Ed Mead and Mark Cook organized inside Walla Walla prison, where Ed organized Men Against Sexism and Mark formed a prison chapter of the Black Panther Party. Today they are supporting prisoners in California and elsewhere, through the publication and distribution of The Rock.Recorded May 10th, 2014. In Portland, OR. Download (right click and save)
Ben Interview with Mark Cook and Ed Mead, May 20, 2014 – Portland, OR
Mark: …talk about issues that apply to all prisoners. We have the Gitmo prisoners… they’re involved. Because similarly – they get to be involved because they get probably the most nationally, or internationally of both sides of… [IA] And there’s immigrant detention prisoners who are not convicted at all, in some cases are treated worse than general prisoners. So this is gonna be a pretty broad network, you can’t delimit it.
Ben: I totally agree
Mark: You talk about a common interest of all prisoners – once you’re locked up you gotta be able to control your environment, some kind of… you know…
Ben: So I want to start by just starting with who y’all are, what your background is, why you do this work and why you think it’s important. Ed?
Ed: The 13th Amendment abolished slavery for everyone except those convicted of crimes. Thus we have 2.3 million slaves in the United States. Disenfranchised from the political process, kept in conditions of dependency and irresponsibility. We all know that if you put a dog in a cage and poke a stick in at it day in and day out, week in and week out, and on and on, that ultimately you’re going to have a vicious animal on your hands. Well almost everybody in prison gets out, and unless something is done, they’re going to internalize that rage and then take it out on their wives or children, their neighbors their community… it just doesn’t make good sense. You don’t get something good as a result of doing bad things to people. And what happens to people in prison is bad.
Ben: Makes sense. You want to talk about your history? So this is Ed Mead. How did you come into doing this work?
Ed: My name is Ed Mead and I was a state raised prisoner, pretty much. I started doing time at the age of 13. In the mid 60s I became politicized. And while a prisoner at McNeal Island federal prison and ever since then I’ve been doing some level of prisoner support work. Either from the inside or the outside.
Ben: Cool. And Mark, you want to talk about your background a little bit?
Mark: I’m Mark Cook. I spent probably 40 years behind lock and key. Since I was the age of 14 years old. And a lot of the brutal treatment I received while being incarcerated pointed me in the direction I’m headed today. I became an advocate and activist in the late 60s, during the time of the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, etc. In fact, I helped found a Black Panther chapter within a prison. Ive always been, when I’m doing time, a stand up convict. In other words, I’m not a snitch, you know I just strike tall. I go down with the strike. I generally follow the leadership, but after doing so much time I became part of that leadership. And I was able to pick new directions based on being politicized by the Panther Party and the Weather Underground. We got newspapers and literature that came into prison about that time. And so we were able to, some of us were able to move it in a different direction. And since that time I have moved to several different organizations, but always as a prisoner advocate. That was the basis of all my work. And in becoming involved with the George Jackson Brigade I was part of their program. Not just an altruistic thing. We were empowering ourselves because we were in prison. And after getting out of prison we were still abused and neglected by the government. Different… the state, local and federal governments. So we figured this was in our interest to help those people. Helping them, we’re going to help ourselves. Empowering them we’re going to empower ourselves.
Ben: That’s awesome. So what work are y’all doing right now in supporting prisoners? What..?
Ed: Primarily what we’re doing is supporting the hunger striking prisoners in California. With their first hunger strike – according the department of corrections figures, not our own – there were 6,600 participants, the second hunger strike there was just under 12,000 participants, and the final hunger strike kicked off with 30,000 prisoners participating. So this is a point of conflict between the most oppressed against the state apparatus of repression. And so if there is any segment of society that needs to be supported, it’s that segment. So Mark and I put out a monthly newsletter called The Rock. And it goes primarily to California prisoners, although we also have a growing readership in the state of Washington and the state of Oregon. In the last 13 years I’ve been the editor of a quarterly newspaper called Prison Focus out of Oakland. And both Mark and I are active in the National Lawyers Guild. He can talk about that more.
