This essay explores several key themes regarding political imprisonment and confinement. Neither governments nor activists agree on who is and who is not a political prisoner. Governments routinely deny they imprison people for political reasons. Instead, they consistently seek to criminalize those they detain as part of their effort to maintain the legitimacy of their rule and delegitimize those who act against it. A common definition of who is and who is not a political prisoner does not exist among prisoners, activists, or supporters. No international organizations or national bodies have developed a shared description of what constitutes a political prisoner. Instead, as this essay and the articles that follow illustrate, the subject is a matter of debate and discussion.

On May 1, 1977, roughly fifty male political prisoners gathered in the visiting room of La Penitencería (the Penitentiary) in Santiago, Chile, to celebrate International Workers’ Day, along with their friends, families, and supporters. Several stood on the cement banks that lined the walls and served as seating. One at a time, the prisoners talked about the revolutionary history of the day, the significance of workers’ struggles, and the important role that the visitors played in bolstering their spirits and facilitating communication with both the outside world and the political movements to which they belonged. Following the speeches, the political prisoners distributed red carnations, a symbol of struggle, to their guests as they thanked them and kissed them. The ceremony reaffirmed the prisoners’ identities as revolutionaries who were fighting to create a more just world; strengthened their bonds with visitors; and demonstrated to the prison authorities and repressive government that despite the torture, isolation, and fear they endured, they remained strong, united, and committed to their vision of a socialist future.1 The commemoration took place during the military dictatorship that ruled Chile from 1973 to 2000.2

The imprisonment of people for their political beliefs and actions has a long history in the United States, as it does all over the world. For the US government to acknowledge that it incarcerates people on political grounds, however, would be tantamount to admitting that it is not and was not the model democracy it has historically and repeatedly claimed to be. To preserve its image as a beacon of democratic justice, the United States criminalizes people who act in pursuit of their political ideals, calling them subversives, terrorists, and/or criminals.

In April 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken proclaimed, “Today, more than a million political prisoners are being held in over 65 countries.”3 Unsurprisingly, he did not list the United States as one of those countries. Of course, the United States is not the only nation to deny imprisoning people for political reasons. The Soviet Union diagnosed dissenters as mentally unstable—you’d have to be crazy to reject the Soviet system—and confined them to psychiatric institutions that differed little, if at all, from prisons. The South African apartheid government imprisoned Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders on charges of sabotage and violent conspiracy in an attempt to depoliticize their struggles. Following the precepts of the National Security Doctrine, moreover, military dictatorships and repressive governments across the Americas have imprisoned revolutionaries and guerrillas, labeling them subversives and terrorists instead of freedom fighters. The state of Israel imprisons thousands of Palestinians, many of them children, often in administrative detention, meaning the government doesn’t need to bring charges against them. It calls them terrorists and denies they are being held for political purposes. Indeed, many argue that the entire Palestinian population is detained against its will in the occupied territories. And today the Chinese government imprisons hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in so-called training camps, which it set up to confine those it brands extremists and terrorists.4

Governments classify and charge political prisoners in different ways, but they share similar goals in imprisoning them. Through incarceration, officials seek to defend the state, delegitimize those who fight against it, remove from the public eye those who threaten it and them and, to the extent possible, isolate revolutionaries and activists from the movements of which they are part. Governments hope to simultaneously intimidate, undermine, and terrorize members of political movements that oppose them to weaken or eliminate the danger they pose.

Yet, despite the massive resources at the state’s disposal, prisoners and movements have resisted these assaults and won limited victories. Imprisoned members of the Irish Republican Army who went on hunger strikes in the 1980s persisted in their struggle to gain recognition as political prisoners. They failed to attain their ultimate demand of a united Ireland but did partially achieve their demand for recognition as political prisoners, though they paid a terrible price. Ten died. In the United States, President Jimmy Carter released five Puerto Rican Nationalist Party prisoners in 1979, and President Bill Clinton released sixteen Puerto Rican Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) prisoners in 1999. Both did so in recognition of the tremendous global support the prisoners and the organizations championing their struggles had generated.

Governments do not agree about what constitutes a political prisoner, nor have they agreed in the past. Indeed, there are debates about whether or not, or to what extent, all prisoners are political. Aren’t all prisoners products, victims, resisters, or some combination of all three, of the political system of which they are part? Does that make them political prisoners?

If a society—meaning just about any across the globe—privileges one group over another and discriminates in the distribution of punishment in favor of one or another class, race, or gender, are members of the victimized and persecuted subset political prisoners? That is one of the questions this issue of Radical History Review addresses by interrogating the intersectionality of, and overlap between, the concepts of “common” prisoners and “political” prisoners.

