Years of prisoner organizing and resistance culminated on September 9, as a national labor strike against slave-like conditions started. As of this writing, incarcerated workers in facilities in at least twelve states reportedly engaged in work stoppages. Some counts even put the number at 24 states.
Due to restrictions on communications with prisoners, it is difficult to get a full picture of the size and scope of the labor strikes. It is just as hard to verify many of the stories from prisons, and there are instances in which reports from prison officials conflict with those of prisoners.
Prisoners at the Holman Correctional Facility, known as the Free Alabama Movement, were one of the first groups to call for a national action. They reportedly refused to work on the September 9.
“With the rising of the sun came an eerie silence as the men at Holman laid on their racks reading or sleeping. Officers are performing all tasks,” according to one source inside the prison.
The Alabama Department of Corrections contended 10 prisoners did not report for the breakfast shift in the kitchen on the morning of the strike. It said 35 prisoners did not report to their jobs making license plates for the state. Officials said there have been no reports of work stoppages in the other 27 facilities across the state.
The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), which is assisting the striking prisoners, published a list of demands from prisoners in South Carolina.
Attributed to “SJ,” founder of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the prisoners called for an end to free labor and an end to removing prisoners from mental health treatment programs for disciplinary infractions. The prisoners also demanded the state parole board make decisions “grounded in scientific analysis” rather than “emotions.”
South Carolina State Senator Karl Allen told WYFF4 that 10 prisoners launched a riot a the Perry Correctional Institution after refusing to return to their cells. The IWOC argues the number was closer to 30. The maximum security prison was placed on lockdown.
The IWOC also reported prisoners in South Carolina faced retaliation from guards. The group quoted a prisoner, who said, “They snatched a few of my people up last night, locked up and transferred. I’m on lockdown in unit with a few others until Monday.”
“Most prisons here are in normal operations, outside of the key people being searched and locked down,” the prisoner said. “The prison officials tactics of hitting us seems to have put fear in many of the others. We’re going to organize earlier and educate better the next time here in SC. They are ready, just too late in the game for many to REALLY understand the WHYS?!?!”
“My people [have] taken the hardest hit,” the prisoner said. “But what I do know is that it has started something…”
In North Carolina, a source told IWOC many prisoners are “saying they did not go to work, but like most places, [they] are being drowned out by the people who are timid and did go to work.”
“No actual lockdowns in state reported,” the message continued. “Just the usual lockups of suspected ring leaders or lockdown in cells until further notice.”
There may be an action underway at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. MDC Brooklyn is where some of the 120 teenagers, known as Bx120, were swept up in an overnight raid in the Bronx for alleged gang activity.
According to an anonymous message posted on September 9, “Reports from these incarcerated individuals indicate they have been denied medical care, had their mail censored, had significantly reduced visiting hours, and [were] even held in solitary confinement.”
Noting that “this kind of abuse of black and brown people and communities will not be tolerated,” the author put forth demands for “medical care for all prisoners, release of all communication, an end to censorship of letters and communication, extension of visiting hours and days, no displinary (sic) segregation for any prisoner, and for all charges to be dropped against the Bronx 120.”
The Franklin Correctional Facility in New York was reportedly on lockdown.
Men at the Merced County and John Latorraca jails continue their hunger strike and those facilities have been placed on lockdown. Mask Magazine wrote, “Block 1 of Merced County Jail had corrections officers lined up to shoot, they threatened to shoot and brought dogs in threatening to unleash them upon detainees. Inmates were pulled out of there cells by force and after searches placed back into their cells.”
Incarcerated women, who are one of the fastest growing segments of US prison populations, are also joining the action. According to Mask Magazine, women at the Central California Women’s Prison have joined the strike, and the facility is allegedly on lockdown for “fear of an uprising.”
Women at an unnamed facility in Kansas joined the strike, according to Mask Magazine, and the IWOC reported incarcerated women at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Virginia launched a strike as well.
“Disturbances” have been reported at the Gulf Correctional Institution and the Mayo Correctional Institution Annex in Florida. Sit-down strikes and work stoppages were reported at the Holmes Correctional Institution. State officials said the action involved 400 prisoners across multiple units, and that it has ended. The Miami Herald reported, “Smaller ones were reported in other prisons across the state.”
In response, the Florida Department of Corrections canceled weekend visitation for Holmes and Gulf.
Apalachee East & West and Tomoka Correctional Institution in Florida were on “high alert.” Mask Magazine reported, “Tomoka has bagged up food in case the inmates decide to join in.”
On Saturday morning, around 400 prisoners marched at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan. Officials said they returned prisoners to their cells around 12:30 pm, and 150 of the prisoners (believed to be instigators of the action) were transferred to other facilities. There was some damage to housing units, and a small fire that had been started while prison staff were removing inmates was reported.
According to the Detroit Free Press, some staff were evacuated and additional guards were sent from nearby prisons to help restore order. While a representative of the corrections officer union told reporters the action was “not an average, peaceful demonstration that anyone can brush off,” no injuries were reported.
Mask Magazine reported lockdowns at St. Cloud Correctional Facility in Minnesota, Unit P of Miami Correctional Facility in Indiana, and Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Washington.
The labor strike garnered international attention and solidarity from prisoners abroad, such as political prisoners in Colombia.
Organizers from IWOC encouraged members of the public to write to prisoners and call prison officials and their representatives in government to show their solidarity for the strikers’ demands and protect them from reprisals.
Websites, such as It’s Going Down, plan to publish diaries of solidarity actions taking place across the country.
Correction 10/5/16: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated protesting inmates at Merced County and John LaTorraca Jails were women. Inmates resisting in those jails are male.