By ANN MONTAGUE
— UPDATED, Oct. 3 — Sept. 9 saw thousands of incarcerated men and women go on strike to take a stand against civil and environmental injustice in their respective prisons. The multi-state strike was organized both inside and outside of the prisons.
As we go to press three weeks later, organizers report that at least 20 prisons in 11 states continue to be involved in protest—including in Alabama, California, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, and Washington. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) says that protesters have been punished, with several facilities in lock down, and prisoners kept in their cells and denied phone access.
IWOC media co-chair Azzurra Crispino told “Democracy Now!” that in some areas there have been shifts to hunger strikes. In the Merced County jail in California, over 100 prisoners are on a hunger strike including the wife of one of the prisoners: “They are calling for a 2000-calorie diet, an end for solitary confinement for juvenile detainees, and for the firing of Lieutenant Moore, who’s been particularly sadistic as a guard there. And there have been continuing hunger strikes in Michigan, as well as Ohio. In Michigan, Dying to Live, Cesar DeLeon, and others have been on a hunger strike for more than a hundred days. They are calling for an end to long-term solitary confinement past a year.”
Another advocate, Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, gives prisoners the credit for successful organizing inside the prisons: “The prisoners—first of all, they did a yeoman’s job. We want to give them all the credit and all the applause we can. They have overcome religious barriers, racial barriers, geographical barriers, and also they have overcome incarceration barriers. And by overcoming those barriers, were able to organize, lead and initiate this prison strike.”
Some unions have begun addressing the twin issues of racial justice and economic justice with all their members. These discussions have moved from mere individual solutions to the need to end “institutional racism.” There is no clearer example of institutional racism than the prison system.
Michelle Alexander, in her book “The New Jim Crow,” wrote, “I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities as the U.S.” Since the beginning of the so-called drug war in 1982, the U.S. penal population exploded from 300,000 to more than two million in less than 30 years.
The 13th Amendment
The National Prison Strike calls attention to the 13th Amendment of the Constitution—generally believed to have ended slavery in 1865. But there was a loophole, which says, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” It was a common practice in 1865 for plantation owners to lease Black convicts out of the prisons to work their fields, and today prisons are a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Inmates in federal and state prisons run recycling plants, fight fires in California and Georgia, and run call centers for state agencies. They make uniforms for McDonalds, prepare artisanal cheeses for Whole Foods, run call centers for AT&T. Think of a major corporation, and they are getting free labor from prisoners. That is why the National Prisoner Strike was a “Call To End Slavery In America.”
Some states do allow prisoners to be paid, but it is always under $1 an hour, and in most states they are paid nothing. In federal prisons, half of the wages are withheld for “room and board.” The prisoners have to use whatever remains to pay for necessary items that must be purchased from the prison, such as toilet paper, deodorant, menstrual products, and laundry detergent.
Ray, who is being held in St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Ala., explains why he has been organizing the strike: “The businesses involved understand that this is an operation of slavery and everyone is exploiting the free labor out of the prisons.” Ray believes that every action will spread work stoppages to more prisons, incrementally slowing down the profit motive that drives the prison system. They are also striking to address conditions within the prison and publicize toxic work conditions, extreme heat, insufficient access to health care, and contaminated drinking and bathing water.
For example, in Texas this summer there were an unreleased number of deaths in state prisons as internal temperatures reached 140 degrees on some days. Only 30 of 109 Texas State prisons have air conditioning. There have been cases of heat stroke, extreme dehydration and other heat related conditions. The state of Texas houses 146,000 inmates and are in the middle of a lawsuit alleging “deadly heat” in their facilities.
There are also prisoners who are working unpaid in the Texas Correctional Institution (TCI) Chemical Plant without air ventilated safety masks. Whenever an auditor or inspector is at the gate a warning system goes off to shut down all activities that have been deemed illegal or hazardous by the fire marshal.
