At Great Risk, Prisoners Seize Reform Narrative And Engage In National Strike
Incarcerated people in at least seventeen states are expected to protest from August 21 to September 9 for “humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform, and the end of modern day slavery.”
Organizers told Shadowproof their demands don’t represent a full solution to the problems of incarceration. However, they are a guide to what needs to be addressed immediately. Prison strikers demand, in their own words:
- Immediate improvements to conditions and policies that recognize humanity of men and women
- Immediate end to prison slavery, paid prevailing wage in their state or territory
- Rescind [the Prison Litigation Reform Act] to give incarcerated a proper channel to address grievances and rights violations
- Truth In Sentencing Act and Sentencing Reform Act rescinded for possibility of rehab and parole. No sentencing to death by incarceration or any sentence without possibility of parole
- End to “racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of black and brown humans.” Black humans no longer to be denied parole because victim was white, a particular concern in southern states.
- End to racist gang enhancements
- No human denied access to rehab because they’re labeled violent
- State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehab services
- Pell grants must be reinstated
- Voting rights for all (pre-present-post incarceration)
Absent from the demands are the reforms that nearly every state official and deep-pocketed nonprofits have suggested in response to prison uprisings over the last several decades: hiring more corrections officers, boosting their salaries, providing more “training” for them, and/or purchasing new weapons and security technology.
“No matter how many of these people they employ, it’s not going to take away from the issues and the problems of the violence that’s occurring inside the prisons,” a member of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a network of incarcerated self-educated legal advocates, said in an interview. (Due to the high risk of retaliation incarcerated activists face from corrections officials for speaking to the media, this JLS member will henceforth be referred to by the pseudonym George.)
“What we’re dealing with consistently is prisoncrats refusing to accept responsibility, accountability,” George said, “because [they] created these conditions, these are the results.”
“Instead, what they try to do is deny any responsibility, any liability, and say, we’re going to keep the same conditions while trying to force people to be subjected to those conditions. And how do we do that? We hire more employees.”
“It never works. It’s not going to work. You can’t snuff out a human’s life without killing them,” George added. “There’s gonna be some type of resistance.”
The prison strike is organized by an abolitionist coalition that includes Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), the Free Alabama Movement, the Fire Inside Collective, and Millions for Prisoners. Activists with JLS called for the strike in late April after a deadly prison uprising in South Carolina.
The ten demands were chosen for their broad appeal to incarcerated people being held in different contexts across the nation. “Every prisoner should be able to relate to something on that list.”
When asked where he saw himself in the demands, George pointed to over-charging and over-sentencing, particularly for people of color, as well as bias in parole decisions.
“In the southern states, we’re seeing overwhelmingly where you’re having the black and brown prisoners catching difficulties getting out. When they have parole hearings, where the victim has the opportunity to come in and refute the parole of the individual, what we’re finding is that a lot of times you’re better off if you had no victim or you had a black victim,” he shared.
“But if you have a victim that is of Caucasian persuasion, then the chances of you being released is drastically changed. You’re more than likely not going to go anywhere and it’s just across the board and we’re all learning that. [It’s] very similar if you have a police victim.”
Protest is necessary because there are no other viable pathways for redress, and organizers point to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) as a major obstacle.
As a jailhouse lawyer who has helped other prisoners navigate the courts, George explained the PLRA made it much harder to file lawsuits. “You have to go through all these different steps, all these different mechanisms. By the time you hit the court, a lot of times the issue is moot,” he said.
“Sometimes you can’t even get the issue filed because you failed to file a simple grievance that the prison considered relevant. There’s so many loopholes. It’s taxing, I mean, they want to charge you for everything, and if you don’t have the money for it, sometimes you got to make an appeal to the court. An appeal to the court may not go through. So you’ve lost your lawsuit altogether, and it’s not because your lawsuit doesn’t have merit.”
