Nationwide Prison Strike Against “Slavery in America” Rolls On—Despite Media Blackout

James Kilgore

The day chosen to launch the strike, September 9, coincided with perhaps the most famous prison uprising in modern U.S. history—the rebellion in New York's Attica prison in 1971. (Act Out/ Twitter)

This arti­cle was first post­ed at Truthout.

The first nation­al prison labor strike in US his­to­ry launched on Sep­tem­ber 9. Billed as a Call to Action Against Slav­ery in Amer­i­ca,” the spark for the action came from the Free Alaba­ma Move­ment (FAM), a prison-based orga­ni­za­tion that has been mobi­liz­ing across the state since 2012. Alaba­ma has one of the most over­crowd­ed prison sys­tems in the country.

Reports from FAM’s base with­in Hol­man Prison indi­cat­ed a uni­ver­sal refusal of the pop­u­la­tion to go to work on Sep­tem­ber 9. Pas­tor Ken­neth Glas­gow, the chief out­side spokesper­son for FAM, speak­ing to Truthout on the day of the launch, said sig­nif­i­cant strike action also took place with­in pris­ons in South Car­oli­na, Vir­ginia and Ohio.

These men have gone beyond reli­gious bar­ri­ers and race bar­ri­ers and most of all, incar­cer­a­tion bar­ri­ers,” Glas­gow told Truthout. By Wednes­day evening, the Incar­cer­at­ed Work­ers’ Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee (IWOC) esti­mat­ed that 15,310 peo­ple in pris­ons were on lock­down in facil­i­ties where orga­niz­ing or strikes had been confirmed.

Sev­er­al actions relat­ed to the strike have gained con­sid­er­able atten­tion. The night before the nation­al action, some 400 men in Flori­da’s Holmes prison staged a rebel­lion that last­ed most of Thurs­day night. By Mon­day, col­lec­tive resis­tance had spread to five Flori­da pris­ons, includ­ing civ­il dis­obe­di­ence by 40 men in Colum­bia Cor­rec­tion­al Insti­tu­tion in Lake City and a two-day work stop­page at near­by Mayo. In North­ern Michi­gan’s Kin­ross Cor­rec­tion­al Facil­i­ty, the men took a more low-key approach, with about 400 incar­cer­at­ed indi­vid­u­als stag­ing a demon­stra­tion inside the gates. Imme­di­ate­ly after the action, 150 of them were put on bus­es and sent to oth­er institutions.

Polit­i­cal pris­on­er Chelsea Man­ning also began a hunger strike on Sat­ur­day, Sep­tem­ber 10, appar­ent­ly timed to coin­cide with the nation­al actions. By Wednes­day morn­ing she had report­ed­ly won her demand for gen­der-affirm­ing surgery.

The lega­cy of slavery

The link­age between the strike action and slav­ery large­ly grew out of the extreme labor con­di­tions inside Alaba­ma pris­ons. In these facil­i­ties, many peo­ple work in license plate fac­to­ries and on plan­ta­tion-like farms for a few cents a day or, in some cas­es, no remu­ner­a­tion at all. The exploita­tion of prison labor in the state has been accen­tu­at­ed since the state leg­is­la­ture passed a law in 2012 to per­mit pri­vate con­trac­tors to employ peo­ple behind bars.

But the FAM vision also sit­u­at­ed the exploita­tion of prison labor in the con­text of broad­er notions of injus­tice. Their launch­ing state­ment said: Our protest against prison slav­ery is a protest against the school-to-prison pipeline, a protest against police ter­ror, a protest against post-release con­trols.” They went on to posit the poten­tial sys­temic impact of their actions: When we abol­ish slav­ery, they’ll lose much of their incen­tive to lock up our chil­dren, they’ll stop build­ing traps to pull back those who they’ve released. When we remove the eco­nom­ic motive and grease of our forced labor from the US prison sys­tem, the entire struc­ture of courts and police, of con­trol and slave-catch­ing must shift to accom­mo­date us as humans, rather than slaves.” As Free Alaba­ma mem­ber Melvin Ray summed it up, We’re free­dom fight­ers. We’re not just fight­ing for wages, we’re sim­ply point­ing out the fact that this is a slave mod­el of free labor.”

