Revolution #239, July 17, 2011

Interview with Clyde Young, revolutionary communist

"We should stand firmly with the prisoners and their demands"

Clyde Young is a revolutionary communist and a former prisoner. This interview was originally done on The Michael Slate Show and it is being posted at courtesy of The Michael Slate Show (KPFK, 90.7fm Los Angeles, 98.7fm Santa Barbara, worldwide).

Michael Slate: What is the significance of the fact that this strike has been called by people of many different nationalities, different races?

Clyde Young: That's extremely important,  because a lot of times in prison there are divisions among different races, and different nationalities. And the important thing to point out also is that the guards often do things to exploit and promote those divisions, to get people fighting against one another and diverting their attention really from the real problem, which is the prison system itself and the larger system. So this is extremely important that people have come together across racial lines to call this strike, and that people of different nationalities are going to be participating in it. I can't tell you how important that is, just from my own experience of being in prison.

I had been in certain situations in prison rebellions where it was extremely important that—for instance, I was in one struggle one time, and I learned a tremendous amount from this. It was a struggle over prison conditions and also had a political component, because some of the people who had been active in prison, a couple of them, were even [Black] Panthers at the time, who came into that prison, were put in solitary. So we were protesting both the conditions, but also the fact that these prisoners had been put in the solitary.

We gathered on the recreation yard. It was mainly Blacks, but a few whites and others. And the guards opened fire on us, killing two people and wounding forty-five. The point is not to say, well, if you have other people involved, then you can prevent that kind of thing. That's not my point. My point is that it's very important for prisoners as a whole to come together and oppose the conditions that are being imposed on all of them.

Slate: When you talk about the conditions in prison, one of the things that I've come to learn a lot more deeply over the past period of time, is the difference that these supermax prisons have made in the conditions of prisoners. We were talking yesterday, and you had mentioned that the conditions you faced were pretty horrendous, but you thought that the conditions today were even worse. Can you talk about that a little?

Young: Yes, I can. When I was in prison it was hell… any time you're locked up, you're deprived of your freedom, the monotony of prison. And then the brutality—I just talked about a very brutal situation in which two prisoners were killed and forty-five were wounded. You would think that was a statistic from Vietnam at that time. But this was inside a prison. People were protesting, and at that time protesting peacefully.

I think that these conditions are such that people are driven, because of the nature—look, we felt in that situation that we were prepared to die. And what I’m getting from the prisoners at Pelican Bay is that they're prepared to do the same thing, just because of—I mean, it was very difficult to bear, listening to your two previous speakers, particularly Laura [Magnani], who was talking about the kind of conditions people were being subjected to.

In prison, the game is to break you, to break you down. When I was in prison, frankly, it was hell. But now, it's much worse. In fact, we heard, when we were in prison back in the late '60s, about Marion. Marion was being built, Marion Federal Penitentiary. That was the first one. We heard about it, and we were just horrified that basically what they were going to be doing was having special units for behavior modification, where prisoners were even more systematically going to be broken down. That was a horror.

Now the horror's become the reality. There's tens of thousands of prisoners. I understand that Laura has given the statistic of 100,000 prisoners who are incarcerated in these type of conditions, in long-term isolation, which breaks the mind down, and is nothing less than torture by international standards.

Slate: These supermax prisons have never been done at any other time in history. There has never been any kind of society that has had this kind of supermax prison, this kind of long-term isolation. I was reading about Hugo Pinell this morning. How long has that brother been in isolation? He's been in the SHU unit at Pelican Bay since it began, and even before that he was held in long-term isolation. This is exactly that kind of psychological torture. There's a connection, it would seem, between this and the mass incarceration that has developed, particularly for Black and brown people: the fact that we have 2.3 million people in prison, and 60% of them or so are Black or brown. This is an outrage. What do you see is the connection between the conditions in the SHU unit and this mass incarceration?

Young: That's a very important question, and I think it's important to also emphasize that the rulers of this country have gone to great lengths to bamboozle people, to trick people into believing that somehow basically they're animals that are incarcerated in these places. Look  I went to prison and I served eight years in prison. I went in there for armed robbery and I came out a revolutionary communist. I transformed in prison. There's tremendous ability for people to transform. But let's look at the situation from the 1960s. People just like the ones who are incarcerated in the SHUs today, were the people, not exactly the same people, but I’m saying the younger generation, essentially coming from the same station in life, in the 1960s, contributed a tremendous amount to rocking this system to its very foundation.

And what the rulers are saying is that's never going to happen again. So there's a certain preemptive character to what they're doing by incarcerating in a massive scale. I mean look, there's nowhere else in the world where this number of prisoners are incarcerated: 2.3 million, and the overwhelming majority of them are Black and Latino. You tell me that's not a conscious policy on the part of the rulers. It's definitely a conscious policy to try to preempt anything approaching what happened in the 1960s.

Slate: What's the importance of people supporting the Pelican Bay prisoners in their hunger strike?

Young: It's extremely important, for all the reasons that the previous speakers talked about, and some of the things I’m attempting to say. These prisoners must not be allowed to just stand alone. In other words, the conditions that they're confronting are unacceptable. It's unacceptable for human beings to be incarcerated in this type of way. And it's unacceptable for those of us who recognize this, not to step forward and support them. This is absolutely unacceptable what they're doing and we should stand firmly with the people all over California and beyond should stand firmly with the prisoners and their demands.

Slate: Which reminds me of the statement by this prisoner who has tremendous faith in the ability of people… he thinks the prison officials and the state have underestimated the decency, principles and humanity of the people. He has a lot of faith [in the people], and people need to make that faith real.

Young: That's a profound message.

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