Americans behind bars pulled off an extraordinary feat last month when they organized a coordinated strike in over a dozen prisons across the US. It was one of the biggest prison strikes in the US, and an enormous risk for the organizers and participants, so what has come of it?
Heather Ann Thompson of PopularResistance.org had hopeful things to say about the level of coverage in the media. She wrote,
Coverage can be found in such major newspapers as the Washington Post and the New York Times. Popular magazines such as GQ and Teen Vogue have also published pieces…with politicians so noticeably less vocal about this vital issue [prison reform], prisoners alone are calling the public to action.
It’s true that this prison strike got more coverage than others, though, as NPQ noted, organizers were rightly wary about engaging directly with mainstream publications, which often failed to adjust their expectations for the restrictions faced by those behind bars.
So far, no policy changes have been promised, though Florida has a ballot initiative this November to allow those who are or have been incarcerated the right to vote. Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice and the author of Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration, told Vox’s Jennie Neufeld that this isn’t unexpected or necessarily a failed result. “There’s very little evidence that most of these demands are met after these prison strikes,” she said. “I think the significance here is that incarcerated people are lending their voice to what’s happening.” James Kilgore, a former prisoner and now a writer for Truthout, wrote, “A strike may win some demands but perhaps more importantly…strikes teach workers what is possible and show that what they have to do to extend the boundaries of possibility.”
Of course, the people lending their voices do want real change, which is why they took the enormous risk of striking. They’re paying for it now; prisons across the country are reported to be cracking down on strikers and non-strikers alike. The Guardian’s Jamiles Lartey reports that participants are facing solitary confinement, the cessation of communication with friends and loved ones, transfers to facilities far from their families, and more
Kevin Rashid Johnson, who managed to get an op-ed to the Guardian from his solitary cell, wrote that officials want “to shut me up and prevent me fraternizing with other prisoners as they fear I will radicalize them and encourage them to resist their oppression.” Johnson is actually in a death-row cell, though he does not face the death penalty. His lawyer, Dustin McDaniel said, “He does political education work with other prisoners, and so they move him around to try to neutralize him.” This is a half-century-old tactic to deal with prisoners who are seen as organizers. The system can essentially isolate an activist not only through solitary confinement, but through keeping the prisoner moving from prison to prison so they can never develop a base.
Ronald Brooks, who posted a video on Facebook about the human rights violations prisoners face, said, “We are anti-slavery and are organizing to…turn our jails and prisons into places of human redemption, healing and higher learning.” Brooks was transferred to a facility six hours’ drive from his family.
Eddie, an organizer with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, which organized the strike, said that maximum security prisons in South Carolina were on full lockdown throughout the strike. “They have suspended all recreation so that we are in our cells literally 24/7,” he told Ed Pilkington of The Guardian. “They turn back our mail, threaten anyone found to be associated with the strike with solitary, and they’ve painted windows in our cells black so we have no idea whether it’s night or day.”
The Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee, which helped organize the strike, called on the public to write solidarity letters to those in solitary and participate in a phone zap on behalf of people facing retaliatory action.
We would like to take this moment to remind our readers that Americans are guaranteed the constitutional right to protest; if a person chooses not to buy from the commissary or eat their food, this is not a criminal offense. The retaliations faced by strike participants are a clear demonstration of the power imbalance and dehumanization that characterizes the US prison system.
If it’s true, as Eisen and Kilgore write, that the strike was about mobilizing popular opinion on behalf of those incarcerated, then the strike’s efficacy depends upon a force currently absent from the prison system: compassion. It relies on people who have social and political capital to make policy changes caring about what happens behind the wire-topped walls, even if it doesn’t affect them directly. In this respect, it is a demonstration of faith in the democratic system that cannot be allowed to go unanswered.—Erin Rubin