Political Organizing Behind the Walls

Dennis Boatwright is a writer and activist in Detroit who was held captive by the state for 24 years. While imprisoned, he courageously wrote for the San Francisco Bay View and organized resistance from the inside. Today he talks with us about strategy and on-going organizing efforts among prison rebels.

Image credit: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson

Subscribe via iTunes | Subscribe via RSS |Download the MP3

Click here to display the episode transcript.


a Maria: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is a Maria. In this episode, we speak with Michigan-based writer and activist Dennis Boatwright. Dennis was held captive by the state for 24 years of his life and has written about the strategies and politics of the prisoner resistance movement. We speak with him in the wake of the two most massive prison strikes in Amerikan history to grapple with the possibilities of political organizing on the inside as well as the challenges that lie ahead.

Before we begin, here’s Kaif Syed with some movement news you may have missed.


Ramona Africa

On September 11th, Mumia Abu Jamal published a piece in the San Francisco Bay View calling for the support of Ramona Africa. Ramona Africa is a survivor of the police bombing of the MOVE commune in 1985, and a former political prisoner. She recently fell into a coma and was hospitalized due to health complications related to post-traumatic stress disorder. You can help support Ramona Africa by visiting gofundme.com/helpsaveramonaafrica.


On September 18th, McDonald’s workers staged a one-day strike in order to call attention to widespread on-the-job sexual harassment and how it is handled by the company. The historic walk-outs, led by working class women of color, took place simultaneously in 10 cities across the United States. The strikers have put forth several demands, including enforcement of a zero tolerance policy, a safe system for employees to file complaints, and the formation of a committee on sexual harassment where workers and women’s rights groups have a say. McDonalds has yet to respond to their demands.

Indigenous People’s Day

Numerous cities held celebrations for Indigenous People’s Day on October 8th. Over 60 cities in so-called Amerika have officially declared the second Monday of October as Indigenous People’s Day — recent additions to the growing list include Tacoma, Washington and Rochester, New York. Thanks to the work of local indigenous activists, more cities are rejecting the white-washed history that venerates Christopher Columbus by celebrating indigeneity and paying tribute to Indigenous struggle.


Alejo: This is Alejo and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement building project based in Detroit, Michigan. Coproducer A. Maria and I are here with Dennis Boatwright, a writer, and activist in Michigan who was held captive by the state for 24 years. While he was incarcerated, he courageously wrote for the San Francisco Bay View and organized resistance from the inside. We’re extremely glad to have him on the show today to talk with us about the prison strike and ongoing organizing efforts by prison rebels. Hello Dennis, and welcome to our show.

Dennis: Hello it’s a pleasure to be here.

Alejo: So we just wanted to first start out by asking you about the process of your politicization, my sense is that you didn’t think of yourself as a militant or revolutionary before being in prison, and that the 1993 Lucasville uprising in Ohio had something to do with your politicization. Can you tell us more about that?

Dennis: Yes. If I can, I would like to discuss very briefly prior to me being incarcerated because I had somewhat of a political consciousness at the age of, I will say nine and 10 years old. I can recall me watching the Iran hostage crisis that was going on at nine years old. And then the next year following that, I remember Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassination on his life. And then the year after that I remember the assassination of Anwar Sadat. I bring this up to the say that while I used to be really clinging, you know, to the uh, TV screen, my mother, she noticed that, so she went and got me a year subscription or the Detroit news at 10 years old because she’s like, you know, my son has an interest in world affairs. So prior to me coming to prison I had somewhat of a mainstream outlook on international relations, foreign policy, different things like that.

Dennis: So I was somewhat primed to take on the role once I became in prison. But being specific, the radical side of my political perspective came really the fourth day I was in prison. I received some mail from a family member and on the outside of the envelope, the n-word was wrote on there, so when I got the letter I showed a black guard who was walking past, taken count, I said, I said, look at this, and she was like, “oh my God,” she said, “I think I know who did it.” It was a white prison guard. She said “he does that. He don’t like prisoners getting outside support.” So at that time I start looking at the government differently because I had told myself that even though I had like 24 years to do before I get home, I said I was going to be somewhat of a neutral prisoner.

