Prison Uprisings: Introduction



Welcome to the 52nd issue of The Funambulist. Following issue 4 (March-April 2016) Carceral Environments, and issue 12 (July-August 2017) Racialized Incarceration, its editorial focus is on the prison. These three issues share a prison abolitionist framework that neither negotiates nor compromises with any carceral logic, to envision a world without institutionalized punishment. Issue 4 had insisted on the space of the prison itself—what I believe to be the most intense form of architectural violence—while issue 12, as its title suggests, analyzed the ways through which incarceration is always informed by racialization. These two editorial choices were important, I think, and I remain committed to demonstrating how architecture is not merely complicit with the racist and often colonial violence of the carceral regime, but quite simply, a fundamental dimension of its materialization. If architecture is the discipline that organizes bodies in space, the prison would embody the highest degree of control a built environment can have on people. However, the problem with this framework—and this is a recurrent problem in my work on architecture, beyond the prison—is that it renders the bodies who are imprisoned by architecture as fully stripped of any sort of agency. This absolutist diagram of power is usually the way one reads a situation in which they’re fundamentally an outsider. 

Prison Uprisings Funambulist 1
 Prison revolt at the San Vittore prison in Milan in 1969. / Photo by Marka/dfp.

This issue breaks away from this framework and, instead, focuses exclusively on the many ways through which prisoners invest the full extent of the agency they have within the walls to organize, resist, revolt, conquer the prison, or escape from it. Resistance might be crushed, revolts might be suppressed, escapees might be recaptured, and yet, during the time these rebellions take place, the entire structure of carceral regimes is denied its power.

If we are to believe that this carceral power is one of the most ruthless forms of oppression, then liberation is never practiced as much as during prison uprisings.

The fact that they are contained within a certain space, within a certain time, is also something inherent to liberatory processes, as we’ll see further.

In this regard, would it be such a stretch to relate the destruction of the siege militarized wall that separates Gaza from the rest of Palestine by a bulldozer on October 7, 2023, with a prison break? I used to be bothered by the mantra that named the Gaza Strip as “the largest open-air prison in the world.” I was bothered because Gaza is also full of life, of things that fundamentally escape the occupying power’s control, of joys, of many mundane aspects of daily life. Calling it a prison seemed to deny all this, only to make it a scorched earth place where every aspect of life exists in dependence to the occupation and the siege. Of course, my reasoning back then is an imperfect one, as it refused to see how, in prisons too, people “teach life”—using the famous stanza of Rafeef Ziadah’s 2014 poem about Gaza. 

The descriptions of the 1971 Attica Rebellion by Orisanmi Burton (who was already part of issue 12), in both his book Tip of the Spear (2023) and in the pages of this issue, could not be more connected to this idea. After having successfully reclaimed the space of a massive prison in Upstate New York, those that Orisanmi consistently call “the rebels” organized a new society in the large courtyard of the prison, hosting debates, preparing, distributing, and sharing meals, organizing defense against the coming suppression, having sex even for some and, crucially, stargazing. A hundred years after the Paris Commune, Attica also embodied a new world order in the specific space-time of the courtyard of the prison for four days and three nights. The courtyard thus materialized a liberated island of a revolutionary archipelago in a settler colonial anti-Black ocean. 

The way prison rebellions reclaim the architecture of the prison or detention center is always interesting to look at. Indeed, prison consecrating architecture’s violence, some of its architectural components seem impossible to reclaim. This is why the Attica rebels chose to organize life in the courtyard, along with stationing themselves on the roofs, which are often one of the key architectural dimensions to conquer for revolting prisoners. Being on top of prison roofs can provide an overview of both sides of the walls, and also usually allows for visual ways of communicating with the outside world. In the 1970s, rebelling prisoners in Lorraine (eastern France) and in Italy, in particular those who belong to the ultra-Left, occupied the roofs and threw its terracotta tiles down to the ground. In April 2020, prisoners of the Cárcel de Devoto in Buenos Aires learned that there had been some cases of this new disease called COVID-19 spreading in the prison. Protesting the lack of health protection by the carceral administration, they similarly removed the metallic sheets of the prison roof, set up camp on them, and displayed banners affirming their refusal to die. Similar protests happened in many other prisons of the world, where prisoners’ health seemed to be set low on the list of priorities; particularly in Colombia, as we talked about with Alejandro Rodríguez Pabón.

In some cases, the actualization of prisoners’ agency, in particular when it comes to their health, operates in the battleground their bodies incarnate. This is what Banu Bargu has called the “weaponization of life,” in her description of prisoners undertaking hunger strikes to protest their carceral conditions in Turkey and Kurdistan, as well as the refusal of the state to grant them the status of political prisoners. This denial of the prison’s absolute power on bodies is described at length in this issue through the quasi-simultaneous resistance of Kurdish (Berivan Kutlay Sarikaya) and Irish (Síle Darragh and Laurence McKeown) prisoners in colonial Turkish and British prisons in northern Kurdistan and the north of Ireland in the early 1980s. In the case of Irish Republican Army prisoners, the hunger strikes represented a culmination in the weaponization of their bodies, in order to claim their political status as fighters for a liberated and reunited Ireland. Here, the words of Laurence McKeown, who was part of the 1981 hunger strikes that saw the British authorities unshaken by the death of ten men, are precious. He describes how all messages and objects that penetrated the walls of the prisons needed to be carried in both visitors’ and prisoners’ rectums. Hunger strikes had also been preceded by “no-wash protests,” whereby both women in the Armagh Jail and men in the H Blocks spread their feces on the walls of their cells, as well as menstrual blood in Armagh. 

