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Movement Against Prison Slavery Ramps Up With Operation PUSH In Florida

Incarcerated individuals in Florida announced they will resist their exploitation and abuse with an ongoing nonviolent protest called Operation PUSH.

Organizers believe thousands across eight prisons will wage economic protest beginning January 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For no less than one month, they will refuse to work in the kitchen, the laundry, on farms, in maintenance, or in other jobs upon which the prisons depend to function. They will boycott products and services, forgo phone calls and the canteen, and engage in other activities to disrupt the prison economy.

One incarcerated organizer said the goal is to “get what we deserve from our government.” Due to the high risk of retaliation for organizing Operation PUSH, this prisoner spoke anonymously and will be henceforth referred to as “John.”

“They use word-play and deceive the public about what really goes inside the system,” John said. “We want to expose those things, as well as make changes that will benefit us as inmates and also society at large.”

A manifesto for Operation PUSH declares they will not stop until the “injustice we see facing prisoners within the Florida system is resolved.”

There are three core demands: fair monetary compensation for prison labor, an end to price gouging against prisoners and their families, and parole incentives for those with life sentences or parole dates in the distant future (known as ‘Buck Rogers time’).

“Our goal is to make the Governor realize that it will cost the state of Florida millions of dollars daily to contract outside companies to come and cook, clean, and handle the maintenance,” the manifesto explains. “This will cause a total BREAK DOWN.”

There is also a strong environmental component to the action because of the intersection of labor, punishment, and the environment that exists within Florida prisons.

Operation PUSH is the latest resistance in a long movement against prison slavery in America. This movement has experienced a second wind since September 2016, when incarcerated people coordinated a massive labor strike for the 45th anniversary of the Attica rebellion. The experience of these uprisings and the violent response to them by prison officials guided Florida organizers as they planned Operation PUSH.

“I joined this action because I have been subject to the system and I see all the flaws and I see all people being destroyed from the lack of knowledge, a lack of opportunity,” John said. “I want to organize for change so that I can help to do whatever I can.”

The Demands

The first demand of Operation PUSH is to end prison slavery. Prisoners want to be compensated with money for their labor, not with “gain time” or time off their sentences. They want to earn a fair wage. This would allow them to support themselves while inside and let them save money in preparation for their release.

“If I were living in a neighborhood and someone were coming home from a situation like this, after spending 10, 15, 20 years in the system, I’d rather that person come home educated with a couple dollars in their pockets,” John said. “I think that would be helpful for society, instead of creating a revolving door where you lock people up and just set them up for failure so that they keep coming back to the prison.”

According to documents obtained by the Prison Policy Initiative, Florida prisoners earn between $0-50 per month depending on the work. Most of the jobs related to the prison’s basic functioning are unpaid. “Industry jobs” pay $0.20 to $0.55 per hour and are provided as “inmate training” by a company called the Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises, Inc., or PRIDE Enterprises.

In fiscal year 2016-17, the Florida Department of Corrections (FLDOC) reported prisoners work over 400,000 hours growing fruit and vegetables, and grow “millions of pounds of fresh vegetables each year which are planted, tended, harvested, and consumed by the inmate population.” Prisoners produce over 6.3 million pounds of fresh produce valued in excess of $3.1 million.

While pay is low-to-nonexistent, the cost of living in prison is high and quickly consumes their meager wages. For example, phone rates within FLDOC are $.04 per minute locally and $.14 per minute for prepaid and collect calls. A prisoner earning $0.20 per hour would have to work six hours to afford a 30 minute local phone call, notwithstanding their other living expenses.

“This whole entire operation is run by inmates on the inside,” John said. “We do the upkeep, we do the maintenance, we do the painting. By sitting down and refusing to work, these officials will have to find some replacement to do those jobs.”

Prisoners are sent to labor without pay on the outside as well, including for government agencies and non-profit organizations. They also work in jobs that are difficult and dangerous.

