[This article is part of a bundle of content produced by Jadaliyya’s Palestine Page Editors on Palestinian Prisoners. This bundle engages a range of subjects centering the Palestinian prisoner in the realm of carcerality and colonialism, as well as resistance to them. Click here for a full list of articles and compendia included in this bundle.]
Palestinians across the world watched in awe and jubilation as news spread of the Gilboa prison escape on September 6, 2021, when six incarcerated Palestinian men used a spoon (as well as broken dishes and pans) to dig a tunnel out of one of Israel’s most “secure” prisons, manifesting the unimaginable. Simultaneously, many in the United States. were preparing for the fiftieth anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising that occurred on September 9-13, 1971.
In remembering Attica and in watching the Gilboa escape unfold, flashes of the past illuminated the news of the current moment. For Palestinians, the prison escape evoked the era of prison uprisings, intra-prison coordination, and widespread prison education of the late 60s and 70s. Israeli brutality had crushed these mobilizations and prison reforms interrupted prisoners’ organizing. For those commemorating Attica, assessing the fifty years since the uprising elicited bittersweet feelings. Attica was a powerful political and cultural moment that exemplified cooperation, resistance—and unyielding state violence--that resonates to this day. This resonance is especially pertinent in light of increased popular discourse, organizing, mobilization, and momentum around abolition.
The temporal convergence of Attica and Gilboa may appear fortuitous at first glance given their overlapping subject matter about prisoners. In fact, the connection between Attica and Palestine goes much deeper and elucidates how the contemporary is historically rooted. Investigating this juncture reveals how prisoner organizing can help us imagine ways of relating that challenge those dictated by settler colonialism and racial capitalism. The focus on social relations here is inspired by abolitionist organizers like Mariame Kaba, who defines abolition as making a world without prisons or police through “the creation of different forms of sociality, governance, and accountability that are not statist or carceral.” Reconstructing social relations helps expand the possibilities of abolition work by mending the connections that are purposefully broken in service of racial capitalism and settler colonialism. It also makes the task of imaging abolitionist futures much easier, as we have tangible—if ephemeral—examples to teach us. Though these prisoners were not organizing explicitly through the framework of abolition, we can glean lessons about abolition from their efforts. Abolition is, after all, the work that people are already doing, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains. Abolition requires thinking about many different pieces, but at its core, it centers the need for repairing communities and social relations that are fragmented.
Attica & Palestine
Following the murder of Black Panther George Jackson at San Quentin Prison in California on August 21, 1971, rumblings of rebellion began in Attica State Prison in New York. After learning about Jackson’s murder at the hands of prison authorities, the incarcerated men initiated a protest and fast during which they went to the dining hall, took a spoon (again, we find the spoon), stood silently with black bands on their arms, and refused to eat. The rebellion officially began on September 9th when the prisoners took control of the prison, taking hostage Correctional Officers (COs) and prison employees who had legally wielded violent punitive power over these caged men. From September 9 to September13, 1971, almost 1,300 incarcerated men (the majority of whom were Black or Latinx) rose up in protest of brutal prison conditions that included medical negligence, racist verbal abuse, beatings, and torture. With each day and with every effort at negotiation (though the state did not always take negotiations seriously), the tension mounted between the prisoners and the state. The uprising ended when state troopers, on orders of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, forced their way into the prison and began firing indiscriminately, killing 39 people, including prisoners and hostages. With tear gas still lingering in the air, state troopers and COs forced the prisoners to strip naked, beat them with batons, and made them crawl through the mud bloodied by the massacre they had just survived.
Attica’s reverberations, felt throughout the United States, extended across time and space to the prisons in Palestine. A little over a month after the Attica uprising, Palestinian prisoners in the British-built Asqelon Prison began planning their own. This uprising lasted only a few hours; and was part of a growing trend of uprisings that established the foundation for Palestinian prisoner resistance. The Israeli Prisoner Commissioner at the time dismissed the Asqelon uprising as nothing but “an attempt at copying the big riot in Attica, New York.” The Commissioner attributed this knowledge to the fact that the prisoners were allowed to read daily newspapers and listen to newscasts five times a day.Though it only warranted a short news article at the time, the Asqelon prison uprising is just one instance in a long history of Palestinian prisoner resistance that culminated in the 1970s.