The question of who is or is not a political prisoner is crucial. Often it is a blurry, or intentionally blurred, distinction. Regimes may wish to silence critical voices by wielding the armature of ostensible criminality, either by outlawing speech or by accusing and convicting dissidents of crimes. This sort of maneuver is found not only in dictatorial states but in self-defined democracies as well. In 1973, when Black Liberation Army leader Assata Shakur was arrested in New Jersey, she was charged with murdering a police officer and labeled a criminal. After successfully escaping from prison, however, Shakur now describes herself as a former political prisoner. “Because of government persecution, I was left with no other choice than to flee from the political repression, racism and violence that dominate the US government’s policy towards people of color,” she writes. “I am an ex-political prisoner, and I have been living in exile in Cuba since 1984.”5

In a sense, therefore, this weighty distinction depends on perspective. One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Regimes may well act to depoliticize their opponents, cast them as “common” criminals, and shunt them into the prison system. The editors of this issue discussed a number of these questions. Is there a distinction to be made between political prisoners and common prisoners? What makes an act or speech political? Are there other sorts of prisons besides those with four walls and bars? These questions can be difficult to answer. Indeed, the designation political prisoner is deeply embedded within historical and political contexts.

Political prisoners shed light on their times and societies. It is the political element that exposes structures of power, the efforts of those to challenge power, and unequal distributions of leverage within a given society. The question returns to political—how this concept should be defined or categorized, and how political prisoners present a diagnostic of power, modes of asserting power, and modes of resistance.6 Political prisoners differ from “common” criminals because their actions and speech are motivated by something beyond personal material gain or individual interests. Political prisoners aim for broader societal transformations. Crucially, whatever the manner of excuse used to put them behind bars, political prisoners are incarcerated fundamentally for challenging power. This includes economic power, political power, and social/cultural power.

Amnesty International (AI) has probably the best-known description of a political prisoner, which it labels a prisoner of conscience. According to AI, prisoners of conscience include “someone who has not used or advocated violence or hatred in the circumstances leading to their imprisonment but is imprisoned solely because of who they are (sexual orientation, ethnic, national or social origin, language, birth, colour, sex or economic status) or what they believe (religious, political or other consciously held beliefs).”7 Politicized imprisonment here is a matter of civil rights and equity, rather than base criminality.

Seeking to distinguish between “common” criminal activity and political mobilization, the Filipino politician and scholar Pablito V. Sanidad laid out an argument in 1997. According to Sanidad, “Political crimes are those directly aimed against the political order, as well as such common crimes as may be committed to achieve a political purpose.”8 In his formulation, the “political” depends on the breadth or limitations of the aim. The ostensible crime itself carries less significance than the intention behind it. A “crime” is political when it addresses political aims. How states determine the intention of those who are imprisoned, of course, remains questionable.

In the wake of the early 2021 military coup in Myanmar (Burma) that unseated and imprisoned the civilian ruler Aung San Suu Kyi, an organization named the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) came together. The association supports those imprisoned for political reasons and publicizes the military regime’s abuses of critics. The “AAPP defines a political prisoner as anyone who is arrested because of his or her perceived or real active involvement or supporting role in political movements.”9 Here again, the aim is the central or determining element, rather than the “crime” itself.

This issue brings together a range of opinions and cases to explore these issues. In the opening essay, Orisanmi Burton examines the political/criminal overlap as it appeared in the 1970s, when the US government used mass incarceration of Black radicals to stem a rising tide of Black and Latino activism in cities. As Burton explains, the urban rebellions of the 1960s laid the groundwork for prison rebellions that proliferated in subsequent decades: Ohio in 1968, Minnesota and New Jersey in 1969, New York City and Upstate New York in 1970, and California and Western New York in 1971. The forty-eight prisons that erupted in rebellion in 1972—the most in a single year in US history up to that point—were a direct outgrowth of political education among disaffected Black and other prisoners incarcerated for common crimes.

Burton draws on his interview with Dhoruba bin-Wahad, a member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army imprisoned for his political activities in New York. According to Dhoruba, “We looked at the prison as a college campus for higher revolutionary education . . . and when we saw brothers that had character, that had heart, that would stand up, we tried to increase their politics.” Just as a politically biased system of justice incarcerated them in the first place, an understanding of the workings of racism in both their own lives and worldwide turned ordinary prisoners into political prisoners. This “carceral warfare project” relied on the networks of reactionary individuals in academia, think tanks, the FBI, and the CIA, which jointly applied lessons from counterinsurgency warfare in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in their war against radicalism at home, including inside the prisons.

