Mutual Aid Inside: How Incarcerated Communities Survive Together
This article was funded by the Marvel Cooke Fellowship. Read more about this reporting project and make a contribution to fund our fellowship budget.
Joseph Wilson, who is incarcerated in a maximum security state prison, believes COVID-19 worsened the existing crisis of incarceration in the United States and amplified the urgency for mutual aid practices in prison.
Such survival work, thoroughly theorized by organizers like Dean Spade, encompasses projects that work to meet people’s basic needs and educate them about why we don’t have the things we need in the first place.
“During the height of the covid pandemic, the residents of prison banded together to care for one another regardless of affiliation,” Wilson said. “Men shared food. Some made masks. Everyone checked in on their neighbors. It was a beautiful glow around a dark cloud.”
“Lots of men lost family members. They were not able to go to funerals. Some men died in prison and we, their friends and neighbors, were not able to say goodbye in a meaningful way. Grief was a bonding agent.”
Joseph lost family to covid, too. “I couldn’t go to her funeral and I was distraught,” he said of his mother’s death in 2020. “Men, some of whom I’d never had more than simple conversations with, signed sympathy cards, made meals, and checked in on my mental and emotional well-being. These are the most relevant examples of mutual aid for me.”
Formal and informal mutual aid work beckons us to consider the inequalities that shape our world, and often reveals that the very systems responsible for addressing our social problems are also responsible for producing crises.
We (James Jones and Caren Holmes) surveyed and interviewed incarcerated comrades across the country and in the United Kingdom in an effort to collectivize our knowledge of the robust mutual aid practices happening inside prisons.
The people we spoke with shared experiences, stories, and strategies, confirming that—despite the best efforts of the criminal punishment system—incarcerated people keep each other alive. Small acts of care, enormous acts of courage, and “mundane forms of collective rebellion” preserve life and humanity inside prison walls.
We focus on four categories of mutual aid work: connections and relationships, advocacy, material resources, and care work. For each, we consider how conditions of falsely-produced scarcity and isolation work to destroy the bonds that facilitate our collective survival, and explore the creative and enduring mutual aid practices that persist in spite of them.
Prisons across the country are different beasts and can vary widely in everything from security classifications to facility-specific policies and customs. While we don’t claim to paint a comprehensive picture of mutual aid in all prisons, we hope to offer a few glimpses that arrived to us from different settings.
Still, there are patterns to the work. Inside prisons, letter writing, networking, storytelling, education, resource distribution, mentorship, collective mourning, nursing, nurturing, listening, and performing other rituals of mutual aid belong to the legacy of incarcerated caregivers.
People on the inside may not always name these practices as “mutual aid,” but its tenets are practiced on a daily basis and are critical to survival strategies. These practices are life-giving forces within death-making facilities. Those on the outside, who have never experienced incarceration, have an enormous amount to learn from those who have had to ensure each other’s survival under conditions of imprisonment.
Paul Cortez, who has spent 16 years in a maximum security facility, explains that, “as a prisoner, sometimes the need to just survive another day can become the sole focus of one’s existence.”
This piece is a love letter to practices of love and solidarity, which survive despite the dehumanizing conditions of the prison system.
Connections and Relationships
Prisons seek to dismember the types of social connection that humans need to survive, subjecting people to state-sanctioned alienation through constant and multilayered forms of punishment.
Incarcerated people are disappeared from their communities, their communications are highly surveilled and restricted, and they are obstructed from building relationships with other criminalized people. Prison officials have nearly unlimited discretion to further restrict already-limited visitation and phone access.
“Isolated further and further into our own cliques, our own cells, our own selves,” Cortez explains, “we begin to lose one of the most fundamental aspects of our own humanity: connection.”
Conditions of extreme scarcity breed desperation and can lead people to burn each other. People are pushed to destroy trust between them. Compounding traumas around neglect and abandonment loom over relationships.
On Christmas Day, 2021, prisoners in one midwestern medium-security prison clamored for the few working telephones, desperate to be in contact with their families during the holidays. Pitted against each other in a situation of calculated scarcity, fights broke out and the whole facility was locked down.
Broken phones were common in the facility and prison staff could have easily anticipated how a holiday would exacerbate demand. Yet official accounts of the event turned to accusations of gang violence and the age-old myth of inmate-facilitated drug smuggling when it came time to lay blame.
In this way, prison workers not only created this crisis by ignoring weeks of complaints and work orders anticipating holiday demand, but retroactively used the violence that ensued to formalize criminalizing narratives that would justify future punitive actions, like cell sweeps and searches. That is, the facility took actions that reproduced the cycle of communications scarcity and crisis that caused the lockdown in the first place. It is this cycle that mutual aid endeavors to break.
