With a new edition being published next week, Denis O’Hearn reflects on the influence that Bobby Sands: Nothing but an Unfinished Song has had on prisoner activism.
Bobby Sands and nine of his comrades died while on hunger strike thirty-five years ago, in 1981. To some of us who lived through that terrible time, thirty-five years seems like a blink of an eye. Nonetheless, it is long enough that we can begin to talk about the judgement of history and the long-term impacts of the hunger strikes.
Most people in both Ireland and Britain are aware of the huge impact that the hunger strikes had on regional politics. The British government held hundreds of Irish political prisoners in long-term isolation in Northern Irish jails from 1976-1981. The prisoners were known as “blanketmen” because they were stripped of all clothes and personal property when they refused to be criminalized by wearing a prison uniform – all they had left to wear were their blankets. Their women comrades in Armagh Jail were equally courageous in the face of state brutality.
The escalating conflict between the prisoners and prison authorities ended in a horrific situation where the blanketmen were forced to cover their cell walls with their excrement and sleep and walk barefoot on floors sopping with urine. In the corners of their cells were piles of rotting food. Their plight sparked a movement across Ireland that reinvigorated Irish Republicanism in its various forms. Support rose dramatically for the Irish Republican Army and its associates in the political party Sinn Féin. In short, the way these young prisoners were treated during 1976-1980 and the way they died through the spring and summer of 1981, awoke a generation of young Irish people to a cause that was hundreds of years old but which had taken a new and more progressive form. More than any earlier generation, the new Irish Republicans comprised a coalition of the broad left, from social democrats to Marxists to anarchists.
It is common knowledge that this groundswell of support, particularly the electoral success of Bobby Sands in his election to the British parliament while he was dying on hunger strike, launched Sinn Féin on a new electoral strategy and sparked a peace process. Today, Sinn Féin are in a powerful albeit minority position in Irish politics. But we should not forget that this movement toward the mainstream left was always a contentious one and that there are important and credible critiques of Sinn Féin within the Irish republican movement, that emphasize the limitations to what it can do through electoral politics.
Less discussed than the peace process and the rise of Sinn Féin are the impacts of the hunger strikes on British and European politics generally. Particularly neglected is the tremendous impact that Bobby Sands and his comrades had on prisoners’ movements around the world, partly through my book Bobby Sands: Nothing but an Unfinished Song, now out in a new edition by Pluto Press.
Imagine sitting for decades in a prison cell for 23 hours a day, all alone, never able to talk directly or to touch anyone. If you have visits with family and friends, you are strip-searched on the way to and from the visits, despite the fact that you are chained and locked in a closet and must talk to them through several sheets of security glass. You hardly have a chance to smuggle anything, so why all the security? The highlight of your day is an hour or hour-and-a-half exercising in a concrete bunker with metal grating on the top. You never touch another human, animal, or even a plant for all of those years and your only regular form of communication is by shouting to other prisoners on your pod, who are also in solitary.
The prison guards and authorities tell you that you will never get out of solitary.
You begin to lose hope.
More than 100,000 prisoners face such conditions in the United States today.
When people ask me, “what was the most important thing you learned from researching the life of Bobby Sands,” I always reply that the most important thing is not how Bobby died but how he lived. Yes, the example of hunger strike as a means of resistance and struggle has been vastly important to prisoners around the world. The sacrifice Bobby Sands and nine comrades made by dying an excruciatingly painful and slow death for their comrades is something the rest of us can hardly contemplate.
But despite the influence of hunger strike as a tactic or a weapon, the main thing that impressed prisoners in the US who read about Bobby Sands and the blanketmen is the way that they created a community even in isolation. It was a community based on oral communication, mutual aid, and solidarity. They created an intense comradeship where any blanketman would take practically any risk for the others. They learned the Irish language, history, and political thought together, in a participative manner that has more of Paolo Freire than modern schooling about it. In contemporary terms, they built horizontal structures of direct democracy that were based on maximum participation and consensus. They also built communications infrastructures by which they could organize prisoners in other wings or blocks, or even in other prisons.
The Northern Irish prison authorities thought that they were isolating and neutralizing the blanketmen but they soon found out that the human will to socialize and to share is more powerful than the strongest prison walls.
When isolated prisoners in the US read about these things, the idea that men or women in solitary could do something against long-term isolation took hold in places like Ohio State Penitentiary, the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of Pelican Bay prison in California, and Menard prison in Illinois.