Increasingly, prisoners are tapped as a free workforce for cleaning up natural disasters. In Florida, they worked without pay to clean up Hurricane Irma. These workers are not covered by the same labor protections as those on the outside, and some health and safety groups argue this work can be more deadly than the storms themselves.

Haitian prisoners in the Florida system, who wrote a letter expressing solidarity with the action, pointed out how immigrant labor is exploited under this arrangement. “There are so many Haitians, Jamaican, and Latinos in the [FLDOC] serving sentences that exceed life expectancy and/or life sentences, who are not being deported. They use all immigrants, for free Labor and then deport them.”

“Why flood the system with immigrants waiting to be deported after serving their entire sentence? Because of the benefit. The undeniable truth is Florida prisoners are slaves who work and do not get paid,” they wrote.

John said the action will hopefully force FLDOC to take them seriously. “By law they have to feed us so they’re going to have to find people to cook and serve the food. And everyday that we sit down, we’ll affect the budget for next year,” he said.

The second demand is to end “outrageous canteen prices.” The canteen is where prisoners purchase hygiene products, food to supplement their inadequate and unpalatable meals, and other items.

Operation PUSH calls for the canteen to stop price gouging prisoners and sell items at their market value. In one example from the manifesto, prisoners point out that while a package of soups on the street is $4, it’s $17 on the inside.

“It’s not just us they’re taking from,” the manifesto argues. “It’s our families who struggle to make ends meet and send us money. They are the real victims that the state of Florida is taking advantage of.”

Canteens in Florida are operated by the Keefe Group, which is part of a $1.6 billion market. After an acquisition by another commissary giant, Trinity Services Group, the company’s annual revenues are expected to reach nearly $900 million.

The third demand is for parole incentives for people facing life sentences and or with release dates far in the future, which could help drive people into rehabilitative and educational programs that are required for parole.

It is tied to the demand for fair pay because of its importance to transitioning back to society. For example, someone serving a 10-year sentence may lose “all family support.”

“Money stops, the letters stop. He finds himself supporting himself the best way he can. In short, the system robbed him of ten years of labor. He has nothing to show for it so now even if he does his ten year bid with no probation or parole, he’s still a convicted felon, and finding a job is very difficult.”

The Environment

Outside of their core demands, organizers call for an end to “overcrowding and acts of brutality committed by officers throughout [FLDOC] which have resulted in the highest death rates in prison history.”

Organizers want Florida to “honor the moratorium on state executions, as a court ordered the state to do, without the legal loophole now being used to kill prisoners on death row.” They also want to have their voting rights restored “as a basic human right to all, not a privilege, regardless of criminal convictions.”

Operation PUSH intends to “expose the environmental conditions we face, like extreme temperatures, mold, contaminated water, and being placed next to toxic sites such as landfills, military bases and phosphate mines (including a proposed mine which would surround the Reception and Medical Center prison in Lake Butler).”

This is why Fight Toxic Prisons (FTP), a prisoner advocacy group focused on the intersection of prisons and the environment, is one of the groups on the outside leading the charge.

FTP organizer Panagioti Tsolkas told Shadowproof there is “an abundance of under-reported issues where prisoners were affected by environmental issues as well as prisons themselves affecting the surrounding environment.”

Those incarcerated in Florida’s coastal prisons and jails have had to live with and labor through the environmental dangers associated with climate change, like sea level rise, extreme heat, poor water quality, and devastating natural disasters such as hurricanes.

“There’s a symbolism to that really; that prisoners are viewed as almost like a subhuman class,” Tsolkas said. “They’re not granted the same basic constitutional rights, slavery being the most extreme and the most obvious, but also their voting rights and basic First Amendment protections. As people outside of the prison, we tend to think those are basic things that define our standard of equality and justice and human rights.”

“When you strip people of those rights, it becomes a lot easier to then exploit them and use them in this way, doing labor that maybe other people don’t want to do or people don’t want to pay for having done,” he said.

