‘I’m For Disruption’: Interview With Prison Strike Organizer From Jailhouse Lawyers Speak
A little over one week after the deadliest incidence of recorded violence of prison violence in the United States a quarter century, a coalition of prisoners, including representatives from the human rights organization Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, announced a national prison strike.
The prisoner-led strike is scheduled to launch on August 21st, which is the 47th anniversary of the death of Black Panther prison organizer and political theorist George Jackson. It will continue until September 9th, the 47th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion.
On May 4, I released an interview with prisoners from South Carolina, including multiple representatives from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, in which they discussed what conditions within the prison system could produce the sort of violence that occurred at Lee Correctional on April 15. They also shared their thoughts on necessary immediate improvements to the prison system to alleviate these conditions.
I recently interviewed another representative from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak to get their thoughts on the last several months of planning on the inside and solidarity organizing on the outside. I asked about the process of organizing prisoners as a class, prison slavery, their solidarity with ICE detainees, diversifying tactics, and what people on the outside can do to support the strike.
Due to widespread repression against imprisoned organizers and prominent politicized prisoners, this Jailhouse Lawyers Speak representative has been granted anonymity.
Jared: There are just a few weeks left before the strike and there are a lot of different organizations trying to get involved on the outside. What are some of the things that they might do in solidarity?
Jailhouse Lawyers Speak Representative: The first thing is, when I was talking to some of the JLS comrades, we were talking about what can these groups do. From past strikes, what we’ve learned—for instance when they did a [demonstration] a couple years back for September , and then they did the Millions For Prisoners [Human Rights March]—what we did learn is that from the outside, the more people that tend to stand up, demonstrate from the outside, particularly demos at the prisons, what it does is it incites. It incites inside and this is why prisons have a problem against it.
So the biggest thing that we can ask any of these groups or any organization is to hold some type of event, particularly an event that can get the radio’s attention, news media attention, anything that can get back into the jail cells and the prisons. The more radio programs that pick it up, the prisoners can listen to it. Particularly the prisoners that don’t have access to phones or internet access, they can at least get it while they’re listening to their radios or they can see it on television.
This is very, very important. This is how Florida’s strikes spread so fast, because they were able to get it in through the channels. They were able to raise enough hell to where the media caught on to it and it was getting back into the prisons and cells that [prison officials] really didn’t want it to get into.
J: So the plan is for this to last from August 21st until September 9th, right?
J: So should people be doing that now, should they be doing it all throughout the strike, when should they be doing that?
JLS: All of the above. There’s no straight-up strategy to this right here. I think we’re all still feeling and learning as we go along, but I think all of the above. I think definitely before [the strike].
Like for instance, in South Carolina when they held the rally in front of Lee County Prison, well that helped incite the guys inside and let them know that there was outside support to the point where now, Lee County, these guys are one way or another planning on participating. Because certain areas of Lee County you couldn’t even get word in what was going on, but that outside [support] helped get word inside. And that was before the actual strike date.
We need groups on the outside to be doing that. Something else they can do is try to link up with organizations or groups in their area that they know usually do this type of prison work, and a lot of these groups you’ll see them on social media, facebook, twitter, just link up with some of these organizers.
What I’ve learned is these groups may be small in numbers and you may have some bigger organizations that may want to help to see what they can do. These bigger organizations that want to help, they need to link up with these smaller organizations that’s been on the ground that’s already working and follow the lead there.
J: One of the things I saw recently is that JLS issued a statement of solidarity with those who are in ICE detention. There were already connections made by the strike organizers in terms of the demands that reference people who are in immigrant detention centers. And the solidarity statement also spoke on folks that were working on the outside that were occupying ICE offices and things like that.
Can you expand a little bit about the connections that you all are making there, between your situation and the situation in immigration detention centers?
JLS: As far as the connection with ICE and why we’re in solidarity, the biggest reason is because we understand those cages. And not only that, but it’s all the same system. And this is something that JLS has been promoting from day one. The entire system itself—the judicial system, the injustice system—it is a big ball of corruption, a big ball of crap [laughs]. Just being straightforward.
