On Jan. 5, Devin Cole spoke with Free Alabama Movement co-founder and freedom fighter Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun about the economic side of the ongoing 30-day Economic Blackout and Alabama prison strike in January, the growth of social media and prison abolition, and what it will take to build a truly structured prison and slavery abolition organization.
Devin Cole: Members of the Free Alabama Movement and other prison abolitionists are saying that Securus Technologies’ implementation of video visitation equipment is a front for permanently removing all in-person visitation and replacing it with video visitations only. Can you talk about these concerns and why they want to do away with in-person visitation?
Bennu Hannibal: Certain members of FAM have that interpretation and are expressing it. As for myself, I haven’t seen anything specific as to what Securus and ADOC’s plan is, but that doesn’t mean it’s not their overall plan. We do know that video visitation is already happening in other states, because Securus is a national brand. And we can extrapolate from those conversations and things that we are already aware of what the plan is for Alabama. We also know that some county jails are already using video visitation exclusively.
Whatever the decision, we know that it will be decided by economics and not what is best for the families. Under the current model, aside from the vending machines, the state doesn’t make any money on in-person visitation.
On the flip side, they have costs associated with physical visitation, like having security staff to harass and inspect visitors, perform strip searches, etc. These are all costs to the operational budget of a prison that disappear with video visitation kiosks. So, they probably compared the numbers from what they are making off normal visitation, in contrast to what they will make off the contracts with Securus, including the other services that Securus will be charging for us to use their tablets, etc., and decided that if they go to video visitation and make whatever else they will make off these contracts — then that is more profitable and preferable to do.
I don’t know if they would switch to a system where in-person is only once a month, once every 90 days, or you have to earn it or whatever. But people in prison and our families should not have to pay to talk to our loved ones, and we should never be denied the basic need for human contact that all human beings need.
Securus is an unscrupulous company that has been caught and sued for providing location-tracking information to law enforcement, bounty hunters and bondsmen, which was used to track people and their family members — and that shows that they are willing to be a part of the police state and prison-industrial complex.
These companies have no incentive to be concerned with what the family members have to say or are going through. It is very clear that they have some perception of the financial exploitation that goes into prison plantation management, and they are not constrained by principles when it comes to human suffering to make their profits.
DC: The other four companies in this Economic Blackout that are being boycotted are JPay, Access Corrections, Union Supply Company and Alabama Correctional Industries. What are their roles in the slavery system of Alabama prisons?
BH: It’s not just about the Alabama prisons. Alabama doesn’t have JPay. The reason we added some of these companies is to give people in other states the opportunity to be a part of the Economic Blackout protest as well, because it is affecting all of us.
Even though the original idea of this economic boycott by Kinetik Justice was and has remained for the most part a statewide effort, I thought it would be wise to add other companies that provide similar services in other states to leave room for other states to get involved, to create an opportunity to build unity and to show that we are all in this together — because the actions we are taking in Alabama are related to the actions around the country.
Union Supply and Access Secure are prison profiteers involved in the overpriced incentive package and accessory programs that are used to exploit and extort money from us and our families. These companies provide their services to prisons nationwide and enjoy exclusive monopoly contracts with prisoncrats and politicians. We need to be getting at all of them, all across the country, all at the same time.
Through actions like the Economic Blackout, we want families to understand why we have to start demanding audits of these companies, so that we can show people what’s really going on.
Another thing I want to do while we raise awareness is to find five families that are willing to have their personal finances audited, so that they can see in exact dollar amount terms how much they are contributing to incarceration and enslavement by investing in these exploitative companies. When people start seeing how much money is being made, they’ll then start asking where is the money going? Family members will see that they are paying for all these weapons, the mace and rubber bullets, the night sticks and electric shields that are used to harm us — and that these suppliers and prison officials are getting rich off it all.
It is profits that are made and the kickbacks to the operating budgets that keep the structure of the incarceration system and its laws intact. It is the economic contributions and free or cheap prison labor that form the pillars that uphold the system; and when those pillars are stressed and broken, the entire system collapses.
These economic boycott campaigns are to get people to see what their money is going to and what the system would look like if they took all their JPay money out, all their Securus money out — what that would look like. Would it be better, or would it be worse? There has to be a scientific application of “What am I dealing with?”
The budget of Alabama prisons is $600,000,000. If we take the labor out, what does that do to the budget? If we take incentive packages out, what does that do to the budget? If we take the canteen money out, what does that do to the budget? And so on and so forth.
DC: In 2018, you wrote an incredible article called “Seeing the problem, being the solution, making the sacrifice.” (tinyurl.com/y4vhskez) In it, you speak extensively of the need to use social media, as in creating a mobile app for your organization that tells of all ongoing prison strikes, hunger strikes and all economic boycotts similar to that going down right now. Could you talk about the role that social media and technology have played in expanding these growing economic blackouts?
BH: We started using social media as part of our core strategy back in 2014 with our YouTube channel and Facebook page. When I came to prison back in 2001, I was shocked at the living conditions. I shared with the guys in prison that we needed a camcorder to document this stuff. I was 100% convinced that people in society had no idea that living conditions were that bad. Hell, I had friends and my brother in prison at the time, and I had no idea people were living this way.
So when the time came for me to put the blueprint for the Free Alabama Movement together, I knew that social media would play a very important role in the way we got our message and our proof out. I knew I could take that phone, create the social media platforms, and use this technology to push the Movement forward in unique ways.
As for the mobile app, I simply see this as the evolution in the area of technology for our Movement. There is a lot of activism taking place around the country on the inside of U.S. prisons, jails and detention facilities, but people don’t know how to wade through all the social media content to find out about it, because the information is hard to find.