During World War II, as Kathleen Alfin explains, the US Army confined Liberian women in camps where they were delegated to serve as prostitutes for primarily Black US soldiers. While on the surface this may not fit a narrow definition of political prisoner, these women were detained for the express purpose of sexually entertaining soldiers in wartime. Their confinement, therefore, was of the highest political order. Although the US command in North Africa authorized this practice, it has not received attention in the histories of World War II. In fact, while a great deal has been written about the Imperial Japanese Army’s enslavement of Korean “comfort women” for the Japanese military, the official US Army policy of corralling African women for the same purpose has received little notice. US officials racialized venereal disease and prostitution to justify confining and regulating Black Liberian women’s bodies in the name of soldiers’ health, upholding their racial and military authority in the process.

Writing about the rise of Islamic nationalism in Turkey, Rüstem Ertuğ Altınay points to the “iconification” of the right-wing female nationalist Şule Yüksel Şenler. The current repressive leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, refers to Şenler as a “monumental figure for the struggle for rights and justice,” bolstering this claim by pointing to her years of imprisonment. As Altınay argues, Şenler’s so-called victimhood fed the political bias of the neoliberal Islamist regime. Claiming to have been unjustly persecuted, the regime was able to paint its enemies, notably secular Turkish nationalists, socialists, liberals, and Kurds, as deserving of incarceration. The afterlives of Şenler’s story and the experiences of contemporary Islamists demonstrate how the powerful discourse of victimization, augmented by religious connotations, has served to associate incarceration with legitimacy and political power. This article points out the importance of who is doing the defining of justice or injustice, or said another way, what the politics are behind the “political prisoner” label. It brings to mind the well-known quotation from the Irish statesman Conor Cruise O’Brien: “Terrorism is politically motivated violence of which we disapprove.”10

Débora D’Antonio addresses the issue of political prisoners by highlighting the importance of legal or regular prisons in Argentina during the dictatorship of 1976 to 1983. The prevalence of political prisoners during the Argentine military dictatorship is well known. As D’Antonio argues, however, the focus on clandestine detention centers has obscured the very significant role regular or legal prisons played throughout this period. During the years of state-sponsored and condoned terror, the political prisoner population grew to twelve thousand, and many of these prisoners were held in regular prisons. According to D’Antonio, the repression during the last military regime “must . . . be viewed on a dynamic continuum between regular prisons visible to the public and clandestine detention centers hidden from public view,” since there was a constant movement back and forth from those detained in clandestine centers to regular prisons. Indeed, the very existence of regular prisons facilitated the state’s efforts to conceal covert repression.

In “‘This Argument Is Far from Over,’” Garrett Felber and Stephen Ward dissect the issue of creating “political prisoners” inside US prisons. The authors pose the question, how do we view those who were incarcerated as “common criminals,” became politicized while inside, and then reacted politically to state repression? Then as now, the issue persists. “What role, if any, could or should imprisoned people play in revolutionary struggle? How might the intent and impact of prisoners’ resistance—whether individual or collective, obscured or visible, reformist or revolutionary—be evaluated?” As Felber and Ward note in their analysis of the debate surrounding Martin Sostre’s imprisonment in the 1970s, this argument raises the question of whether a distinction exists between political and nonpolitical imprisonment. If it does, along what lines and to what ends?

Writing from the perspective of an incarcerated person, Stevie Wilson responds directly to Felber and Ward’s analysis. He asserts that “the questions . . . raised and the positions taken [in the 1970s] remain alive today.” Wilson argues that prisoners who enter as “common” prisoners may become politicized in prison, a reality that is often overlooked or not sufficiently respected. In fact, he considers himself a politicized prisoner. “Who is behind bars?,” Wilson asks. “Who deserves support? What is the price of solidarity, or what must imprisoned people do or not do to receive support from outside allies? The answers to these questions help guide our movement and direct our energies. We need to take them seriously.” Thus, like Felber and Ward, Wilson agrees that the argument over political prisoners is far from over.

Luis Rosa Pérez engages this debate as well. He defines himself and his Puerto Rican comrades as former political prisoners, both because their goals were political in nature and because he rejects the US government’s attempts to criminalize him and other political prisoners. Rosa distinguishes political prisoners from other prisoners. While he acknowledges that political systems contribute to people’s incarceration, he makes clear that he was a political prisoner “because the actions that resulted in my incarceration were political-military acts dedicated to the independence of Puerto Rico. . . . The government was trying to criminalize our case, and we were trying to decriminalize it. We wanted people to believe our position was a necessary step for us to struggle in the way we did for the independence of Puerto Rico and, as a consequence, we were political prisoners.”