“When you look at the task of attempting to mitigate [the damage of living in an industrialized society] and you pass it off to people in prisons, it actually has a very similar role as [to] what happens in the sweatshop on the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border or across the world in factory sweatshop conditions. People want to be able to ignore or not have to see or think about that. And prisoners very much fall into that category in a similar way as sweatshop workers and immigrant communities. They’re just this invisible population.”

“I think when we have the opportunity to make them visible and to get people thinking and considering the humanity of these people and the fact that they are friends and relatives and neighbors to all of us, that also has an environmental implication because it makes it more difficult to excuse exposing them to toxic conditions when you see yourself reflected in that person. And I think as such it changes the willingness to accept that level of contamination generally because you have to think what if that was me or someone that I love who was having to do that.”

FTP helped amplify the call for the September 2016 prison strike in Florida by working on mailings with other groups in which they shared their analysis on the intersection of prisons and the environment. Their correspondence with prisoners raised other environmental concerns that overlapped with the overpopulation and abuse that is rampant in Florida’s prison system.

FTP is engaging prisoners about air and water pollution and their health regarding a new phosphate mine proposed in the so-called “prison belt” across northern Florida, where there is a high concentration of prisons. “It’s a rural area so it’s three thousand people a quarter mile from the proposed phosphate mine. [The prisoners are] actually the largest population of people in the immediate vicinity of the proposed mine,” Tsolkas said.

“So in a way, the prisoners had a lot at stake and are definitely one of the frontline communities that will be impacted health-wise. We decided it was a good place to show people these concerns that we have around water and air quality, these environmental issues, don’t just affect us on the outside but also affect prisoners. And in a way, prisoners have a pretty central role in potentially challenging this sort of mining operation as well, because the state is responsible for their health care and well-being.”

FTP has worked with prisoners to challenge the mine as it goes into a permitting process. “We just did a big mailing to prisoners and encouraged them to submit comments to the permitting agency,” he said. “And we also, at the same time, let them know about the Operation PUSH call for prison strike. We’ve been doing that organizing simultaneously, along with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee.”

The Risk

Prison organizing always comes with tremendous risk. Prisoners can face new charges and prolonged sentences.

Entire units may be punished collectively and placed on lockdown. They may be placed in solitary confinement or brutalized by guards. They may face restrictions on phone and email communication, recreation, and their participation in various programs and education opportunities. They may be transferred to other facilities and held incommunicado in the process.

In responding to resistance, officials follow a pattern. The uprisings are always called riots, a word that carries connotations that are meant to scare the public and lend legitimacy to their efforts to crack down hard on prisoners. Any violence or destruction of property is played up to overshadow prisoner demands and the conditions they face.

Access to information is severely limited and the media speaks only to law enforcement, who then control the narrative about what is happening inside. The perspectives of prisoners and any family members or supporters on the outside are excluded. The uprisings are attributed to corrections departments not having the staff and security technology they say they need, beckoning legislators to give the department more money.

The last two years of prison resistance created an expectation among those on the inside and outside that prison officials will respond to Operation PUSH in a similar manner, and this has influenced their strategy.

“[Operation PUSH participants] know what they’re dealing with,” said Karen Smith, an outside organizer with the Gainesville chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). “It’s a real movement and these are real legitimate issues, and there is evidence to back it up.”

“If [prison officials] continually choose to respond with force and talk about heightened security staffing, it’s an ineffective response,” she argued.

“The fact that the mainstream is no longer buying that story in a lot of ways is important. All of these issues point to the solution being less prisoners and not more guards.”

Vague and conflicting reports about pre-emptive retaliation have surfaced ahead of the strike.

Some organizers are unsure if repressive acts are in response to Operation PUSH or if they are part of the abuse that inspired the action in the first place. Others have said prison officials targeted alleged organizers, throwing them in solitary confinement and transferring them to other prisons. Incarcerated people who aren’t participating in Operation PUSH are said to have been punished by officials as well.

Publicly, FLDOC has remained silent on the protest. Michelle Glady, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections, told the Miami Herald simply that the department will “continue to ensure the safe operation of our correctional institutions.”

