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The Knotted Line

Evan Bissell, Author

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1998: Ignorance Is Bliss

1998: Many states stop updating law libraries in prisons, and only eight states continue mostly volunteer-run degree programs for prisoners.   

Actions for Self-Determination:
  • 1941: Pauli Murray, imprisoned for refusing to sit at the back of the bus in Virginia, goes on to Howard Law School (the first woman to attend) and later finishes at UC Berkeley. A queer woman, she was one of the founders of CORE and NOW, and the first woman Episcopalian priest.
  • 1966: Huey Newton, cofounder of the Black Panther Party, uses his understanding of law to start self-defense patrols against police presence in Oakland. He graduated high school illiterate and later went to law school and received a Ph.D. from UC Santa Cruz.
  • 1970: Chuck Armsbury and inmate litigator Paul Bailleaux file a Genocide Complaint, alleging genocide against prisoners by the federal government.  Both were imprisoned at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary in Washington State. *
  • 1996: The California Coalition for Women Prisoners starts producing The Fire Inside, "A quarterly publication dedicated to providing a space for people incarcerated in women's prisons and their supporters to communicate with each other and the broader public through articles, art and poetry." 
  • 2001: Marilyn Buck, political prisoner, receives the PEN American Center prize for poetry.
  • 2005: Bruce Reilly, a self-educated jailhouse lawyer for 12 years, is released and joins the steering committee of the Formerly Incarcerated People’s Movement. Reilly continues to remain active in the campaign to end the “have you ever been convicted” box (ban the box) on employment questionnaires in Rhode Island and the firing of formerly incarcerated persons.

Discussion Questions:
  • Who is responsible for making sure the public understands laws? Individuals, schools, government?
  • Discuss this statement by Ruth Gilmore in light of Pauli Murray, Huey Newton and Bush's 2006 act: "Defined in the simple terms of the secular state, crime means a violation of the law. Laws change, depending on what, in a social order, counts as stability, and who, in a social order, needs to be controlled."

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