His­tor­i­cal roots

This action has deep his­tor­i­cal roots. The day cho­sen to launch the strike, Sep­tem­ber 9, coin­cid­ed with per­haps the most famous prison upris­ing in mod­ern US his­to­ry – the rebel­lion in New York’s Atti­ca prison in 1971. On that occa­sion men of Atti­ca’s D yard took over their sec­tion of the prison and held it for four days. They issued a set of demands for improved con­di­tions, but the bot­tom line was artic­u­lat­ed by one of the lead­ers, L.D. Barkley: We are men, we are not beasts, and do not intend to be beat­en or dri­ven as such.” In the end, Barkley and 38 oth­er men died in that prison yard after an armed assault launched by state troop­ers. The dead includ­ed 10 prison staff.

While the Atti­ca lega­cy has drawn much atten­tion as an inspi­ra­tion for the recent strike, the rebel­lion in upstate New York was an expres­sion of a nation­al aware­ness among peo­ple on the inside dur­ing that peri­od. Sun­di­a­ta Tate spoke to Truthout about this his­to­ry. Tate was a long-time activist inside Cal­i­for­nia state insti­tu­tions and close asso­ciate of leg­endary prison rev­o­lu­tion­ary George Jack­son, who was mur­dered at San Quentin prison in August 1971. Tate told Truthout that there were often-for­got­ten links between resis­tance in Cal­i­for­nia pris­ons and the events in New York. Tate recalled that the seizure of D yard took place less than a month after the mur­der of Jack­son. Peo­ple on the East Coast had heard about him, peo­ple in the pris­ons… George was able to reach out into soci­ety,” he said. Once the men in Atti­ca seized the yard, Tate not­ed, One of the things they men­tioned was the death of Com­rade’ (Jack­son).” At the time, Jack­son was a well-known mem­ber of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty as well as well as the author of a best­seller writ­ten from behind prison walls, Soledad Broth­er.

In Alaba­ma, the his­tor­i­cal roots of the strike also lie in the day-to-day polit­i­cal work done by many incar­cer­at­ed activists and their fam­i­lies over the years. For instance, for­mer polit­i­cal pris­on­er Sek­ou Kam­bui, who spent 47 years in Alaba­ma state pris­ons, used his decades behind bars as an edu­ca­tor and orga­niz­er, build­ing polit­i­cal aware­ness and com­mit­ment amongst the pop­u­la­tion and the com­mu­ni­ty, lay­ing the ground­work for present-day activists.

The sig­nif­i­cance of the strike

The strike rep­re­sents the nexus of sev­er­al waves of recent social jus­tice activism: the grow­ing move­ment against mass incar­cer­a­tion; offen­sives against sys­temic racism, led by the Move­ment for Black Lives; and the actions by low-wage work­ers to gain the $15-an-hour min­i­mum wage. The call for a liv­ing wage on the streets res­onates behind prison walls, where wages have stag­nat­ed for decades while those in prison have seen their liv­ing con­di­tions dete­ri­o­rate due to the cut­backs in edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams and job train­ing, and the addi­tion of copays for ser­vices like health care.

This lat­est prison strike also con­sti­tut­ed an ambi­tious esca­la­tion in scale and tac­tics of a wave of resis­tance in prison in recent years. The three hunger strikes in Cal­i­for­nia pris­ons – large­ly a protest against soli­tary con­fine­ment in the Pel­i­can Bay Secu­ri­ty Hous­ing Unit and the use of gang val­i­da­tion” to jus­ti­fy pro­longed iso­la­tion of prisoner/​organizers – have drawn the most atten­tion. How­ev­er, those in Pel­i­can Bay are not alone. In June of this year, sev­er­al men inside the Waupun Cor­rec­tion­al Insti­tute in Wis­con­sin embarked on a pro­longed Dying to Live” hunger strike that result­ed in forced feed­ing by prison authorities.

