To: The Next Generation of Leadership
From: Eddie Griffin (BASG)
Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Consider the Balance of Powers and the imbalances. This was a lesson taught to a prison warden, because people with police authority on the front line sometimes get besides themselves.
I remember a lieutenant in particular who liked to call black prisoners the N-word. He, and the men under him, feasted on hostilities and combat. It seemed like they loved putting on the black jack boots, black riot vests, and black German bucket helmets, and go charging into an inmate's cell. They were a pretty sight for machismo image making, but a facade when confronting a balance of power crisis.
In the latter days, after many battles, I could sit in the warden’s office and chit-chat over coffee, and talk old time sakes. I always believed that one faithful man, plus God, constitutes an absolute invincible majority. Thus, the Balance of Power is never in question in the mind of a man of faith.
I remember the day I hand delivered a list of prisoners’ grievances to the warden. It was July 4, 1976. I remember the day so well because the country was celebrating its Bicentennial 200th Birthday, and Gerald Ford was President, after Nixon’s fall from grace. That day, the prison population initiated a hunger strike.
Prison administrators consider such strikes as an attempt on the part of the inmates to takeover the prison. They usually responded with brutal force. The Balance of Power always appeared to be in the hands of those in authority.
Passive resistance by hunger strike should have been met with the least force possible. Whenever there is a legitimate grievance, it is best between parties to negotiate. But prison authority abhorred the thought of negotiating with inmates.
Since I was the one who collected the inmates’ list of grievance and drafted the press release, I was made official spokesman for the other prisoners in super-max. It was the reason the warden summoned me to his office on the morning the strike kicked off.
The grievances were designed to embarrass the administration. The first demand was “for the administration to hire more minority prison guards”. The insinuated rationale was this: Black prisoners were tired of being called the N-word and being beaten by an all-white goon squad. We needed eyewitnesses and referees.
The second grievance demanded an end to using prisoners in involuntary mind control experiments. We had documented the entire history of the CIA and FBI secret program to use Chinese brainwashing techniques against incarcerated political dissidents.
On the morning of that Fourth of July, the warden received a phone call from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, inquiring about the prison hunger strike. The element of complete surprise hit the warden. The fact that no inmate came to breakfast never struck any of the guards as strange. Thus, the warden was uninformed. Even more important, no inmate betrayed the plan.
The warden’s first reaction was to throw me in the dungeon known as the Control Unit. The prison was locked down and the guards put on high alert. Their job was to isolate and segregate all the suspected ringleaders.
Every inmate had been instructed to put up as much passive resistance as possible without catching an assault charge. The inmates burned toilet paper, bed sheets, paper, mattresses, and everything else ignitable. They clogged commodes and flooded their cells and barricaded the doors. One by one, they were dragged out and sent to segregation, where the same scenario erupted again.
The guards found themselves fighting on every front. They fogged the cellblocks with Big Bertha, the teargas machine, and went after inmates without regard to excessive force. In brutal combat terms, it was a fair fight, but it gave us grounds for more grievances. The list grew longer. And, every inmate’s grievance was rubber stamped DENIED.
Here was a flaw in the system, recognized later by the courts. Instead of rubber stamping inmates complaints as baseless, the courts instituted an Informal Resolution process, whereby inmates and staff could work out their difference. But the prison administration would have none of that. It was an insult to communicate as equals.
We appealed to regional authorities, and again rubberstamped denied, until our grievances reached the national Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C. This was the exhaustion level of the legal process, before going to court. Rubberstamped rejections had to have legal basis and foundation. Otherwise, an institution’s arbitrary actions could open the doors of the court.
My job in the dungeon was to keep the grievance paperwork flowing upstream. Any failed legal response on the part of the administration could make its way into court. Therefore, they kept a team of lawyers on hand just to respond to our complaints.
As the grievances kept coming, and the paperwork flowing up the inverted pyramidal hierarchy, inevitably the system would become paper jammed. Responding to each and every inmate’s complaint was time consuming from staff, with each personnel having to provide an interview and written report, justifying their action. And having to use lawyers to properly word the administration’s response was also costly. Besides, having to respond to media inquiries was demoralizing within itself.
