“We are men! We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.”
—Inmate spokesperson L.D. Barkley speaking hours after a bloody riot broke out at Attica prison in New York on September 9, 1971.
“Slavery never truly ended” has become the rallying cry of a movement to reform the US system of mass incarceration. Many argue that slavery wasn’t abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment—that it was merely adapted, modernized, and rebranded to disproportionately target racial minorities and the poor and exploit their labor in a $1 billion industry that produces cheap goods and services.
Now, people in prisons in at least seventeen states are taking action to draw attention to the state-sponsored exploitation of incarcerated workers and the miserable prison conditions inmates are forced to live in. This national prison strike—the largest of its kind in US history—is ongoing, but it’s already being recognized as a massive success as the movement continues to generate headlines and more and more people take notice.
Awareness is only the first step. Organizers of the strike have set out a list of ten demands that can only be enacted through substantive and large-scale policy change. These demands affirm the basic notion that inmates are human beings deserving of fair and equal treatment and must be provided an environment that truly seeks to rehabilitate and prepare inmates for a life outside prison walls.
The current system does little to ensure inmate well-being. Harmful sentencing patterns coupled with a lack of rehabilitative resources has led to an expanding prison population, high recidivism rates, and more crime. The United States hosts just five percent of the world’s population, but twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners are incarcerated within our borders. No other country in the world comes close to the rate at which we lock-up our own citizens. The societal toll of mass incarceration manifests in many different ways, but inmates themselves are the most affected.
Indefinite solitary confinement, hazardous living conditions, sparse meal schedules, forced labor, paltry wages, collective punishment and retaliation by correctional officers, limited resources to develop work and life skills, and no legitimate avenue to pursue legal action or address grievances all contribute to an environment of hopelessness in US prisons. This environment results in a revolving-door policy of mass incarceration that only benefits prison-industry profiteers and the politicians whose pockets they line.
The national prison strike began in direct response to these harmful practices and the resulting violence sparked within the Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina this past April, which culminated in the deaths of seven inmates and the hospitalization of at least twenty-two more. The clash lasted seven hours, and multiple reports state that Lee Correctional personnel did nothing to intervene or provide medical care until hours after the violence had subsided. This kind of violence isn’t unique to 2018 or to South Carolina, and the strike’s organizers chose the dates of this year’s strike to pay homage to past tragedy. The current strike began on August 21—the anniversary of the 1971 San Quentin prison rebellion—and will end on September 9, the anniversary of the uprising and subsequent slaughter of twenty-eight inmates and nine hostages in the Attica Correctional Facility that same year.
Months before hundreds of law enforcement officers stormed Attica—many brandishing personal firearms and shouting racial slurs at inmates who would soon be killed or tortured—the New York Correctional Services Commissioner received a list of twenty-eight demands from a group calling themselves the Attica Liberation Faction. Correction service officials responded by punishing all inmates found in possession of the manifesto with sixty days in solitary confinement. That list from 1971 bears a striking resemblance to the demands recently put forward by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and other strike organizers. Little progress has been made in the more than four decades since the tragedy at Attica. Perhaps the most salient similarity is the retaliation from corrections officials taking place right now as reports come in of officials revoking communication rights and subjecting demonstrators to solitary confinement.
The people organizing and participating in the protest from within prison walls face very real danger. Solitary confinement can have a lasting physical and emotional effect on anyone subjected to it, and correctional officers have a history of putting down “rebellious” prisoners with direct violence and threats. Due to the opaque nature of prison walls and the rules limiting outside communication and engagement, these injustices often never see the light of day. Prison-industry officials are routinely denying that anyone in their prison population is participating in the national strike despite evidence to the contrary.
If the ten demands put forward by the prison strike organizers are to ever be achieved, incarcerated demonstrators will need help from the outside. In the final few days of the strike—as inmates forgo meals in hunger strikes, withhold their labor, and boycott commissaries—allies and accomplices can show solidarity with the incarcerated victims of state-sponsored violence and exploitative labor practices. Supporters are invited to take the following actions:
1. Spread the word. The message of the prison strike has reached a record number of people, but more need to know. Talk with friends, neighbors, coworkers, and everyone you meet about the injustices faced by incarcerated humans. Share their stories. Post on social media with #PrisonStrike. Submit letters to the editor to local newspapers. Hang signs and banners where all can see them. Tell the world about the moral necessity to meet the ten demands.
2. Write letters to inmates facing retaliation. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) keeps a list of such prisoners who need to know that people are listening and that people care. You may be able to amplify their voice to the outside world.
3. Phone “zap” prisons and request they meet the demands of the strike. Prison industry officials need to know they are being scrutinized and the public demands they meet the requests for basic human rights set within the strike demands. The IWOC has a list of facilities primed for these calls, but supporters are invited to call local correctional facilities as well.
4. Call your state and federal representatives and ask where they stand on the list of demands presented by strike organizers. Many of the demands cannot be met without substantive state and federal policy change, which requires putting political pressure on elected officials. You can find contact information for your elected officials here. Just type in your address.
5. Donate to organizations leading the charge. Coordinating a national strike takes an enormous amount of time, resources, and know-how. The IWOC is accepting donations to support their efforts. You can also donate to the ACLU and other organizations that advocate for criminal-justice reform.