When Incarcerated People Strike, The World Should Listen And Respond
Without mass actions like the current nationwide prison strike, which bring direct awareness to the issue, these stories go largely underreported.
Note: Due to the safety of the incarcerated individuals, some names were changed to allow anonymity.
We speak carefully on the phone, fully aware that anything said can become grounds to get him sent to ‘segregation’, so we talk in non-absolutes and coded language. The phone line is fuzzy, distant, and unstable today—sometimes it sounds crystal clear, other times I think he may be underwater—but still, we speak with covert passion.
“I’m sure you heard the news of what’s happening all around, yeah?” he asks me, not saying the words but still conveying the conversation to me. “It’s really fuckin’ courageous for people, what [they’re] doing,” Charlie, an immigrant who has been incarcerated in Georgia for almost six years and is now at Stewart Detention Center, the fifth facility he’s been transferred to, tells me.
“I keep my faith, but niggas go crazy in here,” Charlie says with a voice that’s increasingly shaky. We quickly change the subject. The topic of resistance can be fleeting and constricted for incarcerated people like Charlie, but it’s often present nonetheless. The “news” that Charlie was referring to is the nationwide prison strike, which was announced in April and began last week.
NATIONAL PRISON STRIKE AUGUST 21-SEPTEMBER 9TH, 2018 pic.twitter.com/Mzbb4e96yp
— Jailhouse Lawyers Speak #PrisonRebellion (@JailLawSpeak) April 24, 2018
Earlier this year, incarcerated people across the U.S. announced plans to hold a nationwide prison strike from August 21st to September 9th. The dates are not random: August 21st invokes the day that comrade George Jackson was murdered by prison guards in San Quentin State Prison, and September 9th marks the day incarcerated people began the Attica Prison Uprising, one of the most notorious prison uprisings in history. Lead by an abolitionist collective including groups like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, and others which culminate incarcerated and non-incarcerated organizers, this strike, now several days underway with many reports of involvement across the country and over 300 organizations endorsing it, could be the largest prison strike in U.S. history.
The strike is in response to an uprising at Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in South Carolina where seven incarcerated people died on April 15, 2018. Based on multiple reports, the violence and subsequent deaths at Lee Correctional Institution was provoked by prison guards and then sustained by prison officials who turned their backs on the incarcerated people as the violence increased, not attempting to break up the fighting or give medical aid.
“The demands were issued in direct response to the violence at Lee Correctional Institution,” said journalist and prisoner advocate Jared Ware. “Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is a human rights organization inside prisons, and the language and the choice of their demands in many ways reflects the way they work, they deal in policies, they examine laws, they write writs, they help with appeals, they file grievances against abuses in prisons.”
The strikers’ demands are both straightforward and complex, with the crux of them calling attention to the need for “humane living conditions, access to rehabilitation, sentencing reform and the end of modern day slavery.” While organizers have noted that their demands don’t illustrate or tackle the totality of problems they face as incarcerated people, they do cover much important ground that we on the outside should pay close attention to and appreciate.
The demands are crafted as calls to uphold human rights standards, and intentionally so.
In a recent interview with Ware for ShadowProof, a representative from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak said the creation of the demands came from “talking to a number of prisoners in a number of different locations”, narrowing them down from over 30 demands to the ten we see today. They wanted the demands to be specific in their aims, but speak to as much of the incarceration as possible, from women’s prisons to immigrant detention centers.
Of the demands, the first two may be the most general: immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women, and an immediate end to prison slavery by paying incarcerated workers ‘the prevailing wage’ in their state for their labor. The demands are crafted as calls to uphold human rights standards, and intentionally so.
Utterly inhumane conditions are a permanent fixture in most jails and prisons across the country, and have been the catalyst for many prison uprisings. In the Atlanta City Detention Center (ACDC), incarcerated people have reported the spreading staph infections and other diseases due to the unsanitary, dirty environment. In other cases, incarcerated people have died from heat exhaustion due to lack of air conditioning, have been denied access to clean drinking water, or have had minor health problems become life-ending occasions due to medical neglect. Following Hurricane Harvey last year, reports piled in that incarcerated people in Texas were left with no electricity, no running water or working toilets, and no ventilation for several days.
