“On U.S. Political Prisoners” by Herman Bell

The next issue of The Abolitionist newspaper, "Organizing Against Fascism," is on the way. Here's an article from U.S.-held political prisoner Herman Bell. 

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By Herman Bell

In the first few months of 2017, Critical Resistance wrote to a number of US-held political prisoners requesting written responses on the struggle of political prisoners against increased state repression. This is a response by Herman Bell.

Your thoughtful words and warm greetings prompted me to express, as requested, a few thoughts on US political prisoner (PP) support work and alternatives to imprisonment.

How do organizations work to support PP’s and simultaneously work to abolish the prison industrial complex? First, it’s crucial that people are educated on US political prisoners, and that PP’s not be regarded as a label or slogan, or as a poster or category, but as passionate, caring human beings—devoted social activists imprisoned by the state to punish and silence them for their advocacy in the social justice struggle, including humane treatment of the earth, the environment, and all living things on the planet.

These are people you know—some of whom you know personally and who should be widely known and revered by freedom-loving people everywhere. They are not martyrs. They have no wish to be thought of as such.  Their bodies bled in the streets, were frequently soaked by water cannons at demos, and as with others, desperately gasped for fresh air outside choking fogs of tear gas. Separated from wives, children, friends, and community; sentenced to unimaginable prison time and unrelenting suffering.  Militant? Yes! Rational? Yes! Staunch advocates for social justice? Yes! These are people you should want to know and support. And the greatest support you can give them is to demand their freedom or release on parole.

Supporters may come to realize that they are seeing themselves in these PP’s, and if seen in this regard, whatever is done to relieve their plight, to free them, becomes fixed in the social consciousness. People draw strength and inspiration from that, from being part of something that is noble and good—especially from being part of the fight to rid the world of human suffering and deprivation.  The writer Eduardo Galeano noted that: “The world, which is the private property of a few, suffer from amnesia. It is not an innocent amnesia.  The owners prefer not to remember that the world was born yearning to be a home for everyone.” And so people have reason to resist the present social arrangement.

With few exceptions, US PP’s are not well known or represented in US society (and US corporate media, as expected, totally ignore them except to report an obituary or legal setback, like parole denial). This, on the one hand, is a continuation of state-controlled media to silence dissent and protest, and on the other, is an illustration of ineffective PP education and support work for their release. Appeals for support and demands for PP’s release should always be in the forefront of any progressive public address, rather than—as is typically the case—at the end, or sometimes not at all, or as an afterthought in closing remarks. Though the prevailing social climate offers hope.

When dissidents outside the US speak of PP’s(their own and those in other countries), seldom, if anything is ever said of US PP’s, and on the rare occasion when it is, it’s so vaguely expressed as though to suggest it’s of no significant concern. This especially speaks to ineffective domestic PP education and organizing support work. PP support work is an integral part of the social justice struggle against racism, poverty, discrimination, hunger, police violence, mass-imprisonment, prison warehousing, and crony capitalism.

Thus in calling for prison abolition and alternatives to imprisonment, a coherent alternative model would help illustrate (through use of skits, workshops, teach-ins, songs, art, and the like) so that people may see the sense of it for themselves. Suffering is not inevitable; alternatives are possible. Show how prisons are human warehouses where people are numbered and commodified like products on the shelf in a supermarket with unlimited space for more. Expose how the capitalist system (the exploitation of man by man for profit) has failed to meet basic human needs. As Comrade George Jackson observes: “The only way the exploiter can maintain his position is to create differences and maintain deformities.”  Show how diverted prison resources can be more productively used in education, job training, housing, health care, community programs, etc. Despite their power and beauty, words without deeds are useless. People have to demand change.

Vested interests—including the courts, police, prisons, and all the local supply services whose livelihood depends on this arrangement—ain’t gonna roll over and play nice simply because a new, humane, and more efficient alternative to imprisonment has been introduced.

Vested interest has a way of protecting itself and will use any and every means to discredit and destroy this alternative use of vital resources and humane treatment. The fight for it reveals alternatives, exposes contradictions, and is therefore worthy to undertake.

All power to the people and free all political prisoners!


Herman Bell is a former member of the Black Panther Party and has been imprisoned as a political prisoner for 44 years. He has Bachelor of Science degrees in psychology and sociology, and a Masters degree in sociology. Herman is also a co-founder of the Victory Gardens Project, an eight-year grassroots enterprise that worked to effect radical social change and economic independence through food production.

Liked what you read? We invite you to SUBSCRIBE// DONATE  to The Abolitionist! This will give you a one year subscription to the paper and sponsor imprisoned readership. Here's the full list of articles featured in the next issue:
  • "Facing the Right: A Conversation with Tarso Luís Ramos" - The Center for Political Education
  • "On US Political Prisoners" - Herman Bell**
  • "The View from in Here" - Robert Chan**
  • "Trumpism and the Magnitude of Mass Incarceration" - David Stein
  • "Don't Just Fight, Build!" - Kali Akuno
  • "August Communique" - True Leap Press
  • "Statement of CA Prisoner Representatives on Second Anniversary of Ashker v. Brown Settlement" - Sitawa (S/N Ronnie Dewberry), Arturo Castellano, Todd Ashker, George Franco**
  • "From the Inside Out: A S.A.G.A to Remember" - Jason Lee Sutton**
  • "The Hard Road to Abolition // Strategies to Win: A Conversation with Ruthie Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, Mujahid Farid, and Abraham Paulos" - hosted by Critical Resistance
  • "Honoring Rose Braz" - Critical Resistance
** denotes an imprisoned author