Out of Control (Nancy Kurshan)

A Review


How does one connect the struggles of the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican Independentistas and the Black Panthers in an anti-imperialist, pro-worker, environmentally-friendly framework? For Nancy Kurshan and her peers at the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), the answer —in 1985—was clear: launch a massive attack on control unit prisons. Out of Control: A Fifteen-Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons is less a narrative than it is a bible for anyone who quivers with rage at incarceration in the U.S. It’s a document crying out to jailhouse lawyers, abolitionists, and prison rights groups alike to take its seeds of resistance, turn them over, and bury them in fertile soil where they might sprout and continue the legacy of the CEML.

Simmering from the Attica prison rebellion of 1971—the armed assault on 1200 peacefully demonstrating prisoners at a penitentiary in upstate New York—Kurshan and a small group of activists came together in 1985 to channel their anger into a strategic campaign: to shut down the control unit at the federal penitentiary at Marion, about 300 miles from Chicago, opened two years prior. The details of life in a control unit, where prisoners are held in 8x10 foot cells for 23 hours a day, likely surprise no one in 2013. In Marion, “There was no contact with other human beings… At times, they were shackled, spread-eagle to the cement block bed...Prisoners obsessed over when, if ever, it would end. They sometimes pondered if they would go crazy. Some did.” The “Marion model” later “proliferate[d] across the country, replicating its horrors wherever it went.”

With no prisoners in control units a year before the CEML’s struggle began, and 80,000 prisoners on lockdown 30 years later, the book’s introduction itself suggests that the campaign was an unmitigated failure. Upon closer inspection, nothing could be further from the truth. Kurshan has brought to life the myriad relationships, comedies, outrages and details that make struggles worthwhile, and has painstakingly stitched together the story of how movements rarely spring spontaneously into being but are often cobbled together—slowly, painfully—by a small group of fiercely determined people.

Kurshan also upturns notions of “victory” and “defeat”, reminding us that in the creation of a new political current, every step forward is a “win”, every “loss” is peppered, to varying degrees, with lessons and triumphs. She details how every piece of propaganda produced across 15 years, every edition of their newsletter, every conference, rally and meeting, was an exercise in intersectionality, from forums on AIDS in prison, to pamphlets about the education system, to rallies against the war on drugs and imperialist interventions in Third World countries.

Marion’s first superintendent, Ralph Aarons, proclaimed “The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the U.S. prison and in society at large,” reminding all involved that control units formed part of a larger social control program executed at the highest level of government. Before long, Marion became home such antiracist activists and political thinkers like Native American organizer Leonard Peltier, Black Panthers Sundiata Acoli and Sekou Odinga, Puerto Rican independentista Oscar Lopez Rivera and white revolutionary Bill Dunne, with many others to follow. By including snippets from the correspondence between these activists and their supporters, Kurshan deftly reinforces the importance of broadcasting the voices of revolutionary subjects who are rarely at liberty to speak, and provides a wonderful model for taking leadership from those banished to impenetrable dungeons.

Notably, Out of Control deserves real attention for managing the delicate balance between solidarity with armed groups and pacifist politics. In a nod to this fine line, Kurshan quotes author and pacifist Dave Dellinger as saying: “Those of us who advocate and practice nonviolent methods of liberation cannot wash our hands of those who see no hope in such methods…If some of the victims of our society…turn to violent methods the fault is partly ours for having…failed until now to develop non-violent methods of resistance to…injustice. One of the many areas in which to do this is in the struggle to close down the Marion… control unit.”

Out of Control: A Fifteen-Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons
by Nancy Kurshan
Freedom Archives, 2013, 220 pages, $20.00

Kanya D'Almeida

Kanya D’Almeida currently works as Editor, Asia-Pacific for Inter Press Service. As a freelance journalist, she has covered human rights issues in Mexico, Sri Lanka, and the United States. Her work has appeared on Al Jazeera, The Margins, Truthout and Alternet, among others. She splits her time between her native Sri Lanka and New York City.