George called the PLRA a grave injustice to people across the nation because it obstructed prisoners’ access to the courts. Prison conditions worsened as prisoners lost the ability to challenge them. “We’re seeing the uptick in a lot of inhumane conditions,” he said. “They say, why don’t you file paperwork? Well, it takes forever to get to court.”
“These are things that people don’t recognize that this nation has to address just on a basic level. You need to address these issues if you want to change attitudes amongst the prisoners inside the nation right here,” George added. “At least then we’ll start saying at least there’s some half-assed fairness. Right now, it’s hard to see.”
Not all prisoners have jobs, are subject to the same conditions, or have the ability to protest in certain ways. Organizers are promoting a diversity of tactics to allow more people to participate.
Work strikes are a primary tactic, but sit-ins and hunger strikes are options too. So are boycotts of the commissary, phone services, or any other activity that involves giving money to the prison.
Furthermore, prisoners are encouraged to adapt the action to their own situations. Each protest site should decide for themselves how to remain on strike, organizers say, and create a localized list of demands if necessary. They may protest beyond September 9 if they choose.
Last year’s Operation PUSH action in Florida proved to organizers the importance of being out in public with a media strategy and liaising with other activist groups. George said this helped spread word of the strikes among more prisoners, “getting the message inside cells where we would never be able to get it at.”
This year’s strike distinguishes itself from 2016 for its end date. “Everybody kept saying, whenever it’s going to end we’re just gonna keep going and going and going. But the thing is you can’t go on forever. You’ve got to have an objective, an end game, and this was very frustrating on a lot of our behalf,” George concluded.
Organizers say they sense greater momentum than years past despite prison officials’ efforts to undermine the movement. They’ve worked tirelessly to build solidarity on both sides of the prison walls since the last national prison strike, which began in September 2016.
In an environment where total unflinching obedience is demanded at all times, the slightest suggestion of resistance can be dangerous if not deadly. Yet the prisoners’ persistent organizing is a sign that it’s necessary. “Proper channels” like the courts or prison grievance systems are slow, heavily restricted, and are most often dead-ends. For many, submitting to these conditions is not really an option, either.
South Carolina is an enduring example of the issues at the heart of this protest. It bears strong resemblance to prison systems around the country. With substandard medical care, corrections officer brutality, and unsanitary living conditions, prisons in that state are witnessing the fourth year in a row of increased prisoner deaths, while state officials spend most of their time boasting about new cell phone jamming technology they say is going to reduce contraband and violence in the jail.
In reality, the cell phone jammers are likely an effort to prohibit prisoners from organizing against and documenting their conditions, like those that stoked the violent rebellion that motivated calling this year’s strike.
Ben Turk, an abolitionist organizing in solidarity with striking prisoners, argues the state is responsible for the deaths at Lee Correctional Institution: “The prison [administrators] changed a bunch of the rules and basically made people from different sets or groups have to cell together, and then also took away the ability to lock any of your property up. Then people started stealing from each other, and it very quickly generated lots of beef between prisoners.”
“It’s like they [created] the conditions upon which people [were] going to be angry with each other, and once a fight broke out, they just left and locked the doors and let people fight with each other,” Turk said. “People got stabbed, and they were brought to the exit where [an emergency response] team or just anybody could have gotten them out and saved and resuscitated them. Instead, they were left to lay there and bleed out, and that’s why seven people died.”
“Yes, it was prisoners who stabbed other prisoners that led to those seven deaths,” he explained, “But the prison system killed those people through the conditions they created and the total neglect for treating or dealing with the wounded.”
Freedom of speech and the right to protest are considered essential American ideals, but they are heavily policed if not outright prohibited in the context of U.S. prisons.
Yet prison resistance has existed for as long as people have been incarcerated in America. The strike dates acknowledge that history: August 21 is the day incarcerated Black Panther George Jackson was assassinated by California prison guards in 1971. September 9 is when the Attica Rebellion began that same year.
For decades, the rebellions the public has heard about have been portrayed as spasmodic and disparate acts of senseless violence. The lived experiences of the prisoners involved rarely made news reports. But the high-profile coordinated strikes of recent years have helped change that dynamic.
