Outside the Bubble: Prison strikes protest exploitative labor

Sunday, Sept. 9, marked the end of the latest United States prison strike. The strike was organized by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a subunit of the “militant” union Industrial Workers of the World. The strike began on Aug. 21—the 47-year anniversary of the murder of Black social activist George Jackson at San Quentin prison—and ended on the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising. Prisoners refused to work, participating in sit-ins and hunger strikes and boycotted common areas. This is the most recent of such large-scale actions since the month-long prison strike of 2016, the most wide-reaching jail strike in U.S. history.

Spurred by the April riot at Lee Correctional Institute in South Carolina, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), an anonymous group of inmates providing legal aid to fellow inmates, initiated the protest with a Twitter press release. The strike was scheduled for next year, but after the riot—which lasted for seven hours and during which seven prisoners were stabbed—planners decided to begin the protest immediately (Mother Jones, “Prisoners Are Getting Creative to Pull Off a Massive Strike This Week,” 08.20.2018).

A zine released by the IWOC lists the demands of prisoners nationwide, yet asserts, “Most of the demands are not actionable items that prison authorities are able to grant, but rather they require deep legislative and cultural changes … The goal is not to hold out and win negotiations with officials, but to last those 19 days and punch the issue to the top of the political consciousness and agenda” (IWOC, “Prison Strike 2018”). The list of demands includes an immediate end to “prison slavery … the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans … [and] racist gang enhancement laws, targeting Black and brown humans,” in addition to increased access to rehabilitation programs, especially for those labelled as violent offenders, and the re-installation of Pell grants in all U.S. states and territories. The zine also includes a legal observer affidavit, which prisoners can use to describe the discrimination they have experienced while in prison.

The IWOC accuses the nation of preventing prison rebellion leadership from arguing for the rights of prisoners, which have been violated for centuries through racial profiling, private prisons and the prison industrial complex. In addition to rendering prisoners disenfranchised, the Prison Litigation Reform Act prevents them from addressing violations of their rights, leaving them without a platform to express themselves. The Sentencing Reform Act and truth in sentencing policies decrease the probability that prisoners will be granted rehabilitation services or parole and allow prisoners to be sentenced to death in incarceration without parole.

This latest protest in particular focused on so-called “slave labor” in prisons. The organization argues that the conditions of prisons and prison policies do not recognize or honor the humanity of prisoners, but merely use them as a source of capital gain. Imprisoned individuals are paid mere cents per day for their hard labor, and in several states, including South Carolina and Texas, prisons pay inmates nothing at all. According to The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news outlet focusing on the U.S. criminal justice system, the average pay in state prisons in 20 cents per hour. (“A Primer on the Nationwide Prison Strike,” 09.27.2016). With the disproportionate amount of Black and brown prisoners in the system, working conditions in prisons has been characterized as akin to a modern form of slavery.

The IWOC also encourages prisoners to cease violence against one another. This violence arises in part from the placement of members of rival gangs in the same cells or units, increasing the prevalence of prisoner-on-prisoner violence.

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak released a statement in April saying: “Our collective message to prisoners, stop the violence against each other. Regardless of race, class or label, we are one” (NPR).

In response to the press release, prisons restricted mail and phone privileges to prisoners, as well as isolating suspected strike leaders and organizers in preparation for the strike. In its pre-strike statement, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak claims that prison wardens and officials are already issuing threats of punishment to prisoners planning on participating. When asked about the strike, prison officials either denied or minimized their knowledge. For example, although activists circulated video footage of a California prisoner participating in a hunger strike, Vicky Waters, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, stated, “I’m aware of the video but I have no way of identifying the inmate in the video or verifying where it was recorded … I can tell you we have had no reported incidents or activities from inmates related to the national prison strike” (The New York Times, “Prison Strike Organizers Aim to Improve Conditions and Pay,” 08.26.2018). Another spokesperson, Lori K. Haley of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), called news of prisoners striking at a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Washington false, contrary to the claims of activists. Although rumors of protest emerged from facilities in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New York and South Carolina, officials in each state denied these claims (The New York Times).

During the protest, outside organizers and allies did not expect any news from the inside. Days after the end of the strike, the scope and outcomes of the protest are still unknown. Before the strike, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak warned prisoners, “Do not expect to see major coverage of our strike on the mainstream media. Definitely do not expect any prison officials to give you accurate or updated information … The only time they will report an uprising is when it’s full-blown beyond their control. At that point they will label it a riot. Prisoners will have to sneak out updates. For those of you with these updates, please share with others.” Inmates in at least 17 states at federal, immigration and state prisons planned to join the protest, but prison system officials often suppress news of jail riots and protests and thus it rarely reaches the attention of mainstream media (NPR, “Inmates Plan to Hold Weeks-Long Strike At Prisons Across U.S.”). It took months for allies to comprehend the full scope and impact of the 2016 prison strike.

Although Sept. 9, the official end of the strike, has passed, many prisoners continue to strike. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and other activists are encouraging prisoners to set their own end dates for strikes or to continue indefinitely. There is at least one prisoner on hunger strike at a facility in Missouri and there are reports of protest activity and boycotts at two facilities in New York and Texas (IWOC, “September 11 strike update,” 09.11.2018). With the continuation of strikes across the country, prison officials are further restricting inmates’ communication with the outside world. Prisons increasingly censor the distribution of mail. Lockdowns and mandatory searches and seizures of prisoner property occur on a rising basis.

Going forward, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak plans to endorse a campaign that would create real legislative change in accordance with its list of demands aimed at the national prison system. As the group stated, “The work of spreading and fighting for [our] demands will continue on all fronts until they are actualized, and then beyond that onto what JLS aptly calls the ‘dismantling process,’ as we build a movement toward abolition” (IWOC, “Sept. 11 update”).

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