Prisoners Are Organizing a Nationwide Strike Against “Modern-Day Slavery”

Michael Arria May 3, 2018

A guard walks between buildings at the Lee Correctional Institution, in Bishopville, South Carolina, on April 16, 2018. The prison was on lockdown after an overnight riot killed seven while also injuring seventeen others. (LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)

Pris­on­ers across the coun­try say they are gear­ing up for an end-of-sum­mer nation­wide strike against inhu­mane liv­ing con­di­tions and unpaid labor — or, in their words, mod­ern-day slavery.”

The strike was announced in an April 24 press release and shared by a num­ber of advo­ca­cy groups. Accord­ing to one of the out­side orga­niz­ers who was con­tact­ed by In These Times, the press released was devel­oped and writ­ten by pris­on­ers. The strike, which is pri­mar­i­ly being orga­nized by the pris­on­ers, will start on August 21 and last until Sep­tem­ber 9.

The action will involve work stop­pages, sit-ins and a boy­cott of pur­chas­es from prison stores. The pris­on­ers are demand­ing improved liv­ing con­di­tions and an end to unpaid labor, as well as pro­gres­sive sen­tenc­ing reform and access to reha­bil­i­ta­tion programs.

Orga­niz­ers say they derived their boy­cott tac­tics from the Redis­trib­ute the Pain cam­paign, a plan put for­ward by the pris­on­ers’ rights group Free Alaba­ma Move­ment ear­li­er this year. That cam­paign declares that our goal is to remove the assets and mon­e­tary gain from those who prac­tice slav­ery, espe­cial­ly those in the U.S. and their allies.”

It is time that we take a new look and what is tak­ing place across our nation in our pris­ons,” reads the April 24 state­ment from pris­on­ers. Not only is it impor­tant for us to take a look, but we must also take in con­sid­er­a­tion that for years we have neglect­ed what is actu­al­ly tak­ing place.”

The strike comes in response to a riot that broke out at Lee Cor­rec­tion­al Insti­tu­tion in Lee Coun­ty, South Car­oli­na on April 15. Sev­en pris­on­ers were killed and 17 were seri­ous­ly injured in an inci­dent alleged­ly sparked by a gang rival­ry with­in the prison. It is the dead­liest U.S. prison riot in 25 years. Prison author­i­ties say they didn’t send guards to inter­vene until they had assem­bled enough offi­cers to do it safe­ly. This took more than four hours. Prison killings have reached a crit­i­cal mass in South Car­oli­na, as they’ve quadru­pled from 2015 to 2017.

South Car­oli­na activist Mal­colm Har­ris, one of the orga­niz­ers out­side of pris­ons help­ing to coor­di­nate the upcom­ing strike, told In These Times that the vio­lence in South Car­oli­na is reflec­tive of what’s going on in the rest of the nation.” Nine­teen per­cent of male pris­on­ers in the Unit­ed States say they’ve been assault­ed by oth­er pris­on­ers, and 21 per­cent of them say they’ve been assault­ed by prison guards. Women only make up 7 per­cent of the total prison pop­u­la­tion, but 33 per­cent of pris­on­ers who are sex­u­al­ly vic­tim­ized by prison staff mem­bers are women.

South Car­oli­na cor­rec­tions depart­ment direc­tor Bryan Stir­ling claims he’s iden­ti­fied the spe­cif­ic cause of the riot: cell phones. Our pre­lim­i­nary inves­ti­ga­tion has found that this is gangs fight­ing over ter­ri­to­ry,” declared Stir­ling short­ly after the riot. And if they’re incar­cer­at­ed, then they’re going to have to have a cell­phone to con­tin­ue their crim­i­nal ways from behind bars.”

Many have pushed back on this analy­sis, point­ing out that with­out cell phones, the gris­ly details of South Carolina’s riot wouldn’t be known to the pub­lic. Crit­ics also men­tion that South Carolina’s Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions has been push­ing for the Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC) to allow author­i­ties to use cell phone jam­mers for years. This effort is tak­ing place nation­wide: In 2016, 10 GOP gov­er­nors wrote a let­ter to FCC Chair­man Thomas Wheel­er ask­ing the agency to grant states the flex­i­bil­i­ty and author­i­ty” to stop com­mu­ni­ca­tion with­in pris­ons. One of the law­mak­ers who signed the let­ter is for­mer South Car­oli­na Gov­er­nor Nik­ki Haley, cur­rent Unit­ed States Ambas­sador to the Unit­ed Nations.

Crit­ics of mass incar­cer­a­tion attribute inci­dents like the South Car­oli­na riot to the over­all con­di­tions of our puni­tive jus­tice sys­tem, like the erad­i­ca­tion of incen­tive pro­grams for pris­on­ers. They’ve steadi­ly cut back what lit­tle pro­grams they had, and they’re just ware­hous­ing peo­ple in under­staffed, over­crowd­ed pris­ons,” Paul Wright, the direc­tor of the Human Rights Defense Cen­ter, a non­prof­it that advo­cates on behalf of peo­ple in deten­tion, told CBS. Accord­ing to Wright, Prison and penal oper­a­tions have been stud­ied pret­ty exten­sive­ly for the last 15 years. When you take away all hope and you take away any rea­son for [pris­on­ers] to behave them­selves, then that’s when you start hav­ing high­er lev­els of vio­lence, assaults, and attacks.”

Har­ris echoed Wright’s sen­ti­ments. All these things we’re fight­ing against with the strike, they’ve exac­er­bat­ed every­thing in the pris­ons and they’ve bred vio­lent reac­tions,” he said. He also pushed back on the nar­ra­tive that more guards would nec­es­sar­i­ly mean less vio­lence. There’s always going to be more pris­on­ers than guards,” he said. More guards are not going to stop the problem.”

Isaac Bai­ley, whose broth­er is impris­oned at Lee, wrote an edi­to­r­i­al for the The Char­lotte Observ­er on April 18th sum­ma­riz­ing what he had heard about the riot from his broth­er. Accord­ing to Bai­ley, the actions of prison author­i­ties helped facil­i­tate the gang vio­lence. Pris­on­ers knew offi­cers would not come to the res­cue if they were attacked — which pro­vid­ed a major incen­tive to join gangs as a means of self-preser­va­tion,” wrote Bai­ley. After every inci­dent, pris­on­ers are locked down longer, which leads to more resent­ment and unrest and more vio­lence, a vicious cycle.”

This strike is slat­ed to fol­low sim­i­lar col­lec­tive actions through­out the country’s prison sys­tem. Last Decem­ber, 45 pris­on­ers in Iowa Park, Texas began a hunger strike. The fol­low­ing month, pris­on­ers in eight Flori­da pris­ons ini­ti­at­ed a work stop­page to protest against unpaid wages and inhu­mane liv­ing con­di­tions. Many claim that they faced retal­i­a­tion for their efforts, with some alleged­ly sent to soli­tary con­fine­ment for par­tic­i­pat­ing. That same month, 45 pris­on­ers in Iowa Park, Texas began a hunger strike. This past East­er, rough­ly 1,000 pris­on­ers at Wash­ing­ton State Pen­i­ten­tiary par­tic­i­pat­ed in a hunger strike to protest the qual­i­ty of their food. A cou­ple weeks lat­er, pris­on­ers in Huntsville, Texas went on a hunger strike in response to an imposed lock­down in their prison.

It’s unclear how many pris­ons through­out the coun­try will end up par­tic­i­pat­ing in the action, but the orga­niz­ers are call­ing on indi­vid­u­als to spread the strike and word of the strike in every place of detention.”

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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