Were incarcerated Palestinians actually inspired by the rebellion of incarcerated Black and Latinx men in Attica? Regardless of the Attica-Asqelon claim’s veracity, what should be noted is the Prisoner Commissioner’s fear of prisoner rebellion is inextricably linked to the anti-colonial fervor of the time. By comparing Palestinian incarceration with U.S. “criminality” and eschewing the actual reasons for the uprising, he unwittingly exposed a through-line of truth about prisons: they are state tools of control, domination, and alienation. This truth is again revealed through the confluence of the contemporary Gilboa-Attica connection.
Prisons & Alienation
The prison is not a building “over there,” Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, but “a set of relationships that undermine rather than stabilize everyday lives everywhere.” Prisons are tools that serve racial capitalism by severing people from their communities. In Europe, prisons were used to hold those who had been dispossessed from their lands to make way for the creation of private property. Their purpose was to discipline the dispossessed (mostly white men) into good wage laborers for capitalism. In the United States, settler colonial policies of dispossessing Indigenous people and lands made way for the American state to build its infrastructure of domination. In fact, caging people, as Gilmore also argues, is a cornerstone of the “development of secular states, participatory democracy, individual rights, and contemporary notions of freedom.” Prisons play a material and discursive role in maintaining and shaping structures of power. After the official end of hereditary racial slavery in the United States, the prisons that were built on stolen land were then transformed into a way to manage the formerly enslaved population. The repurposing of prisons in this period from a “white” to a “Black” disciplinary tool was reinforced through the creation of political, economic, and legal scaffolding that fortified the prison as a site for handling this surplus population. The dehumanization that was necessary to uphold slavery was carried over into this new era through the language of criminalization. As a result, Black communities continued to be targeted through this process of “individualizing disorder.” This legacy of individuation and alienation continues to undergird the contemporary incarceration system even if those incarcerated are not Black.
Prisons in colonial contexts such as Palestine were similarly used as tools to control, dominate, and subdue colonial subjects. The British continued to use these mechanisms of individuation and alienation in the mandate system in Palestine and other colonies through calculation and statistics-based management. Broadly, the British mandate system was an “experiment in international management that attempted to address the gap between the civilized and the uncivilized in economic terms.” This experiment largely failed to carry out its goals but nonetheless proliferated ideas about alienation, atomization, and quantification that the Israeli settler state adopted. Prisons and other carceral tools were a central feature in this experiment, and incarceration of Palestinians expanded whenever there were coordinated anti-colonial efforts directed against British control. Once the mandate ended and Israeli settler colonialism took hold, Israel attempted to subdue the native Palestinian population by expanding the infrastructure of surveillance and control.
Prisons are, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, “partial geographic solutions to political-economic crises, organized by the state, which is itself in crisis.” Built in the 1930s during one of the most significant state crises, the Great Depression,Attica State Prison was constructed as a maximum-security prison on stolen Haudenosaunee and Wenrohronon land. The historical details of Attica’s establishment elucidate how prisons serve as dumping grounds for populations with whom the state cannot or will not properly incorporate into its traditional economic system. The Attica uprising also happened during the beginning of the global economic downturn of the late 60s and 70s, a time when incarceration was becoming even more common as a "quick fix" to capitalist crises. This “solution” became culturally, legally, and politically cemented by President Nixon’s “law and order” policies.
Towards the end of the Second Intifada during which Palestinians rebelled against Israel’s continued settler colonial practices under the guise of “peace negotiations,” Israel was entering one of its deepest recessions. It is against this backdrop — with Israel losing control of the native Palestinian population and looking for ways to fix its own internal economic crises — that Gilboa Prison was opened on stolen Palestinian land in 2004. It was touted as a maximum-security prison known to be “the most intensely secure of its kind.” Additionally, at this time and tied to its economic status, Israel began readying its military and surveillance infrastructure for global export. Gilboa was constructed during a native uprising and capitalist crisis. Prisons and carceral logics have come to serve the (settler-colonial capitalist) state by being a place where surplus populations, the unemployed, houseless, “deviant,” “criminal,” “terrorist” were disciplined and punished. Incarceration has a political and economic purpose — to serve the capitalist system, a central requirement of which is alienation from one’s land and community.
Remaking Social Relations
So, how exactly did the prisoners counter the alienation produced through incarceration and its various tentacles? They created spaces that repaired fractured social relations with each other. During the Attica uprising, the incarcerated men created a number of ad-hoc structures that included a negotiation team comprised of members of the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, and the Puerto Rican liberation group the Young Lords, among others. The political factions worked together and eventually formed a democratic decision-making body. They presented thirty-three demands that addressed the conditions that motivated their uprising. A translation service was set up so Attica’s Spanish-speakers could understand what was happening. They assessed the skills of those incarcerated and delegated tasks accordingly. They also created a cooperative food and medical system to ensure that everyone was fed and cared for, and a security detail to protect the prisoners. Groups that were not necessarily aligned politically (and would often be in conflict with each other), put aside their differences to challenge the prison. Establishing an ethos of collectivity within the prisons was crucial to the development of the uprising—and to its legacy.
