‘Prison is no joke’

The following is an edited transcript of a Nov. 22 video talk given by Che Nieves, a member of the Young Lords and a survivor of the Attica Prison Rebellion in 1971. 

Greetings to all who believe in humanity, who believe in the self-determination of poor and oppressed people throughout the world.

Che Nieves in the new Attica documentary, 2021.

My name is Che. I was given that name many years ago by some righteous brothers who saw my resisting spirit as I struggled within the prison system. I became a freedom fighter at the awakening of my revolutionary consciousness. It was at this point that I began fighting against racism, exploitation, injustices, abuses and, of course, against capitalism.

We have seen and witnessed throughout history firsthand the outcome of this horrible system. Capitalism for the last 200 years has been a failure to human development. This is a system where our labor is exploited. And the system utilizes our labor, efforts and sweat to gain more wealth and become richer. This results in a process that creates two classes in societies: one, the superrich, which are the capitalists; and two, the superpoor, which are poor and oppressed people of the world, [who] are working-class people.

Between these two classes develops a problem of interests. This conflict of interests creates a contradiction. And this contradiction can only be resolved by a massive, well-organized working class, which takes control over all the major means of production in society and puts it to use for the benefit of the working class. This is a new system of development that we call scientific socialism. This is a historical reality that cannot be stopped. We do not create this process or system. It is a process throughout history that brings about development.

Freedom fighters inside prison

In 1969, after so many years of constant harassment and abuses by prison guards — I was a member of the Black Panther Party at that time — in Attica, we were able to form the first chapter of the Young Lords Party within the United States prison system.

I became a leading member of that party. We began organizing to make this Young Lords Party chapter a reality. In the process of time, the system took notice of the situation in the yard and started targeting the leaders. Of course I was one of them. 

We were placed in segregation. This is a place where you are totally isolated from the prison population. This is a place where they torture and kill you without a slight hesitation. This is a place they have the advantage over you, because now you cannot scream for help because nobody hears you.

They [the guards] go to your cell in numbers, six or seven or more. They put a whipping on you. A hell of a whipping. Many times I was subjected to that. Many brothers were subjected to those types of atrocities. Some of them were killed. Literally, killed.

That’s what happens when you are sent to this place. We are sent there with the expectation of dehumanizing us and forcing us to change our political views and our political activities in the yard.

We’re freedom fighters. We ain’t goin’ with that.

So as a result, we refused to change. And they would continue torturing us.

Many brothers remain in this place for months and even years. We were also denied — on many occasions, for a few days — food, and we were denied showers. These are basic rights that we should have, regardless of our circumstances. But we don’t have those rights, because prisoners are not considered humans. We need to understand that: Prisoners are not considered humans.

It’s worth it. It’s worth risking your life, because we love our people. We will give our lives for our people. That’s what struggle’s about.

But they in turn will not hesitate to kill us just to prove a point. Killing a human life, just like that, so quickly, just to prove a point. So when you become a freedom fighter in prison, you’re putting your life at risk. And it’s worth it, because we know that in the long run our people are gonna win. We know that in the long run, the people are going to become the vanguard of the struggle. We believe in our people. We love our people. And we will do anything for our people.

‘No such thing as prison reform’

In addition to being a freedom fighter, I am also an Attica brother. I was in Attica in 1971. I was able to see the beauty of the development of the Attica struggle. It started in chaos and turned into a well-organized, well-mobilized, well-disciplined organization.

The people took control over half of the prison, and they took hostages as well. They used the hostages as a means of negotiation. If we don’t have no hostages, you can’t negotiate. And if you can’t negotiate, you can’t take control of the prison. That’s the bottom line. When you take control of the prison, you gotta do something in the process to maintain that control.

After five days of constant negotiation, they finally said in many ways, in many words: “Fuck you. We’re gonna come in, and we’re gonna kill you, and we’re gonna take over once and for all.” And they did. They came in. They stormed the prison. They shot up a lot of people, including the hostages. So you know they don’t give a fuck about no one, not even their own.

And you know 50 years later, life at Attica, life at Auburn, life at Comstock Prison, life at Greenhaven Prison, life at Clinton Correctional Facility, there hasn’t been any changes whatsoever. The prisons remain the same. The only thing that has changed is more guards that have been added and more security.

This time instead of the white guards doing the bullshit, doing the dirty work, they send in Black guards and Brown guards to do the dirty work. And they call this reform? They call this reform. Ain’t that a kick in the ass, man? They call this reform.

Now you got your own people against you, torturing you, abusing you, misusing you, mistreating you, and it’s okay ’cause it’s reform.

