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Florida Officials Deny Operation PUSH Is Ongoing, Even As They Retaliate Against Prisoners

UPDATE – JAN 25, 1:40PM EAST: This post has been updated to include excerpts from a letter Kevin “Rashid” Johnson wrote detailing his mistreatment in retaliation for writing an article about Operation PUSH.

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Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, an activist and intellectual incarcerated at Florida State Prison, was charged with “inciting or attempting to incite a riot” five days before a nonviolent prison labor strike and boycott known as Operation PUSH.

A disciplinary report filed on January 10 states Warden Barry Reddish sent an article Johnson wrote about Operation PUSH and a “series of other articles” on the action to an administrative lieutenant. The article made “numerous allegations of mistreatment of inmates at Florida state prison and proclaims Florida to be the worst prison system of the four various states [where] he’s been incarcerated.”

It does not specify which passages specifically incited a riot and at no point does Johnson’s article include a call to action.

In an “emergency note” Johnson sent to his lawyers on January 19, he alleged Florida Department of Correction (FDC) officials tortured him.

“Am being literally tortured in retaliation for article on prison strike and conditions *by the warden*,” Johnson wrote. “No heat. Cell like *outside*, temp in 30s. Toilet doesn’t work. Window to outside doesn’t close and cold air blowing in cell.”

“Its daytime and so cold can barely write,” he wrote.

His supporters fear for his life and are asking members of the public to call Florida State Prison and demand they move him to a safer cell immediately.

“Nowhere is anyone told to do anything,” Johnson wrote in response to the riot charge. “It is only a piece of journalism, which is constitutionally protected exercise of speech and press. Also FDC prisoners have no internet access, so how is something published online inciting prisoners?”

Johnson’s article runs through the demands and motivations behind Operation PUSH. He describes slave labor conditions, violence and abuse, and a lack of medical care in the Florida system, connecting these conditions to the establishment of the state’s first penitentiary just three years after slavery was abolished for all with the ratification of the 13th Amendment (excluding those convicted of felonies).

He uses his own experiences over the last six months in the Florida prison system as context for Operation PUSH and compares it to three other states where he has been incarcerated.

“I can personally attest that conditions here are among the worst I’ve seen,” Johnson writes.

The department has a record of corruption and deception, Johnson notes, pointing to the 2012 murder of Darren Rainey by corrections officers.

Rainey was a mentally ill prisoner who burned to death because officers locked him in a shower rigged to reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit—40 degrees above the state limit—and then covered it up. His death led to further revelations about death, corruption, and abuse across the Florida prison system.

Data released this year shows the number of prisoner deaths in Florida rose 20 percent to 428 deaths in 2017, even as the number of prisoners declined. By comparison, more incarcerated people died in Florida prisons last year than have been executed in all of the United States since 2007.

Johnson called the riot charge “retaliation, plain and simple, for publicizing abusive conditions.”

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On January 15, when Operation PUSH was to begin (and also the day after Johnson’s disciplinary report), FDC canceled visitation at three facilities : Blackwater Correctional Institution, Everglades Correctional Institution and the Reception and Medical Center (RMC).

When the day arrived, RMC went on lockdown and sources indicate staffing levels were tripled at that facility. Around 50 protesters gathered outside to show solidarity with striking prisoners. Similar demonstrations took place around the state and in other parts of the country. News of Operation PUSH and its demands spread across U.S. and international media, including several mainstream outlets, like Newsweek and the Guardian.

The following day, as abolitionist scholar and activist Angela Davis announced her support of Operation PUSH at a speech in Florida, outside organizers for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) reported they lost communication with their sources on the inside. (IWOC is a chapter organization under the Industrial Workers of the World that seeks to unionize incarcerated people and serves as a liaison for their political organizing.)

“The only logical answer is repression tactics,” IWOC organizers declared. Lockdowns and shakedowns had likely interrupted lines of communication. At least two organizers were thrown in solitary confinement “without reason,” and dozens more were isolated in the days before the strike began.

Meanwhile, a large protest assembled outside FDC headquarters in Tallahassee. Protesters took over the lobby for several hours, demanding a meeting with department head Julie Jones to present the demands and call for an end to the retaliation.

Around 3:00 PM, police officers attempted to break up the protest. One activist with the anti-racist organization The Dream Defenders was arrested and charged with property damage/criminal mischief of $1000 or more, resisting an officer, and trespassing. She was bonded out of jail later that night. Several others were injured in the scuffle as police tried to eject protesters from the building.

FDC made some of its first statements about Operation PUSH the next day, acknowledging the arrest and alleging “protesters became increasingly disruptive and breached the doors into a secure area of the building.”