And we understand the exploitative nature of it. Regardless of what they say, it’s always profit driven, and particularly these ICE detention centers, you know? We know that these are definitely—you can actually look at it and be able to distinguish that [with these privately run facilities] a little bit better at times than you can [with] some of these more state and federal[-run] facilities. With ICE detention, you can directly look at it and know that they are directly for financial gain, and it’s hard to hide it more so than you can for state and federal. The average person can see it.
But we definitely feel for those humans that are in those cages, in those ICE detention cages. Before I was transferred over to [state prison] from [federal prison], I was actually caged up with a few of the guys who were being transported over to the federal [prison] from the ICE [facilities] and you could always see the dread in these men’s eyes, when they were being transferred over, and not only that, sometimes you can see the sadness, sometimes you can see—as I was explaining to some of the other comrades when we were talking about it—sometimes you can even see that some of these guys feel like they would even be facing death, when they go back home. So you can’t help but see that this is something that we should all be up-in-arms about, particularly when you know what’s going on.
But much more than anything, these are human rights violations, these facilities. And once more, I can’t overemphasize that they’re all the same. It’s all on the same chain, there’s no difference there. Outside of the fact that there are a few obvious differences, but the fundamental essence and nature of ICE, it’s no different from where I’m at now. It’s all slavery.
J: Talking a little bit about prison slavery, there’s various analyses of that concept. And one of the things that I think creates some tension around it, when we talk about the labor aspect specifically, is this notion that there are these “privilege” or “character” units that are really the folks that have more labor, I guess. Because there’s certainly labor that goes on within the prisons that’s a few hours here or there, cleaning or cooking or doing other jobs around the unit. But there are people who will really argue—including prison reformers and prison abolitionists—that prisons are not the same as slavery, but are a form of social control.
What’s your analysis of all this?
JLS: Well, I think actually both of them are correct. It is a mechanism of social control and it is also slavery.
I have to say this here, from a New Afrikan perspective—and I have to say it like that, right?—because many of us back here, particularly from JLS, we come from different cultural perspectives, but from a New Afrikan perspective: I’ve always been taught, and I believe based on my cultural experience in this country, that the current prison system as it relates from an Afrikan perspective is directly from the plantation days.
I think since Afrikans first came off those boats, landed over here, that connection has been clearly defined, even when they removed them off the plantations, and they started going through everything else and the 13th Amendment [came] into place… and this is why particularly New Afrikans feel the way that they do when it comes down to prisons. We’ve never had too much of an issue with identifying it as slavery.
I can remember my great granddaddy and them, they were talking about it. Prison is slavery. They never really referred to it as prison or as jail, they referred to it as being forced back onto the plantations again. This is something we’ve always understood. Of course, as things evolved more, the system evolved, it’s a little more sophisticated, and you know people tried to change the language and there was a disconnect.
I notice there’s a disconnect with a lot of our caucasian comrades. Because I don’t think necessarily they see the connection there. “Why do so many Blacks see it the way they see it, like that?” That more so [comes from] them. And I think it’s because of that lack of cultural experience, that cultural connection. The continuation [of slavery], they haven’t experienced that. So they wouldn’t see it like that.
On the other hand we also know—I think a lot of times people think that when we say it’s slavery, that we miss the bigger picture that it’s also a mechanism of social control. We also understand that. We understand it’s a mechanism of social control, we understand the connections to capitalism, we understand how this enterprise has spread it around the globe today, how it is much more than just being placed right here in a building, in a cell. We understand all of that right there. No one is missing that picture, either.
But I think we do a grave injustice when we just ignore the fact that it’s still a continuation of slavery.
J: I think one of the things we have to understand is that prisoners want to be able to get out of their cells. You’ll hear this from former prisoners, I hear this from former prisoners, and a lot of times it is white former prisoners.
It’s like they wanted the job, because that was the opportunity for them to get out of their cell, to get out and do something, do something with their hands, work, feed people, communicate. To them, they don’t look at it as slavery partly because they look at the prospect of being housed in that cell for 23 hours a day and not being able to do anything as more detrimental to them then the prospect of being able to work, even if they weren’t being paid for that.
I often think about this as an interesting thing, because we all know the horrors of what slavery is. I think there’s also this realization that people have to come to, to a certain extent, which is that prison is so horrible that people will do a lot of different things to be able to provide themselves some relief from that experience.