Thanks in part to contraband phones, prisoners are able to overcome communication barriers and wrest some of the narrative away from prison officials, who have traditionally controlled it.
“In the prison, a dreaded word that a lot of prisoners tend to whisper is ‘protest,'” George suggested. “We whisper ‘strike’ because if the wrong person hears you, then you know you’re automatically subjected to reprisal by the system.”
“This usually takes many different forms: obstruction of mail, screwing with your visitation, your phone calls, false charges being brought up against you, write-ups, lock-ups during investigations, transfers to other facilities. Because of these things, prisoners’ voices are muffled, and it goes back to—very similar to the Prison Litigation Reform Act—to being able to figure out a way to shut us up and to be able to take whatever they give us.”
“The importance of us being able to resist, being able to protest, being able to speak up, being able to go through proper channels—even if they have these proper channels set up for us—to be able to go through them without the hindrances or obstruction… We have to be able to go through these particular channels and be able to see some kind of results.”
“If we don’t speak up, it’s only going to get worse,” George said. “We have no choice. Because to say we’re not going to say anything is, to me, continuously being subjected to whatever we’re being subjected to that we consider unjust, that we consider inhumane.”
“Sometimes we have to understand that we all know that there’s going to be consequences behind us standing up. And that in itself is wrong. When I have to tell another human being that we’ve got to expect consequences behind doing what’s right or behind speaking up for what’s right, you know that should grab people but a lot of times that don’t seem to grab people either.”
“In 2016, we saw the consequences. We saw the consequences with the Free Alabama Movement members. We saw the consequences in other states with other prisoners. Today, we’re seeing the consequences.”
He said JLS received letters and phone calls from their community over the last several months that portend a “systematic attack to undermine what we’re trying to do now, to undermine our voices right now.”
“This is very real,” George declared. “And at times it’s really painful to even talk about it and to know that everyone believes that we are being somehow treated or represented fairly by people that actually don’t have our best interest.”
Corrections departments have wasted no time this year in trying to break up the strike through intimidation, harassment, and abuse.
“I don’t think the prison system took us as seriously in 2016,” George said. “This time, they are taking us very seriously.”
In South Carolina, incarcerated activists reported lockdowns and that prisoners are “being humiliated and being forced to walk around a metal pole with just their boxers on and being paraded around even in front of female officers.”
“Even the Muslims, who are religiously required to cover certain parts of their bodies, are being denied any way to cover themselves. [The imprisoned person] says it is causing a lot of tension on the yard and the guys are not going to keep taking this treatment.”
Incarcerated organizers, like Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, Keith Malik Washington, Ronald Brooks, and Jason Renard Walker have faced isolation, transfers, and loss of privileges for their support of the strike in an attempt to silence them.
Prison officials have tried to portray protest as a front for criminal activity in order to dismiss prisoner concerns and justify criminalization, George argued. “They know we have different types of organizations,” he said. “They know there are those of us that are organizing what I would say is straight prison resistance, legit level, and those of us that are just a crime enterprise. They already know this, and they want to lump as all in together and say this. But that’s far from the case.”
“By them doing that, they’ve been able to justify some of the tactics they’ve used against us recently, like longtime confinement, attacking the communication devices, [and] blocking subscriptions from coming into the prison that are speaking on resistance. They’ve been able to do all of these things just based on the strength of labeling all of us under one particular label.”
JLS members noticed prisons in various states use special housing units with additional privileges to turn prisoners against each other. “Faith based” units, which allowed groups of prisoners to have extra privileges so they could work together and build “pro-social” beliefs and skills, were reimagined in many states to be more inclusive so as to exercise control over more prisoners.
They are now called “character” or “privilege” units and a set number of prisoners are put in charge over the other prisoners. The prison guards and administrators choose the leaders.
Amid widespread and longterm lockdowns of general populations, this system undermines organizing among prisoners.