Many oth­er actions have also occurred: labor strikes in Geor­gia pris­ons in 2010 along with recent work stop­pages in Texas and sev­er­al Alaba­ma pris­ons, includ­ing an April upris­ing in Hol­man. Immi­gra­tion deten­tion cen­ters have also been the scene of many actions, sev­er­al led by women. Last fall, women pris­on­ers at Yuba Coun­ty Jail in Cal­i­for­nia joined a hunger strike ini­ti­at­ed by their coun­ter­parts who were held in immi­grant deten­tion cen­ters in Cal­i­for­nia, Col­orado and Texas. These mobi­liza­tions are large­ly a protest against the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of peo­ple seek­ing asy­lum in the Unit­ed States as a result of polit­i­cal vio­lence in Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries like Hon­duras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Assess­ing the strike

Though infor­ma­tion on the lev­el of activ­i­ty remains lim­it­ed, the strike appears to have fall­en short of the pre­dic­tions by FAM of the involve­ment of incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple from 25 states and 54 pris­ons. The rea­sons why the action may not have reached antic­i­pat­ed lev­els are not dif­fi­cult to dis­cern. To begin with, since prison offi­cials were fore­warned, many insti­tu­tion­al author­i­ties may have sim­ply imposed a lock­down before Sep­tem­ber 9, short-cir­cuit­ing any oppor­tu­ni­ty for peo­ple to refuse to go to work. Evi­dence of this came via video from one man in a South Car­oli­na prison who post­ed a clip of water in his cell after men on his block flood­ed the area as a protest against four days of lockdown.

Sec­ond, orga­niz­ers both inside and out­side prison pos­si­bly under­es­ti­mat­ed the dif­fi­cul­ty in mobi­liz­ing peo­ple who are incar­cer­at­ed, espe­cial­ly at a nation­al lev­el. Most pris­ons and jails ban meet­ings or even doing phys­i­cal exer­cis­es in groups. In addi­tion, prison offi­cials have a range of puni­tive tools avail­able to block coor­di­na­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Apart from the pos­si­bil­i­ties of phys­i­cal beat­ings, indi­vid­u­als sus­pect­ed of orga­niz­ing col­lec­tive resis­tance can be placed in soli­tary or have vis­it­ing and phone priv­i­leges denied. Most impor­tant­ly, for those who do not have a life sen­tence, receiv­ing a dis­ci­pli­nary infrac­tion can result in an exten­sion of their sen­tence. In addi­tion, pris­ons typ­i­cal­ly have sur­veil­lance capac­i­ty. They can lis­ten to out­go­ing phone calls and eaves­drop on visits.

Plus, the wide­spread use of con­fi­den­tial infor­mants with­in the insti­tu­tions pro­vides author­i­ties with an ear to the ground of the details of planned actions. Sev­er­al instances of reprisals against indi­vid­u­als iden­ti­fied as strike lead­ers have already been report­ed. All of these, when com­bined with the lack of access to infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy inside pris­ons, pose for­mi­da­ble obsta­cles to coor­di­nat­ed action.

Per­haps the sur­prise is not that the strike did­n’t reach the lev­el hoped for, but that the spir­it of protest and rebel­lion pen­e­trat­ed as wide­ly as it did.

The suc­cess­es

Ulti­mate­ly, this strike achieved a num­ber of impor­tant mile­stones. Most impor­tant­ly, strike orga­niz­ers high­light­ed the oppres­sive labor and liv­ing con­di­tions inside pris­ons. No oth­er action in recent times has shone as bright a light on the fact that incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple per­form the bulk of the work that keeps the insti­tu­tions run­ning, from cook­ing to clean­ing to man­ag­ing the HVAC sys­tems and repair­ing the elec­tri­cal cir­cuits. And they do this for lit­tle or no pay.

The strike also raised the specter of coor­di­nat­ed nation­al action to empha­size the sys­temic, nation­al qual­i­ty of not only con­di­tions of pris­ons as a work­place, but also as a site of pun­ish­ment and enslavement.

