By Christopher Zoukis
Avoiding aggression in prison is not easy sometimes.  In prison, there are two sets of informal social rules which inmates must follow.  One set of informal rules is utilized when dealing with fellow inmates, and the other, more formal set, is used when dealing with the guards.  At times — when the guards are being particularly difficult, for example — inmates will want to treat the guards as they would fellow inmates (in a “convict” way).  This is often a very bad idea because it almost certainly results in the inmate being issued an incident report or taking a trip to the hole, for insolence or other similar violations of prison rules.  Instead of employing such clearly failing tactics with the guards, I support passive resistance.

The concept of passive resistance is nothing new.  Non-violent protest marches from the 1960s are a good example.  People demanded equal civil rights regardless of the color of their skin.  Many did so without resort to violence, as in the case of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  And they got it.  Another form of passive resistance has to do with the modern tree sitters.  These are people who literally climb up into large trees, like the redwoods in California, and build little villages up there in an effort to stop construction of highways and such which will result in the trees being cut down.  While a bit out there by some measure, and perhaps a bit more than passive, these are tactics of passivity in that there is no confrontation with the perceived wrongdoers, the authorities.  These people were either marching down the road in protest (nonviolently) or were chilling in a tree (and simply refusing to come back down).

In the prison context passive resistance is a particularly useful tactic because it can help the inmate avoid being the subject of official retaliation (e.g., a trip to the hole or an incident report), while allowing the inmate to profess their disapproval of the actions of the guards.  In fact, as I write this, I’m engaged in an act of passive resistance.  Actually, this could be seen in two different contexts.  In one mind, I am speaking out about some of the troubles of those incarcerated.  In another mind, I am suggesting methods of resistance, but in a protected manner (the First Amendment protects my right to write about passive resistance even though my thoughts might not be agreeable to the powers that be).

There are a number of ways inmates can employ passive resistance in the prison context.  An oldie but-a-goodie is the slow roll.  This is where the inmate is issued an order, say, to clear the compound (central area of the prison), but instead of immediately complying or complying with any sort of vigor, they comply with the order, but slowly; in a lackadaisical manner.  Often, when a prison guard is seen as harassing inmates on the compound and the guard orders an inmate to return to their housing unit, the inmate can be seen slowly walking back; taking the time to enjoy the jingling of keys and the ever so intriguing glint of the razor wire in the morning.  Note that the inmate does not refuse to comply with the direct order, but they do so very slowly.

Another common passive resistance tool revolves around mail call.  Some prison guards like to really assert their rule when it comes to passing out the day’s mail.  They will explain that they can pass out the mail at any damn time that they see fit.  This is actually correct to the point that the prison guard must pass out the mail by the end of the night.  When confronted by such a guard, inmates are known to simply not pick up their mail.  They make the guard continue to call out names, make a list of people who need to pick up their mail, call out the remaining mail another time or two, then pick their mail up, right before the evening’s lockdown.  For those who tend to have a large volume of inbound correspondence, this can be a particularly effective tactic since the guard has to dig through the mail time and time again to find the inmate’s mail.  While a bit petty, it certainly airs the inmate’s displeasure in a way that is not likely to result in official retaliation.

But the most effective form of passive resistance is, in fact, collective resistance.  This is often seen in work stoppages and food strikes.  When the inmates refuse to eat in the chow hall (usually while eating their commissary purchases) or when they refuse to work, there is only one response which the Federal Bureau of Prisons utilizes: a lockdown.  This is where all of the institution’s inmates are locked in their cells for days, weeks, or months on end.  While a punishment to the incarcerated population, for certain, the point is broadcast loud and clear to the prison’s administration.  (Note: The Prison Law Blog categorically does not support group demonstrations, or armed or violent efforts against prison staff to effect change.  But we certainly support all non-violent means of effecting change.  It should also be noted that this blog is being typed on a monitored email program from a federal prison.)  There are few efforts more effective than a collective act of passive resistance.  Since they are so disruptive, and carry the implied threat of more extreme measures, grievances are examined thoroughly, and, ideally they are resolved.

Passive resistance is a choice.  It is a choice which inherently carries some level of risk since prison guards are known to lash out at inmates who they perceive as not abiding by their orders or respecting their dominion.  But, at least in my mind, an act of passive resistance is defensible whereas an act of active resistance is often not.  Passive resistance is usually the smart way to go because it is relatively low risk and is effective.  The choice is yours.  I can only hope that you make the right one and that your efforts, whatever they might be, effect change in a meaningful and productive way.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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