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How Some Prisons Swiftly Moved To Undermine National Prison Strike

Around 17 prisoners in solitary confinement at the Red Onion State Prison in Virginia refused their meals for about three weeks until administrators split them up and transferred them to other units, according to a new recording of a conversation with a prisoner published by the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).

This is but one example of some of the details finally being shared on what happened in the early days of a massive national prison strike that has now lasted for about a month.

In the recording, the prisoner notes organizing a hunger strike with others in administrative segregation is difficult because the men are in a step-down program, trying to get out of solitary and back to general population. Prisoners held in the high security unit do not have access to jobs like those in general population, so they cannot withhold their labor. However, prisoners went on hunger strike in part because they believed they were indefinitely trapped in segregation.

The prisoner indicates the step-down program in C-Unit is “used as a disguise for long-term segregation. They can never go back [to general population] no matter what they do.”

Another story, which recently became public, details what happened in the William P. Clements Unit in Amarillo, Texas. Prisoner Kevin “Rashid” Johnson wrote on October 4 that prison officials took the unusual step of putting the facility on lockdown on Labor Day, right before the strike started on September 9.

“The actual aim of this lockdown was/is to pre-empt the prisoners at this unit from participating in the September 9th protest by confining everyone to their cells in advance of it, and well into the period during which it might last,” Rashid shared.

“Is it any irony that the lockdown to prevent a workers’ revolt was imposed on ‘Labor Day,’ a day  presuming to commemorate the contributions of U.S. workers, and sanctioned by the U.S. government in lieu of the actual workers’ day – May Day (May 1st) – which commemorates the struggles and sacrifices of workers the world over?”

Prisoners on hunger strike at the Merced County Jail in California reported retaliation. “4 Block was hit by the Sheriff’s C.E.R.T. team, dogs, before 8 am,” read a note on the IWOC Facebook page from prisoners at Merced.

“We are not sure If there are any injuries at this time. If you have a family member on this block contact us ASAP!!!! Call the Merced County Jail (209)385-7419 and DEMAND the cease using violent acts on PEACEFUL PROTESTERS!!!! 4 Block has been on Hunger Strike since 9/16/2016,” the note said.

At Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan, hundreds of prisoners allegedly returned to their housing units peacefully the day after the strike began when “more than 100 officers, armed with shotguns and firing pepper spray, stormed the units and triggered anger and acts of vandalism.”

“It could have been settled,” Kinross inmate Anthony Bates told the Free Press. “When the officers came in, they caused chaos. It sparked the flame … (and) started a wildfire.”

Back at the notorious Holman Correctional Facility in Alabama—home to some of the original organizers of the strike—the Department of Justice announced on October 6 it would investigate violence and inhumane conditions at the facility.

Such an investigation could not be more urgent based on testimonies of Free Alabama Movement prisoners, who have worked tirelessly for years to get the word out about conditions at Holman using YouTube and social media.

Free Alabama’s Kinetik Justice Amun tweeted that a Holman officer told him officers are planning to quit en masse because they are tired the “administration is playing games with their lives.” Multiple media outlets are corroborating at least some of these claims of officer discontent, reporting guards have skipped their shifts multiple times since the September 9 strike began.

A message published by Free Alabama on October 1 said there were only seven cars in the Holman parking lot. “Only 3 officers for Death Row and Segregation, Officer just confirmed that it’s over, as all CO’s are quitting this coming week, ‘We’re tired of them playing games with y’all and our lives. It doesn’t make any sense. You be safe Lil Brother.'”

An audio recording by Kinetik from October 2 claimed the regular shift did not show up again, just as they failed to do the week before. “It appears that they stood good on they word, and now we dealing with like 8-9 from the CERT team trying to maintain the institution ’til they figure out what they’re gonna do.”

Kinetik said that would probably mean bringing the rest of the CERT team into the prison to re-establish order. But he noted the CERT team was wearing regular uniforms and not engaging in “CERT Team Behavior,” instead behaving like “regular officers.”

Free Alabama posted several videos to their YouTube page this week, using contraband cell phones to capture the abysmal conditions inside the prison.

In one video, Kinetik said there were still less than 10 people on duty as few guards if any reported to their morning or evening shifts. He said prisoners were fed late as a result, with the commissioner and wardens pushing the food carts and handing out trays to inmates.

“Go to the news, go to the media, ask how its possible that a max security prison was ran yesterday without no correctional officers except for a commissioner, some wardens, and some administrators,” Kinetik said. “We need to get some answers up in here.” He then lamented the fact that mainstream media is not providing real coverage of the strike and celebrated the efforts of alternative media to cover what has unfolded.

The videos strongly suggest there are very few guards working at Holman. They show shots of filthy, crumbling, and flooded prison units, as well as trash and other piles of waste. Prisoners are able to roam freely. Prisoners in solitary confinement are outside picking up trash.

“These are people who are supposed to be confined on 24 hours lockdown but that can be relaxed if you’ll work for free,” Kinetik says as the camera peers through the narrow window in his solitary cell. “If you’ll come out and clean up the feces, urine, the paper and trash, and everything that accumulates throughout the unit, then you’re given a reprieve to run around, so to speak, like you’re free, in order to work for free.”

One video shows a Free Alabama prisoner walking from death row to solitary confinement without any officers present. Another death row inmate speaks with the person recording the video, as he roams around with a food tray and appears to feed other prisoners.

In other developments related to the strike, Ohio State Penitentiary prisoner Siddique Abdullah Hasan will soon appear before the Rules and Infractions Board after he was written up for an interview he did with NPR’s Tom Ashbrook.

Hasan, who is on death row and therefore does not have a job, could have temporary restrictions placed on his communication with the outside world simply for speaking with a reporter over the phone about the prison strike. He could also face a more serious change in his security classification, which would result in loss of privileges.

For over a decade, Hasan has given media interviews without incident and is currently suing Ohio prison officials for routinely blocking his access to face-to-face interviews with the press. But around the time the strike began, officials decided they no longer would let Hasan use his phone and email time to speak with reporters.

Administrators have tried repeatedly to silence Hasan and claimed he asked an imam to blow up the prison as a pretext to restrict his communications for 30 days. This highly questionable accusation occurred just days before the strike launched.

Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office - This image is available from the National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library under number XX-34.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=190949
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.