In addi­tion, although as not­ed above, most pris­ons pro­vide no access to the inter­net or cell phones, the action offered a show­case for how infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy can become an effec­tive tool for shar­ing the expe­ri­ences and aspi­ra­tions of incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple. Indi­vid­u­als on the inside are dis­cov­er­ing new ways to make their voic­es heard on social media. While peo­ple like Mumia Abu-Jamal have long com­mu­ni­cat­ed with the out­side through inter­locu­tors, the men at Hol­man went fur­ther – pro­duc­ing videos ear­li­er this year that exposed the oppres­sive con­di­tions under which they live. They also cap­tured real-time action of their upris­ing in April. Kinetik Jus­tice, one of the lead­ers of FAM, spoke live on Democ­ra­cy Now! dur­ing a strike in May, telling the world that the prison sys­tem is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the slave sys­tem.” Jus­tice has been in soli­tary con­fine­ment for 28 months since play­ing a lead­ing role in a 2014 protest at Hol­man but still found his way to the airwaves.

More­over, social media were cru­cial in orga­niz­ing sup­port for prison resis­tance in com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try. IWOC, a rel­a­tive­ly small orga­ni­za­tion, has main­tained a con­stant vocal pres­ence on Face­book and Twit­ter, with local activists post­ing videos, pho­tos and writ­ten updates in real time. As a result, com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try stood up in sup­port of the strike. Actions took place in some 60 loca­tions, includ­ing all major cities. Even small towns like Hutchi­son, Ken­tucky; Cham­paign, Illi­nois; and Merced, Cal­i­for­nia staged noise demon­stra­tions, edu­ca­tion­al events and mobi­liza­tions out­side of pris­ons. IWOC’s web­page pro­duced a dai­ly log of dozens of sol­i­dar­i­ty actions, which began in ear­ly August, while a Google doc tracked strike actions. IWOC’s reach, cou­pled with the moral appeal of the voic­es from inside prison, even suc­ceed­ed in draw­ing state­ments of sol­i­dar­i­ty from Euro­pean coun­tries, such as Ser­bia, Lithua­nia, Ger­many, France, Spain, Swe­den and the UK.

Last­ly, the strike has added fur­ther momen­tum to recon­struct or replace the 13th Amend­ment to the US Con­sti­tu­tion. This amend­ment bans slav­ery and invol­un­tary servi­tude except as a pun­ish­ment for crime where­of the par­ty shall have been duly con­vict­ed,” effec­tive­ly per­mit­ting the enslave­ment of those who have been con­vict­ed of a crime. The spir­it of this amend­ment flies in the face of increas­ing pres­sure for full rights of cit­i­zen­ship and equal­i­ty for all those con­vict­ed of a crime or with a record of incar­cer­a­tion. As Pas­tor Glas­gow put it, As long as it sits in our Con­sti­tu­tion, along with it sits slav­ery in our Con­sti­tu­tion… the 13th Amend­ment needs to be reconstructed.”

Atten­tion to the 13th Amend­men­t’s legal­iza­tion of slav­ery for peo­ple who have been con­vict­ed of crimes is like­ly to fur­ther height­en lat­er this month when Ava Duver­nay’s Net­flix film, The 13th, launch­es at the New York Film Festival.

Key issues for social movements

This strike has also brought to the fore a num­ber of impor­tant issues relat­ing to the strug­gle against mass incar­cer­a­tion and the build­ing of broad move­ments for social jus­tice and liberation.

The fun­da­men­tal nature of the strike action rais­es inter­est­ing ques­tions. In a tele­phone inter­view with Truthout, talk show host, writer and activist Bill Fletch­er, also a for­mer trade union offi­cial, expressed uncer­tain­ty as to whether the nation­al action was a rebel­lion or an effort to orga­nize a union. If it was a union­iza­tion effort, he was unclear what the spe­cif­ic objec­tives were and, giv­en the lack of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights inside pris­ons, if there is a way to sus­tain any kind of vic­to­ry.” Cer­tain­ly the demands of FAM, as well as those in Kin­ross and oth­er pris­ons, went well beyond tra­di­tion­al labor notions of increased pay, short­er work­ing hours and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions. More­over, a large num­ber of the actions were not refusals to work but oth­er forms of protest, includ­ing hunger strikes and demon­stra­tions. While the IWOC lit­er­a­ture on the strike has stressed the low wage lev­els and encour­aged the for­ma­tion of union chap­ters at the prison lev­el, FAM has not adopt­ed this strat­e­gy. Pas­tor Glas­gow stat­ed that FAM views prison labor as slave labor that must be end­ed rather than fall under a union ambit.