The prisoners that officials put in charge have the authority to have other prisoners removed from the units, which George says are never locked down. Their jobs are to make sure prisoners follow the rules. “The prisoncrats may tell these prisoners certain things they want to see changed in the unit,” George said. “They’ll relay that to the prisoners that are living inside those units.”
It is prisoners deciding who will be the “big bullies,” George said. “What they’ve done is they’ve effectively created a tier-type class amongst the prisoners.”
In southern states, “Prisoners are told directly, if you participate in these types of events, you will be removed from this unit. You will be sent back behind the door and be locked down. When you’ve got, over the population, these units that are compliant, it definitely undermines the unity mechanism in the prison population. There’s no doubt about it.”
Privilege units remained active in South Carolina while the rest of the facility remained on lock-down. “At one time, they couldn’t lock down the yard for months. They had to at least let people out of some of these dorms and let out some of these dorms out for a certain period of time. But now, we’re finding they kept them locked down for over three or four months and that’s because the other units are able to function.”
“There was a strategy to [this],” George contended.
“These program units are designed to replace the guards. [The public] should be outraged about this fact. They’re not making prisoner safety a priority, instead they are giving prisoners the reins to run and operate these particular units.”
George continued, “We’ve had plenty of times where there is no correctional staff inside these units. There is sometimes only one person and, a lot of time, those particular officers are taking direction, taking instruction, from the prisoners. These so called program coordinators are the ones that have been authorized.”
“It’s very serious because you have prisoners that are under these particular prisoners and they are the ones that are suffering because in a lot of cases they are being victimized in a lot of different ways.”
These efforts to stoke tensions between prisoners and sabotage not just protest, but mere talk of resistance, are testaments to the deplorable contexts from which people are organizing. It also shows how vulnerable prisons are when incarcerated people organize on a large scale.
Despite the risks, there have been multiple uprisings since the one in South Carolina. On August 19, inmates at the Burnside Jail in Nova Scotia released a list of their own demands and a statement of solidarity with those about to go on strike in the United States. In Ohio, prisoners engaged in a spontaneous work stoppage this month after an incarcerated activist was severely punished for speaking publicly about the strike.
Prisoners refused farm work at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and engaged in a brief uprising in Missouri in May. In late June, roughly 600 prisoners in Maryland protested for more time out-of-cell by refusing to return to their cells.
Organizers on the outside have been busy doing their part, organizing call and write-in campaigns, asking people to contact their local, state, and federal representatives to ask them to support the prisoners’ demands. They are also asking people to hold solidarity events and educate people as much as they can to raise public awareness and help get the word inside more prisons, and some groups, like a graduate student union at the University of Michigan, are heeding the call.
Those with connections to incarcerated people are asked to spread the word of the strike to every place of detention. Local organizations are asked to engage prisoners in their area on the strikes. And those in prison or in touch with someone who is are asked to reach out to the media to provide information.
Additionally, people on the outside are working to register people in jails and prisons to vote where they may.
IWOC created a Prison Strike Tracker to help people stay up-to-date on actions around the country.
Dozens of activist organizations endorsed the strike. Noticeably absent from the list are groups that have raised millions of dollars around prison reform issues. These groups, which have spoken forcefully about prisoners, have yet to endorse prisoners who speak up for themselves.
“I think that all of those groups are in a space of tension, that they, in order to have legitimacy and credibility, they need to be including frontline communities,” said Turk.
“As we keep pushing, if we keep pushing from a more radical and ethical and accountable space that we do as abolitionists and as anarchists and people who are really devoted to this struggle and that are upholding the voices of the prisoners, then all the other groups are going to feel pressure to do the same. At some point, they’re going to have to make choices between having legitimacy and credibility and selling people out.”
“We’re making it easier for them to make the right choice in those situations,” Turk concluded. “I think it’s definitely still a problem, but it’s working toward a solution, where people who aren’t doing this work in a legit way, are going to become obsolete.”