Skip to main content

Asymmetrical Partners

Activism must involve incarcerated people—but few outside advocates truly understand the dangers and limitations imprisoned organizers face.


Between incarcerated activists and non-incarcerated activists, there are extreme asymmetries in degrees of risks incurred by activism (for the latter, virtually none; for the former, mortal), as well as in basic freedoms around public speech, access to communication, and privacy. Even for many outside activists, these asymmetries remain abstract or poorly understood, creating the potential for significant harm.

Expanding on the first point, communication is an extreme challenge for incarcerated activists, and outside activists should anticipate the likelihood that prison officials will throw up as many blocks as they can to allowing incarcerated people to have their voices heard beyond prison walls. This is to say nothing of the fact that the limited communication technology that is available to incarcerated people is slow, prone to malfunction, and rarely connected to the Internet in any straightforward way, if at all.

The following article is an attempt to educate those hoping to partner with incarcerated activists, writers, artists, or contributors on how to bridge all of the gaps in knowledge to make it possible to organize effective activism across vast gulfs in degrees of freedom and life experience. We do this by presenting a collaborative piece that exemplifies the process and the variety of experiences with which people come to this work. You’ll hear from an incarcerated activist, a journalist who has not experienced incarceration, and a formerly incarcerated activist. We hope you will take away some determination to make these collaborations more widespread, and a greater knowledge of how to preserve their integrity.

Ivan Kilgore: An Incarcerated Activist’s Perspective

In early April 2020, I collaborated with a VICE News reporter to develop the story “This Is What It’s Like to Be in Prison During Coronavirus.” For years I have been on the inside advocating for better living conditions, freedom, and change, from filing federal civil rights complaints to partaking in strikes. During COVID-19, I was motivated to undertake the extreme action of using a contraband cell phone to connect with outside journalists because prison officials had been misleading the public, saying that safeguards were being put in place to protect us from COVID-19 when in fact they were not, placing us all in mortal danger. The risk paid off. Within a week, the VICE story received over 700,000 views on YouTube and set fire to the seats of prison officials statewide.

After it went live, I prepared myself for the worst: Despite the fact that my face had been blurred in the video, I knew it remained a possibility that my identity would be discovered and there would be dire consequences. Yet it was a sacrifice I was willing to make despite the consequences. Sure enough, that week three Investigative Service Unit officers stormed my prison cell in the early hours of the morning. After spending the better part of an hour in my cell, tearing it apart from wall to wall, the officers, hoping to find the cell phone, came up empty-handed. Still, the ordeal had only begun.

Three days later I received a Rules Violation Report for “constructive possession” of a cell phone. This resulted in my family visits (i.e., conjugal visits) with my wife being suspended for a year; and both my commutation to the governor’s office and resentencing request to the Alameda County DA’s office being denied for having a recent disciplinary infraction.

More from our decarceral brainstorm

Every week, Inquest aims to bring you insights from people thinking through and working for a world without mass incarceration.


Sign up for our newsletter for the latest.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

I begin with this story to emphasize a key point for outside organizers wishing to work with inside organizers: Namely, inside activists undertake significant risks in pursuit of our activism that outside activists and journalists quite simply do not. Prison authorities and guards have an arsenal of retributive tools at their fingertips, including the ability to place activists in solitary confinement and under other kinds of restrictions. Inside activists can even face threats to our lives. In a post–George Floyd world of increased scrutiny to law enforcement, prison authorities are more reluctant than in the past to directly assault prisoners. Instead, they use more subtle tactics, manipulating the gangs and ever-present racial tensions to place a target on the backs of incarcerated activists. It is a highly effective form of coercion that often results in prisoners doing the cops’ dirty work. For example, in addition to official sanctions placed on me after the Vice News video went live, the guards also went to work stirring racial tensions between the Black and Mexican gangs in hopes of setting in motion a sequence of events that would lead to me being killed via inmate-on-inmate violence.

But blowback for activism can also come from unlikely sources. Not all incarcerated people want change or care about unconstitutional living conditions. As with people anywhere, change is often met with resistance. Even more, and more so behind bars, the change-makers are ostracized, belittled, and often viewed as agitators disrupting the flow of the black market. Still, we push and we do so under the guards’ thumbs.