Dennis: I was just going to do my time, you know, read books, exercise. But when I seen that that person did that, it kind of catapulted me to start taking steps to remedy, you know, racism. So I would fast forward this to 1993. I was at Carson City correctional facility level four. I was 23 years old at the time and I was watching CNN news and I seen the first World Trade Center bombing and I was wondering, you know, what was the government doing to make people so angry and want to react to them in that way? So you know, I’m sitting there. This is when I started studying political science more formally with textbooks and stuff and I started learning about the Intifada and different things like that, because in prison obviously at the time they didn’t have college or anything like that. So it was more self study.

Dennis: So the next month in 1993, I’m sitting watching CNN news, so I look up and I see Siddique Abdullah Hassan on CNN, the news with the Lucasville uprising in prison. So I’m listening. It was a live broadcast. I’m listening to some of their demands and I was thinking in my mind and said, “you know what? We need to be seeing some of those same things” because the TB test things they were trying to force upon us and a lot of things that really ignited that uprising was occurring throughout the Michigan Department of Corrections. So I took interest in that and I subsequently started speaking to other prisoners. They would tell me to come to black history month to speak, or Kwanzaa for example. So I would use that time talking about world affairs and you know, what was happening in Lucasville so… the Lucasville incident is the one that really put me and radicalized me, for me to start taking a more stronger posture and addressing some of the racial injustice in prison.

Alejo: So for people that maybe don’t know exactly, you know, you were literally watching TV as, as prisoners inside Lucasville like Siddique Abdullah Hassan and others had taken over the prison. Right? I mean, you’re watching this on TV. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that was like in the specifics of, of Lucasville and what was happening?

Dennis: Well, the prisoners had took control over L block in Lucasville and just to see it getting international coverage of it made me pay more attention to it and I also had to really question myself, am I serious about making changes? So when I see Siddique Abdullah Hassan taking those stands, I really had to question my own stands. Am I just a rider or am I just a person that can speak or am I a person that’s going to really try to mobilize and organize peoples? So while I was looking there was kinda… I felt kind of sad because the subsequent days I’m talking to other people, other prisoners, you know, privately, and they showed no interest. So I started become lonely because I don’t have no people to share my fervor and my outrage at what’s going on in Lucasville. So eventually I started writing Siddique Abdullah Hassan and he wrote me back. He was happy because he said unfortunately he wasn’t receiving a lot of support from the African American community. Even the Muslim community was mostly, you know, people weren’t black. So he thanked me for doing that and then after that we kinda like rouse each other through our letters because I was already there and didn’t even know it.

Alejo: And he was put on death row until this…

Dennis: Yeah, he’s been on death row since that day. But his incident made me become more of a political activist in prison. But there were repercussions too after that, where I learned about counterinsurgency and all of these things in prison that I was subsequently subjected to.

Alejo: You said that you felt lonely inside immediately. Eventually you develop a relationship with Lacino Hamilton, and other prison rebels in Michigan as well, right?

Dennis: Yes. I was in a maximum security prison. Lacino was also in a maximum security. We actually were in the Supermax part of the maximum security prison and I used to see on tv how the news would have former prisoners, people who are incarcerated making statements about prison, what needs to be done. And I didn’t think they did a good job, you know, they were chosen because they weren’t that articulate and pointed out some of the changes that need to be in prison. So I started asking myself in the prison cell, I was in what they call the hole, the supermax part, and I wanted to know who are like the best and the brightest people that can articulate our viewpoints in here without making a fool of us. So I was talking to an older guy and he said, I know a guy named Lacino Hamilton, you know, he’s young and he’s at Baraga, you might want to reach out to him. So I wrote him and Lacino Hamilton, you know, he’s kinda skeptical of people like I am, was like, “who are you,” you know, different things like that. So I introduced myself about maybe three months later he had wrote and apologized. He was like, brother, I’m glad you come up with this idea, you know, I apologize for throwing up these defenses.

Alejo: He was at first skeptical, right? I mean it’s building trust is difficult. Can you tell us sort of what it was like, what is it like organizing on the inside?