Mark: When I did the – I decided to take on the responsibility of the Vice President of the National Lawyers Guild National Prison Project. And to make it what we wanted to make it. Prisoners of the first shot. A long time ago they put out a newsletter called Midnight Special. Right now we have a design called The Rock. These are prisoners speaking to the issues in prison. The issues that they want changed. The issues they want to attack. And they set out a program of how they are going to attack it. This first time was through a hunger strike. But again, it is mainly the prisoners inside. Even though we’re exprisoners – still convicts – we have a word in this and we get to speak out as editors in this newsletter, most of it is written by the prisoners inside, themselves. And they, it helps them to grow inside, to organize inside. Just by writing these letters, other prisoners know – “hey, I can join in because I know something. Maybe we could make it work.” My part right now is not exactly a treasurer – we’re both treasurers in the same… stamps are the thing that makes this thing spread throughout the prison system. I have a newsletter here for June. There’s one prisoner here, he says he enclosed 60 stamps. Now he’s gone through his whole unit, pod, collecting these stamps from other prisoners. 50 cents a piece. That’s a lot of money for inmates inside. And this is his one run. And he says when I get a chance I’ll get you some more. Letter after letter comes to us this way. They come with stamps inside of them and most of the newsletters that go out are paid for by the prisoners. To start off with, they paid for everything. All the stamps, all the newsletters.
Ed: For the first two years.
Mark: Yeah. For the first two years. The printing cartridges that were needed. Paper. Everything was paid for by them. Because they knew they needed this communication between each other so everybody could be on the same page. They picked up 4 main issues that they were going to speak to. Other prisoners started sticking more issues in and they said “no, we’ve got to get these four resolved first.” And just trying to get those 4 resolved is a pain in the butt. Because the administration says “oh yeah, we’ll do this.” Then they’ll back up and say “no we’re not going to do it” or they’ll change jobs and somebody else takes their place and says “well I didn’t say that.” It’s a hard struggle for them inside. But they are doing that struggle. The families and friends are helping them. There are a lot of advocates that are helping them. But they are calling all the shots. How this help is going to go….
Ed: In terms of a national action of some sort, there does need to be a publication that reaches prisoners across the United States, and I’m not sure what that would be. But I do know that it would take money and people power to be able to do that.
Ben: I’ve talked to people from the San Francisco Bayview who said that they would run like press releases or something like that, somewhere in their back pages about this having been announced.
Ed: As would we.
Ed: But. How are we getting into Arkansas? How are we getting into Tennessee?
Mark: We’ve never been into Gitmo. Ok and lots of the immigration prisoners, a large majority of them are Hispanic. We don’t do a Hispanic thing. We need people who can keyboard this thing in Spanish and send it in to them. Get the Puerto Rican prisons, you know? It’s a lot of work to be done. And we had to come up with the ideas – Ed and I had to come up with most of the ideas of how to hit those targets. We’d like it to go national. It takes a lot of [IA]. Me and ed we’re not big time fundraisers.
Ben: So the guys who have called for September 9th of this year… what do you think the outcome of that might be, if they go forward with that.
Ed: I think that the results will be mixed. I called for a statewide, one day work strike at Washington State some years ago. For no purpose other than for prisoners, for us to see how strong prisoners were – how much unity there was – and for prisoners to see how much unity we had on the outside. When they went down for that one day we would be demonstrating in Seattle in front of the King County Jail. The administration got wind of what was happening and in many prisons around the state locked up people they thought might be leadership. The Washington State Penitentiary went down about 70 percent the McNeal Island State Prison – it’s a state prison now – went about 50 percent, and the same for prisons around the state. Except for the women’s prison at Purdy – they not only stopped working that day 100%, they also refused to eat. So I think the results will be – if the saturation can be done – I think the results will be something similar. Maybe 50%.
Ben: Ok. Cool. And what do you think that we on the outside can do to improve the chances of that?
Ed: We have to get the word in to outside support people, or if we have the connections to prisoners in every state, in every prison. So you can see that that’s a huge job to accomplish in a very short amount of time.