We also do so with little to no legal protection. It is vital that outside organizers understand that those of us advocating from the inside do not enjoy the same civil liberties and protections afforded by the First Amendment. A long string of Supreme Court rulings has significantly limited—and in some cases even outright forbidden—prisoner speech, and even criminalized prisoner organizing. These ironclad rulings have largely insulated prison officials from public scrutiny because the courts often take a hands-off approach to issues and controversies surrounding the management of prisons. Consequently, the guards have carte blanche to rule with an iron fist, and speech can be significantly curtailed if the restriction can in any way be justified as necessary for maintaining prison order.

As an incarcerated activist, it is often difficult working with people who are unfamiliar with these profound challenges. And this is to say nothing of the more straightforward limitations placed on phone, Internet, and visitations, which Paula will address in greater detail in the next section. While outside reporters and other media must legally be permitted into these dungeons, and don’t face the same First Amendment limitations, the stories they cover are typically heavily censored and work to preserve the image of prison as an institution promoting public safety. And, of course, anyone inside who assists them risks the reprisals discussed above.

Still and yet, we advocate. We advocate with limited access to education (i.e., prison pedagogy is designed to limit our prospects) and opportunity. We advocate without trainings or experience in office decorum, HR, and policies and procedures that govern professional spaces. Most of us are “street dudes” who have self-educated ourselves in the most deprived circumstances (e.g., in solitary confinement or countless years on lockdown in maximum security). Circumstances—both prior to and during our incarceration—that forced us to learn how to operate under constant surveillance and with the ever-present threat of punishment.

Despite this limited and extremely punitive environment, we find ways to communicate and organize. And we do so from behind locked doors in windowless cages, in face of threats to harm our physical bodies and mental health, with limited resources, a lack of opportunity, nutritious food, and without technology. We organize from behind bars, across prison walls, in communities (both inside and outside), with the formerly incarcerated, with professors, students, activists, policymakers, and many others who operate in the spirit of the Underground Railroad.

Given all of the above, here are some concrete adjustments that outside organizers can make to accommodate these limitations:

  1. Secure a “confidential mail” or “legal mail” status to expedite, assure, and maintain confidentiality of correspondence with incarcerated activists.
  2. Secure a prisoner rights attorney to act as a liaison between inside/outside activists and prison administrators, especially in those situations where inside activists are subject to safety concerns resulting from their advocacy work.
  3. Establish alternative protocols for communications (e.g., both incarcerated and free designated contacts, routine visits, etc.).
  4. Establish support network (e.g., researchers, media contacts and managers, legal aid, fundraisers, local representatives, policy organizations, etc.)

Needless to say, the above adjustments are but a few that are vital to building any effective advocacy work with an incarcerated activist. Experience has taught me that when we fail to establish them, we expose and leave our inside organizers to suffer the consequences of their advocacy work. That said, it’s not a question of if these resources will be needed, but when.

Paula Lehman-Ewing: A Journalist’s Perspective

The goal of writing this article was to inform inside–outside collaborators of some of the challenges to expect. As it happens, in the process of bringing this piece of writing to Inquest, we faced many of the trials and tribulations that Ivan has discussed above—and yet others I will elaborate below. So the essay’s production itself was a process of active, ongoing learning for our team, as well. In what follows, I focus in particular on the limitations placed on prison telecommunications and how those impact the coworking of inside and outside organizers.

The idea for the piece began when Ivan and I attended a conference at Stony Brook University—me on Zoom on my computer, and then Ivan daisy-chained in via my phone. The conference was meant to showcase a grant-backed project that aggregated essays, poems, and manuscripts from incarcerated writers. Ivan, who had served as the conduit between the writers and the university, was invited to speak about his work. We agreed that this invitation was a step in the right direction, allowing an incarcerated voice to be heard at an academic conference rather than spoken for. But introductions went long and the time slot for Ivan to speak kept getting pushed back. It was apparent that the moderators were not in tune with the fact that phone calls from California prisons have a fifteen-minute limit. This meant that every fifteen minutes, Ivan kept having to call me back and be patched in again. It was a precarious setup to begin with: Global Tel Link (GTL), which operates all communications in California state prisons, does not like three-way calls and usually disconnects if it detects that one is being attempted. So Ivan was calling back every fifteen minutes for an hour and a half, awaiting his time to speak, and each time he called back increased the likelihood that, sooner or later, GTL would terminate the call. In the midst of all of this, it dawned on me that even those non-incarcerated people who are most involved in prison abolition or prison reform work often lack basic information about how to engage with those they’re trying to help.

