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The Legacy Of Attica: Prisoners Plan Labor Strike For Rebellion’s Anniversary

“I didn’t get involved in the prison struggle, it ran me over,” says Ohio prisoner Greg Curry.

Curry has maintained his innocence ever since he was indicted for two aggravated murders stemming from the 1993 Ohio prison rebellion, known as the Lucasville Uprising, and was subsequently convicted.

This year, Curry will join a call to action in support of a national coordinated prison work stoppage against abusive labor conditions. Prisoners in Ohio, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and other states planned the action for September 9, 2016, the forty-fifth anniversary of the rebellion at the Attica State Prison in upstate New York.

In words that echo those used by prisoners at Attica, the prisoners of the labor strike have denounced their treatment as “slavery.” They call for prisoners around the country to refuse their work assignments and engage in resistance, and they ask the public to speak out in solidarity.

“As I licked my wounds, I educated myself, and began to see that oppression knows no limit, it takes no timeout, it spares no one,” Curry said. “Which means it must be confronted by EVERYONE, constantly, strategically, in an organized and disorganized way!”

“I believe I must fight for what I believe in, and what I ask others to help me overcome.”

The Sound Before The Fury

“We are men,” declared prisoners in rebellion at the Attica State Prison on September 9, 1971. “We are not beasts and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”

That day, thousands of men quickly overpowered guards and gained control of the prison yard. In a document titled, Declaration to the People of America, they put forward 15 “Practical Proposals” as their demands.

The first among them was that the New York state minimum wage law apply to prisoners in all state institutions. “STOP SLAVE LABOR,” they wrote.

Other proposals focused on freedom of speech and religion. They called for an end to brutality, unhealthy food, and inhumane living and medical conditions. They demanded more fair parole proceedings and real rehabilitative programming. They requested officers be trained to understand prisoners instead of punish them.

Fearing retribution and continued abuse, Attica prisoners asked for transportation out of the country and for amnesty from prosecution for their resistance. They called for the public to pay attention to their struggle. They invited journalists as observers and prominent activists as speakers. They believed public attention was necessary not only to maintain morale and pressure government officials to meet their demands, but as a form of protection from the state.

“What has happened here,” the prisoners wrote, “is but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.”

Prisoners held the yard for four days with around 40 hostages. They attempted to negotiate with Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who refused their invitation to come to the prison. The governor then ordered the slaughter of dozens of people, including some of the hostages, by permitting the National Guard, police, and corrections officers to use violence to retake the prison. After the bullets stopped, guards beat and tortured prisoners as they restored order to the facility.

Over the intervening decades, attitudes about criminal justice have changed. But the smattering of incremental reforms that have accompanied those shifts have failed to address many of the issues that plagued prisoners back in 1971. As a result, anger has led to resistance in American prisons in a manner similar to what led to the Attica rebellion.

Resistance Continues

Among the many powerful examples of resistance that led to this moment are the six prisoners in Georgia, who refused their meals and work assignments in 2010 to protest their work and living conditions. They emphasized their opposition to unpaid prison labor, which included jobs such as cooking, cleaning, laundry, and even building new prisons for the state.

Georgia prison officials responded by depriving inmates of water and electricity. Prisoners were placed in extreme isolation and brutally beaten, in some cases with hammers.

Undeterred, other rebellions have raged across OhioIllinois, Virginia, Washington, and California in recent years. In Alabama, two strikes broke out over the course of four days at the Holman Detention Facility.

Immigrant detention centers, such as Willacy County Regional Detention Center, have also seen acts of resistance. Despite efforts by media and government officials to characterize these ‘disturbances’ as senseless acts of violence and disorder, prisoners consistently name their treatment as their chief cause for protest.

Earlier this year, Texas prisoners launched a labor strike after circulating a letter explaining the ways in which they have been enslaved by the state’s prison system.

The national action for September 9 was announced on April 1. Prisoners organized as the Free Alabama Movement began their strike one month later.

Modern Day Slavery

“Prisoners who are in general population are required to work, whether thats working in industrial jobs or agricultural jobs or serving the prison in some way,” explained Azzurra Crispino, media co-chair of Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), one of the organizations supporting the strike.

“They’re not paid and when they are paid, they’re getting pennies for the hour,” she said.

Prison jobs include farming, manufacturing, telemarketing services for private companies, and performing daily tasks vital to the functioning of the prison itself, such as laundry, janitorial work, or food service.

Inmates are forced to pay high fees for everything from phone calls to doctor visits. The meager amount of money they make from the jobs does not give them much opportunity to save or send money to family they may want to support.

Labor conditions are often perilous. “We’ve had reports of people being asked to operate heavy machinery with standing water on the ground,” Crispino said. “In Texas, no air-conditioning, in a lot of the units. Last year, the heat in Texas was 116 degrees. You can imagine what it’s like working in a kitchen, in a unit with no air conditioning.”

Crispino pointed out consumers often have no knowledge the goods they are purchasing were made by prisoners. She noted that many prison products are simply stamped, “Made in the USA.”