The issue is fur­ther com­pli­cat­ed by attempt­ing to iden­ti­fy the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of prison labor: Who is mak­ing mon­ey? Accord­ing to Glas­gow, com­pa­nies in Alaba­ma are not out­sourc­ing labor over­seas – they are insourc­ing” to peo­ple in prison. Yet, much of the pro­duc­tion tak­ing place in Alaba­ma pris­ons, such as license-plate mak­ing and agri­cul­ture, is designed for use by gov­ern­ment rather than for pri­vate prof­it. This is the case across the coun­try, where a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of peo­ple behind bars actu­al­ly work under con­tract to pri­vate com­pa­nies. The ques­tion then emerges as to whether pris­ons are pri­mar­i­ly prof­it cen­ters for exploit­ing labor or a polit­i­cal project dri­ven by white suprema­cy and neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic restructuring.

In oth­er words, are peo­ple incar­cer­at­ed in order to mobi­lize their labor pow­er inside prison, or to erase them from urban land­scapes that are being gen­tri­fied into enclaves of race and class privilege?

The com­plex­i­ties of solidarity

A sec­ond cru­cial ques­tion aris­ing from this strike con­cerns the chal­lenges of build­ing sol­i­dar­i­ty between peo­ple inside prison and those on the out­side. IWOC has played the major role in pro­mot­ing aware­ness of the strike and get­ting the state­ments and voic­es of FAM and oth­ers behind bars onto the streets. An off­shoot of an ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry labor union, the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW or Wob­blies), the IWOC says its key aim is to fur­ther the rev­o­lu­tion­ary goals of incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple and the IWW through mutu­al orga­niz­ing of a world­wide union for eman­ci­pa­tion from the prison system.”

In mobi­liz­ing sup­port for the Sep­tem­ber 9 action, IWOC has helped cre­ate one of the most wide­spread, social-media-savvy net­works in the his­to­ry of the strug­gle against mass incar­cer­a­tion. Yet IWOC also has a deter­mi­na­tion to build the strength of its own orga­ni­za­tion by cre­at­ing local chap­ters inside pris­ons. Its web­site even includes a link to donate mon­ey to pay the annu­al dues of an incar­cer­at­ed work­er.” Accord­ing to activist Claude Marks, the sup­port efforts for the Pel­i­can Bay Hunger Strik­ers, of which he was a part, took a dif­fer­ent approach. He told Truthout: We focused on rais­ing mon­ey to mobi­lize the fam­i­lies of those incar­cer­at­ed to orga­nize and speak out.”

While clear­ly there is a need to incor­po­rate peo­ple who are incar­cer­at­ed into the move­ment against mass incar­cer­a­tion and for social jus­tice, the com­plex­i­ties of the dif­fer­ence between ampli­fy­ing the voic­es of those inside and speak­ing for them pose key chal­lenges for all those involved in such work. The dif­fer­ences in these approach­es have impor­tant gen­der and racial impli­ca­tions. While most of the peo­ple involved in the actions inside are men, their fam­i­ly sup­port net­works are pre­dom­i­nant­ly women. By lift­ing up the voic­es of the fam­i­lies, orga­niz­ers are acknowl­edg­ing that indi­vid­u­als who are incar­cer­at­ed do not do their time alone. Their loved ones also suf­fer and are will­ing to fight back. To date, in the Sep­tem­ber 9 strike, the voic­es of the fam­i­lies have been faint.