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And while these are only a small handful of stories revealing the conditions our incarcerated siblings, they do signify the larger discrepancies in humanity plaguing our society. Without mass actions like the current nationwide prison strike, which bring direct awareness to the issue, these stories go largely underreported.
Other aspects of the demands target specific specific laws and policies which they demand be rescinded, namely The Prison Litigation Reform Act, The Truth in Sentencing Act, and The Sentencing Reform Act. These three federal laws (put in place by the fervor of Clinton-era ‘superpredator’ racialized paranoia) sustain mass incarceration by making it ridiculously difficult for incarcerated people to file lawsuits in federal court, drastically reduce the possibility of early release, and remove possibilities of parole, respectively.
When almost the entire incarcerated population in the U.S. is denied or otherwise made distant from these ideals and opportunities, human rights abuses are present, and strikes and other forms of protest must ensue.
In their specific targeting of these federal laws, including the following two demands which indict racist sentencing and policing, their intentions are clear: these are not just demands of self-interest, they are an indictment of the entire prison-industrial-complex. As Jared Ware noted in one of our conversations, these demands are twofold, meant to target the prison system while simultaneously meant to serve as a struggle for incarcerated people to unite around.
“The reality is the prison system in the United States has reached a breaking point of sorts,” Says Ware. “It is an environment that dehumanizes those who are imprisoned, pushes people into reactionary divisions which are facilitated intentionally by the state and the guards and prison administrations in order to maintain a violent prison ‘order’ that has no resemblance to how we might construct order.”
This “order” which the prison system seeks to sustain, essentially, is the order of racial and class division, a hierarchy built on dehumanization and violence. “Prisoners need access to education, mental and physical healthcare, they need to be paid when they work, they need the opportunity to address human rights concerns through the courts, they need to be given a shot to work towards parole no matter their crime, and they need drug rehabilitation programs,” Ware says.
By universal standards of human rights, access to methods of education, healthcare, and rehabilitation, as well as unbiased courts and opportunities for parole, are the basis for a just society. When almost the entire incarcerated population in the U.S. is denied or otherwise made distant from these ideals and opportunities, human rights abuses are present, and strikes and other forms of protest must ensue.
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These conditions and denials of basic human rights, as well as the denial of voting rights to both current and previously incarcerated individuals, are all presented as ultimate tensions within these beautifully crafted demands. And beyond this existence of tension, an intense light is placed on the hypocrisy of the U.S. Where these conditions exist in prisons outside the U.S., it is portrayed as the ultimate infringement upon humanity. Moreover, for countries which we are antagonistic towards, it is grounds for rallying cries of military intervention. However as these horrible conditions and treatments exist within our own borders, we’re told to believe it is simply business as usual.
An Immediate End To Prison Slavery
Rightfully, much talk has occurred in recent months over the use of prison labor in an endless list of jobs and tasks following the headlines detailing that, in fact, thousands of incarcerated workers helping to put out the wildfires plaguing California. In other instances, incarcerated people are working for private companies like Victoria’s Secret, Wal-Mart, or Whole Foods for pennies per hour to create products. Often times, they’re working within the very jails and prisons they inhabit as cooks, janitors, servers, and other tasks which are delegated to them by prison guards. Behind it all, however, is the ugly, brutal, capitalist legacy of slavery constantly imposing its influence.
I spoke with Priyanka Bhatt, the staff attorney for Atlanta social justice organization Project South who works with detained immigrants, about incarcerated labor.
“In the immigration detention center context, we are seeing that detained immigrants are being forced into working,” Bhatt says. “There are several class action lawsuits pending right now on the forced labor issue as a violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.”
According to one lawsuit filed against CoreCivic, the private-prison corporation that owns and manages the infamous Stewart Detention Center, CoreCivic “deprives detained immigrants of basic necessities like food, toothpaste, toilet paper, and soap and contact with loved ones,” making them perform forced labor in order to purchase those items and other expensive necessities, like costly phone cards at CoreCivic’s commissary. The suit also illuminates that threats of retaliation are often weaponized against the incarcerated people who refuse to work, including “the deprivation of privacy and safety in open living quarters, referral for criminal prosecution,” and solitary confinement.