In “‘A Form of Reparation,’” Angelina Godoy illuminates the contradictory nature of the US government exposing and aiding political prisoners in El Salvador at the same time that it supported the country’s brutal military government in the 1980s. As a world power—and one that has been especially dominant in the Americas—the United States has played and continues to play both sides, focusing on saving some political prisoners while endangering countless others. Although US officials resisted efforts to examine abuses against guerrilla supporters during El Salvador’s war for liberation (1980–92), selective diplomats and human rights advocates worked behind the scenes for international oversight of prisons, helping to save lives in the process. On the surface, this seemed to be an earnest, if short-lived bright spot in US involvement—a contrast to the bloody war the US government perpetrated against Salvadoran guerrilla combatants and civilians. Godoy describes her work with Salvadorans combing through declassified documents to show how US advocacy further empowered the Salvadoran state’s overall apparatus of institutional violence, even as it spared selected actors.

Contemporary actions taken during the imposed isolation of COVID-19 have allowed prisoners to insert themselves in the ongoing debate over the unjust incarceration of poor, minority, and female individuals. Scholars and members of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), an organization composed of prison activists inside and outside prison, voiced their opposition to the extremely isolating and repressive measures that arose during the pandemic lockdown. Through the pages of CCWP’s newsletter, The Fire Inside, activists built a collective response to create and deepen political consciousness. They employed the practice of “open lettering,” a long-standing tradition among incarcerated activists from Socrates, who wrote his accusers from a prison cave in 399 BCE, to Martin Luther King Jr., who composed a letter from his Birmingham jail cell in 1963. Drawing on this tradition, The Fire Inside provided a forum for letters that flowed into and out of prisons during the enforced isolation of COVID-19.

The Curated Spaces feature by Cecilia Belej is titled “Just before Freedom: Alicia Sanguinetti’s Photographs of Political Prisoners in Argentina.” This visual essay is composed of images taken by the Argentinean political prisoner Alicia Sanguinetti and her brother Ricardo on the last day of her captivity, known as the Devotazo, May 25, 1973.

Finally, Andor Skotnes details the actions of former Robben Island prisoners who reunited on the fifth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from political prison, and nine months after his election as South Africa’s president in 1995. Mandela, one of the most famous political prisoners in history, along with his comrades in the struggle against the white minority apartheid government, came together to celebrate their freedom from one of the most notorious institutions of political incarceration: the maximum-security prison on Robben Island in Table Bay, isolated across about six miles of treacherous water from Cape Town. The event was momentous for those it drew together and for the actions of the day. Several South African artists were enlisted to create a “living artistic” moment involving the ex-prisoners and current leaders of the South African government. The former prisoners gravitated toward the hated quarry where, as prisoners, they had been forced to break rocks for hours in the punishing sunlight. In 1995, they spontaneously cheered each other while performing the same task, this time choreographed by the contemporary artists. This event marked Mandela’s stated goal to reconstruct a new order of justice within an integrated culture, one which positioned the former Robben Island prisoners as central to cultural reconstruction.

We are thrilled to have Elizam Escobar’s painting El Desvelo (Sleeplessness) on the cover of this issue. Like Luis Rosa Pérez, whose essay appears inside, Escobar was arrested in Evanston, Illinois, in April 1980 and convicted of seditious conspiracy and other charges. He spent the next twenty years in various prisons, where he produced numerous artworks, including this haunting scene. After President Clinton commuted his sentence in 1999, Escobar returned to Puerto Rico and taught art at the School of Plastic Arts in San Juan. He died of cancer in January 2021.

Jan Susler, who provided this reproduction, served as an attorney for Escobar and other Puerto Rican political prisoners from the People’s Law Office in Chicago. She observed that Escobar “often painted oneiric images, what art critic Lucy Lippard called his ‘waking dreams.’”11 Reminiscent of a cell Escobar occupied in the Federal Correctional Institution, El Reno, in Oklahoma, El Desvelo evokes the insomnia he experienced in prison.

Our thanks to Jan Susler for providing us with the background on this work.



The military dictatorship referred to the prisoners as “prisoners of war” in line with its efforts to justify its overthrow of the Allende government as the legitimate duty of the armed forces in the face of national and international subversion directed against the Chilean state.


“About Assata Shakur,” http://www.assatashakur.org/.


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