JLS: I know many, many, many prisoners would prefer to be out of their cells, getting some leg room, getting some leg stretches, being able to wander around and being able to talk, if they can. And when you give them the opportunity to do that if they work, obviously they’re going to choose to work. Because this is the opportunity they have to get out, but you’re getting out is based on whether or not you’re going to do this particular labor or not. Your entire existence is based on whether or not you’re going to do this particular labor or not.
Just like these new “privilege units” that’s flying around the country right now. Down in Florida they have these “faith-based units,” “character units,” and in order to be in these so-called superior units with superior privileges, it’s mandatory you work. If you fail to work, then you will be removed out of these units.
So when we’re looking at that, obviously a lot of times what I’ve found is a lot of prisoners accept their realities. They accept that fact, and a lot of them rationalize it as if, “this is not slavery,” and I hear that right now, from prisoners, that “this is not slavery,” you follow what I’m saying? That this is just a part of their sentence and this is how they rationalize it. “You know, well a normal person would work. A normal person would do 8 hours.”
Sometimes it takes a while for us to get them out of that, because a lot of times they refuse to come out of it. Because if they change their minds about it, then they’ll start refusing to comply, and they don’t want to refuse to comply because they know instantly their conditions can go from bad to worse.
Let me be honest. Right now, if you were to work at a work release versus a maximum security prison, I don’t think there’s many prisoners who would give up the chance to go to a work release facility.
No matter how bad the work is, no matter how dangerous the work was, no matter how much the work may impact their future health. We have jobs back here that I’m sure are causing prisoners tumors, or will have tumors in the future, lung problems, cancerous agents are being dispersed through some of these plants, and they’re doing all of this for free. But they’re doing it because they want to get out of these cells. It’s much better than being in these cells all day and banging your head against the wall. That’s the consequences of not working.
J: Obviously this is being pulled together on shorter notice than the 2016 strike, but there’s two things I see that you all have working in your favor.
One of them is that the demands that you all have issued are more comprehensive, and people can look at them from I think various walks of life, whether they’re radical or they just generally care about other human beings, and see that these are human rights issues that you all are organizing around.
I think the other aspect of it is, in terms of what you’re looking at from proposed actions, you’ve broadened the scope this time. It’s not just about the labor side of things—which you can control some of, but you can’t control all of—but about other opportunities that people have to resist the prison industrial complex in a variety of ways.
I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk a little bit about the strategy behind that, as well as talking through some of those demands and opportunities for people to resist.
JLS: Well, the reason why. When we were first talking to a number of prisoners in a number of different locations, and the guys were reporting back and we were trying to decide about these national demands. When we first got it, we had probably like thirty-something demands and we were trying to shorten down the list. We were trying to be fair with something that impacted us all. It was general, but it definitely impacted us all, and we definitely considered it within the human rights realms. That’s kind of the line that we were coming from.
One of the things we noticed when we had the last strike: a lot of people didn’t feel that they had the opportunity to participate. This was something that we noticed; for instance, they [were saying,] “all of us don’t work.” Some of us, like myself, we were on lock-up during that time period. Some people were out and they were locked into these lockdown units. They did not work, a lot of prisoners don’t have jobs, so there is no working for them, so there’s no way they can participate or feel a part of something that’s moving forward.
We had two or three guys on our calls that were a part of work release facilities or pre-release facilities. They wanted to know, what can they tell the guys because there is no way these guys are going to give up their positions for a strike, but they’d like to participate.
Another thing we noticed since September the 9th[, 2016,]—and we noticed it during August the 19th[, 2017],—what the prisons have learned is they’ve learned how to position prisoners against each other.
I think in Alabama, they brought in a lot of work release people, to work jobs, kitchens, cleaning, and do the jobs that the [strikers] had refused to do on the compounds at one or two of the prisons out in Alabama. The same thing happened in Georgia; we noticed it happen in Georgia at one or two of the prisons down in that location.
In South Carolina we’ve noticed it. Now what they’ve done, more recently we’ve noticed is now these [privilege] units we were talking about earlier, these units are positioned stable on the yards now, and throughout the nation we’re starting to see them pop up, and they are being positioned as the workforce.
The reason I touch on that is because [of] what happens when a prison is locked down, yet you still have workers. How can those guys [on lockdown] still participate? This is why you see things like the boycott, because the boycott is on-point for those conditions. It’s on-point for the guys in these camps that must work in order to maintain their positions at these work release or pre-release facilities, but they want to show solidarity with the rest of the prisoners that’s at the more hardcore yards.
