The Opening Statement is a free quarterly newsletter that features articles, poetry, political writing and opinion pieces, as well as other relevant pieces by non-incarcerated authors.



Dear comrades,

It’s been a minute! Thanks for your patience, for your continued struggle and survival. The last you heard from us, we were sending in some questions from a nationwide coalition against book banning and censorship inside state and federal prisons. But MDOC seems to have mixed feelings about that, so maybe you got it, maybe you didn’t. Thank you to those who filled it out and sent responses back. Now The Opening Statement is back with some updates from across MDOC cages, and two essays (one old, one new) by formerly incarcerated writers and activists.

This issue of TOS is a double feature of two essays that discuss solitary confinement, inside repression and methods of retaliation against all prisoners. We offer these two essays together to think about gender, the physical and psychological isolation of prisons, and the perils of recognition. The first essay is by Leon Benson, who at the time of writing this essay was held captive by the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC). Leon was released in March 2023 and is currently figuring out life on the outside. His essay “The Womb of the Beast: Radical Prison Gestation” describes the hypocrisy inherent to the notion of prison as rehabilitative through an analysis of solitary confinement. Building on the idea of the prison as the “belly of the beast,” he describes solitary confinement as the “womb of the beast.” For Leon, the “womb” is a space of development, but the result of this process depends on the conditions in which this development takes place. The conditions of solitary confinement do serious physical, psychological, and emotional harm. This harm isn’t always visible or apparent, even to the person who has gone through the experience. As Leon puts it, “the reality of it is that I do not know how damaged I really am.” In this article, Leon draws on an earlier article he wrote in 2007. He sent us this more recent version from a few years ago, and asked us to update some of the numbers and policy changes in California.

The other essay, “Female Keep Separate: Prisons, Gender, and the Violence of Inclusion,” details the experiences and analysis of an anonymous trans woman based in Montreal, Canada, and her experiences in both men’s and women’s prisons1. Though the Canadian prison system is quite different from that of the US, these two settler states and their prison systems are linked through shared commitments to racism and indigenous dispossession. Regionally, Montreal and Michigan are the occupied homelands of Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee nations. The border between the so-called US and Canada may seem like a divide between the experiences of prisons in the Great Lakes region, but we reject reductive and colonial divisions. Furthermore, there is much to be learned from this comrade and their analysis of so-called “progressive” reforms that would supposedly benefit trans and queer prisoners by creating more “queer-friendly” or “identity-affirming” jails. A lot of people here in the US see these kinds of reforms as a step forward. But we agree with the author of this essay: A prison is a prison, no matter if the guards use your pronouns or cage you with other LGBTQ prisoners. And against the backdrop of anti-trans state legislation sweeping the US, it may be tempting to focus on fighting for trans wings of prisons, or prisons specifically for trans people – but this is a farce, a distraction, from the overall project of abolition. As the author suggests, being able to choose whether a male or a female cop will watch you get dressed doesn’t change the fact that there’s a cop watching you get dressed. “Female Keep Separate” presents an intervention into the question of having one’s identity affirmed by a fundamentally violent and coercive system.

Like Leon Benson, this anonymous writer underscores how reforming the prison, or restoring some material aspect of the prison to what it is “meant to do” (create a more obedient person, punish someone for some particular action, etc.) is impossible. Both Leon and this anonymous comrade detail the damage done by solitary and by the task of identifying oneself to the prison guards and administration. We hope you find these essays provocative and intriguing – write back to us with your thoughts!

Here’s a few news items about MDOC. First off, we’ve been wondering what inflation is looking like on the inside and wanted to see if we could compare the commissary situation to what’s happening on the outside. One item we were able to compare is coffee. We learned that the price of a bag of coffee from the commissary rose from $3.49 to $5.24 and then again to $5.95. Do these prices sound about right at your facility? Assuming this is generally true, the price of coffee in the commissary has increased by about 70%. (For whatever it’s worth, not all prices have increased at the same rate. For example, we learned that tuna fish was $3.30 and now it’s $4.75, an increase of around 40%.)

As for coffee prices on the outside, we looked it up and here’s what we found. A recent report from Yahoo Finance, dated January 31, 2023, reads:

“Retail prices in the United States for roast and ground coffee, the most popular type sold, rose as much as 50% in the fourth quarter of 2022 from a year earlier, as companies tried to offset higher costs, a report said on Tuesday. The increase of 50% was seen for Folgers, one of the market leaders, and led to a reduction of 17% in volumes sold, although the company managed to increase revenues from those sales due to the higher prices, according to a report by the research arm of Rabobank with data from IRI. Other well-known coffee brands also increased roast and ground prices sharply in the period. Maxwell House boosted them 35% and Starbucks around 15%, the report said, as they tried to maintain revenue despite higher costs with coffee beans, labor, energy and packaging (…) Overall in the United States, prices for coffee in all categories increased on average nearly 20% in the last quarter year-on-year. Volumes sold fell around 5% as a result.”

So an average price increase of 20% from the end of 2021 to the end of 2022, though it seems like some brands are increasing prices more than that. And something else that’s complicated about this kind of comparison is that the quantity being sold can affect the price (it can be cheaper to buy in bigger quantities). But the bottom line is that even the biggest increase reported in this article (50%) seems to be less than the price increase on the inside (70%). So it’s worth asking… where’s the extra 20%+ going? Does it all go to the Prisoner Benefit Fund? Are there kickbacks to the MDOC, or are the extra profits going into the pockets of the private vendors? Research from the Prison Policy Initiative estimates that jail and prison commissary sales in the US top $1.6 billion. They also point out that prison vendors don’t have to spend anything on advertising or retail – they have a captive customer base, plus a legal monopoly without price competition. Last but not least it’s important to recognize that Michigan prisoner wages haven’t increased in decades. So we imagine that rising prices in the commissary could be making life difficult for folks and even creating tensions among prisoners. Let us know if you’ve seen anything like this.

They’re adding new fencing at Cooper Street CF, between all the units and buildings, and erecting a new layer of fencing inside the razor-wire outer fences. They claim it’s to prevent “contraband” from being thrown over the fence. Have you seen these fences or new walls or anything like this happening at other facilities?

Finally, the Detroit Free Press reported the tragic news that Angela Renee McConnell, a prisoner at Women’s Huron Valley, died on Feb. 26 from an apparent suicide. She was the last woman in Michigan sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed while she was a juvenile, and she was still awaiting her court-ordered resentencing. We want to remember McConnell as well as other prisoners at WHV who have died in similar circumstances in recent years: Shikisha Monet Tidmore (2022), Natasha Roark (2021), and Janika Edmond (2015). (There could easily be more – there’s no official reporting about this.) Prisons are death machines. These deaths by suicide at WHV also bear a resonance with “Female Keep Separate”: the exploitation, the torture, and the dehumanization of these death machines are what drive people to end their life, not merely feelings of isolation. To claim otherwise is sexist.

Let us know if there’s something happening at your facility that you think would be helpful to include in the next newsletter.

In solidarity,


1  MAPS respects every person’s right to anonymity either in a refusal of clout accumulation or brand recognition, or as a refusal or evasion of state or fascist identification and harassment.

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