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Incarcerated Workers Plan Labor Strike To Resist Prison Slavery System

Unlike labor strikes outside of prisons, prisoners, who engage in work stoppages and other forms of resistance, cannot leave and go home. There many, many more risks involved for prison labor strikes, and prisoners need solidarity from people on the outside to discourage guards from engaging in brutal acts intended to quell resistance.

A prison labor strike is planned for September 9 and will coincide with the rebellion by Attica prisoners, which took place 45 years ago. It is expected to last for a long period of time.

On this week’s “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast, Azzurra Crispino, the media co-chair for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), talks about plans for a nationwide labor strike organized by prisoners. Crispino describes why prisoners are striking and the stakes for prisoners, who take the risk to engage in resistance.

During the discussion portion, host Rania Khalek discusses the re-branding of an al Qaeda group in Syria and how multiple journalists have fallen for it. Kevin Gosztola talks about the New York Times’ yellow journalism on WikiLeaks.

The episode is available on iTunes. For a link to the episode (and also to download the episode), go here. A page will load with the audio file of the interview that will automatically play.

Or listen by clicking the below player:

KEVIN GOSZTOLA: Why are prisoners organizing a labor strike to coincide with September 9?

AZZURRA CRISPINO: September 9 is the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising, which was seen as an important moment in the prisoners’ struggle. So, the reason why prisoners are organizing varies, to a certain extent, from prisoner to prisoner and unit by unit, but in general, we can talk about lack of access to adequate medical care, working conditions that are deplorable, lack of wages being paid to prisoners for work that they are required to do, long-term solitary confinement, brutality from the guards, etc.

RANIA KHALEK: And in terms of the labor that you just mentioned that prisoners do—Since this is a strike, can you talk a little bit about the conditions and the pay that prisoners can expect for doing labor for a lot of major corporations across the U.S.?

CRISPINO: Most prisoners aren’t paid at all, or they are paid, they are paid a few cents to an hour. Fourteen cents is the number that often gets bandied about. But basically prisoners are in a situation where if they don’t show up to their prison job, then they will get write-up and they’ll end up potentially being thrown in administrative segregation or solitary confinement. And often, they’re kind of dangled with this carrot of good release, that if they show up to their jobs that this will help them to get out of their sentence faster. But the reality is that this so-called good time pay is not actually granted to them.

For example, in Texas, one of the prisoners that called for the strike, Malik Washington, just went up for his sixth parole review. And including his good time, he has served a hundred percent of his sentence, but he was nevertheless denied release.

In terms of the type of work, you mention that prisoners often work for major corporations, and that’s true. If you eat a McDonald’s hamburger, there’s a good chance that the beef was raised by a prisoner. But in addition, most of the work that keeps a prison running is done by the prisoners themselves, whether that’s working in the kitchen or doing plumbing and maintenance. There are a wide variety of ways that prisoners help to run prisons. If you think about the ratio of guards to prisoners, there’s just no way that the guards can do all of the work that is necessary to keep a prison functioning.

KHALEK: It’s interesting that you mention that prisoners are doing all that work because prisoners also have to pay out money for various services including medical care, is that right?

CRISPINO: Yes, ma’am. So, in Texas, for example, in order to see a doctor, a prisoner has to pay $100/co-payment. If you think about, if you’re getting paid fourteen cents an hour, where are you going to come up with money for a co-payment? And just because you pay the co-payment doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be given care.

There’s an hepatitis C epidemic that is going on in prisons due to overcrowding, lack of sanitary conditions, people get into fights and there’s blood contamination, unprotected sex and sexual assault, stick-and-poke tattoos, etc. Most prisoners don’t have access to hepatitis C treatment. Probably the most famous right now is Mumia Abu Jamal, who has yet again been denied hepatitis C treatment, even though he is on death’s door from that illness.

Certainly, I would like to see every single prisoner in this country, who is testing positive for hepatitis C to be treated immediately, not to be put on a waiting list until they’re practically dead before they can receive this life-saving treatment.

GOSZTOLA: How does a prisoner get involved and launch a prison strike, and then how do people on the outside support that so that it’s possible to challenge conditions?

CRISPINO: The first answer is very carefully because our organizers are often getting thrown into administrative segregation or solitary confinement on kind of bogus charges. They’ll get written up for something they didn’t do, or they won’t even be written up and they’ll be thrown in the hole, as a way to stop them from organizing. But certainly, some of the ways that prisoners are getting information about the strike is by writing in to IWOC, and then we’ve been sending literature back out to them.

The prisoners are organizing themselves because they recognize that this is a prison slavery system. And in terms of different ways that prisoners themselves can resist, let me start out by saying that prisoners in administrative segregation or long-term solitary confinement do not have prison jobs and hence can’t work stop. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be part of the strike. There are different ways that they can still engage in resistance. For example, they can refuse to go to store and buy anything on the day of September 9, or they can refuse to return their trays when the guards bring them their meals.

But in terms of different ways that prisoners are resisting, it can include a complete lay-it-down—We’re not going to work. We’re not coming out of our cells—to a work slowdown sabotage. So, I mean, to a certain extent, this is being done one person at a time, one conversation at a time, one pod a time, one cell block at a time, one unit at a time.

In terms of how people on the outside can support, there are a variety of ways. If there are listeners outside of the United States, you can protest at one of the corporations that uses prison labor or you can protest at a U.S. embassy. We’ve asked for solidarity demonstrations at incarceration facilities, whether that’s a jail, a prison, an immigrant detention center. You can go and protest at any of the government offices that are directly responsible for incarceration.

Most importantly, we are going to need people to help when repression occurs. So, we are expecting that prisoners will face repression for going on strike. There are three call-in campaigns for repression response, but we need people to call-in and write to officials when repression occurs. Because if officials receive 500 phone calls and 1000 letters demanding that repression does not occur, then they’re going to know that there’s outside support for this strike and they’re going to be substantially more careful.

That’s why writing post cards and writing letters is so important. The guards know when prisoners are receiving support and when they’re not receiving support. And it’s obviously going to be much easier to take somebody on a very long elevator ride and beat them if you don’t think that anybody on the outside is going to think that’s what’s occurring.

For the rest of the interview with Azzurra Crispino, go here.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."