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Nonviolent Protest at Fairton?

Over the holidays a colleague forwarded the memorandum below, which, if authentic*, indicates that FCI Fairton was (and possibly still is) on lockdown due a prisoner food strike over “dissatisfaction with the new procedures related to contraband found in common areas,” that is, “the new accountability procedures and sanctions [that] have been implemented.”
Fairton Lockdown

Given how frequently prison disturbances that arise from questionable institutional management practices are associated with physical confrontations and violence (i.e., riots — see here, as an example) the idea that a medium-security population would attempt to effect change of a disputed institutional policy through nonviolence is both refreshing and encouraging. As Mahatma Gandhi poignantly observed: “Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” While it is not surprising that an institution would respond to a nonviolent protest by locking down the population, as opposed to engaging in constructive dialogue that might produce a mutually agreeable resolution, it is nonetheless disappointing.
Perhaps the action at Fairton population foreshadows a trend, however. The Bureau of Prisons abounds with problems and deficiencies ripe for attention: chronic overcrowding, over-/misuse of isolation housing units, prisoner displacement from loved ones and their communities, insufficient programming opportunities, poor medical and mental health care, systemic refusal to permit “compassionate release,” incidents of violence, indefensible telephone rates and unpalatable food, just to name a few. Unfortunately, where states have been actively in engaging in sentencing and prison reform in an effort to get “smart on crime,” the federal government talks about change but its prison population continues to grow unabated, as it has since the 1980s. The question is begged whether those most directly impacted by draconian federal sentencing laws and practices might ever seek to have their voices heard through widespread, organized nonviolence. In the words of Martin Luther King: “This is the unusual thing about nonviolence — nobody is defeated, everybody shares in the victory.”

*In over 15 years working with federal prisoners, I’ve seen various “official” documents that, upon closer inspection, prove not to be genuine. In view of the source here, however, I do not seriously question the document’s authenticity.

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  • Nonviolent protests by imprisoned draft resisters at Danbury and elsewhere in the 1940s are what ended racial segregation in the federal prison system. Many of these prisoners, after their release, became civil rights activists and were among the first Freedom Riders. See here, for example.

  • Anonymous

    The document is real, I have the same copy.