‘Let’s really look at reform’

Come on, what is reform? Let’s really look at it. Reform is taking something that is not worth using, but using it anyway and painting it in such a way that it appears as if it’s new. And then you display it for sale. And people may buy it, not knowing actually that it has no value. That’s reform.

In prison terms, you know what it is? You remember when Brother Malcolm X talked about the house n**** and the field n****? Those are the house n****** in those prisons. Those are people of color who have a white mentality. They have a white mentality. They’re Black on the outside, Brown on the outside, and white on the inside. They’re system-oriented. They don’t give a fuck about you. They’re there to do a service.

They were probably out there in Afghanistan, killing people, innocent people at that. Killing mothers, fathers, children. That’s what happens in war. They’re probably in Palestine, assisting the Zionists over there killing the Palestinian people. They’re probably in Latin America, killing off a lot of our people over there. They’re probably in Africa, doing the same thing. They come to places like New York, and they become prison guards. What’s that mean? They’re still killers. They’re still criminals. But now they got a badge and a gun, so that makes them more powerful.

Just to prove the point, prisons still remain the same.

We know what prison reform is all about. Spare me the bullshit. There’s no such thing as prison reform; it is a myth that is shoveled to the public with the intention of utilizing their ignorance to create more prisons.

Class nature of crime

Prison itself is big profit. There’s a lot of money invested in prisons. Do you know that? A lot of money. The system has to make money, by any means necessary. So they take helpless people from the streets, some of them uneducated, and they put them in prison. Then they say they’re criminals. And people in society believe that bullshit; they believe it. By no standard are the people in prison really criminals. 

They are victims of a criminal system. Many of them are people who have committed some offense as a means of survival. Some of them are there for nonviolent crimes. And some of them are there for crimes that they did not commit. They’re not criminals — they’re victims.

To speak about crime in this day and time is an excuse and justification to keep people of color isolated from their loved ones in places called jails and prisons. It is a method of justifying mass incarceration. 

We know that mass incarceration is a way of maintaining and developing further the prison industrial complex which gives life and energy to capitalism.  The ideology of capitalism is dialectically based on torture, abuse, injustice, violence and human exploitation of the poor and working class. Mass incarceration is a continuous subjugation of white supremacy. 

It becomes very clear when you see it from the lens of prison confinement.  As we discuss segregation which is part of prison life, we begin to see how human beings are being tortured, and killed in these places we call segregation or for some the box. We begin to see how they are used as torture chambers which are legally justified by capitalist rules and standards. This is a place where racism is law in full force. So to talk about crime and its relationship to prison is a serious discussion because it involves genocide and human lives.

A prisoner is always on the alert of the possibility of being killed. Why?  Because prisoners and guards are always in conflict with each other.  They have a dialectical relationship and as result of that dialectical process there’s always uprisings and rebellions in prison. 

So to resolve this problem what is needed is to do away with prisons and bring all our brothers, sisters and siblings home to their families where they belong. And to resolve crime we need to replace capitalism with socialism. Only then do we get rid of what is known in this society as crime.

‘Close down the prisons’

When you look at the Attica demands, you find that we didn’t talk about reforms. We talked about structural changes from the very bottom to the very top. Structural changes that went to the very root of the problem that capitalism faces. 

But it appears that some people take advantage of the Attica struggle, twist it all around, and claim we were talking about prison reform. We weren’t talking about prison reform; we were talking about doing away with prisons. The demands themselves were so powerful that the system could not implement them. They never implemented them. That’s why brothers and sisters in prison are still waging struggles, because the condition still remains.

So, what are we talking about here? We’re talking about doing away with prisons — all the way. We gotta do away with prisons, now. Because they serve no purpose. If you justify the existence of prisons, in the United States as an example, then you shouldn’t talk about Hitler, when we had his torture chambers, and he was killing the Jews. Same thingHitler was torturing and putting Jewish people into his chambers. What are they doing here? Same thing. They just color it up a little bit, make it look different. But it’s the same bullshit, man.

So the solution to the problem is closing the prisons. And we also need to redefine in our struggle the definition of a criminal. Because many of us in prisons are not criminals. We never were. We need to know who the real criminal is. When we seek the definition of criminal, we find that the real criminals are not in prison, they’re outside. 

In conclusion, let me say this. Let’s free all our prisoners. Let’s close the prisons. Free all our prisoners. Free all political prisoners. Free all freedom fighters. That’s all we want.

Attica means fight back. We need to continue fighting. Thank you for your attention. Power to the People! Free Them All!

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