For Palestinian prisoners, the growing culture of prisoner resistance, spurred by such seemingly small instances as the Asqelon uprisings, highlighted a need to for lateral power relations to counter the settler-colonial relations dictated by Israel. Lateral relations were often formed through educational spaces and sophisticated intra-prison communication systems that were the backbone of the resistance on the outside. Palestinians from different classes, religions, political views, and geographical locations were mixing in ways made difficult outside of prison. The ways that prisoners chose to engage with each other were often centered around collaborative educational practices, forming study circles, holding lectures, and written recordings of oral history. Their social relations extended to literature, too, as they would engage internationalist literature from around the world, from Cuba to Vietnam to the United States, bolstering their revolutionary actions.
Towards the end of the 1970s, Israel began to implement new policies targeting prisoner organizing that included legal maneuvers, restricting access to formative educational materials, and isolation tactics meant to limit communication. Similarly, in the wake of Attica, the American state worked to expand its punitive measures against prisoners such as undoing regulations on prison labor and limiting a prisoner’s right to legally fight back against their poor conditions.These heavy-handed state responses were so severe because the prisoners’ challenge was so close to the heart of the oppressive structure of the prison, and by extension, the state. (So, here perhaps we can say that this is abolitionist lesson #1.) The prisoner organizing in Palestine and in Attica demonstrates what alternative social relations could look like. Relations that, “if reproducible, form the basis for a new social order,” a social order that challenges what the state structures. Though prisoner organizing is not the same as it was in the 1970s, Gilboa can still be situated within this revolutionary history, while also offering new lessons.
The Past’s Connection with the Present
Many reports indicate that the six Gilboa escapees likely had minimal to no help from other prisoners, a fact that would distinguish the event from the earlier era of prison-wide collective organizing. The escapees’ tunnel, dug mostly with a single spoon, led them to freedom within their own land. Following the escape, Israel resorted to its infamous system of collective punishment and targeted the escapees’ family members. (Abolitionist lesson #2) Having endured this practice for decades leading back to the British mandate and especially during the Great Revolt from 1936-1939, Palestinians have long instituted mechanisms of support for family members of those incarcerated. This type of relationality demonstrates that being in touch with and supporting the families of those incarcerated is equally important as supporting the prisoners themselves. Strengthening these social fabrics has transitive effects. This is not a lesson unique to Palestine but one important to state, nonetheless.
(Abolitionist lesson #3) Palestinians have long understood that those incarcerated by the Israeli regime are political prisoners. This is because the nature of the settler-colonial system has not been obscured enough to hide incarceration’s political motive. Furthermore, our analysis should always include prisoners in the 1948 territories, especially those that come from the “crime and drug-ridden” areas. These prisoners are targets of a different manifestation of the same system of Israeli settler-colonial violence.
(Abolitionist lesson #4) The Gilboa six recounted not wanting to ask help from Palestinians in the villages they were passing through so as to avoid Israeli retribution against the villagers. Instead of turning to fellow Palestinians, they turned to the land for respite and sustenance. Mohammed Al-Ardah, one of the six escapees, noted that in his few days of freedom, he tasted sabr, the cactus fruit, from the fields of Marj Ibn Amer for the first time in twenty-two years. Yacoub Qadri, another escapee, recalled eating figs, aloe, oranges, and pomelo, savoring the non-commodified nourishment from the land. Al-Ardah and Qadri remind us that the process of alienation is from people and community, as well as from the land. Their reprieve urges us to think about ways in which the nonhuman should be incorporated into our notions of abolition and recuperated social relations. This is also where abolition can and should meet up explicitly with decolonization and Indigenous scholarship and movements.
(Abolitionist lesson #5) The result of the Gilboa escape may not have been permanent freedom, but it continued to heal an injured Palestinian collectivity. Indeed, the Gilboa six brought all of Palestine together, with the outpouring of support from the people nourishing the escapees’ souls, and the land nourishing their bodies.