While prisons are designed to prevent social growth and interconnectivity, people inside strategize to resist social death, building and preserving relationships in and outside of prison. According to those we spoke with, sharing phone lines, creating phone trees, passing along messages, connecting people to each other and to local activist groups, creating newsletters, and developing letter-writing networks, are all ways that people coordinate to meet the social needs of those locked inside.
Sustaining social connection is itself survival work. People on the inside who have no outside support become vulnerable because prison guards know that no one will show up for them.
Over the last four years, we organized to meet this need in the facility where James is incarcerated. Together, and in collaboration with other incarcerated organizers, we connected hundreds of people inside his facility to writers on the outside. From the seed of these connections have sprouted friendships, book clubs, commissary fundraisers, clemency petitions, poetry, and curated art shows. Our friendship and collaboration on this piece are testaments to this network and the commitment of people inside to connect with each other.
Advocacy, Organizing, and Political Education
Incarcerated people are subjected to daily indignities, institutionalized violence, and systemic neglect. Disappeared into fortified compounds, they are refused medical treatment, held in small cells without air conditioning during heat waves or without heat during cold snaps, cavity searched by guards, arbitrarily refused visitation or phone access, and transferred far away from loved ones without warning. Bare necessities such as use of the phone, visitation, and time outside are recategorized as “privileges” and are always precarious, taken away at the discretion of guards without transparency or due process.
Friends and family on the outside call and email prison officials in an attempt to intervene in the sustained mistreatment of those inside. Often called the “run around,” those advocating from outside are herded through a maze of phone calls in order to reach someone who ultimately tells them, “there’s nothing we can do about it,” leaving those inside feeling defeated and utterly powerless.
Incarcerated people bear witness to the injustices endured by a cellmate or a fellow prisoner. They know that intervening is likely to result in collective punishment. With the threat of retaliation always looming, they move strategically to de-escalate and mitigate harm.
De-escalation skills therefore become life-saving, heading off a progression of violence and punishment from guards. Many people become accustomed to “tucking your tail,” swallowing indignities, even abuse, in order to prevent the escalation of violence or retaliation of guards.
Prisoners try to remind each other that enduring such indignities does not compromise their humanity. Rocko, who’s incarcerated at a medium security facility in rural Illinois says, “a lot of the time we laugh to keep from crying or say things to comfort one another in times of duress. Kind words are the glue that prevents us from falling to pieces. While folks inside may not have the power to change a situation, they listen and extend empathy to one another.”
But tucking tail is not always an option. Rocko recounts one incident, in which prison staff failed to orchestrate an inmate’s virtual visit to attend his grandmother’s funeral. As the scheduled time approached and his door remained locked, it became clear to this comrade that the prison had no intention of honoring his visit.
Knowing only a massive disruption would garner immediate attention, everyone in the unit began yelling and banging on their doors. The uproar seemed to overwhelm the arriving officer, who nervously explained he had no knowledge of this inmate’s visit, and that he couldn’t open his cell without prior confirmation. This incited another barrage of banging and yelling from irate inmates.
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The corrections officer left and returned minutes later to finally escort him out of his cell. He was late, but he made it to witness the funeral.
Miran (Mikey) Thakrar, who is incarcerated at HMP Whitemoor in the United Kingdom, gives another example of using disruption to help an incarcerated friend. He says people have coordinated impromptu noise demonstrations to demand medical attention for a person in his cell block. But disruption comes with a cost. “[Prisoners] raise complaints, verbally or formally, and end up in segregation over it, transferred or moved wings,” Miran explains.
“The prison prefers we stand alone, that way they can do what they want to, to make the prison run with the least amount of resistance!”
Prisons not only prevent collective organizing and solidarity, but intentionally strategize to create disunity, turning prisoners against each other. “Creating a sense of isolation, even within a single wing of the prison, destroys our sense of community and that leads to conflict between ourselves, which I’m sure the guards love,” he said.
Page Dukes, a formerly incarcerated researcher and organizer in Georgia agrees, “solidarity is condemned and criminalized—people inflict harm on one another in an environment of designed scarcity and desperation. Admin encourages distrust and fear, discourages community and hope.”
Despite this, she explains, “We bear witness, tell each other’s stories, share skills and resources, encourage one another to organize and resist, to hope and to create our own opportunities, to liberate ourselves and each other.”
Building on the legacies and demands of the Attica uprisings, incarcerated people have advocated tirelessly for programming and access to educational resources. Several men in a maximum security facility shared with us their experiences of studying, practicing, and facilitating restorative and transformative justice processes.
