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Prisons as a Training Ground for Nonviolent Resistance in Protracted Conflicts

Prisons as a Training Ground for Nonviolent Resistance in Protracted Conflicts

Photo credit: Vladimir Varfolomeev via Flickr

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Norman, J. (2021). Negotiating detention: The radical pragmatism of prison-based resistance in protracted conflicts. Security Dialogue, online, 1-17.

Talking Points

  • In protracted conflict contexts where governments use mass incarceration as a form of social control, prisons become sites of nonviolent resistance as revealed in the three cases examined:­ Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine, and South Africa.
  • Prisoners in all three cases employed multi-level tactics—developing autonomous administrative systems, exerting pressure on authorities via non-cooperation, and hunger strikes—to improve conditions in prisons and influence external conflict dynamics.
  • Prisoner-led nonviolent resistance was successful when employing a “trialectic negotiation strategy” between prisoners, state authorities, and external solidarity networks wherein less powerful actors (i.e., prisoners) force more powerful actors (i.e., state authorities) to either “make allowances or use force, with the assumption that the use of force will ultimately backfire.”

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • In the context of decreasing effectiveness of nonviolent/civil resistance word-wide, the examination of prisoner-led resistance and radical pragmatism can inform the evolution of resistance in increasingly authoritarian contexts, as well as the campaign for prison reform and/or abolition in the United States.


In protracted conflict contexts where governments use mass incarceration as a form of social control, prisons become critically important and largely overlooked sites for nonviolent education, organizing, and negotiation with state authorities. By examining prisons as a site for resistance in Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine, and South Africa, Julie Norman describes tactics and strategies used by prisoner-led movements, largely targeted on improving conditions and treatment of prisoners—but also connected with broader conflict dynamics. She further describes prison resistance as a type of radical pragmatism wherein prisoners “reinforce their own organizing capacity and self-discipline,” exert pressure on prison authorities, and appeal to external solidarity networks. This research is based on 45 semi-structured interviews with former prisoners and state authorities, as well as prisoners’ letters, journals, and other writings across the three cases.

Protracted conflict: “prolonged struggles by communal groups for basic needs such as security, recognition, acceptance, fair access to political institutions and economic participation.”

Azar, E. E., Jureidini, P., & McLaurin, R. (1978). Protracted social conflict: Theory and practice in the Middle East. Journal of Palestine Studies, 8(1), 41–60.

Radical pragmatism: While “radical” and “pragmatism” appear to be mutually exclusive concepts, in prisons, “prisoners’ tactics are radical in [that] they aim for fundamental change within, and sometimes, outside the prison system. Yet, crucially, they are pragmatic in [that] they employ incrementalist tactics that reflect a sustained, accumulative approach.”

The three country cases share a colonial and post-colonial history with Great Britain, notably with shared legal traditions and policies related to mass incarceration. In Israel-Palestine, mass incarceration followed the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip after the 1967 war, with around 40% of the male Palestinian population (as of 2016) having experienced incarceration. Palestinian prisoners organized for their rights and challenged their incarceration as part of the Palestinian liberation movement. In Northern Ireland, where mass incarceration targeted Irish Republicans and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) throughout the 20th century, prisoners engaged in the strategic use of hunger strikes tied to negotiations between the IRA and British government. From 1962 to 1991, tens of thousands of South Africans were arbitrarily detained under the apartheid regime, with over 3,000 “non-white” South Africans convicted and held as political prisoners. Prisoners in South Africa used various tactics to transform prisons “from a brutal ‘hell-hole’ to a ‘university’ for activists and political leaders.” Across all cases, this level of prisoner-led resistance and organization took place precisely because the state’s use of mass incarceration led to these activists being imprisoned together.

Prisoners in all three cases employed multi-level tactics as a form radical pragmatism. To start, prisoners developed “highly organized administrative systems” within prisons (an essential starting point to coordinate collective resistance, generally in the form of elected committees and/or leadership positions) and covert markets and communication channels. A key component of these administrative systems was an undercover educational program. Prisoners would host lectures, classes, and debates on political readings and other liberation movements.

Exerting pressure on prison authorities through acts of everyday resistance and non-cooperation was necessary for improved living conditions inside prisons. Hunger strikes were “the peak” of resistance but were always preceded by incremental and escalating forms of resistance like “refusal to work at assigned jobs, acknowledge prison guards or comply with counting and searching protocols.” These tactics were employed to challenge specific dehumanizing policies, like communal strip searches, but also sent a clear message to prison authorities­ that prisoners were organized and willing to struggle. By practicing less extreme forms of resistance, prisoners developed the discipline to withstand hunger strikes.

Hunger strikes are a well-recognized form of civil disobedience that can “redirect or reverse dynamics of power” between state authorities and prisoners. Used less commonly in the South African prison context, hunger strikes were prominent features of both Palestinian and Irish prison resistance. Prison authorities wanted to avoid long, drawn-out hunger strikes and would opt to negotiate with prisoners before taking more drastic measures (like force feeding), particularly if prisoners’ demands fell under the prison’s mandate. Hunger strikes were more successful when paired with external pressure. The Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the IRA, and the African National Congress (ANC) were key partners in prison resistance by drawing media attention to prisoner-led resistance and mobilizing local communities in support of prisoners. External solidarity networks therefore amplified the pressure exerted by hunger strikes by directing international attention to prison conditions and the asymmetric nature of these protracted conflicts.