Abolition does not hold much sway in Palestine as a political framework, but many of the practices that are considered abolitionist in the United States are practices common in Palestine. Does that mean that Palestinians are inherently abolitionists? No. Does that mean that Palestinians could build bridges across abolitionist theory? Absolutely. In both Attica and in the Palestinian examples, the prisoners countered alienation by challenging geographical, political, educational, and linguistic divides. Their actions and experiences are an important lesson in how we can rebuild social relations by centering collaboration and collectivity as guiding principles, putting to use the skills of people to serve the greater community, and learning from each other and together. Organizer, author, and revolutionary philosopher Grace Lee Boggs asks, “how do we live each day more fully into our future?” Gilboa and Attica imagined and manifested a momentary lived future through the creation of new social relations. The power of these uprisings resides not in success or failure, but in the glimpses of the future they produce.
 Zoe Samudzi and William C. Anderson, As Black as Resistance: Finding the Conditions for Liberation, xviii.
 Chenjerai Kumanyika and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition,” June 2020, The Intercept:
 Stanley Nelson, “Attica” Showtime, 29:35-45.
 Heather Ann Thompson, “Lessons from Attica: From Prisoner Rebellion to Mass Incarceration and Back,” Socialism and Democracy, 28:3, (2014), 165.
 Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, Penguin Random House, 2017, 212-213.
 Rebecca Granato, The Making of a State in Waiting: The Lives of Fatah Political Prisoners, 1967 to 1985. Dissertation, Wilfrid Laurier University, 2017, 95.
 qtd. in Felicia Langer and Yiśrael Shahaḳ. With My Own Eyes: Israel and the Occupied Territories: 1967 - 1973. Ithaca Press, 1975, 75.
 “10 Prisoners, One Officer Injured In Ashkelon Prison Riot; Order Restored After Two Hours,” Daily News Bulletin, Oct. 4, 1971.
 Ismail Nashif, Palestinian Political Prisoners: Identity and Community. Routledge, 2008.
 Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, UC Press, 2017, 242.
 Angela Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? Penguin Random House, 2003, 46.
 Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag, 11.
 Robert Nichols, Theft is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory, Duke University Press, 2019, 35.
 Allen Feldman, Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. University of Chicago Press, 1991, 109.
 Sherene Seikaly, Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine, Stanford University Press, 2015, 18.
 Seikaly, Men of Capital, 19.
 Ismail Nashif, Palestinian Political Prisoners: Identity and Community. Routledge, 2008, 24.
 Nashif, Palestinian Political Prisoners, 44.
 Gilmore, Golden Gulag, 26.
 Thompson, Blood in The Water, 6.
 Joshua Clover, Riot Strike Riot: The New Era of Uprisings. Verso Books, 2016, 9-10.
 Gilmore, Golden Gulag, 40.
 Shir Hever, The Political Economy of Israel’s Occupation. Pluto Press, 2010, 80.
 Addameer: https://www.addameer.org/content/gilboa-priso
 Hever, 80.
 Thompson, Blood, 190.
 Thompson, Blood 184-189
 Thomspon, Blood, 67
 Thompson, Blood 184-189
 Granato, 107
 Nashif, 53.
 Nashif, 78.
 Nashif, 84.
 Nahla Abdo-Zubi, Captive Revolution: Palestinian Women’s Anti-Colonial Struggle within the Israeli Prison System. Pluto Press, 2014, 89.
 Walid Dakka. “Consciousness Molded or the Re-identification of Torture.” Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel, edited by Baker, Abeer, and Anat Matar, Pluto Press, 2011, 234-253.
 Thompson, “Lessons from Attica,” 170.
 Gilmore, 57.
 Qassam Muaddi, “Israeli Forces Detain Relatives of Gilboa Jailbreaker in Home Raids” Al Araby English: https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/israeli-forces-raid-homes-gilboa-jailbreakers-relatives
 Ted Swedenburg, Memories of Revolt: 1936-1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past. University of Arkansas Press, 1995, 179.
 Grateful to Khaled Barakat for this reminder.
 Samidoun, “Freedom Tunnel prisoners recount their drive for liberation” https://samidoun.net/2021/09/freedom-tunnel-prisoners-recount-their-drive-for-freedom-organize-to-support-the-palestinian-prisoners-movement/
 I am thinking here about scholars such as recently-passed Haunani-Kay Trask, Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Glen Coulthard, and many others. As well as movements such as Stop Line 3, Wet’suwet’en, Protect Mauna Kea, and Kumeyaay Defense.
 Shea Howell recounted this quote in a 2019 American Studies Association Convening Panel titled “Build as We Fight: The Revolutionary Legacy of James and Grace Lee Boggs”.