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In sharp and poignant words, the suit echoes the words of many generation of demands from incarcerated organizers: “Under these circumstances, no labor is voluntary – it is forced.”
Certainly, as it pertains to incarcerated labor, this is a space for critical intervention to be made by non-incarcerated people. With the erosion of the #MeToo Movement and mainstream feminist discourse calling the concepts of consent and coercion into possibly their most public, widespread moments yet, we have to be precisely conscious to apply our lessons and understanding of what is and isn’t consensual to aspects beyond the realm of romantic, physical or sexual interactions. In the case of incarcerated workers, who traverse all identities of race and gender, consent and coercion remain incredibly important.
“In jails and prisons across the country, incarcerated people are subject to sexual harassment, abuse and assault, frequently at the hands of staff. […] As the #MeToo movement outside of prison walls continues to gather momentum, what about survivors who are locked away?” asks journalist Victoria Law, in a piece for Truth-Out which discusses the ways the #MeToo movement has ignored incarcerated people. And while the questions she raises regarding the sexual assault of incarcerated people are magnificently important, the overall coercive and nonconsensual nature of what occurs behind bars in US must be interrogated, particularly prison labor, plea deals, and clinical trials incarcerated people endure.
At face value, the dominant narrative invites us to believe something like this: prisoners who have done wrong are allowed to choose to work medial jobs while incarcerated, like cafeteria duty or janitorial work, which in turn builds the prisoners job skills and funds to help them re-integrate into society once released. This is what a large portion of people believe about the labor that takes place behind bars. But, ignoring all that is extremely problematic even in that simplified and imaginary narrative, it’s far from the truth, and far from how we should view this labor.
Amadu is a Muslim man from Ghana with a wide smile and humble voice, a friend I met last year while he was detained at the Atlanta City Detention Center. He spent three years behind bars, transferred to various detention centers, awaiting deportation. Last month he was finally allowed to return home, and I spoke with him on the phone to get his thoughts on the prison strike and incarcerated labor.
“Where I was last, at ACDC, many of us worked for small pieces of freedom,” he says, referring to the medial tasks they were relegated nightly. “We’d ask the guards if we could help serve the food, or cleanup after our meal, or clean the bathrooms in exchange for an extra 30 minutes after lockdown.”
Although no longer formally referred to as convict leasing, mostly because there’s an illusion of choice laden in its phrasing, the structure of convict leasing is alive and well.
At ACDC, many of the vital food, cleaning, and sanitation tasks are completed this way, Amadu says. “We’d do these things without compensation and in return the guards, if they were the nice guards, would allow us to heat our food from the commissary up in the microwave, take a few minutes to watch TV, or make phone calls. While everyone else is on lockdown for the night, you’re allowed these privileges in exchange for your labor.”
“At some places I’ve been, they at least give you the option to sign up for jobs and be paid a few cents an hour,” Amadu tells me, noting that he always performed jobs whenever available, both to pass time and to feel ‘valuable’.
The roots of prison labor, as well as much of the US infrastructure, can be traced back to the act of convict leasing. A practice that dates back to the US South c. 1844 and spread rapidly following the end of the Civil War in 1865, convict leasing was a structure of penal labor in which [Black] convicts, and thus their labor, were leased to businesses, corporations, plantation owners, local governments, and even used for special projects; as Angela Davis illuminates in Are Prisons Obsolete, the entire “Peachtree” road system in Atlanta, Georgia was built by freed slaves who’d fallen into the trap of convict leasing. This was utterly non-consensual, racist, and hyper-exploitative labor which laid the groundwork for our current penal labor system.
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Although no longer formally referred to as convict leasing, mostly because there’s an illusion of choice laden in its phrasing, the structure of convict leasing is alive and well. In California, where wildfires are sweeping their way across great swaths of the state, thousands of incarcerated people are fighting wildfires as “volunteer” firefighters for $1-2 an hour. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) recently tweeted praising the “more than 2,000 volunteer inmate firefighters, including 58 youth offenders,” who are “battling wildfire flames throughout CA.” According to the CDCR, the incarcerated firefighters “serve a vital role, clearing thick brush down to bare soil to stop the fire’s spread.”