“In attempt to enter the secure area, protesters battered FDC staff,” they claimed. FDC also said there was “no interruption to daily operations” and denied any prisoner resistance took place.

Meanwhile, Supporting Prisoners And Real Change (SPARC), which is a platform for Florida prisoners and families in Florida, reported “key organizers” were placed in solitary confinement and faced investigation for “no reason given.”

IWOC reported the Avon Park facility deactivated prison phones on the second day of the protest, “denying these political prisoners their right to inform their loved ones that they are safe.” They said “dozens” of suspected organizers were now in isolation.

Solidarity actions continued around the country. On January 19, members of Workers World held a teach-in on prison abolition and documentary film screening in Georgia. There were banner drops in Omaha, Nebraska, earlier that morning.

SPARC released a list of over 150 organizations, who expressed solidarity with Operation PUSH on January 20.

On January 22, outside activists flooded FDC phone lines with a call-in action demanding the department recognize prisoner demands. In response, the department released another statement denying any protest was happening and said normal operations continued in all prisons across the state.

“Despite recent reports, prisons and institutions across the state have had no interruption to daily operations. There were no inmate work stoppages or strikes,” the statement read.

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Publicly, FDC insists there is no Operation PUSH inside its facilities. Yet incarcerated people have reported “active participation or repression of some sort” in at least sixteen state prisons.

SPARC argues this is part of FDC’s strategy of severing communication to “create the perception of inactivity and break the spirits of those participating in the strike.” Incarcerated organizers have expressed the importance of solidarity and communication with those on the outside, both for morale and for protection, for many years.

FDC threatened organizers with “harsher retaliation” if they corresponded or in some cases merely received literature from advocacy groups like IWOC and Fight Toxic Prisons.

Lockdowns, disconnected phone lines, and mass searches interrupted lines of communication, and incarcerated people suspected of organizing resistance were split up and transferred to other facilities.

Multiple incarcerated people reported being given a choice: work with the FDC against Operation PUSH and receive a transfer to a so-called “sweeter” work camp. Otherwise, face solitary confinement for corresponding with organizers on the outside.

Prison officials used gang designations to stifle the nonviolent protest, labeling suspected organizers as members of a Security Threat Group (STG). This classification level subjects prisoners to further isolation, surveillance, harassment, and loss of rights and privileges.

In an interview with the website It’s Going Down, IWOC organizer Karen Smith said suspects were investigated and charged for using contraband phones. Investigators in some cases went so far as to decide certain social media posts were tied to particular individuals even if they didn’t have a phone.

Smith called the repression “harsh and complete.” The FDC is watching social media pages and keeping close tabs on people who receive literature from outside groups, she said.

FDC’s reaction to Operation PUSH is somewhat of a departure from how the state handled prisoner resistance in recent years.

When protesters changed their tactics for Operation PUSH to focus on a nonviolent economic protest, the FDC changed theirs, too, engaging in what SPARC called “low-intensity, psychological warfare rather than blunt force.” Given the authoritarian nature of prison systems, which are afforded total obscurity and practically unlimited control over prisoner movement and communication, the FDC is well positioned to adapt its forms of repression.

“It should come as no surprise that the [FDC] can’t be trusted to report strikes occurring in Florida state prisons, just as they have been lying, or to borrow from a PUSH prisoner, ‘using wordplay,’ around the rip-off of their canteen prices,” SPARC wrote. “They have been working for weeks to eliminate the chance of the strike’s success. Claiming that it never existed is another tactic for trying to stop it. Never trust the oppressors to adequately report the facts.”

SPARC found that building outside support in advance, which prisoners felt was necessary to boost morale and participation in Operation PUSH, “provided ample notification and time for the [FDC] to bribe, threaten, and gather scab labor.”

Additionally, Operation PUSH may be less visible than other recent acts of organized prisoner resistance. “Not having clear destruction makes it hard to quantify impact of Operation PUSH, where people are just not going to work or commissary and not this huge violent uprising that people can report,” Smith said. “It’s hard to quantify and something we’re not going to really understand until we see the profit margins” of companies that make money off incarceration in Florida.

Organizers vow the action is not over. They pledge to provide updates as they regain communication with those on the inside. They say they will maintain individualized campaigns in support of Operation PUSH and its demands.

Like the other actions that came before it, Operation PUSH is presently laying the groundwork for the future of the movement against slave labor. They say Operation PUSH is the start of a whole year of action.

New York Times building. Photo by Anthony Quintano (quintanomedia) on Flickr.
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.