Dennis: Well, I’m glad you bring up the mistrust. I actually was reading some of Che Guevara books. I don’t know if it was Che Guevara Speaks or the Bolivian diaries, and he made an interesting observation. He said, as a revolutionary. He said, we must learn how to be trustful. He said, we started out being distrustful because amongst our ranks we may have collaborators and different things like that. So this is what I meant by when Lacino Hamilton was skeptical. The government sends agent provocateurs to you and it’s hard for you to distinguish that, you know, you can’t just have open arms to everybody who come with a red, black and green flag or anything, but that’s what he meant by that. He was skeptical.

a Maria: Yeah. I think that there are a lot of organizers who have never been incarcerated and need to understand some of those logistical challenges of connecting work through the cracks in prison walls and within the facilities themselves. And often people who are inside can’t speak openly about these things. So can you tell us more about how organizing is done under this, like, quasi-authoritarian regime of control, and when you’re facing the constant threat of retaliation, what are some useful strategies to undertake?

Dennis: Well, some useful strategies is similar to some of the groups in Middle East or some of the groups in Central and South America. You don’t allow people to join the movement or organization. You have to select them. So what happens ism if we’re organizing, we have to already know people who are predisposed to be able to handle pressure from the institution If it come. What I mean by pressure, where they’re not going to spill out all the information “Well you know, Lacino and Dennis, they were organizing about the poor food quality.” So we are already having in our own mind a few of us people that we haven’t observed that will possibly, if we tell them that we exist, they will want to join. So that’s one of the things we do. We didn’t, we didn’t just get on the loudspeaker or pass anything out saying that this is an action that we’re going to take.

Dennis: We hand selected a few people that would do it and they were hand select a few people that they know. But also we have people who are part of the movement. You have some people who like to make a lot of noise about things, but people like Lacino Hamilton, we had to keep him out of solitary confinement, so we have other people doing certain things that really don’t even know that me and him exist. We were kind of like behind the scenes because a lot of the prison population, they didn’t want us in solitary confinement because they said if you’re in solitary confinement we can benefit from your knowledge, your organization skills. So we have other people who are willing to kind of put their self actually on the forefront, you know. So sometimes we would have meetings in prison, you can’t have more than four people in the group.

Dennis: So sometimes we have one or two and we would talk about what we’re to do and eventually somehow or other it was spread without them actually knowing that it was me or Lacino or whoever else was actually organizing this thing. Sometimes the prison thought it was somewhat random. We was at a certain prison, I’m not going to say the city, and we noticed that there was a reduction in the quantity of food and a decrease in the quality of food as well. So one day you know, I was in the Chow Hall and I was at really almost acting out of character because I went to the Chow Hall and they gave me a food tray, something that I wouldn’t even give my own dog. So I was outraged about it, but as I said, I’m somewhat quiet back there, so I did something that I never really did. I went behind the counter with the prison guards at and I handed him a traitor. I say, “you eat it,” so they get all startled and different things like that. So they ended up calling me up to the control center and they asked me am I behind things? I was like, no, I just read books and things like that. But what I eventually did was told a few people that I know that like the spotlight and stuff. I was saying, telling people, I said, if we want to make a statement, a nonviolent, in this case, nonviolent statement, let’s not go to the chpw hall. We’re all gonna, miss our meals and we’re gonna wait, until they’re serving their best trays and which sadly is chicken. So I said when they have chicken, when they think that the chow hall is going to be overflowing with inmates, nobody’s going to show up.

Dennis: I told a few people to spread that and actually when the day came I said, instead of us going to the chow hall, we’re going to go to the backyard, you know where they lift weights, play basketball. I said, we’re not going to even go and we’re going to wear all blues. And I was surprised that every race and religion participated that I will say it was like an 85 percent success rate. Everybody went out, you know? Then the cops, they started getting nervous about that and then eventually they call me up to the control center. They all mad because we. I was writing articles at the same time, I think to the Michigan Chronicle and you know, San Francisco Bay view or whatever, I was sending letters to the editor telling them what we were doing. And those people, unbeknownst to me, they were calling the prison saying we want better food and different stuff like that.