If someone consents to give their labor to you under the circumstances of abuse, violence, or for the sake of even just temporarily leaving a deathly environment which they’re forced into, was that agreement free of coercion?
There’s much to interrogate here. First is the notion of them—incarcerated people—volunteering for this labor, which is specifically dangerous by nature. Surely, many of these brave individuals sign up to be on the inmate firefighting squadron, and enjoy the fire safety and emergency response training which accompanies it. However, we have to question the notion of “volunteering” for hyper-exploited labor (while they make roughly $1 an hour, non-incarcerated firefighters in California make an average of $34.87 an hour) while incarcerated, when the alternative of performing very dangerous labor for little pay is to sit in a grim jail cell all day. Is the choice truly free of pressure or coercion when the ultimatum is so clear? If someone consents to give their labor to you under the circumstances of abuse, violence, or for the sake of even just temporarily leaving a deathly environment which they’re forced into, was that agreement free of coercion?
“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,” said a Jailhouse Lawyer Speak representative in conversation with Jared Ware.
“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.”
In reality, we know that their labor doesn’t just haphazardly or coincidentally save the state millions, rather their exploitation is sought after and sustained in order to save the state millions.
Another point we must interrogate, this time because of its truth, is that they serve a “vital role.” According to one CDCR spokesperson, the inmate firefighting program, for example, reportedly saves the state $90 million to $100 million a year. A major aspect in classifying coercion is the ulterior motive of an outcome or end goal; that the consent which was given under pressure or even violence was teleologically beneficial to one party. This is what indicts coercion as evil: it is ill intentioned. The incarcerated people fighting fires did not only supposedly volunteer, but their volunteering also happened to save the state millions via their exploitation. In reality, we know that their labor doesn’t just haphazardly or coincidentally save the state millions, rather their exploitation is sought after and sustained in order to save the state millions. This is capitalist exploitation in the highest form—they boast of the incarcerated labor saving the state millions, however it only save them millions because they exploit them.
As incarcerated political organizer Kevin Rashid Johnson recently wrote, “Under the 13th amendment slavery was not abolished, it was merely reformed.” Similarly, as the JLS representative told Ware, the fight against prison slavery is one that should and hopefully will be brought to Geneva and lambasted on the global scale. As they both note, it is not just the exploitative, coercive labor itself that continues the legacy of slavery and convict leasing, but the entire prison environment itself.
Using California’s incarcerated firefighters is just one example in the many ways incarcerated labor, in all forms, is an ultimately coercive conundrum. And more than just within the concept of labor, there’s also a vast history and contemporary system of incarcerated people being rendered “subjects” to universities, research facilities, and private companies who often target incarcerated populations, because they are most vulnerable and their exploitation is normalized. Moreover, these institutions also know that persuading incarcerated people to ‘consent’ to undergo these various trials can be simple when the given alternative is, as previously mentioned, sitting in the violent prison environment.
Could the slave tell the slave master no without punishment, and is an initial sexual inquiry from a slave master to a slave not steeped in a massively uneven power dynamic?
The national prison strike and the courageous organizing of incarcerated revolutionaries should awaken us to the lack of absolute moral outrage our movements should be building upon, with prisons and jails lining the infrastructure across most states in the US. In 2014, an incarcerated woman sued for cruel and unusual punishment and sexual assault after she was sexually abused by two guards while in solitary confinement, and their defense was that she’d previously “consented” to the sexual acts. The Tenth Circuit sided with the prison guards, stating that the intercourse was ‘consensual’ and thus did not break violate her Eighth Amendment rights. Can an incarcerated person truly consent to sexual intercourse with armed prison staff, those who hold the keys to her cell and freedom? Could the slave tell the slave master no without punishment, and is an initial sexual inquiry from a slave master to a slave not steeped in a massively uneven power dynamic? The case went by quietly mostly, with no mass protests, public outrage, and questioning of how our overall concept of legal consent is immoral.
