There are few methods at our disposal to right the wrong of false imprisonment. But as many believers note, our legal system was premised on the notion that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than one innocent man be imprisoned. I have no such faith that the current system comes even close to such a principle and don’t believe it really ever has been held to such standards.
From the very beginning of the republic, we’ve seen examples of excessive federal overreach. Regarding the recent release of the CIA’s sanitized torture report, I was recently asked when I thought the US lost its moral authority and I answered “around the time of the Whiskey Rebellion”. (Of course, the country lost it way before that when our predecessors engaged in biological and other types of warfare on the indigenous people living here before the land mass was “discovered” by Europeans.)
Public school history tells us that the Revolutionary War was fought against taxes and yet as soon as our ancestors elected a king—ahem—president, he put down a rebellion caused by his administration’s tax on poor whiskey manufacturers. The originator of “shock and awe” was George Washington, who ordered excessive force to be used to put down the rebellion specifically in order to prevent future insurrections. This mindset foreshadowed the prohibition we saw not only of alcohol but of other equally or less harmful substances today and also flavored the public opinion against any form of resistance no matter how appropriate.
Since the Whiskey Rebellion, we have seen all manner of people arrested for the pettiest of crimes and now live in a time where anywhere between half to three quarters of the country’s federal prison population is comprised of nonviolent drug offenders. The US also has the largest amount of prison inmates per capita than the rest of the world. On top of that, citizens tacitly consent to torture at black sites and Guantanamo Bay that result in several innocent people undergoing some of the most horrific torture on record. There are even political prisoners sentenced in kangaroo courts from the 1960’s who aren’t allowed to pursue justice in a world with forty years of social and cultural change. Then you have modern day political prisoners like Chelsea Manning and Barrett Brown.
The options for fighting torture abroad are extremely limited and even the best intentioned tactics we have locally are not particularly effective if we measure effectiveness in terms of innocent people freed. We can make petitions demanding the release of nonviolent prisoners, we can educate jurors about jury nullification, we can stage protests, we can write our congressmen and president…but curiously absent from these methods is anything outside the socially approved way of dealing with the broken system. That’s not meant to insult the great people striving towards this measure as much as it is a reflection of my own impatience, after all I believe in a diversity of tactics.
However, I don’t expect that such an broken system can be repaired with the tools the system has encouraged us to use. Much like voting, many of these methods beg for radical change within safe parameters. Former political prisoner Assata Shakur has said,
“No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.”
As far as imprisoning innocent people goes, we can look to history and Assata’s case in particular for how to set people free. She was accused of killing a police officer and underwent an extremely biased trial resulting in her imprisonment. As a response, The Black Liberation Army broke her out and assisted in her escape to Cuba, where she still resides and still faces a two million dollar bounty for her capture and return to the US. She is also still on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list. But most importantly, she remains a free woman.
Timothy Leary, another radical, was also imprisoned and later broken out by the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground accepted around $25,000 from The Brotherhood of Eternal Love for this break and assisted Leary in his escape to Algeria. Before this arrest, Leary faced 30 years in prison during another trial for marijuana possession. He was able to appeal the sentence and the law he was sentenced under was found unconstitutional. Offenders of lesser prominence aren’t as fortunate.
Leary was repeatedly targeted by the Feds for fear he would spread unconventional views, and you still see the pattern of oppression with outspoken activists. Calls for lynching Edward Snowden came without second thought when he exposed the NSA’s extensive spying and it is assured that if he were to return to the US he would face an unfair trial and lengthy prison sentence with probably a little bit of torture thrown in for shits and giggles. Manning was brutally tortured but that’s supposed to be okay because she was a traitor.
Even if you didn’t reveal government secrets there’s no question that prison conditions are inhumane and reduce human beings to their basest survival mode. Why nonviolent drug offenders are placed with rapists and murderers has never been adequately explained and yet people tolerate it even when it happens to them or someone close. And even if you fully realize the atrocity of prison the alternatives leave victims and their supporters feeling powerless. PTSD from experiencing prison conditions is real and threatens the bond the convicted can have with others once released.
The moral question of direct action based prison liberation is an easy one for anarchists—of course it makes sense to violate a sentence if unjust. If we have a moral duty to disobey unjust laws, do we not also have the moral authority to free prisoners bonded by those same laws?
But with an increase in prisoners also came an increase in security measures along with diminishing direct action following the infiltration and disruption of effective, active groups in the 1960’s and 70’s. These measures are not so secure that no one escapes, though. The question becomes how can prison breaks be accomplished tactically? I’m a writer, not a jail breaker, so I mostly work in theory but perhaps there is a tactical case to be made alongside the philosophical one.
What we are seeing is the emergence of technology that is opening up markets of all possibilities. With the bolstering of the deep web by easy to send and acquire cryptocurrencies, financing prison breaks has become easier. Crowdsourcing prison breaks is becoming an option now whereas in earlier years you needed a wealthy financier. With the accumulation of cryptocurrencies in the hands of younger generations who tend to be more impatient and radical along with technologically savvy, the potential of financing prison breaks is real.
With specialization comes ease of carrying out projects, so if the financial side can be met from there it’s a matter of finding people with the skills to carry out the task. I don’t know of anyone personally with those skills, but the machinery of the prison system breaks the ones tasked with guarding inmates too. If there is growing unrest among prison guards or even former guards there is potential of cooperation. And of course black markets attract individuals with variety of skill sets unacceptable to the rest of society. If much maligned assassination markets could come to fruition (that’s not to condone them) then I don’t see why deep web crowdsourced prison breaks couldn’t either.
Is crowdsourced justice perfect? Of course not, but I’ll take my chances on an experiment rather than a system that measures its failures in human lives and shattered psyches. It’s not an issue of local jail breaks, either. The torture report revealed what really goes on in black site prisons around the world and it’s even more egregious what happens to innocent people who have been declared “terrorists”. If the ideal of a justice system is ten guilty men free instead of one innocent imprisoned then I’ll go even further and say I’d rather see ten more 9/11s than one case of rectal rehydration.
Direct action has gotten the goods many times before when it comes to liberation of political prisoners and if we can agree that political prisoners and nonviolent offenders are undeserving of the utter hell of prison then it follows that they should not be left to perish for the crime of nonconformity. As technology provides us tools for liberation, it becomes less of a question of why or how these breaks will happen and more of a question of when and who.