Arroyo fought the corporate swindlers — and won.

One home, for all of us

Back at Frackville, Bryant is telling us about an interview he read with an astronaut who was on the International Space Station. He explains eloquently and in detail what living in zero gravity conditions does to the body, how the spinal column expands and how the astronauts are actually an inch or two taller when they return. Bryant was struck by the astronaut’s description of the transcendent and mind-altering experience of seeing Earth from outside the Earth and how the petty barriers — walls, borders, white picket fences — distract us from the fact that we all have a single thing in common.

Bryant, despite himself, pauses for quite some time. He cannot proceed until collecting himself. “We all have one home. And no matter where you’re headed, you’re always trying to go from point A to point B. We’re all trying to make our way home.”

Bryant Arroyo has the compassionate heart of an environmentalist. Always when discussing the toxic effects of the coal plant he helped block, he is adamant that this was about protecting prisoners, the guards, the community at large, but specifically about our “progeny” and the generations yet to come. Bryant, a father himself, is deeply concerned with safeguarding the health of children, who are so vulnerable to pollution and toxic waste. It is only appropriate that the educational program that enabled Bryant to get his GED diploma is named after Daniel Pennock, a 17-year-old boy who died in 1995 after toxic sludge was dumped by his home near Reading, Pa.

“When a child dies,” Mumia wrote after the murder of Tamir Rice, “the natural order is torn, the stars weep and the earth quakes.”

Whether they poison the child with sludge or lead or chemical dust, or they shoot him without 2 seconds’ consideration, corporate moguls are inhuman in their disregard for children’s lives. Bryant is stalwart in fighting against just this kind of inhumanity.

As we drove away from Frackville, I hastily scribbled notes on a legal pad I’d brought for the interview. Despite multiple assurances by prison staff leading up to the visit, Joe and I were denied clearance to bring in a pen and paper. Our reporters’ clearance was mysteriously, conspicuously struck from the record. As I wrote down as much as I could remember from our conversation with this extraordinary individual, that unfathomable figure came back to me: there are 2.2 million others in U.S. prisons.

This was just one story. One story among millions.

(Photo: Benjamin Irvin, SCI Frackville)

(Photo: Benjamin Irvin, SCI Frackville)

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