More­over, efforts to build sol­i­dar­i­ty and the pro­file of the move­ment cre­ate uncer­tain­ties about how to han­dle infor­ma­tion that comes from unver­i­fi­able sources, be they prison offi­cials or indi­vid­u­als who are incar­cer­at­ed. The repres­sive con­di­tions in pris­ons dur­ing moments of con­flict height­en the com­plex­i­ties of ver­i­fi­ca­tion. This con­text per­haps leads to attempts by orga­niz­ers and sup­port­ers to engage in ques­tion­able prac­tices like imply­ing that the ongo­ing hunger strikes at Guan­tanamo have some rela­tion to the Sep­tem­ber 9 action.

The third ques­tion is per­haps the most obvi­ous: Where was orga­nized labor dur­ing this strike and the run-up to Sep­tem­ber 9? As Fletch­er points out, Orga­nized labor has, up until recent­ly, ignored the issue of mass incar­cer­a­tion.” While pris­ons and jails hold mil­lions of mar­gin­al­ized work­ers, the unions’ reluc­tance to take a posi­tion on mass incar­cer­a­tion relates to mem­ber­ship issues. Some of the coun­try’s largest and most sig­nif­i­cant unions, the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) and the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of State, Coun­ty and Munic­i­pal Employ­ees (AFSCME), count on prison and jail work­ers, includ­ing guards, to boost their mem­ber­ship. Push­ing back against incar­cer­a­tion could like­ly jeop­ar­dize these jobs. How­ev­er, over the years union lead­ers have con­sis­tent­ly crit­i­cized the use of prison labor, argu­ing that it under­cuts the bar­gain­ing posi­tion of prison staff. Still, when the incar­cer­at­ed labor force actu­al­ly took action, the trade unions remained mute. Repeat­ed efforts by Truthout to elic­it a com­ment on the strike from nation­al and region­al offi­cials of the AFL-CIO as well as the SEIU and AFSCME drew silence, apart from one AFL-CIO offi­cial who said that they have not done work around prison labor for many, many years.”

More fire to come?

In addi­tion to the strike not sur­fac­ing on trade union agen­das, main­stream and even alter­na­tive media sources have large­ly steered clear of the sto­ry. Though in some ways this strike may be as sig­nif­i­cant as Atti­ca, media cov­er­age and his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry are more eas­i­ly trig­gered when there is blood on the ground, espe­cial­ly the blood of rebel­lious, polit­i­cal­ly-con­scious Black peo­ple. In last week’s strike, we have an appar­ent­ly unspec­tac­u­lar case of peo­ple stand­ing up for their dig­ni­ty by refus­ing to work. In tak­ing this action, the activists behind bars, despite the intense efforts by IWOC, FAM and many oth­ers to pub­li­cize their actions, may not have done any­thing dra­mat­ic enough to draw sig­nif­i­cant media atten­tion. The invis­i­bil­i­ty of work­er issues blends with the invis­i­bil­i­ty of prison activ­i­ties to cre­ate a low pro­file. More­over, the abil­i­ty of prison author­i­ties to both sup­press infor­ma­tion and pun­ish the rebels with­out recrim­i­na­tion rel­e­gates the hero­ic efforts of the strike to a side­bar in the chron­i­cle of social jus­tice struggles.

But it seems unlike­ly that those who want to silence or erase these actions for­ev­er will win the day. A flame of resis­tance inside pris­ons and in com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try is def­i­nite­ly burn­ing. The prison strik­ers, along with their allies and accom­plices on the street, will be on fire again soon.

Copy­right, Truthout​.org. Reprint­ed with permission.

James Kil­go­re is a for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed activist and researcher based in Urbana, Illi­nois. He is the author of five books, includ­ing Under­stand­ing Mass Incar­cer­a­tion: A People’s Guide to the Key Civ­il Rights Strug­gle of Our Time. He is cur­rent­ly a Soros Jus­tice Fel­low whose work involves build­ing a cam­paign, Chal­leng­ing E‑Carceration, which is focused on the issue of elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing. He can be reached at waazn1@​gmail.​com or @waazn1. He would like to thank Ter­ri Barnes and Emmett Sanders for their work on this article.
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