One of the things we decided to do was boycott, and I think that brother Bennu [Hannibal Ra-Sun of the Free Alabama Movement], he came up with that right there through Redistribute the Pain. We went over that again and again, and that seemed to line up and it specifically still targeted the system, and it specifically still undermines the economics, because at the end of the day we have to figure out how to undermine the economics of the system, as well. That was one of the reasons we came up with that.
The sit-ins, some of the prisoners wanted more aggressive action. We’ve seen more aggressive action in some of the prisons recently as it relates to sit-ins. They wanted this right here to be on the table, in addition to work strikes. Once again not everybody’s working and they wanted to be able to sit-in. I believe we’ll see sit-ins at one or two of the prisons, maybe three or four. We’ll see, but we can verify at least two prisons right now where the guys want to sit-in.
And then we had the hunger strike, and the hunger strike was for guys that were in the position that I’ve been in before, which was on lockdown. They can participate by refusing to eat that particular day and show their solidarity and resist. Because this particular stage between August the 21st and through September, it’s about showing solidarity with each other.
It’s a reminder, as well. It’s definitely a reminder of our positions as prisoners because, somewhere over the last year, we’ve definitely gotten out-of-sync around the nation. It’s a national trend right now, we have gotten out-of-sync with who we’re supposed to be challenging and our positions as prisoners. This is a big issue with me personally and it’s definitely a big issue with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak members, we’ve discussed it a number of times.
We’ve got to get these people back in line, remembering what’s going on, because these people actually have us turning against each other in some ways that’s not really helpful for us, and it’s not helpful for the movement, and it’s not helpful for where we want to be.
We actually have more people willing to Redistribute the Pain August 21st then sit-in, then even work strike on that particular day. A lot of the guys that aren’t working, they’ll be Redistributing the Pain the other way: they’re going to be giving up phone calls, they’re going to be giving up canteen spending, they’re going to be giving up their phone privileges.
I mean, it’s awesome the reports we’re getting back on the Redistribute the Pain. It’s phenomenal. And it’s sad, because I know we’re not going to be able to show it. A lot of people are not going to be able to see that versus the work strikes, the work stoppages, but it’s just awesome. Everybody is starting to really catch on, and I suspect and I hope it’s going to become a stronger tradition over a time period, to start making some economic sacrifices in the prison system.
J: You touched on building solidarity and organizing prisoners as a class. Obviously the strike is starting on August 21st, which is a significant date in Black August, and ending at the time of the Attica Uprising. What happens a lot of times is you bring folks together and show them their power to actually do something as a whole against these systems that we all feel at different times and obviously for prisoners it’s a constant thing.
So talk a little about the process of bringing different groups together and what you’re seeing on that level and the importance of that.
JLS: We wanted to actually try to give enough time to make the national strike call for next year, that was actually the plan. But after the incident in South Carolina at Lee County Correctional Institution, there was so much confusion amongst the prisoners on what to do, so much strife. I think things had reached what I like to call an apex as it relates to the violence.
What people don’t recognize out there is that for us around the country, particularly the prisoners that are active, this was like a standing moment. We kind of recognized, “man, what the hell is going on?” And you felt the tensions around the nation with prisoners and you felt the street organizations, you felt the tensions with them.
We knew something had to be done and a couple of calls was made amongst us and we began to talk. Obviously JLS was already across national lines with other organizations, people that were already building solidarity networks inside, and we were the ones that got together about what probably needed to be done. But since the call, [we’ve asked more directly that people work] to bring the prison class more together, to make them focus on something better.
Even the outside support, it makes prisoners understand also that there are people out there that expect us back here to get on the same page, as well. This is why we have to salute the ones out there now that’s really standing up for us and really cheering us on, and really telling us “we got y’all back.” Because it lets prisoners know, this is bigger than me, this is bigger than my little organization, this here’s a movement.
One of the things we’ve noticed in a number of different states, right now I can tell you at least 8 different states, we’ve seen truces being made by gang members, street organizations I like to call them. We’ve seen a lot of truces, they’ve been made across the lines. Obviously, we still have some flutters here or there, but the more it’s getting inside the prisons about August the 21st, the more prisoners are getting to the table, the more prisoners are talking.