When the state would not provide, inside organizers and educators designed their own political education curriculum. Paul, who has been incarcerated for more than 16 years, explains, “there is no greater mutual aid than to educate the mind, and to help one break out of the prison of mental slavery.”
Joseph Wilson mobilizes a collective of family members connected to incarcerated people in his facility. He writes and regularly publishes a report on conditions inside the prison for families.
“At times,” he says, “I must quell rumors and suspicions on both sides of the wall. Continuing this work is important because many families are unaware of the law, how to use it, and their collective and individual political power.”
In recent months, as the corrections department worked to limit access to physical mail in his state, he and others inside coordinated outside advocacy on social media to counter threatened policy changes.
Ethel Edwards, a formerly incarcerated organizer with Survived and Punished, explains she consistently filed grievances to demand changes of collective conditions within the prisons where she was held. Having come home recently, she has a long list of women she continues to support and advocate for from the outside.
The things people do to advocate for each other “to thwart the system’s effects, we often don’t really acknowledge, sometimes because it’s illegal, sometimes because we’re embarrassed to admit we needed help, sometimes because we didn’t get any help even when we asked for it,” Rocko observed.
Advocacy inside prison walls is not often recognized as such, but even the small things keep people alive and in relationship with each other. “Eating meals together, listening to music or watching sports/movies, exercising or playing games, looking at magazines or pictures, imagining what kind of car, truck, motorcycle or boat you’d drive or where you’d live if you could decide, reading books and discussing the storylines and characters, or studying religious or educational material: all these activities pass the time in a constructive way and keep our minds occupied and distracted from the oppression of the day-to-day indignities.”
“It’s a miserable existence but being active gives the mind and soul something to look forward to, and dulls the hunger pains and the yearning for human touch and engagement,” he said. “It doesn’t quite satiate the longing, but it quiets it a bit.”
Prisons meticulously calculate the minimum calories needed to sustain their incarcerated population. Prison meals are rationed, served at unreasonable hours, and often are entirely inedible. Folks inside supplement their portions with food from the commissary, which they are responsible for purchasing themselves. States have different baselines for the amount of money they commit to prisoners each month (in Illinois, for example, the monthly “state pay” is $10). It is with these funds—sometimes the cents-per-hour people are paid to work—that people must buy food, hygiene products, letter-writing materials, and clothes, and cover court fees and medical bills.
While some people have loved ones on the outside who can send them money, others do not. Even those with financial support can be barred from accessing their basic necessities when prison officials place them under punitive commissary restrictions.
Sharing or doing things for another person, labeled “trading” or “trafficking,” is against the rules in most facilities. Simple human kindness or gestures as small as giving someone a snack or a bar of soap can be forbidden.
“We cook each other meals. We make cards for each other’s family members,” Miran said. “We distribute the burdens to make conditions easier to bear.”
He notes that Muslim communities who support each other are harshly targeted. Their collectivity is interpreted by Islamaphobic guards and state officials as evidence of “extremism,” “terrorist plotting” and a generalized security threat. He says prison staff “try to stop large gatherings, or to make it difficult for them to share meals together in certain areas.”
This racialized targeting of a community is similarly experienced by Black and brown people, whose efforts to share or exchange basic material resources are targeted as evidence of “gang affiliations.”
Ethel explains that when COVID-19 hit, people were limited in the ways that they could support and provide for each other. When the prison stopped providing two hot meals a day, people made meals for each other. “I always fed someone who didn’t have anything,” she said.
Everyone we spoke to for this piece could recall times when they, despite endemic scarcity, provided resources for someone who needed it, such as coffee, paper, headphones, or food. Several recalled being moved by moments when they needed and received the generosity of others.
Scholar Orisanmi Burton tells this story of his incarcerated friend, Absolut, in an episode of the Millenials are Killing Capitalism podcast. “Absolut, and another person who was in solitary confinement, took turns abstaining from eating lunch so that the other person [could] have a double portion. So that, on that particular day, that person would feel satiated.”
“Imagine the kinds of sacrifice that it takes, the kinds of selflessness, and acknowledging of another person’s feelings. The sort of small, mundane tasks of care and tenderness are in fact, forms of rebellion.”
Burton explains that these tremendously selfless acts, “make possible other forms of struggle that might be more easily recognizable, as political. And that’s precisely why they’re forms of rebellion.”
The prisons have the power to restrict food intake by not allowing people to order from the commissary or accept commissary items from other inmates. The prison restricts not only that which feeds the body but also that which feeds the mind, controlling what can be read, which in turn controls what can be learned.