In 2009, at the encouragement of my friend Bomani Shakur, a man who had been in isolation in Ohio for almost twenty years, I started a class at my university called “prison experiences.” We corresponded with ten remarkable men from all over the US who had been in isolation for decades. The prisoners and my university students read the same works by prison “experts” like Erving Goffman and Michel Foucault. Then, the students corresponded with the prisoners and asked them questions that probed whether and to what degree the things the academic “experts” said about prison life corresponded to their real lived experiences. We were standing the educational experience on its head: the prisoners were the real experts on prison life because they lived it. The students began to listen to them and, then, even to accompany them as they built lasting relationships with men, some of them ex-murderers and drug dealers, who they never thought they could come to respect and even to love.
Bomani insisted that the prisoners had to read Bobby Sands: Nothing but an Unfinished Song, because he had been so moved by Bobby’s life and the liberating practices of the blanketmen.
Partly as a result of this reading, in Ohio State Penitentiary, in January 2011, Bomani and several of his comrades went on hunger strike with five demands, just like the Irish hunger strikers had done thirty years previously. They used many of the blanketmen’s methods to organize each other within the prison and their supporters outside. After twelve days on hunger strike, they won all of their demands. They were finally able to have contact visits with their friends and family where they could touch, kiss, and break bread together as people are meant to do. Today, after a long process of struggle, these men have won the right to spend six hours a day outside of their cells, recreating and spending time together. They have regular contact visits with families and friends.
It is still prison. But it is a world away from the prison conditions they endured for two decades.
In Pelican Bay we had two class members from the area called the short corridor. There, the state concentrated 200 prisoners who they considered to be the worst of the worst together in solitary isolation. They kept these men alone in windowless cells for years.
In two pods containing eight prisoners each, the authorities placed the worst of the worst of the worst. These were men who they accused of being leaders of prison gangs: northern and southern California Latinos, African-Americans, and whites. One, Todd Ashker, was a jailhouse lawyer who had pestered the California prison system by repeatedly taking them to court and winning rights for things like proper medical care.
By placing these men of different races and backgrounds together, the prison authorities expected to neutralize them. Not only would they be cut off from the outside world, including California’s massive world of prisoners, they would be so busy fighting each other that they could hardly threaten the prison system.
Or so the authorities thought.
When a couple of dozen men found themselves isolated in a few pods in the “short corridor” they did not fight. They began to talk. Men of different ethnic backgrounds shared the work of Thomas Paine, Howard Zinn, and others. They talked about indigenous thought, such as Mayan cosmology. And, after our class together in 2009, they began to talk about Bobby Sands.
After decades in solitary, the men formed a “Short Corridor Collective” for prisoner human rights. As in Ohio, they began to use the lessons they learned from the Irish blanketmen to organize prisoners across California and a support campaign outside of prison. Their main goal was to defeat the inhumane policy of long-term solitary confinement and the system whereby one must snitch on other prisoners to get out of solitary.
Yet they had other goals. They wanted to create a community of prisoners that transcended race. The prison authorities had been fomenting racial hatred among prisoners for years, as a way of defeating efforts to politicize prisoners. Now, these prisoners insisted that they were not Afro-American, white, or Latino. They were a convict class. The Short Corridor Collective wrote a manifesto to this effect, calling for a moratorium on racial prison violence across the state. The call was taken up by youth gangs in Los Angeles, who stated that “our brothers in Pelican Bay SHU have shown the way” and called an end to gang-banging on the grounds that gang violence just played into the hands of the authorities.
In 2011 and 2013, the Collective led state-wide mass hunger strikes against solitary confinement. In the 2013 hunger strike 30,000 prisoners joined, perhaps the largest mass hunger strike in world history. After the state of California won court approval to begin the horrific practice of force feeding, something the US government has done in Guantanamo and British governments used against Irish prisoners in English jails, the prisoners ended the hunger strike and began a class action lawsuit against the state.
In 2015, on the verge of being defeated in the court for its violation of Eight Amendment constitutional prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment and Fifth Amendment guarantees of due process, the state of California agreed to end its vile practice of long-term solitary confinement.
My two students from 2009, Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell, are no longer in solitary. Danny has married and hopes to get out on parole. Todd is in general population in Kern Valley State Prison, between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
This is one of the greatest victories ever by prisoners united against US state authorities. And as Todd Ashker, the main spokesperson for the Short Corridor Collective insists, it all began with Bobby Sands…
Denis O’Hearn is Professor of Sociology, Binghamton University, New York. He has studied prison communities and conflict in the H-Blocks in Ireland, Turkish F-type prisons, and US supermax prisons. His latest book, is Living at the Edges of Capitalism (University of California Press, 2016).
Bobby Sands: Nothing but an Unfinished Song is available to order here.