Organizers currently estimate that prisoners in over 40 facilities in 28 states are participating in the actions. The earliest report came from Holman State Prison in Atmore, Ala., where the Free Alabama Movement has been organizing since 2014. Inmates report, “… all inmates at Holman Prison refused to report to their prison jobs without incident. With the rising of the sun came an eerie silence as the men at Holman [lay] on their racks reading or sleeping. Officers are performing all tasks.”
Prisoners in multiple Alabama prisons, at least two others in Florida, Fluvanna Women’s Prison in Virginia, and prisoners in North and South Carolina organized strikes. Most prisoners in Georgia do not work on Fridays but said that they planned to join actions on Sept. 12.
Reports from other areas of the country include 400 prisoners in Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan, who held a protest in the prison yard and caused property damage resulting in 150 prisoners being transferred to other facilities. Clallam Bay Correctional Center in Washington State is in lockdown after actions there.
Many women prisoners refused to work, went on hunger strikes, and/or led uprisings in Central California—including the county jail in Merced, Calif.—Kansas, and Lincoln, Neb.
An important part of the strike was to show visible solidarity outside the prison. There were support and solidarity actions in 15 major cities, and dozens of smaller cities and towns around the country. This was an attempt to shine a light on the inherent racism of mass incarceration and also reveal the hidden facts surrounding huge profits being made from free labor.
The support actions seem to have been as successful as the strikes themselves. For example, in Corvallis, a small college town in Oregon, a robust picket line was organized by the Corvallis IWW. Bart Bolger, the strike demonstration organizer, spoke to the importance of the strike tactic: “I really believe in the prison strikers’ strategy of withholding labor to create leverage and force change. Hunger strikes get attention but hurting the bottom line for the prison profiteers gets results.”
The informational picket in front of the Benton County Courthouse included students from Oregon State University and the organization Allied Students For Another Politics (ASAP!). They had done their research and found that the demands of the strikers hit close to home. One of them had a sign that said prison labor had been used to build the OSU solar farm, a green energy project. Prisoners were paid 93 cents an hour to assemble solar panels for the project. A subtractor for Elon Musk’s highly subsidized solar energy company used the prison labor to keep costs down on the green campus project.
Prison guards strike in Alabama facility
Prison officials in Alabama confirmed that correctional officers refused to report for the evening shift on Sept. 24 at the Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore. Throughout the summer they have staged walkouts amid overcrowding and safety concerns. Prisoners state that there are stabbings on a regular basis and call the facility “The Slaughterhouse.”
There are 17 officers in a prison with a thousand prisoners. An incarcerated organizer, Kinetik Justice, described the situation saying, “A lot of the guards are terrified of what’s going on, and refuse to go into the dormitory. A lot of times when they’re calling codes for officers to respond to altercations, they’re not coming. And these altercations are being broken up by people inside the dormitory.
“There’s a growing consensus in this place that if you don’t have somebody that loves you or cares about you in the dormitory, then you’re almost guaranteed to be a dead man, because the officers are not coming to save you.
“We knew the administration was not going to protect us. We took it upon ourselves to try to instill some type of discipline within our own structures to maintain some type of order, until we could get some help from society in the form of creating a task force to do a fact-finding mission and some reporters to actually come up in here and tell the Department of Corrections to let us see your transfer logs, let us see your segregation release logs, let us see the body charts, let us see the officer sign-in logs—let us see documentation that proves that it is what you say it is, in contrast to what you say the propaganda of the Free Alabama Movement says it is.”
Currently the strike at Holman has ended, as some additional officers are being brought in and the prisoners are able to move around and get out of the dormitories. Their initial strike was back in May, and the most recent strike in September was a result of continued organizing both inside and outside the prison. The struggle will continue at Holman and all the other facilities until they see the changes they are demanding. Prisoners in many areas are now organizing for the next wave of strikes.
(Photo) Alex Milan Tracy / Sipa USA / AP