In the north of Ireland, this history of prison rebellion is at the center of the narrative within the last fifty years of the struggle for liberation. This centrality emerges from the role the prison plays in the colonial schema. It constitutes an instrument of removal for those who do not comply with the colonial order and could represent a potential risk towards it. In the colonial context, the prison plainly appears for what it is: an institutionalized and architectural means of subjugating individuals or identified groups that jeopardize the dominant order. Its paradox however, consists in often incarcerating these individuals together, thus providing the potential conditions for collective organizing within the walls. This is what Orisanmi describes in the case of the male members of the (Black) Panther 21, detained together in one wing of Long Island City’s Queens House of Detention in 1969. Members of the Panther 21, Sekou Odinga and Larry Mack, had avoided the arrest by flying to Algeria, where a decade earlier, a significant part of the National Liberation Front’s organizing had been done from French colonial prisons and military detention centers where militants from different groups and regions had been incarcerated together.

Space is a key component of prison uprisings. So is time. As written above, liberation is always inscribed in time, and as Meryem-Bahia Arfaoui writes in this issue, time is a battle within the walls. Time is precisely what prison claims to take from prisoners. “Doing time” is a euphemism for incarceration, and a prison sentence is always expressed in a temporal framing, including when it is endless—the French judicial system even uses the pompous term “perpetuity.”

In a way, prison therefore strips away time from prisoners. And yet, time is precisely what prisoners have in abundance and can potentially use against the carceral regime.

Meryem-Bahia thus describes how her incarcerated brother uses repetition to wear out the prison guards and force the administration to hear his complaints. Prison guards experience time in a jerky way, alternating their time within the walls with time outside of them, making them vulnerable to this repetition. This is also what Síle hints at when she describes British prison guards exiting the prison and then, the next day, coming back to the horrendous stench of shit and blood-covered cells, whereas Irish political prisoners had gotten used to it through the permanence of their condition. 

However, this time is never put more to profit than in the planning and execution of escapes. In this regard, the digging of tunnels such as the one used by forty-nine political prisoners in Pinochet’s Chile to escape, as described by Yasna Mussa, is paramount. My usual argument on architecture is that its components (walls in particular) are built with such a structural integrity that human bodies, without the help of powerful tools, cannot affect them, thus forcing them to abide by the spatial order architecture materializes—this being especially true within the walls of a prison. This understanding is contingent on a scale of time that, indeed, makes bodies powerless when facing these walls. The scale of time within incarceration, however, is one where even a seemingly innocuous object, used repeatedly, can slowly affect the spatial order materialized by the prison walls. A tunnel is just that: a meticulously repeated counter-architectural practice that slowly constructs a breach in the prison’s spatial violent order. This is the mighty power of the spoon. Let’s look at it for a moment.

The day is September 6, 2021. In the background, the sun rises above the hills of southern Galilee in Palestine. The Israeli police officer crouches, his hand on his mouth in a sign of disbelief. He’s looking at a small hole a few meters outside the walls of the colonial prison of Gilboa, four kilometers north of the West Bank limits. Zakaria Al-Zubaidi, Yaqoub Mahmoud Qadri, Mahmoud Abdullah Ardah, Muhammad Arda, Ayham Nayef Kamamji, and the youngest of the group, Monadel Yacoub Nafe’at are already far away. They escaped during the night when they finished digging this narrow tunnel with a spoon. For the following two weeks, the six escapees move in Palestine’s landscape, receiving help and shelter by Palestinians both in Galilee and in the northern West Bank, before being caught again by the occupying army. They may be re-incarcerated but their escape has made the defeat of the colonial prison all too spectacular.

The liberatory object embodied by the spoon is turned into an immediate symbol of Palestinian liberation, along with the historic key of Return.

Prison Uprisings Funambulist 2
Palestinian protester in Beita (south of Nablus) in the West Bank, holding a spoon in defiance towards the Israeli occupying forces, during a protest in solidarity with the six Palestinian prisoners who escaped the Gilboa prison four days earlier. / Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/dpa/Alamy Live News.

This particular envisioning of the key is specific to the way refugees around the world see it, as a promised Return to their land and home. This reading aside, I see the key as the alter ego of the spoon. One crystallizes architecture’s violence, in particular within the carceral regime, whereas the other (considered in the Gilboa escape framework) allows for this counter-architectural liberatory practice. The asymmetry of power between the entire prison architectural system (and, with it, the political order) that the key bolts and the humble spoon digs against is, of course, representative of the asymmetry between the colonizer and the colonized. And yet, if we are to connect the scale of time with incarceration, with the scale of time for anti-colonial struggle, the spoon may very well slowly appear to us as the ultimate instrument of liberation: a patient but relentless one that, cubic centimeter after cubic centimeter, would surely “turn the prison walls back to dust”—and with them, the very structures of colonialism. With this image of a spoon-inflected meticulous undermining, I wish you an excellent read. ■