“If I as a consumer think, ‘I’m not going to buy something made in China, because I’m concerned about conditions in factories there and want to make sure I’m bolstering the U.S. economy,’ I might end up buying a t-shirt that’s been made by female prisoners in Texas,” she said.

Prison labor, like slavery, is forced. Crispino explained, “Most of the time, the reason they end up working is because they’ll get a disciplinary ticket if they don’t, and they’ll end up getting sent to solitary confinement or administrative segregation.” They can also be punished during parole considerations for not working or through the loss of “good time” credits that allow for a slightly earlier release.

While the September 9 strike is focused heavily on working conditions, prisoners are also agitating against solitary confinement and for better, decent, and humane living conditions as well.

“You have serious abuses from the guards,” Crispino explained. She said people are beaten and raped, and have their property withheld for small or sometimes fabricated infractions.

Crispino, whose work largely focuses on incarceration in Texas, described how prisoners in need of medical care in the state have to pay a $100 copay to see a physician.

“If you’re getting paid $0.10 per hour or not at all, getting together $100 for each visit becomes impossible.”

Medical care for infectious diseases, such as Hepatitis C, is difficult to come by. “We have a situation where Hepatitis C is rampant in U.S. prisons because of the crowding. You have fights. You have people having unprotected sex,” Crispino said. She noted there are no condoms in prison, and even if sex is consensual, a prisoner can be punished for having a condom.

“You have really serious percentages of the prison population that are Hepatitis C positive. It’s very difficult for them to get Hepatitis C treatment. Your case has to be so severe that you’re practically dying. Even in the case of Mumia Abu Jamal, you still can’t get treatment.”

Crispino continued, “Then there’s the issue of long-term solitary confinement or administrative segregation, you’ve got prisoners who have been held in solitary confinement for 20, 30 years because they’ve been designated for administrative segregation.”

Meanwhile, corporations and governments alike profit handsomely off of the cheap, captive, and comparatively unregulated labor of prisoners. By the end of 2015, 457 inmates were employed by the Alabama Department of Corrections’ “Correctional Industries” department, generating a profit of nearly $2.6 million.

Georgia employed 1,200 prisoners and brought in $27 million in sales.

“When you have prisoners who are getting paid nothing or pennies an hour—who are working making paper, working making furniture, call centers—you, as a normal worker who’s trying to fight for a fifteen dollar minimum wage, you can’t compete against these captive workers,” Crispino said.

“Even if you’re not concerned about the human rights situation, you should at least be concerned about the impact that this has on your wages as a free laborer.”

Resistance And Risk

“If I can take you down a historical path for a second,” Azzura Crispino said, “in 1978, Xinachtli Alvaro Luna Hernandez—one of the prisoners I support—was involved in a work stoppage.”

“He was one of the leaders of a work stoppage that happened on his unit here in Texas. The way that he describes those conditions was that, first of all, by necessity, it was also a hunger strike.”

“The moment that they took over the yard—they were out there for almost a month—the guards weren’t going to bring them food. They had to build latrines for themselves because they only had water from other prisoners sneaking it to them in bottles,” Crispino said.

“So when we think about a strike in the free world, on this side of the razor wire, you may be afraid of losing your job or maybe you’re afraid of getting beaten. All of those things are true in a prisoner strike, but then you have the added dimension that you don’t have any way of leaving your striking position. You don’t have control over your food, you don’t have control over your clothing, you don’t have control over any of that.”

Ben Turk, a prison abolitionist who organized alongside prisoners for the last seven years, has been helping with communications for the September 9 strike. “The action is going to look different in different places,” he said.

“There are prisoners who are going to do full work stoppages, prisoners who are going to do hunger strikes, prisoners who are going to do sit-ins or boycotts of the commissary and things like that,” Turk said. “We’ve heard of a lot of different things happening in different places and on the outside it’s also going to look different than the various kinds of marches, actions at prisons, or at companies that profit off prison labor.”

He added organizers were “also expecting there will be unexpected things happening on the ninth or after the ninth.”

Turk said it’s hard to know exactly how many facilities will participate. “We know that there will be at least a few facilities in Texas and Alabama. There are prisoners who are trying to get something together in Oregon and other states, but we don’t know who is going to actually get it together. We’re also expecting that things will start in some places on the ninth and then spread to other places following it.”

He described the “landscape of prison in America” as “guards acting with impunity against people they’re holding captive and those people being at constant risk every day of their lives.”

“You can get tortured, thrown in the hole, tied to a restraint chair on the pretext of guards very easily,” he said. “A lot of times people who are in the hole are in the hole for filing grievances or lawsuits. The guards then target you for harassment, and they come at you to the point that you eventually defend yourself in some kind of way. Then the guards say, ‘That’s the pretext we need to put them in the hole for years.'”

“When you’re organizing and you’re trying to do things in an organized way, working with other prisoners and having some intentional action behind that, there are, in many ways, even more risks,” Turk said.

He added that there was also more protection in organized resistance because “if you have contact with people on the outside then we can shine a light in on the things that are occurring in these prisons and expose them” by mobilizing people to call government officials, lawmakers, and journalists, and “get more oversight from prison officials higher up in the food chain.”