Dennis: So the warden called me out with the captains, lieutenants, sergeants. They was all upset at me and they actually got some letters that I was mailing out. They copied them and they said, “it’s you!” So they was like, “you’re a good writer and everything, why won’t you write about things that happened in China? Why you, you know, you got to be bringing pressure on us?” I said, did I say anything that’s inaccurate in these letters to the newspapers? Point out anything that was false and they couldn’t. So I said, that’s my position. So they eventually gave me a “camera man” job, which is the most prestigious job in the prison because you get to go outside with the visitors. They tried to give me that, the placate me. But I used that to…. I used to had a typewriter and I used to type out a website. I used to have a newspaper called “The bottom line.” Secretly. And what I used to do, I used to have these, uh, the website printed out on my typewriter and I will cut them out and put it on my shoes. So when I would go out to the visiting room, I will give them to the visitors. Like, “here, check this out! this what we on!” So that’s why I took the job. Haha. So it was a success. And then after that meeting they tried to intimidate me, you know… you know, different things like that. And they knew they couldn’t buy me, you know. I said if you want really honest to God truth, it’s the quality of the food and the quantity. So believe it or not, even though it was small, but it was a victory. That Saturday they gave us extra pancakes. and you know, different hot dogs and stuff. And then people start spreading rumors about me….”Dennis was in there! He was telling em!” You know, different stuff like that even though it wasn’t that dramatic, but, there was a change….

a Maria: So I think it’s important to contextualize the recent prison strikes as part of a very long continuum of prisoner-led struggle. And in the wake of the 2011 hunger strikes that rocked the California prison system, you wrote a short article for the San Francisco Bay view titled “Prison Liberation Movement needs new kinds of thinking.” And I’m just going to quote here from that. So in that article you wrote, “A critical examination is overdue for the simple fact that with the exception of written pieces presenting historical analysis and victimization accounts, no new seminal prison literature has been produced that is both thought-absorbing as well as strategy focused. I confidently support this assertion based upon existing publications. For instance, ‘Blood in My Eye,’ ‘Soledad Brother’ and ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ are still the primary – and perhaps only – liberating tracts introduced to newer generations of inmates searching for enlightenment and a better understanding of their own incarceration.” So that was in 2011. Do you think that’s still the case today?

Dennis: Yes. It’s still the case. Unfortunately, as I said in the article that you alluded to, that we need a new kind of thinking because most prisoners in there, even the ones that are somewhat conscious, they don’t have what we call “a grand view” — a grand strategy of how the world works. They can say, you know, George Jackson said this, they did this in Attica, or Frederick Douglass did this, or this march happened on this date. But they’re not thinking like statesmen — a person who not only is a historian, but he may have to be a military strategist. He might have to be a counselor. They don’t have that versatility in their thinking today. So this is what I was trying to say, and I got some backlash. Most people, like, because they were thinking that I was saying something, it was against…. Like I’m against, you know…. I love Lucasville. I would like that it happen more often. But what I was saying that we need to be less random and more calculating because we want to win. You don’t win by just beating on your chest and sayin’, “I did this.” You win because you see that your action succeeds and you obtain some of your goals. So this was what I was trying to…what I was trying to share with prisoners that we need to think…. We need not to be “random,” walking around with bullseyes on our back, making it easy for them to knock us off. I said, just imagine that George Jackson was alive. Just imagine if Malcolm X would live. And I said, there’s nothing wrong with martyrdom, you know, because you supposed to want to risk your life, but you don’t want to risk it unnecessarily. So I said, let’s start thinking. If we have to give our lives up, we have to do it, because a part of any group….If you’re a part of a movement, if you’re not really –like Frantz Fanon said — if you’re not ready to give your life up for that cause, you just really playing games. So, but I wanted us to be thinkers in the 21st century so that we can win and we could succeed.

a Maria: So part of your “solution” to the lack of serious strategic pieces at that time was to encourage prison rebels to undertake a rigorous program of what you’ve called self-learning. You’ve also written about the importance of sending books in to prison rebels, but there seems to be a structural challenge to that strategy, which is the exorbitantly high illiteracy rates. So I guess following that logic, I think that’s an important limit to think about when we put together strategy. So do you have any sense of how to address this in developing the prisoner resistance movement today?