In Northern Ireland, prisoner-led hunger strikes became a central component of the protracted conflict and even influenced preconditions for negotiations between the IRA and the British government. Prisoner-led resistance and the use of hunger strikes influenced the IRA to adopt more nonviolent strategies in its resistance campaign.

The author describes this relationship between prisoners, state authorities, and external solidarity networks as a “trialectic negotiation strategy,” a concept she adopts from critical prison studies based on Black prison organizing in the United States. Simply stated, these are scenarios where less powerful actors (i.e., prisoners) force more powerful actors (i.e., state authorities) to either “make allowances or use force, with the assumption that the use of force will ultimately backfire.” By examining mass incarceration and prisons through the lens of nonviolent resistance, this article highlights the multi-level strategies and escalatory tactics used by prisoners to win concessions in asymmetric protracted conflicts, shaping both their treatment in prison and the broader conflict context.

Informing Practice

This article can be best summarized with the following quotation by U.S. activist Fred Hampton: “You can jail the revolutionary, but you can’t jail a revolution.” By using mass incarceration as a tool of social control, some states may have inadvertently created “training grounds” for nonviolent civil resistance in protracted conflict contexts. Prisoner-led resistance movements employ the same tactics and strategies to manage conflict without violence as their external networks outside the prison space. Importantly, these tactics and strategies work because they use collective action to create shifts in power that force prison and state authorities to negotiate, often by leveraging the outrage precipitated by outsized state repression—what Gene Sharp called “political jiu-jitsu.” Operating alongside liberation campaigns (like the Irish, Palestinian, and Black South African liberation campaigns identified in this article), prisoner-led resistance should be considered another site to study nonviolent civil disobedience in other contexts. 

While we draw inspiration from the success of historical nonviolent civil resistance campaigns, new research reveals that these campaigns are becoming less effective—“70 percent of major nonviolent movements in the 1990s succeeded, only around 30 percent did so from 2010 to 2017”—in part because state governments are adapting to these campaigns in ways that undercut their effectiveness. (See Civil resistance: What everyone needs to know in Continued Reading.) One tool of the state might be to impose mass incarceration and employ narrative frames that emphasize public safety while portraying the resistance campaign as violent. By examining prisons as sites of resistance, new pathways for nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience are revealed that can inform how resistance evolves in increasingly authoritarian contexts. Imprisonment is not the “end of the road” for a nonviolent resistance campaign; rather, it creates new opportunities to disrupt power relationships with state authorities and garner local and international support.

It is difficult to discuss the topic of mass incarceration without focusing our attention on the single country that accounts for a quarter of the world’s prison population: the United States. The overall prison population in the U.S. has grown exponentially over the past several decades: In 1970, the U.S. prison population was 196,429. In 2018, it was 1,414,162. Further, there are serious racial disparities in mass incarceration. Data provided by The Sentencing Project indicate the lifetime likelihood for imprisonment for various U.S. residents born in 2001: Black men are 6 times and Latino men are 2.5 times more likely to be imprisoned than white men. For women, the data is equally disproportionate: 1 in 111 white women will face imprisonment compared to 1 in 18 Black women.

Many activists call for an upending of the system through prison abolition—creating new social institutions that address the root causes of crime and thereby eventually make prisons obsolete—as the current prison system is a re-articulation of racialized oppression and social control. (See the documentary 13th in Continued Reading.) There are instances of prisoner-led resistance in the U.S., notably a 2013 California prison hunger strike that lasted 60 days with around 30,000 prisoners participating to end the use of mass solitary confinement. While this instance is limited in scope to the improvement of prison conditions, many of the same elements reviewed in this research appear: internal prisoner organization, support from external actors, and the use of hunger strikes to demand negotiation. When looking for answers in the debate on prison reform and abolition, we can learn from the radical pragmatism of prisoner-led resistance to aim for fundamental change through an incremental and sustained approach. [KC]

Discussion Questions

  • With new attention drawn towards prisons as sites of resistance in protracted conflicts, what other overlooked sites of resistance exist in today’s world that might create opportunities for “political jiu-jitsu”?
  • How can radical pragmatism inform resistance to other systems of oppression and inspire change?

Continued Reading (and Watching)

Chenoweth, E. (2021, March 26). Civil resistance: What everyone needs to know. New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved May 26, 2021, from

Shwaikh, M., & Gould, R.R. (Forthcoming). Prison hunger strikes as civil resistance: A global perspective on political resistance in prisons. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from  

DuVernay, A. (2016). 13th. Retrieved May 31, 2021, from

Stevenson, B. (2019, August 14). Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal-justice system. 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from

Peace Science Digest. (2020, July 10). The displacement of traditional policing through community-based anti-violence initiatives. Retrieved May 26, 2021, from

Stemen, D. (2017, July). The prison paradox: More incarceration will not make us safer. Vera Institute of Justice. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from


Nonviolent Action Lab at Harvard Kennedy School:  


Equal Justice Initiative: 

The Sentencing Project:

1619 Project:

Keywords: nonviolent/civil resistance, prisons, mass incarceration, radical pragmatism, Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine, South Africa 

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