When we then sat down to produce this set of reflections, Ivan drafted his section above on the typewriter he purchased from the commissary many years ago. He then laboriously retyped the essay into the messaging app on his prison-issued tablet—also provided by GTL—to send the work to me.

The advent of prison tablets and messaging apps is new and it’s worth pausing to examine it a bit deeper before I continue. All people incarcerated in California are supposed to be equipped with a GTL tablet that allows them to communicate with friends and family. These tablets are also present in a number of state prisons outside California. Messages sent via GettingOut, an app you can install on any smartphone, are monitored, but it has offered streamlined communication between myself and a number of incarcerated people with whom I interact. Prior to this, the only way to initiate contact from the outside was via snail mail, and the DOC is not required to inform you why it denies any particular correspondence. For certain incarcerated people, mail tends to “go missing,” and if either party doesn’t know an attempt to connect has been made, correspondence simply ceases.

Before GettingOut, if I missed a call from someone inside, I would have to wait until they tried again, later that day if they could or else perhaps the next day. Prison lockdowns would also frequently delay communication. GettingOut offers a way around these impediments: I can send Ivan a note with the best time to call me back. I can communicate with him even if he is locked down because his tablet is in his cell.

There are drawbacks, of course, to prison tablets. They are notoriously finicky, anecdotally working about 75 percent of the time. The Internet capability is limited, so video visits—though available through another app called GO Visit—often freeze or disconnect. Additionally, the monitoring process delays messages by unpredictable quantities of time, so Ivan and I have gotten into the habit of timestamping our correspondences.

In the first week of October, a notification popped up from GettingOut on my phone. Because the app is so janky, it usually shows a red notification dot indicating some ridiculous number of new messages—forty-three, say—when there is really just one new message. On this particular October day, there were two new messages, which Ivan had labeled “Part 2” and “Part 3.” Notably no “Part 1,” which was my first clue that something had gone awry. It was clear that Ivan was sending me his draft—but it was equally clear that a big chunk had been deleted. My phone rang the next day.

“That’s my First Amendment right for ya,” Ivan said when we were finally connected following the long-winded automated introduction that commences every call, reminding us that we were under surveillance.

As you have already read, Ivan’s portion of this article contains uncomfortable truths about the lengths corrections officers will go to silence incarcerated people. Little surprise, then, that the initial attempt to send it to me had been denied. We had a plan B, which would have been to undertake the tedious process of Ivan reading to me his original typed draft over the phone—in fifteen-minute increments, of course—which I would’ve then transcribed. Fortunately, though, it didn’t come to that. No doubt some higher prison authority decided this particular battle was not worth it, and Ivan’s complete draft was released without explanation for its initial censorship.

Whenever the “this call is being monitored” recording interrupts my conversations with people in prison or jail, I always mumble, “God, I hate that woman.” I could be in the middle of a deep conversation about life and death and she’ll just come on, break up the train of thought, and ruin everything. That being said, constant monitoring is something you do, unfortunately, need to be reminded of in your communications with people inside. At the onset of any collaboration, I always have a frank discussion with the incarcerated individual about how we’re going to go about communicating and how they will be represented in the final product. I always defer to the person inside, who can navigate prison communications far better than someone who is not constantly living in that reality. Beyond telephone calls, correctional officers monitor mail, text messages, and, in Ivan’s case, media regarding certain prisoners. If you are using incarcerated individuals as sources, treat them with the same dignity you would an anonymous source. Journalists have gone to jail for not revealing sources, so take every necessary step to ensure the safety of a source already behind bars.

Strategies for communications have varied, in my experience, contingent on how long someone has been incarcerated, where they are incarcerated, and how often they participate in collaborations with people on the outside. I have one artist who will only communicate via snail mail or GTL text messages, so anything remotely sensitive has to be communicated in code, in person, or through a mutual acquaintance who schedules a visit. I’ve worked with incarcerated writers who write passionately against prison politics and policies and who prefer to be published or quoted using a pseudonym.

