“Inside” and “inside/outside” organizing has its own category in this zine for several reasons. Because this zine is about prison abolition, we wanted to highlight organizing campaigns that were or are led and carried out, in part or fully, by incarcerated people.
Additionally, we hope to expand conversations and ideas of “direct action” and “escalation” by acknowledging that many of the tactics used to organize within and across prison walls face unique challenges, given the bureaucratic and limiting nature of the legal system and prison-industrial-complex — and the extreme peril facing our comrades who are locked up. From examples of inside/outside organizing throughout history, we see that tactics vary based on retaliation and the institution within which one operates.
In the context of prison-industrial-complex abolition, we may imagine that direct action and escalation will always look like physically breaking people out of cages or staging an uprising — such as facilitating Assata Shakur’s escape from prison in 1979, planning the Attica Prison rebellion in 1971, or coordinating a national prison strike like the one in 2018 that mounted work stoppages, prison yard protests, commissary boycotts and other actions to demand recognition and compensation of prisoners as workers, access to parole and higher education, and an end to racist gang enhancement laws and racist sentencing laws.
But humbler forms of escalation and direct action happen all the time, within and despite carceral institutions. Here, we use “direct action” and “escalation” to refer not necessarily to more “intense” or illegal choices, but instead to name strategic actions that build collective, coordinated power that redistribute and shift the burden of risk and danger away from the most vulnerable or targeted individuals, and increase pressure on a campaign’s targets, tipping the scale toward victory.
At their core, inside and inside/outside organizing actions are anchored in the demands and leadership of people who are incarcerated. Some demands focus on alleviating inhumane conditions that prisoners face, or ensuring more livable conditions — but there are also many instances of prisoners making demands for freedom, mass release, or to end death by incarceration and life without parole. The tactics tried by people inside range from prison uprisings and riots, labor strikes and hunger strikes, to creating life-saving programs that facilitate communication between people inside and outside, and are able to exert pressure on authorities.
The Abolitionist describes inside/outside organizing in the following ways:
“Collaborating across prison walls is strategic, in that it brings to bear the immense capacity, analysis, and creativity of those who are locked down and locked out by the prison industrial complex together with those on the outside. It lessens the burden of people who for too long have shouldered the weight of their loved ones’ incarceration alone and in the shadows. Fear and shame are being replaced with realization that they are not alone, that their neighbors, coworkers, fellow parishioners are also doing time on the outside.
As we chip away at the walls — together — we’re building bonds that transcend and will outlast our mission. And it’s making those walls feel just a little less concrete — until the day they come crumbling down.”