Outside Organizing

Operation PUSH organizers believe strong support from the outside is critical to the actions success.

“The voice on the outside has to be very loud,” John said. “We need to shine a light from the outside in on the system. For us, trying to yell between the gaps in the fence to people in the outside is not going to be beneficial because then we’ll be taken advantage of by these officials. But if there’s enough light shining on the situation then they won’t be able to do certain things and get away with them.”

“When we have rallies outside the prison, when we have media support, when it’s being mentioned on the radio and mainstream programs, then it creates an environment that keeps [prison officials] honest, because now the eye is on them, the public eye.”

IWOC Gainesville and FTP are organizing phone calls to the DOC in solidarity with striking prisoners. They’re also planning protests outside of prisons and are raising money to distribute literature to people on the inside.

Smith said they are working with attorneys to map out the legal dimensions of the action, figuring out how far prisoners can go and “what their rights look like as far as nonviolent protests, as far as boycotts go and refusal to work.”

They are looking for lawyers or paralegals that are wiling to draft and send letters to specific prisons, wardens, or regional administrators, “just to kind of say, Hey! We’re out here, we’re watching, there’s eyes on you. That has such an affect, especially here in Florida,” she said.

Additionally, organizers have set up a hotline for Operation PUSH (850-895-1505) for prisoners and their families to report resistance and retaliation within prison system. This will help organizers track actions and respond to them with support.

Movement Legacy

Smith said Operation PUSH wouldn’t have “the momentum that it’s gained, or the clarity that it has, without all the previous prison organizing that’s been going on and is going on.” She pointed to the efforts of the Free Alabama Movement, Jailhouse Lawyer Speak, and other groups and actions that have fought prison slavery in recent years.

Literature has played an important role in movement building in Florida. “Some of the stuff that Free Alabama has put out and certain authors, specifically like [Kevin “Rashid” Johnson] and Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun, Malik Washington—those are people that have been loud voices in this movement and have provided clear analysis and strategies that weren’t available to Florida prisoners as an example of what can be done and a clear plan for moving forward.”

She said when IWOC established connections in Florida after the September 2016 uprisings, literature was the number one request from prisoners. “They didn’t have anything to work with,” she explained. “I think having those voices and having those materials to use for organizing is crucial and has made it possible in that respect.”

Smith said the visibility of America’s growing abolitionist movement hardened the resolve of those organizing on the inside. “Knowing that there is an outside support base that was maybe quiet a few years ago or didn’t exist, is something that has made this possible. Prisoners have continuously voiced that they can’t build unity on the inside behind this movement without evidence of support on the outside.”

This solidarity continues to grow. “We had a woman, a congressional candidate from south Florida, Stephanie Anderson, reach out to endorse the strike,” Smith said. Teachers have reached out looking for how to get their students involved writing legislators or sending letters of support to prisoners.

Operation PUSH’s strategy of nonviolence is the product of organizers reflecting on recent uprisings. John said this is because “we don’t want to put ourselves in a position where officers are required to use brute force and give them an excuse to give to the public why they used it.”

He said it’s an approach that “has been done before and has been told before,” pointing to the bus and Christmas boycotts organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. “It’s an economical strike, and we just intend to affect the budget as much as we can next year,” he explained.

Despite the enormous and demonstrated risk, incarcerated people in Florida and other states continue to organize. It’s a clear sign of what is at stake and the movement’s momentum.

“I don’t think it has to be fatalistic but it does have to be taken seriously that if we don’t change the current condition of the prison system, it can really be a precursor of the social and environmental disaster that we’re staring in the face right now,” Tsolkas said. “A change in the prison system could indicate the potential for fundamental change in this society.”

“Millions of people have seen the bottom and the worst that this society has to offer. I think they could really help the process of rebuilding society and changing it to the way that it needs to be if we’re going to survive another century.”


Jared Ware contributed reporting to this piece.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.