Out of Control – A 15-Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons

by Nancy Kurshan

1. Introduction

The Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML) was a movement organization that opposed control unit prisons in particular, and racism and oppression in general. It was founded in 1985 and came to a close in 2000.

Over the course of those 15 years, CEML led and organized hundreds of educational programs and demonstrations in many parts of the country and tried to build a national movement against “end-of-the-line” prisons. Along the way the Committee wrote thousands of pages of educational and agitational literature and pioneered new ways of analyzing and fighting against this national quagmire that morphed into the proliferation of the “prison industrial complex.”

I was one of the three founding members of CEML and was also at the last meeting, when we voted to end our work as a committee. Since that time many people have come to me and my colleagues to interview us about our experiences in CEML in general, about a specific aspect of our work, and/or to read over documents that were then stored haphazardly in boxes in my closets.

Some 11 years later I found myself writing a chapter about this work for a larger memoir project. When it reached 100 pages I realized that it had outgrown the memoir and become the first draft of a narrative about the work of CEML. That’s how the document you are now reading began.

Over the years, as various people came through our home to go through our many boxes of documents, I thought about donating the files to an archive. But then I decided it would be better to get the narrative up on the web along with links to many of the documents. The narrative can be understood best with access to the documents themselves and vice versa. The internet seemed the logical way to make the materials available to the general public. Thanks to the Freedom Archives and especially Claude Marks and Aurora Arding, we’ve been able to make this project a reality. Aurora spent many hours scanning the documents and creating a Finder’s Guide. As you proceed through this narrative, whenever a document, such as a pamphlet or leaflet we developed during our work, is referred to, you will be able to see and download a scanned copy of that document

It was challenging to figure out how best to shape this central narrative, which links to many of our documents. Eventually we decided to simply tell the story chronologically and in my voice, but with a great deal of input and important critical thinking from many people, including some of the people who worked together over many of the 15 years of CEML activities. While I have omitted some personal observations, others remain to help the reader understand how the personal aspects of our lives impacted what we were able (and unable) to accomplish.

For this reason, a proportion of the narrative focuses on the roles my partner Steve and I played. Because it is told in my voice and relies largely on my files and my memory, there is a built-in bias. I have tried to give credit to the many people who contributed significantly to the work, but I apologize in advance for any and all omissions, and it’s important to emphasize that it was at all times a group effort, albeit a group that lost and gained members over the years.

One last word about naming people. At any given time there were usually about 10 people in CEML, sometimes as many as 15. However, there were probably 50 more who were not in the Committee per se, but who would do anything we asked of them at any time. When you add this up over 15 years, that’s a lot of people. As I tell the story of CEML, it is impossible to name them all and to recall who did what and when. My/our inability to recall this is an unfortunate deficiency. In addition, there are many people whose names and actions I do recall but who I was unable to contact to ask if they wanted to be named in this document. In such cases I erred on the side of caution and left them un-named. Names are most important with respect to the thousands of prisoners with whom we corresponded over the years. The strategy I employed in this case was to use names when they sent us documents to be used publicly. If some wrote us individual letters or contacted us in other more personal ways I did not use their names.

Although CEML was part of several small victories, in the end we lost every large issue we pursued. Nonetheless, this is not a story of failure or discouragement. Rather it tells the story of one long determined effort against the very core of the greatest military empire that has ever existed on this planet. If current and future activists who stand in opposition to what Malcolm X called the “American nightmare” can benefit from reading this and can move ahead with some greater insight and effectiveness, then it was all worth it.

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