In an extraordinary display of defiance, inmates from penal institutions in 17 states and Canada have gone on strike to protest treatment by prison guards and rejection of a system they condemn as brutal and abusive.
Prison reform advocates say the 19-day strike is the biggest of its type in history. Among the protestors’ 10 demands are that they be treated like human beings, that the arbitrary use of force and punitive measures by guards be scaled back and that prison officials put in place measures that will give them a greater say in affairs that concern and affect them.
The strike began on August 21 and is slated to end on Sept 9.
The 19 days of peaceful protest was organized largely by prisoners themselves, said a spokesman for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), steered by an abolitionist coalition that includes Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), the Fire Inside Collective, Millions for Prisoners and the Free Alabama Movement.
JLS activists began preparing the action in April after prison officials in South Carolina put rival gangs in the same dormitory which ignited an outbreak of violence leaving seven inmates dead.
Representatives of the largely Black population of striking prisoners said inmates are refusing to work in prison buildings, kitchens, laundries and on prison grounds. Palestinian inmates have expressed solidarity and about 300 prisoners in Nova Scotia, Canada also joined the strike.
Nicole Porter, director of Advocacy for The Sentencing Project, called the strike unprecedented, saying that it’s a cry by inmates to be seen and heard.
“We’ve had strikes and prison actions in the past, but the scale of this strike is new. We’ve seen incidents of in-prison activism and organized acts of resistance but we’re in new territory for this,” she said. “This strike is important to look at because it is a response to clashes in a South Carolina prison and severely inhumane conditions there and elsewhere. We need to recognize that people don’t lose humanity when they’re behind bars. Resistance is a part of US history. They carry history and the history of activism. It’s important for officials to listen to these activists and seriously consider some of their recommendations.”
A JLS statement released before the strike said, “Fundamentally, it’s a human rights issue… Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. Prisons in America are a warzone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us, it’s as if we are already dead, so what do we have to lose?”
Bill Fletcher, Jr., a veteran labor union organizer, said the strike highlights the problem of widespread abuses in the prison system that generally go unnoticed by the larger society, which he believes harbors a deep-seated bias against people behind bars.
“I think this is really quite phenomenal,” he said of the strike action. “The problem is that it has gotten so little attention, but the attention it has gotten is significant. The larger problem is that we are a society that believes in vengeance, not justice. People’s general position is, ‘Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.’”
Fletcher adds, “A related issue is that the prisoners, because they are for the most part people of color, they are denied their human rights and humanity.”
Fletcher, a talk show host, author and racial justice, labor and international activist, said there has been a slow erosion of prisoner rights since the 1970s and the emergence of the belief that rehabilitation is a waste of time and unfair to those who aren’t in prison.
In an August 22 press conference, media representatives of the striking inmates said information about the scope of the strike would trickle in slowly.
“We want to note that although there aren’t widespread reports of actions coming out of prisons, people need to understand that the tactics being used in this strike are not always visible,” said Jared Ware a freelance journalist who was asked to be part of team that coordinated with the press. “Prisoners are boycotting commissaries, they are engaging in hunger strikes which can take days for the state to acknowledge, and they will be engaging in sit-ins and work strikes which are not always reported to the outside. As we saw in 2016, Departments of Corrections are not reliable sources of information for these actions and will deny them and seek to repress those who are engaged in them.”
Ware said, “We have spoken with family members who have suggested that cell phone lines may be jammed at multiple prisons in South Carolina, and New Mexico had a statewide lockdown yesterday. The departments of corrections in this country are working overtime to try and prevent strike action and to try and prevent word from getting out about actions that are taking place.”
Although the United States represents one-fifth of the world’s population, 2.3 million people are incarcerated, the highest in the world. Estimates are that about 60 percent of that population is African American or Latino. Those numbers could ratchet up with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, at the behest of President Donald Trump, relaunching the failed War on Drugs and giving state attorneys and law enforcement the green light to crack down on criminal suspects even for non-violent crimes, critics believe.
The Prison-Industrial Complex is a sprawling entity that relies heavily on inmates’ labor to produce goods and services for an assortment of companies, including major businesses and corporations such as Whole Foods, Starbucks, McDonalds, Wal Mart, Victoria’s Secret and AT&T.
While it is a more than $2 billion enterprise, many inmates literally work for pennies and others labor for free, said Dr. Kim Wilson.
“Exploitation of prison labor is at the heart of this strike,” said Dr. Wilson, a prison abolitionist and co-host of the podcast, ‘Beyond Prisons.’ I don’t want people to get the idea that this is an at-will job. It isn’t a system where people have a choice to work. Some people are making zero and nearer to the release date, you are expected and required to work.”
Courtney Stewart, a prison reform advocate released from prison in 1985 and chair of the National Reentry Network for Returning Citizens in Washington, DC, said the prisoners who went on strike had no choice.
“The thing is that these people, the corporations who make up the Prison-Industrial Complex, have been getting away with murder for a long time,” Stewart said. “They’ve been able to sustain the Prison-Industrial Complex and they have ruined generations and generations of the Black community. It’s been so devastating and we still haven’t recovered.”
“Using the school-to-prison pipeline and the War on Drugs, these people are criminalizing and have imprisoned Black men, women and children. It’s profit over people and power and money in this capitalist, White-privileged society we live in. They don’t see any value in the Black family or Black people. They always throw pennies when it comes to fixing the African American community. We have to address this with force and radicalism. There has to be a radical revolution in how to address this.”
Dr. Wilson agreed.
“I’m a prison abolitionist. I see prisons as part and parcel of problem,” said Dr. Wilson, who has two of her sons serving life sentences at Vaughn Correctional Facility in Delaware. “I don’t know how they (prison guards) sleep at night. But those individual people are part of a larger system. I’m more concerned with the system as a whole.”
“We want an end to the physical places we call prisons and conditions that make it possible in our society. But we can’t do that without addressing the underlying issues of racism, anti-blackness, capitalism, gender violence, ableism and other issues deeply implicated in the broader prison system. We must take seriously the things the prisoners are saying.”