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Here, we see a definite need to interrogate and ultimately reconsider our notions of consent and coercion as they intersect with incarcerated individuals. Had our movements—intellectual movements and activism movements—prepared for, incorporated, and uplifted the rights of incarcerated people, national outrage surely (hopefully) would follow such outraging cases.
“Consent is a deeply fraught concept within prisons, when we think about giving informed consent to participate or work, it is also important to understand the available options,” Jared told me. “When prisoners are presented with choices, they are often choices between different forms of exploitation, abuse, or torture. […] the choices presented to prisoners are not the sort of choices that can produce informed consent.”
Of course, many of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals I’ve spoken with who’ve undergone this dangerous labor say that they found fulfillment, enjoyment, and passion in in their jobs. Like Charlie, the immigrant who I speak to in code and covert. “I was helping to clean parts of the roof, which I was really excited to do since that probably meant they trusted me a lot,” he recalls.
In another story, Charlie tells me of an injury he got while climbing on tall ladders to clean behind the lights in their recreation room. “I didn’t really know what I was doing up there, and ended up falling and knocking my arm out of socket.” He says a medic popped his arm back in place, but it still hurts to this day. He says he never filed a complaint, because he ‘volunteered’ to do it.
Certainly most of these people find meaning in their labor, however many will also abruptly tell you: they want to be fairly compensated, equal to their non-incarcerated counterparts, and they want programs which fully guarantee opportunities for positions upon their release from prison. Understanding the transformative nature of enduring a difficult, dangerous, or otherwise time consuming labor while the ultimatum is between that and a prison cell is obvious, and does not take away from the glaring fact of their hyper-exploitation.
Resources & Ways To Get Involved
This strike is lead by the efforts of incarcerated organizers and formerly incarcerated individuals, but groups have also asked that non-incarcerated people take outside action in support of the strike. This can be done in a number of ways, including noise demos, protests, teach-ins, raising funds to donate to their official fundraiser, writing letters to incarcerated people, and simply spreading the word as much as possible. If you are a writer, write; whether it’s for your local newspaper or school paper, as much reporting is needed as possible. If you are an artist, create work which displays support and solidarity. If you are a member of an organization or party, sign onto the list of organizations endorsing the strike and hold a solidarity event.
You can find a solidarity action in your area at this list which It’s Going Down has compiled. Phone zaps, an easy and effective way to place pressure on the prison officials, take place every day and can be found here. If you are in contact with incarcerated people, tell them about the strike (if possible) in the safest manner possible. The prison strike has gone international, with incarcerated people in Nova Scotia engaging in solidarity actions, former Palestinian political prisoners issuing a statement in solidarity with the prison strike and Black liberation struggle, and countless reports of strike involvement at ICE detention centers. This means that even if you aren’t in the US, the impact of spreading the word and can go far beyond our world’s imperialist boundaries.
An important aspect of outside solidarity is financial support, specifically for the organizations and individuals directly involved in organizing the strike. You can find the (only) official fundraising page here, where all donations will be evenly distributed among Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the San Francisco Bay View, North American Anarchist Black Cross, and the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. The San Francisco Bay View is an independent newspaper that provides many incarcerated people with news, while also allowing incarcerated people to write for them, so it is a vital resource.
Finally, support the writers and outlets—especially independent writers and independent outlets like Wear Your Voice Mag and ShadowProof—that cover what takes place inside of prisons. The lives of incarcerated people are cast to the shadows, and their struggles and triumphs are only covered by a small and dedicated group of journalists, including incarcerated writers and journalists. Here is a great thread with writers you can support.
Here is a list of extra resources for readers interested in delving into the prison industrial complex and abolition:
- Angela Davis’ “Are Prisons Obsolete?”
- The “Beyond Prison” Podcast
- Illustrated Guide to Political Prisoners
- The Prison Culture blog
- Angela Davis’ “Abolition Democracy”
- Alternatives To Prison list
- Articles, essays, and books about mass incarceration
- National Bail Out initiative
- Critical Resistance organization
- Prison Activist Resource Center
- Beyond Reform TedTalk
- The Empire Files on mass incarceration
- Beyond The Prison Industrial Complex lecture
- The Abolitionist Toolkit
- 10 Year Strategy to end the prison industrial complex
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