All books coming into the facility pass through a review board, who read book covers and synopses to determine if the books are “acceptable.” Most books with revolutionary or subversive messaging are denied and added to a list of restricted material.
Yet, thanks to the stubbornness of supporters on the outside, beacons of hope—books by authors such as George Jackson, Mariame Kaba and Dean Spade, to name a few—make their way inside. Reading about abolition and revolutionary ideas gives people something to discuss and hold onto, something to rally around.
In reflecting upon the forms of mutual aid people described in interviews, the majority of experiences can be, and often are, categorized as care work. This includes organizing birthday celebrations, caring for the sick, helping to mourn and process grief, providing relationship advice, or comforting someone who has been denied parole.
Burton, who spent many years writing to and learning alongside incarcerated people, and in particular Black men, writes about how the violent and gendered segregation that takes place in prison severs cis and heterosexual men from types of gendered social reproductive labor that is most often performed by women, trans, and gender non-conforming people. While women on the outside often continue to provide enormous care and support for incarcerated loved ones, this gendered segregation forces some cishet men to take up these roles themselves.
Care work thus becomes a necessity for collective survival in men’s prisons. Burton notes that, perhaps as a result of their relation to care work, many of the incarcerated men he communicates with have a “profound tenderness that is intact.” Despite the system’s efforts to harden, that tenderness becomes “part of how [incarcerated people] are able to survive.”
In the absence of grieving rituals available to people on the outside, people in prison come together to grieve lost loved ones. “My cellmate lost his brother to gun violence,” Rocko recalls. “Together we honored him on what would have been his 24th birthday, cooking a meal together from commissary items we pay homage to our loved ones, wishing we could be with them and sending all the positive energy we have stored up inside us out to them.”
Ethel Edwards explains that humanity comes to the surface in crisis. In the women’s prison where she was incarcerated, people provided emotional support to survivors of sexual violence. Shared experiences, she explains, create conditions of compassion. When Ethel’s 21-year-old daughter was murdered during her time in prison, she found intimacy and support from other women whose children had also been murdered. She notes that “the women, around me, the mothers around me, checked on me all day long, anything I needed they slid it under my door.”
Shantee, an organizer incarcerated at a maximum security facility, notes that when inmates are summoned to the chaplain’s office, they anticipate that they will be notified of a loved one’s death. He and others inside have learned to anticipate their return with empathy, love, handmade sympathy cards, and cooked meals.
Embracing a man whose mother passed, Shantee recalls, “he knew he was not alone in his darkest moments. I asked him if he was hungry, and another brother blurted out, ‘I’m already cooking something for him!’ If he needed to talk, eat, or a shoulder to cry on, we were there for him.”
Sometimes the care work does not involve crisis, but encompasses more mundane needs. Staten Taylor, a barber locked up in central Illinois, notes, “haircuts are huge for maintaining your mental stability, you feel a piece of normality and feel better when you are looking fresh.”
These forms of care remind those inside of our humanity, our dignity, our integrity.
‘Towards Collective Survival Work’
The mutual aid that takes place inside prisons is deeply political and, more often than not, overlooked by outside organizers. When outside organizers look to build with people on the inside, they are often plugging into existing practices and networks of care work and mutual aid, not starting from scratch. These practices provide insight into the revolutionary potential of care work under deeply repressive conditions.
While they may not codify mutual aid as such, or name its counterinsurgent power, prison officials know that the collective survival tactics of prison populations undermine their authority and yet the prison system simultaneously relies on these practices to function. They know that resource sharing, adaptive communication networks, and care work chip away at the deprivation and dependency upon which their unearned and precarious power relies.
Disciplinary tactics reveal an explicit focus on undermining sociality. It is not just commissary or phone time that is revoked for minor infractions, it is time outside of one’s cell, access to news media, and in the cruelest instances, all forms of human contact.
The prison and its guards have the impunity to take away ‘privileges’ that people can’t afford to lose – more explicitly, they have the power to restrict food intake, sensory input (through solitary confinement), and access to community. The scarcity of basic necessities is compounded by levels of control, isolation, and punishment.
Even still, people organize to survive and take care of each other.
“I’m trying to figure out how to change our thought process away from ‘survival of the fittest’ towards collective survival work, or social reproduction, as they call it,” Rocko said. On the inside, “we don’t all have the language or a manual for these practices and sometimes we hurt each other or let each other down.”
But mutual aid work holds a promise of generating new ways to relate to one another. As Dean Spade says, “at its best, mutual aid actually produces new ways of living where people get to create systems of care and generosity that address harm and foster well-being.” The revolutionary nature of the mutual aid that takes place inside prison walls embodies this possibility.