For example, right now there is a hunger strike going on in an ICE detention center in New Jersey, with others joining in daily. There is action in Pennsylvania and other places that kicked off mostly at the start of the year. There is our economic boycott here in Alabama, which includes several hunger strikers.
Hardly any of us know about each other, even though we are all protesting and taking actions for the same issues. As things stand at the moment, our actions are all unconnected. With this app that we’re still working to develop, we could have a centralized source where people can see all these things happening, and we could reach out to organizers in Alabama, Texas, New Jersey, bring them to the table and come out with the united front. All the issues are the same, so why are we not all acting and moving and organizing together?
There is just too much information and too much trickery going on for people to be on top of what is going on and who and what is legit or not. This app will help to centralize information and actions and allow us to strengthen and grow our base from which to inform and educate.
When you look back to November 2017, you’ll see an article I wrote in the San Francisco Bay View for the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain 2018, where I presented the idea and laid out a potential structure building a nationwide, “Inside-led” organization called the National Freedom Movement (which is now growing). (tinyurl.com/y4yarmw4) The elevated levels of activity around the country today illustrate why having a national structure is so important, so that all of these campaigns can be organized and be happening simultaneously in several states. There are a lot of organizations involved in what’s going on in Alabama, New Jersey, Florida, so why can’t we all work together?
We can’t remain stuck in isolated borders when we are dealing with people who are committed to solving this gigantic problem. Prisons commissioners, police chiefs, mayors, doctors, and many other common groups, all have national meetings and platforms that they share every year. They are unified and they are together — that is why they are successful. We are not unified, and that’s why we are not successful!
There are many organizations on the outside supporting our struggle, but they already have their own agendas and plans that they organize around. The work they do for us falls within the context of the limited scope of what they are about. In other words, they are not structured exclusively to our needs and concerns.
Outside organizations are coming in and offering help, but not helping us build our own infrastructure. When they leave, or the cause of the moment dies off, they take their resources and infrastructure with them. That model is only mildly effective.
If we are to have long-term success and truly solve these problems, then we’ll have to build our own nationwide, Inside-led outside-support network ourselves. And that starts with the Inside coming together nationally first.
What I am proposing in the National Freedom Movement is that those of us on the inside come together and then organize our own outside-support organizations from the ground up: We provide the by-laws; we make the structure — and every component and every brick is set up by those of us on the inside.
We already have more than enough legit Inside-led organizations. The bottom line is we should be organizing together, planning together and dictating the action and the tempo nationwide from the inside. But we aren’t unified, and as a result, most — but not all — of our actions are reactive.
For those asking what they can do to help, help us build our own national infrastructure in the way we are describing. It’s paternalistic and destructive to the Movement to do otherwise. Over time, we see organizations pull out and take their resources with them, returning every now and then to play favorites amongst the Inside activists. They use their leverage and resources to play divide-and-conquer amongst inside factions. This benefits the government and not the struggle. That’s why we need our own outside-support structure. Without independence, we’ll always have these problems that we are having today with outside organizations.
DC: Any final thoughts or words you want to speak about?
BH: Starting out, this call was originally for a 30-day Economic Blackout in the form of work strikes, boycotts and protests. Over the past 4-to-5 days, however, we started to see the Economic Blackout aspect become overshadowed and hijacked. This was allowed to happen for a number of reasons — none of them positive.
For example, I am seeing an organization conducting a fundraiser “for the hunger strikers,” but with no offer of support for the others sacrificing. And, one of the reasons they say they are raising funds — to help pay for commissary — is a direct contradiction of the Economic Blackout. They say they are raising funds at the request of the Free Alabama Movement, but why would FAM be requesting funds to be spent in a way that directly contradicts the Economic Blackout?
Lost in the shuffle is the fact that the hunger strikers are taking action to support the Economic Blackout. Nevertheless, we have people reporting on the hunger strikers in a way that totally separates them from the Economic Blackout, where all freedom fighters are being called on to take action by quitting their jobs, rejecting visits and or foregoing canteen or incentive packages — and going on hunger strike if this is your choice.
These are obvious contradictions that compelled me to speak where I otherwise had been silent on certain matters. Supporters have to understand that their individual relationships and conversations don’t translate into universal support for FAM, and they should not be making statements and taking actions that cause contradictions or conflicts with overall Movement activities.
When the message gets hijacked, the companies to boycott are being given a pass, and the potential to expand the boycott is being lost. But this is what happens when outside support organizations put personal relationships before organizational principles. They started picking the people they like and reporting from that angle, instead of supporting the cause. And that’s another reason why we need to create our own outside-support structure.
We need everyone to stay focused on our fundamental approach to defining and solving this problem with economic direct-action campaigns, because this is how we are going to affect change. We support everyone who is making a sacrifice for freedom and all of the families, but we have to remain vigilant in our understanding that this is a comprehensive plan, not a reactionary one.
And it’s not just for 30 days. We want people to know that this is ongoing. We can’t let the State off the hook by forgetting that we are here to defund, divest and be disruptive with economic strategies and tactics. We’ll amplify that by any means necessary.
Bennu Hannibal Ra Sun is the founder of the Free Alabama Movement and Executive Director of the Campaign to Redistribute the Pain. He is the architect of the National Freedom Movement, an author, and he is fighting for the liberation of all people trapped in cages and behind walls.
Devin Cole is a transgender Marxist organizer and writer. They are the president of Strive (Socialist Trans Initiative), a transgender advocacy organization in northwest Florida, and a member of the Workers World Party – Central Gulf Coast (Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi) branch.