The Balance of Power shifts to the side of the one with the psychological edge. Some prison guards began feeling guilty and started testifying against their cohorts. We lost the battle, but won the war. Within a few weeks, there were new minority and women guards throughout the federal system.
This alone, however, did not change the Balance of Power in this situation.
A lesson I learned is that a man is confronted by two enemies: The enemy within, and the enemy without. Subduing the first is instrumental in subduing the second. Self-restraint is the key to conquering the enemy within. Keeping my mouth close and saying only what I meant was a source of empowerment, because then my few chosen words would have greater worth in appreciation.
A man must say what he means and means what he says without mincing words.
Locking up a quiet, passive inmate for refusing to eat simply because he has grievances was not good PR for the prison administration. This is the image I gave to the media when interviewed scores of times during this period, including an interview with a Russian magazine. It never failed, however, that the warden had the final rebuttal.
It was a propaganda war that we were able to escalate to the national and international level. At this level, the warden was not so big and not so bad.
Instead of complaining about cold food and brutal guards, as inmates did traditionally, I drew a wider battle circle to encompass the whole issue of human rights. The warden found himself thinking at the micro-management level to an international arena. He told the media that the prison was used to control "revolutionary attitudes". The fight was bigger than his eyes could see.
In the struggle over the Balance of Power, it would be better to widen the circle to include a larger arena. It changes the agenda of the superior force by changing the enemy’s focus.
Here was a principal: Tell the CIA what you plan to do, and they will change their plans to counter you. Then, who is manipulating whom?
Recognize when the Balance of Power has shifted. Some leaders continue to fight on, fighting the same battle, the same tired way, endlessly uphill, because they do not recognize when there is a shift.
Here is an analogous anecdote.
Once my enemy within is conquered, the enemy without can do no harm. The only way my enemy can harm me is only by being allowed to.
A certain prison guard, a lieutenant, liked using the N-word and making threats to black inmates. On the contrary, I was trained and conditioned for close quarter combat, and not to be concerned about my adversary until his punch was six inches from my face. Only then would I feel justified in responding.
It is well known to those who guard jails and prisons how vulnerable they are around potentially violent inmates. Back in history, guards carried guns on the premise, but these weapons could easily be taken by inmates during an uprising. Therefore, guards today walkabout on the inside, unarmed, knowing that they could be attacked and killed at any time, by any inmate.
On the line, the Balance of Power favors the inmates.
When I was finally segregated from other inmates and eventually isolated and held incommunicado, cut off from the outside world and lawyers, the Balance of Power appeared to favor the lieutenant when he and another guard came to pay me a midnight visit.
The lieutenant strode around the hospital cell, where they had confined me on suicide watch. Hunger strikes were construed as a suicide attempt, the lieutenant explained.
It was a mistake on my part, to be manipulated into a position where I would be isolated and alone.
I remember the tall lanky cowboy boot-wearing lieutenant pacing the floor, looking around the ceiling, while another guard stood watch at the door. When I asked him what he was looking for, he was frank.
“A place where you might hang yourself,” he replied.
He was all smiles. I was all smiles also, but for a different reason. My closest enemy was not the one within, but the one within my reach. In a one-on-one, the lieutenant was no match for me. So, I let him know, in no uncertain terms.
“You’re mine, if anything happens,” I replied.
All I am required to do is defeat the enemy closet to me, to take him out because he represents the greatest immediate threat to my own life. And even in prison, I was not planning to just lie down and let these hooters kill me. If I were going to leave this world, the lieutenant was going out with me.
I nodded. “You first.”
There was something I realized about when a man is in doubt of a life-death win-lose situation, and have a reasonable fear for his life, he will usually respect his adversary if it appears that the adversary is going to fight to the death.
Therefore, the Balance of Power favors both a man with a good bluff and a man with God on his side. And if a man should bluff on his life, he should be prepared to back it up.