IN HONOR OF KAREN SMITH, IN SOLIDARITY WITH KEITH SOANES AND ALL THOSE INCARCERATED
On November 29, 2020, Florida Prisoner Solidarity (FPS, formerly Gainesville IWOC) lost a founder and main organizer, Karen Smith, in a fatal car accident. A week of memorial events with family and friends culminated in a powerful demonstration in her honor at the gates of Florida State Prison (FSP) in Raiford on December 6th.
The demonstration consisted of a motorcade of 50 people in vehicles honking in the vicinity of the prison, accompanied by a sound system, signs, drums, whistles, pots and pans, air horns and fireworks. There was also a banner hung from the gate, red paint splattered across the ground underneath it and a circle-A painted on the entryway wall (presumably inspired by Karen Smith’s lifelong advocacy of anarchism.)
We chose this prison location due to it being the site of an effort Karen was focusing a lot of energy on at the time of her death, specifically because multiple activist contacts inside the state prison system, including Keith Soanes, had been moved there recently in retaliation for their correspondence with prisoner rights and abolitionist groups, like us at FPS.
Just prior to her death, Karen was developing a larger campaign of support to move Soanes out of Close Management (Florida’s solitary confinement) at FSP. She had written the following in her notes, “As the COVID-19 death toll approaches 200 inside Florida prisons, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) wastes time, effort and resources conducting a witch hunt for whistleblowers who threaten the lack of transparency maintained by staff. So far, the state has disappeared several elder black men who have a history of speaking out about conditions inside Florida prisons. These men were taken from their housing units without incident, placed under investigation and sentenced to long-term solitary confinement without evidence or explanation aside from vague accusations of promoting unrest through correspondence with outside advocacy groups. Callers are being told the information surrounding their placement in solitary is confidential and cannot be shared…”
But we have learned much from direct communication with Keith, which can be found here.
While the December 6th action was a symbolic demonstration of our love for Karen and our dedication to carry her work forward, the torment felt by prisoners inside those walls is anything but. Noise demonstrations are an important action because they are an effective ways to show prisoners in a tangible way that there is a world of people outside that care about them and have not forgotten those who are locked in cages, warehoused in order for this system to continue its legacy of white supremacy and classism.
Prisoners frequently write letters telling us they heard us, and how much it meant to feel they are not alone. It’s also one of the few ways to convey to the FDOC staff that they are not operating in complete secrecy just because of their remote locations; that people are indeed paying attention to their actions and documenting their abuses.
We framed the event with a quote from one of Karen’s many speeches at the gates of an FDOC prison: “Next Step, We Burn It Down.” This was the closing line from a video of her on a bullhorn in front of the Gainesville Work Camp exactly one year prior to her death. FPS chose this message as a powerful, poetic way to honor Karen’s passion and rage. But it also speaks to the powder keg of repressive and brutal conditions at hand. It speaks to an inevitable demise and destruction that has historically befallen other institutions based on degradation, subjugation and misery (i.e. slave plantations, concentration camps, etc.) It was not a threat. It was simply an observation speculating on the sequence of events for agencies and institutions like FDOC, which has buried millions of people alive over the past hundred and fifty years.
Letters from people inside Florida State Prison (FSP) and the surrounding facilities have started coming in thanking the protestors for being there. Here’s an excerpt from one with an accompanying description from a loved one that was posted to Facebook:
“I received a letter from my friend today who has been in confinement in FSP for months. He said he heard families outside protesting. Although he couldn’t see out of his window to see you all, he heard you guys. It touched him to know people do care, and it gave him hope that he will be moved out soon. So thank you all who were out there.”
While those inside clearly loved knowing they are not alone, we have been informed of loved ones on the outside being told their visitation access is being cancelled due to their attendance of this protest (this has happened in the past, and been overturned). FDOC knows this is a way to create major disruptions and conflict between the inside/outside support work.
On solitary confinement
A primary reason Karen Smith was focused on FSP is because of the excessive use of solitary confinement as punishment occurring there (which the FDOC calls “Close Management”), specifically in retaliation for people who have exposed abusive conditions in other facilities, as Keith Soanes is experiencing. There is currently a major lawsuit working its way through courts right now to drastically reduce the amount of solitary confinement used in Florida.
“Across the country, a growing consensus of medical and mental health professionals have equated placing prisoners in solitary confinement to torture. In Florida, a group of civil rights groups suing to end the practice have measured rates of confinement in state prisons at twice the national average, including hundreds of people who have been in isolation for six to 20 years.” [Source]
“The rate of suicide is much higher for people who have been in solitary. From January 2013 to August 2018 at least 46 of the 80 individuals in FDC custody who committed suicide were in isolation and another 24 had previously been in solitary. Over 60 percent of the people in solitary are black, a jarring racial disparity in a state that is majority white.” [Source]
About the arrests and charges
While FPS is not looking to focus all of the attention on the three arrests, we do feel it’s important to provide support for those being criminalized on account of their participation in the event. At the moment all three are out on bonds, which were set at an exorbitant rate of $35,000 – $40,000 thousand per person for a total of over $100,000 for essentially misdemeanor charges of trespassing and resisting without violence, alleging that they did not disperse quickly enough when ordered. The county has also attempted to trump up a felony criminal mischief charge, but has failed to provide any evidence to substantiate it. It’s not expected to stick, but nonetheless carries immediate consequences that assist the state in limiting the First Amendment rights of those charged. One of the three was also sent to the hospital for treatment of a significant shoulder wound requiring stitches resulting from being assaulted by an officer while already in handcuffs.
This repression only further illustrates how the police and prison system seek to criminalize dissent, inside and outside the walls.
About the Bradford sheriff and the media
Almost immediately following the arrests, Bradford County Sheriff posted a statement lying about the trumped up felony charges they couldn’t even provide probable cause for at the arraignment hearing. Their Facebook post appeared to be circulated among pro-prison groups nationally, with hundreds of comments appearing from people such as the founder of “Correctional Officers for Trumps,” based in Massachusetts.
Several local news outlets promptly parroted the sheriff’s press release, providing no background on the reasons for the protest and making no effort to include the perspective of local organizations who have been featured in news stories surrounding prison conditions for years in the area.
This is a reminder of how prominent a role that prison plays in these rural counties, where it is one of the largest employers in the region. While the passion and rage was running high during the demo (and curse words flying!), now is the time to push the conversation deeper, engaging with social media and news comment sections to explain the problem with prisons and the rampant abuse in the FDOC to people who live near or work in these facilities and need to face what’s really happening and see that there is a well-informed opposition.
We’ve got more coming, watch out!