Mark: And every state has multiple prisons. You may be able to get a small core in one prison to communicate with each other, but they’ve got to spread it through all the other prisons. That’s the hardest part. When you talk about something national. And you’re looking at 50+ states. You know, you’ve got more than 50 territories and states to work with. It’s a big job. I don’t know if it can be done by September. That’s a really short period of time. I would even say almost 5 years is a short time. Trying to get all of these people on the same page. Because it’s gonna’ fluctuate. Like this thing with California prisoners – it peaked and now it’s going down. I’m hoping it will peak again and go beyond that last mark they made. I’m hoping – but I’m here in Oregon and Washington. All I can do is facilitate their rap. And they’re getting a pretty good rap. You know, the letters they send us, that we send back for everybody to read are pretty strong, pretty good.
Ed: And another thing that will impact this is that if you’re talking about a hunger strike, you know, the administration can just blow that off. It’s a work strike that is really going to accomplish something. And, you know, if a quarter of the population doesn’t eat that’s not going to get any mention. That’s not going to… so I agree with Mark, it’s a big job in a very short period of time.
Mark: Even if some of the strongest prisoners – they don’t work, they can’t do a work strike. That’s why they did a hunger strike. Because there’s no work for them.
Ed: Well that’s in the SHU, but we’re talking about general population.
Mark: Well they’re the leadership in the general population. Whereas the leadership… we know there’s a leadership in the SHU. We don’t know if there’s leadership in the population.
Ben: I’ve talked to people who are doing support for the Free Alabama Movement. And they say that their plan right now is they’re not going to announce when they go do the next work strike because they announced the last one and it was shut down because of that. The people on the outside say that they understand that the prisoners are planning on doing another, kind of more surreptitious surprise work-stoppage and would potentially be able to coordinate that with the hunger strike that is being called for at Menard and so I agree with y’all that getting that kind of work stoppage… I mean, I do support work for Sean Swain, an anarchist prisoner in Ohio, and just suggesting that prisoners could shut down everything by just laying on their beds – and he means shut down the state of Ohio – got him thrown in the hole. So I think that that is what the real threat is. So we need to be able to build the outside support to have the backs of guys who take that kind of stand. And that’s what I’m hoping this website will begin to do…
Ed: The repression will come. If prisoners go on a work strike, or even a hunger strike to a lesser extent, those who they think – the ringleaders will be locked up. I mean that’s just gonna’ happen.
Ben: I can’t remember the questions that I had…oh! How would you all propose reaching out to prisoners in states where there is not already a prison movement, or institutions like women’s prisons or things like that that aren’t as involved?
Ed: Through publications.
Ben: Ok. Mailing in newsletters like The Rock and…
Ed: Of course, that means getting the names and addresses of prisoners … which is not hard to do because Bo produces – the Prison Activist Resource Center – they produce a directory that goes into prisons across the United States, and prisoners write them from every prison in the United States. They can get names and addresses and then letters can be sent in to those prisoners and then they share those things with other prisoners. And that would be a way to do it.
Ben: And Book s to Prisoners projects could also be a way…
Ed: Books to Prisoners could do the same thing, yes. So just, what doesn’t happen – what doesn’t exist and what needs to exist is a national database of prisoners
Ben: Ok. Trying to… How could somebody who is new to this work get involved? How would you – what advice would you give to somebody who has never done these things before?
Mark: Man, there are so many different ways… because there’s a lot of grassroots groups that are interested in what’s happening in prison. And people who have never been in prison before. Like in Washington state we have the school to prison pipeline group, and the so called WISH group or the New Jim Crow group. These people have never been in prison. Have no idea really about it. They’ve been getting everything out of a book and then trying to teach other people about it. So it’s…
Ed: You know a book is a good start. You know, the New Jim Crow or books by prisoners… that’s a good start. But in terms of getting involved, I mean, something as simple as going to a mailing party, putting on stamps and address labels. You know just, from there right on up. There’s just all sorts of things. Keyboarding prisoner articles. Not only do you get an understanding of what the prisoners are saying, but a lot of stuff can’t be printed until someone does the thankless work of keyboarding.