Dennis: Yeah. So what would you probably would have to do is go actually visit a prisoner. If you want to talk about the serious stuff, you have to be sitting next to ’em and you know, sorta whisper in each other’s ears. This was some of the people who used to visit me, we never would discuss in mail or on the phone. We will, we be sitting next to each other and we kind of whisper certain things that we, you know, we would address things that we didn’t want, the administration and all. We would do it in person. And if you want, in my opinion, oh, how to get the prison movement…. Unfortunately it takes society. Because if you notice, George Jackson didn’t come out of a vacuum. The political atmosphere in society typically reverberates inside the prison eventually. Because some of those people get incarcerated that were part of the movement on the outside and by them being in there, they start influencing other people. What happens now is, prisoners like Lacino, really don’t have any visible models to follow or to be inspired by. And I say this because Lacino Hamilton, he’s like Walter Rodney. He’s like, you know, a Frantz Fanon, you know, Che Guevara, you know, these types of people, you know, Ho Chi Minh, but he don’t get support from those types of people because they’re not visible in society. What do you have now? Instead of Malcolm X, George Jackson or the Black Panthers, you got Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. They’re not going to inspire no revolutionary waves inside the prison, so the prisoners don’t have anything to be inspired by.

Alejo: So I wanted to push back a little bit on that, right. Because the Free Alabama movement, for instance…. these guys are writing about Black Lives Matter. These guys are writing about the movement that’s happening in the streets, right? We had three major rebellions, Baltimore, Ferguson and Charlotte. So you know, the National Guard literally came out, right, for these uprisings. And so I think that there is somewhat of a feedback loop, right? The guys inside are talking about these struggles. Even Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is talking about the “Abolish ICE” situation over the summer. There are, I think, these relationships…. I wonder if you think that perhaps there is the possibility for these relationships to happen and that perhaps are happening in different ways already, right? With…. There has been a shift recently, right? Like, how do we account for the two major most widespread prisoner-led actions in US history, right, to come in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore and so on….?

Dennis: Well, you know what, you brought up a good point. And what I was saying is when you look at when people think of the sixties and seventies — African-americans –they automatically think of the civil rights movement. You don’t even have to mention it because it was so a part of the fabric of the culture. Everybody supported either Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army. There’s many groups. So this was a part of the ethos of that era. There are many competing movements out there. You know, good movements. And these movements need to connect and give somewhat of one message that will encapsulate what all of them trying to achieve. Now, there is possibilities with the Black Lives Matter movement. But movements somehow have to be “in the air.” Just like I’ll use… I always use the example, Palestinians. The little kids when they be throwing rocks at the tanks, rocks at the tanks.

Dennis: Nobody had to tell them to do that. It is a part of the ethos, the culture. So in prison, this type of ethos have to be in existence and it has to be widespread because any revol… if you study any revolution or uprising, you at least have to have 20 percent of the population participate for it to be successful. They said that’s at a minimum, you have to have 20 percent. So of the two, whatever 20 percent of 2.5 million is, you would need that amount of prisoners. Prisoners supporting the notion that we need to have some change– just like you would in society. Because if it was just… if you and I were enough. You know, we’re dissatisfied. We would be able to change Detroit, just because of the rage we have, but unfortunately you need other numbers. Not so much money but other numbers and more participants.

a Maria: Yeah. I feel like there’s so much more we could talk about, but the…. So is there anything that you want to mention or have included in here that we didn’t get to yet?

Dennis: Yes. I’m writing a book. That I had been writing in prison called “The struggle behind the walls,” and it’s a unique book, I call it “the wretched of the earth of the prison system.” And in this book I write and define the struggle that actually goes on between conscious prisoners and the Michigan Department of Corrections staff. Not just in Michigan but in the US prison system. And it details all the actors involved in this struggle, you know, whether it’s some sympathetic guards, some militant prisoners and different things like that. So it is a pretty unique book. There’s a chapter devoted to unique prisoners that have an impact in prison. Obviously, Lacino Hamilton is going to be one of them. Siddique Abdullah Hasan is another chapter I wrote on their life, their impact. As well as Bomani Shakur. So it’s a unique book. It’s coming from a new perspective and it’s written by a prisoner who did 24 years in prison who was actually a part of, and at the forefront of the movement in prison.

Alejo: Really looking forward to reading that and maybe have you on the show to talk about it soon.

Dennis: I would love to.

Alejo: Yea, thank you for coming on the show, and talk to you soon again, Dennis. Thank you so much.

Dennis: You’re welcome.


Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes on our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: a Maria, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Special thanks to “Bursts” from The Final Straw. Original music by Bad Infinity.