Prisoners Launch Nation-Wide Strike
Tuesday, August 21 marks the first day of a nation-wide prison strike. Building on the 2016 prison strike – the largest US prison strike to date, with 24,000 prisoners participating across 20 prisons – this one is predicted to be even bigger.
The call for the strike was sparked by one of the deadliest incidents of violence inside a US prison, which took place on April 15 at Lee Correctional Institute in South Carolina. After riots broke out, correctional officers and first responders waited hours before entering the prison dormitories. Seven inmates died, and dozens were injured.
This upcoming strike is building upon and learning from the failures and successes of the prison strike of 2016. According to the Fire Inside Collective, “in 2016, prisoners expressed frustration over not knowing how long to maintain their strikes and struggled with determining their own locally relevant demands.” To address these frustrations, organizers decided that the strike should last for 19 days, and provided a national list of demands ahead of the strike, including the demand to end all prison slavery, and to end racist discrimination of black and brown people through over-sentencing and denial of parole. According to organizers, the goal of these demands is not to negotiate on a local level with prison officials, as many of the demands in 2016 were, but “to punch the issue to the top of national political consciousness.”
PRESS RELEASE:— Jailhouse Lawyers Speak #August21 (@JailLawSpeak) April 24, 2018
NATIONAL PRISON STRIKE AUGUST 21-SEPTEMBER 9TH, 2018 pic.twitter.com/Mzbb4e96yp
The main tactic of the 2016 strike was refusal to work. This year, organizers have broadened the types of actions they are calling for, including boycotts of the prison commissary and phone system, sit-ins, and hunger strikes.
One reason for these new tactics is that, since 2016, prison administrators have made it harder to gain mass support for traditional strike actions. Ability or willingness to work is increasingly a precondition for release, or for being moved to a lower security facility. Work is also one of the only periods of the day when prisoners are released from their cells. In a recent interview, representatives from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak explained that actions like boycotts allow prisoners in work release camps to take part in economically attacking the prison system, even if they aren’t willing to risk their precarious position by taking part in work-stoppages, which are more common in higher security facilities. Organizers also wanted to include hunger strikes this year to offer a way to participate for prisoners who otherwise wouldn’t be able to, due to being on lockdown, in solitary confinement, or other situation in which prison work is not an option.
Leading up to the strike, organizers faced increasing retaliation by prison officials. Prisoners who were active in 2016 have been especially targeted. Siddique Hasan, a member of the Free Ohio Movement held at Ohio State Penitentiary, has been placed in restrictive housing and lost phone access for allegedly leading a riot, work stoppage, and “other unauthorized business” in July. Kevin “Rashid” Johnson has also been charged with “inciting a riot” and has been placed in solitary confinement after writing an article about strikes across the Florida prison system earlier this year. Keith “Malik” Washington, a Texas inmate who took part in the 2016 strike, was due to be released back to the general population after two years of solitary confinement. Instead, he was quickly brought back to solitary, and medical records detailing the history of his health problems disappeared suspiciously. Other prisoners in Texas who are active in organizing the strike reported receiving threats from prison officials and having their mail heavily censored and confiscated.
There are many things to do for people who want to support on the outside: taking part in call-in campaigns, corresponding with prisoners, and putting pressure on local Department of Corrections offices. Members of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak emphasized that groups who host demonstrations and public events should make sure they reach a wide enough audience for inmates within the prison system to see it. Organizers say that in 2016, demonstrations taking place at the prison facilities themselves were especially useful in reaching and encouraging inmates within those facilities.
Like any workplace strike, a prison strike makes itself heard by blocking some of the ways prisons make money. During the 2016 strike, the California prison system lost as much as $636,068 in total revenue or $156,736 in profit for every day of the prison strike. If prisoners succeed in shutting down multiple facilities for the entire length of the strike this year, the economic damage done to the prison system will be immense. According to an organizer with the Fire Inside Collective, nineteen days without prison labor, even in one facility, “can cost millions, not to mention the cost of breaking occupations and repairing damaged facilities. This action can bankrupt not only prison systems, but entire state budgets.”. And, as long as prisoners and their supporters are able to broadcast the actions taking place on the inside, prison administrators are likely to “grant substantive concessions to prisoner demands.” Not only would this benefit prisoners in the short-term, it would also empower prisoners to develop strategies against longterm institutional isolation and brutality, with an eye towards the abolition of the entire prison-industrial complex.