I’m also thrilled that we have more of the prisoners that are usually on the front street, that are usually the ones that are already talking about prison unity, they’re more so the ones that are trying to get prisoners to the table. I see them working much harder trying to get these street organizations to the table to talk to end their differences.
Of course, we don’t expect this to do away with all violence in prisons. Prisons is a keg anyway, in the way it’s structured there’s going to be violence back here. But on the level we’ve seen it over the last year or two, this is what we need to be figuring out, how to get [it] down, because we’ve started to focus in the wrong angle and the wrong area, as I stated earlier.
We’ve also saw the prison officials, they’re heavily aware of these unification projects that’s going on around the nation right now. Actually, I feel like it’s making them very nervous to see these types of projects going on.
You see the truce out there [in Missouri], you see how the truce, [the prison officials] didn’t worry about the fact that… about what the prisoners were complaining about, about [the prison officials being] so wrong, or the destruction the prisoners caused.
What caught their attention was the unification of these prisoners. And particularly these street organizations, because they know these street organizers are mostly [made up of] young people, and because they’re filled with all these young people, they have a lot of energy. And energy at times can become very destructive. And I always say, as a prisoners, that energy is okay. Hey, I’m for disruption! That’s what comrade George Jackson said, “I’m for disruption,” as long as we’re disrupting the system and not destroying each other.
A lot of JLS’ focus has been promoting truces between these street organizations inside the prisons. Because at the rate they’ve grown inside the prisons, this is something new as well, that’s been developing over the last five to six years. They’ve been there, but not at the rate they’re there now. So our focus has been getting them together, and trying to get them more educated, because they need to get more educated into this prison resistance movement, more educated into why we do what we do and why it’s important. You can have your differences, but why it’s important we unify when it’s time to unify, and why it’s important that we not kill each other up.
This was a big concern during Comrade George Jackson’s time and, into that note, it was a big concern during his time when he was dealing with the Aryan Nation and other racist groups, and he was trying to tell them, listen, we’re not each others enemies, you follow me? The enemy is the pig, we’re not each other’s enemies, okay? We’re fighting the system.
So anyway he was dealing with the same element, the same issue that we’re dealing with now on such a massive level.
J: Is there anything you want to say to other prisoners that maybe haven’t gotten the call yet?
JLS: Well, one of the things I do know is that we’ve got a lot of suppression tactics that have been going on lately around the nation. And people out there really don’t see it, but we feel it back here.
I’ve lost a couple of comrades that have been removed out of place, moved out of pocket, we no longer have access to them. They’ve been, for lack of a better word, blacked out for the moment. And so we kind of know what’s going on, we see it, we see it happening. We know we have forces that are a little bit heavier than the state that’s working against us as well, [heavier than] just the normal prisoncrats we deal with. We’re dealing with those kinds of issues. We’ve also noted that fear tactics are working in some of the areas.
But we want tell people, particularly people that’s concerned about their loved ones inside, to not discourage their loved ones from participating, because some of the discouragement can come from family and friends as well. You know like “what if they move you far away,” or “what if you’re on lockdown and we can no longer talk to you or contact you.” Tell them not to discourage the prisoners.
Sometimes they have to understand that we’re living this right here and not them. And the reason why I say that to the family and friends of some prisoners is because we find that prisoncrats are now using family and friends against the prisoners and they’re influencing them as well. And it’s sad, but we’re seeing that, that’s another big angle they’re now using.
J: Do you have any reflections on all the examples of international solidarity that you’ve seen related to this strike, but also related to the 2016 strike and US prisoner movements in general?
JLS: Our movement is not just a national movement. We are witnessing it grow beyond the US borders. International solidarity has been building for a few years now, as was obvious in 2016.
This year we are witnessing similar solidarity internationally. Our goal last year was to intentionally set in motion actions that should propel us to international settings. Millions For Prisoners Human Rights March [a prisoner rights group which grew into a coalition] started this process by having outside supporting organizers like Krystal Rountree join international human rights forums.
This push is still very active, as we strategize to have prison slavery brought to Geneva. It’s also worth noting we now have an outside supporter that’s a part of [the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination]. We knew this would be a long process after the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March, but our resolve remains the same. Our struggles in the US must become a part of the international conversations. And serious judgments must be made by these same international bodies.