These methods may seem tedious, but they are well worth the effort. These partnerships embody the fight to preserve freedom of speech. As a journalist, no obstacle should prevent you, therefore, from preserving and maintaining these relationships. Yes, your communications will be monitored, disrupted, and, at times, denied—but this is a reality the person on the other side of that call deals with on a daily basis. Get to know them, get to know the system they navigate, and surmount the obstacles put in your path like your freedom depends on it—because it does.

Glenn E. Martin: An Inside/Outside Perspective

In 2000, after serving six years in prison, I embarked on a journey to help reform our criminal legal system. I maintain that our efforts would be greatly enhanced through partnerships with currently incarcerated organizers and activists. My conviction lies in the belief that those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution, yet frustratingly furthest from power and resources. When confronting seemingly insurmountable issues, one must dive headfirst into the deep end, where the real challenges lie. And there’s no deeper end than collaborating with those who continue to endure the system’s injustices. In what follows, I will focus on some of the most common philosophical frictions that arise when attempts are made to foreground the priorities of incarcerated people.

I should begin by noting that one of the foremost challenges to partnering with incarcerated activists at all is the stigma and skepticism faced by outside activists who choose to collaborate with incarcerated organizers. Society at large stigmatizes those behind bars, deeming them inherently untrustworthy and undeserving of redemption. Even progressive activists fall prey to this narrative. I’ve encountered numerous progressive advocates and philanthropists who harbor reservations about partnering with incarcerated individuals, fearing that their criminal histories may undermine the credibility of the movement, especially in cases involving sexual offenses or the taking of a life.

Another formidable challenge arises from the potential disparities in perspectives and agendas between external activists and incarcerated organizers. While external activists and charitable funding sources may emphasize broader policy changes or calls for prison abolition, incarcerated organizers often prioritize issues that directly affect their daily lives, such as prison conditions, parole eligibility, and reentry programs. Bridging these gaps and establishing common goals can be an intricate endeavor.

Yet currently incarcerated organizers and activists bring a critical perspective, and it is unwise to dismiss their organizing priorities. They possess firsthand experience of the system’s flaws, having navigated its intricacies and injustices. Their insights provide a deeper understanding of the issues at hand, which, in turn, can inform more effective advocacy and policy reform.

One strategy for surmounting these differences involves advocating for policy changes that address the limited access, lack of resources, and legal hurdles faced by incarcerated organizers. This may encompass reforms to visitation policies, greater access to educational resources, and enhanced legal protections for incarcerated people engaged in activism. To combat stigmatization and skepticism, external activists should concentrate on altering public perceptions of incarcerated individuals. This can involve storytelling and awareness campaigns that emphasize the humanity of those within the prison system and their capacity for change.

To address differing perspectives and agendas, it’s critical to establish a collaborative decision-making process that incorporates input from both external and incarcerated activists. This ensures that goals and strategies align, and that the partnership is forged on mutual trust and respect. Overcoming legal and institutional hurdles necessitates a robust legal advocacy component. Activists can collaborate with legal experts to address specific issues, challenge restrictive prison policies, and protect the First Amendment rights of incarcerated activists. External activists can furnish support and resources to incarcerated organizers, including legal assistance, educational materials, financial aid, and communication tools. These resources can help bridge the resource gap and facilitate meaningful partnerships.

Partnering with currently incarcerated organizers and activists is a challenging yet rewarding endeavor. The difficulties—including extremely asymmetrical risk, limited access to communication, stigmatization, and differing agendas—should not deter activists from pursuing such partnerships. Instead, they should be viewed as opportunities for growth and transformation.

The benefits, including authentic insights, grassroots mobilization, and a humanized movement, can significantly enhance the effectiveness of activism. By overcoming the challenges through advocacy, shifting public perception, collaborative decision-making, legal advocacy, and resource support, activists can build more inclusive and impactful movements for lasting change to the criminal legal system. Ultimately, stronger partnerships between external activists and currently incarcerated organizers can serve as a testament to the resilience of those committed to bringing about a more just and equitable society.

Image: Sergio Aguirre/Unsplash