While this can “help to reduce the amount of violence and retaliation that the guards are able to carry out,” Turk suggested it carries a “different kind of risk because you’re more likely to be targeted and the support that we have on the outside is not always robust enough” to stop this retaliation.

Azzurra Crispino said barriers to communication make it very difficult to organize with prisoners. Mail containing organizing materials has been blocked and censored by prison administrators.

“We’ve had a bunch of literature that has been getting bounced because prison officials are saying, ‘You’re advocating for work stoppages. You’re advocating for illegal activity. We’re not going to let this through,'” Crispino said.

She described a letter she received from a prisoner in Texas, who said their entire unit had their water and electricity shut off from 6:00 am to midnight. Prisoners were attacked with chemical agents. Without access to water, the prisoner said there wasn’t any way for them to wash the chemical agents off themselves.

“It can be difficult to even get [these kinds of] reports because when the prisoner writes that letter, and puts it in the mail, well, that mail is going to be read by the guards,” Crispino said. “So in certain cases, guards are just going to throw it away. In certain cases, they’re going to remember that this is a prisoner who spoke out.”

Ben Turk agreed communication was one of the biggest challenges facing organizers. Some prisoners put themselves at great risk to use contraband cell phones and other means to communicate with prisoners in other institutions, solidarity organizers on the outside, and members of the press. They must take this risk to spread the word to prisoners in other facilities.

Where there are phones, Turk said organizing is easier. In places like Wisconsin, where communication has been difficult, he said it was “kind of impossible to have a strategic conversation with the prisoners who are on hunger strikes, and so everything we’re doing is reactionary, putting pressure on the system and trying to help prisoners get what they need or act towards.”

He noted the lack of two-way communication makes it hard to tell prisoners what kind of capacity outside organizers have to support them, which is an important consideration for prisoners contemplating resistance.

According to Crispino, many of the organizers have relationships with prisoners that have developed over years of friendship, communication, and organizing. These relationships allow organizers to work on prisoners’ behalf, despite obstacles to communication.

Many of the organizers are also formerly incarcerated themselves, and their experiences inform their work.

Reaching Across The Razor Wire

“There are prisoners organizing everywhere in this country right now,” Ben Turk declared. People on the outside, who want to get involved in the action, should look to facilities near where they live, he suggested.

“We want people to work with prisoners who are near them, who want to have the prisoner voices be at the center of things and the prisoners’ intentions be at the center of things,” he said. “So having support [from people on the outside that is] local and close is an essential part of that.”

“A prison is an easy-lockdown environment, a place of control and confinement where repression is built into every stone wall and chain link, every gesture and routine,” the September 9 call to action states. “When we stand up to these authorities, they come down on us, and the only protection we have is solidarity from the outside.”

Azzurra Crispino said people can show solidarity through letter-writing.

“Guards know when prisoners are getting mail,” she said, “and when prisoners are getting mail, they’re really reticent to beat them and do other stuff to them because they know that that’s a prisoner, who can then write to people and get the word out.”

Mail has a way of keeping up prisoners’ morale.

“It’s really important when there’s retaliation that people call and write-in to the appropriate authorities, whether that’s calling the warden, calling the prison,” Crispino said. “If you have a unit where everybody’s gassed and a couple people are beaten up, and nobody calls or nobody says anything, the warden says, ‘Good, I can keep doing that.'”

“On the other hand, if you have a situation where people are gassed and batoned and ten thousand people call the warden and the department of criminal corrections and start calling their congresspeople, then all of a sudden the warden is going to say, ‘Okay, I can’t keep doing that.’”

She suggested people attend board meetings of the various organizations that run criminal justice systems at the state and local level. Also, people can start their own chapters under IWOC and contribute to the organization to help cover its operating and organizing expenses for the strike.

Additionally, Crispino encouraged people to engage in creative demonstrations to call attention to the strike. For example, “Go out on the street and recreate the size of a solitary confinement cell and ask passersby to write postcards or letters to specific prisoners, who are in long-term solitary confinement,” Crispino suggested.

There are national conferences planned by prisoners, formerly incarcerated people, and advocates that will coincide with the strike in California, Ohio, and elsewhere.

“I really hope that this [action] helps to humanize prisoners,” Crispino said. “I think part of the problem is that for many of us, we don’t know any prisoners.”

Speaking to his resistance in a supermax prison, Greg Curry said his biggest challenge in organizing was “limited movement,” which made it “harder to get the word out, harder to SEE results.”

“But once It’s in your heart, you operate off faith in the effort, faith in the outside support, faith in the comrades,” he said.

When asked what he hopes will come of his resistance, Curry said, “I hope the outcome is the start of prisoner driven REVOLUTION!!! That is so huge the streets become inspired. People should take away that you / we must take affirmative actions to control our prison block, our home, our hood, our environment, our destiny!!!!”

Editor’s Note: Where ALL CAPS appears in quotes from prisoner Greg Curry, that is how he emphasized the words in written responses to questions.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.