Ben: Yeah I – every once in a while when I’ve got- I accumulate writings from prisoners – I just post on Facebook , “I’ve got writings! Anybody want to volunteer to type them up? And the most unexpected people will say, “Yeah, send me something!” and then they’re like “Thank you for sending me that – it really was insightful to read that as I was typing.”
What other strategies – like long term strategies – would you like to see people on the outside -or tactics – would you like to see people on the outside kind of developing?
Ed: People on the outside – we formed a group called “Free Us All” in Seattle during the last California hunger strike. And we did demonstrations, we put on two hip hop events in the central district, printed 10,000 broadsheets and circulated them nationally. The main thing, I think, for us, was being in contact with the prisoners, and the primary thing to do, the most important thing to do for outside people is to amplify the voice of prisoners, in whatever means you can find to do that. Amplify their voice. And the rest will flow.
Ben: Cool! Awesome. I think that’s all the questions that I had. Do either of you have anything else you would like to contribute or say?
Ed: No, that’s about it.
Mark: No, and lots of luck!….. There is another thing you know like this – if they don’t write a letter, send a prisoner or an organization a stamp or some money so that they can continue to do the work. Because they will. There’s a lot of groups around. They can find groups that do the work. You don’t have to give a fortune to these groups. They’ll take anything, you know, to keep moving. Just by accident, I talked about how we needed stamps last night, we got over $50 worth of contributions right on the spot. But they gotta’ talk about it and say what they need. Bo talked about how she needs bags of food to give to hungry people. And I don’t know what other way she can do it but she spoke there and some of the people are interested. They will drive by and put food on her porch. So… you were there, right?
Ben: Yeah, and I think that’s… I worked with a Books to Prisoners project in Columbus, Ohio, for while which was also an activist prison abolition organization. And I think that thing of asking for help or asking for money is sometimes difficult for people.
Ed: It is, it’s a hard thing.
Mark: And you don’t because you don’t… like this because you know some people are fluid, like they have the money, they just don’t want nobody to know it. And they’ll write off them checks like, you might get it in the mail but you might never really know who you got it from. And there’s some people who don’t have anything and they’re scuffing themselves. [IA] it’s a broad population we’re working with. Inside of prison where Ed and I worked, reactionary prisoners outnumbered the ones who were trying NOT to be reactionary. And some were deliberately trying to remain reactionary. You know racists or Nazis or whatever. Their motorcycle gang was the most important thing to them. Nothing outside of that, you know (there were various motorcycle gangs). There’s a lot of reactionaries inside. Some even among those, I remember, there are those who are leaning strongly toward common cause. They still wanna’ fly their colors and stuff like that. And writing letters to them and getting letters from them you’ll find those people. You’ll find bible backers writing to you. We had one who wanted prisoners to sell their organs. You know, “You’re not doing nothing but laying in prison, so why don’t you just donate your organs…?” not knowing these guys are going to be starving when they just get paroled. They’re going to need everything they’ve got inside. If they pull an organ out they’re going to fry it in the frying pan!
Ben: Yeah, working with the Lucasville Uprising guys there’s some of that going on because they came across racial factions when the uprising happened. And Jason Robb, I’ve met with him a couple of times, he’s still somehow affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood, but you can see the solidarity that he has with Keith Lamar and Siddique Abdullah Hasan in the actions that they’ve taken together, the hunger strikes and things like that. It’s really inspiring to see people come across those lines.
Ed: That’s actually what’s happening in California.
Mark: One of the four main leaders in California …Who spoke with the head of the Aryan Brotherhood, and he told them get off that shit now because we need to get together with everybody.
Ben: And it’s….compared to what’s going on here where people are so divisive over Kristian Williams writing an article…
Ben: It’s…like…can’t we learn from the people who are overcoming far broader divisions and why can’t we get our shit together.
Mark: That whole idea is trying to get it together. They’re apart when they come to the group… they have to understand that. They just want to stay apart…just come as a little group and sit in the corner. They’re bullies whether they stand up or not. Lots of times that’s just what they do.