Amanda Priebe.

August 21, 2018; Guardian and Independent

As the famed French philosopher and social critic Michel Foucault once observed, “Where there is power, there is resistance.” Always. Even when it’s outlawed, perhaps especially so.

According to the Independent’s Emily Shugerman, “Inmates [sic] in the US are not allowed to organize, form unions, or even congregate in large groups.” Nevertheless, this week, men and women incarcerated in US prisons declared a nationwide strike—reckoned as the largest such strike in US history.

Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the group of incarcerated spearheading the strike, issued the following 10 demands for “humane conditions and basic political rights.

  1. “Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.”
  2. “An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”
  3. “The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.”
  4. “The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.”
  5. “An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.”
  6. “An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.”
  7. “No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.”
  8. “State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.”
  9. “Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.”
  10. “The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count!”

Incarcerated men and women in 17 states are participating in the strike, which launched on August 21st, “the 47th anniversary of the death of the prominent Black Panther member, George Jackson, who was shot as he tried to escape in the prison yard of San Quentin in California”—and is slated to last through September 9th—“the 47th anniversary of the Attica prison rebellion in upstate New York.”

Though the strike is in response to the prison riot earlier this year on April 15th at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina that left seven incarcerated people dead, the goal is the eradication of the inhumane conditions that lead to that deadly riot and the reinstatement of political rights.

Prisoners have no constitutional rights. The 13th Amendment “banned slavery and involuntary servitude, with one vital exception: ‘as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.’” In what is a $2 billion industry, incarcerated workers like those in Louisiana can earn as little as four cents an hour. This has led to growing exploitation, as profit-seeking incentivizes the imprisonment and forced labor of mostly poor people.

The strike has four components:

  1. Work Strikes: “Prisoners will not report to assigned jobs. Each place of detention will determine how long its strike will last. Some of these strikes may translate into a local list of demands designed to improve conditions and reduce harm within the prison.”
  2. Sit-ins: “In certain prisons, men and women will engage in peaceful sit-in protests.”
  3. Boycotts: “All spending should be halted. We ask those outside the walls not to make financial judgments for those inside. Men and women on the inside will inform you if they are participating in this boycott. We support the call of Free Alabama Movement Campaign to ‘Redistribute the Pain’ 2018 as Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun, formerly known as Melvin Ray has laid out (with the exception of refusing visitation). See these principles described here.”
  4. Hunger Strikes: “Men and women shall refuse to eat.”

Shugerman notes that, “according to organizers, the protest is already larger than its 2016 predecessor, [‘the first ever nationwide prison strike,’] which affected an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 inmates [sic].”

According to Shugerman, “More than 100 outside groups have endorsed the strike, including chapters of Black Lives Matter, the Democratic Socialists of America and activists groups at Harvard and Princeton.”

Brooke Terpstra, “a spokesperson for the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), an outside group helping to publicize the strike,” says organizers used cellphones to host conference calls from inside their cells and broadcast their message on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. They also organized via letters and visits with outside advocates and used inter-prison transfers—which are used to separate organizers—to grow their campaign.

Incarcerated protestors face serious consequences, including solitary confinement, lockdown, and communication blackout. According to Karen Smith of IWOC, retaliation is already underway: organizers are being moved into solitary confinement and “other inmates [sic] have been warned that if they continue to contact advocacy groups, they will be moved to the most brutal camps.”

The statement from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak resolves that, “Fundamentally, it’s a human rights issue…Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement.”

In her book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Davis writes,

The prison…functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers…It relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.

Whether or not we work on prison reform, it is likely that the issues nonprofits address connect in some way to these extreme conditions, and we would all be better off for contributing in some way to this effort. The organizers’ statement tells us how we can help:

  • “Make the nation take a look at our demands. Demand action on our demands by contacting your local, state, and federal political representatives with these demands. Ask them where they stand.”
  • “Spread the strike and word of the strike in every place of detention.”
  • “Contact a supporting local organization to see how you can be supportive. If you are unsure of who to connect with, email [email protected].”
  • “Be prepared by making contact with people in prison, family members of prisoners, and prisoner support organizations in your state to assist in notifying the public and media on strike conditions.”
  • “Assist in our announced initiatives to have the votes of people in jail and prison counted in elections.”

—Cyndi Suarez