[Pnews] "A Call to Action Against Slavery"—We're About to See the Largest Prison Strikes in US History
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Aug 12 12:00:46 EDT 2016
"A Call to Action Against Slavery"—We're About to See the Largest
Prison Strikes in US History
/August 9th, 2016/
On September 9, a series of coordinated work stoppages and hunger
strikes will take place
prisons across the country. Organized by a coalition of prisoner rights,
labor, and racial justice groups, the strikes will include prisoners
from at least 20 states—making this the largest effort to organize
incarcerated people in US history.
The actions will represent a powerful, long-awaited blow against the
status quo in what has become the most incarcerated nation on earth.
A challenge to mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex
the strikes will focus specifically on the widespread exploitation of
incarcerated workers—what the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee
(IWOC) describes as “a call to action against slavery in America.”
The chosen date will mark 45 years since the Attica prison uprising
above), the bloodiest and most notorious
<http://www.talkinghistory.org/attica/>US prison conflict. The 1971
rebellion—which involved 1,300 prisoners and lasted five days—and the
state’s brutal response claimed the lives of dozens of prisoners and
guards. The events left a lasting scar, but have inspired a new
generation among today’s much larger incarcerated population.
Tomorrow (August 10), information campaigns, speaking events, and
solidarity demonstrations will take place in Georgia, Alabama,
Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois,
Minnesota, California and elsewhere.
The organizing coalition includes The Ordinary People Society
<http://wearetops.org>(TOPS), Free Alabama Movement
<http://freealabamamovement.wordpress.com>(FAM), Free Virginia Movement
Free Ohio Movement <http://freeohiomovement.org>, Free Mississippi
New Underground Railroad Movement
Incarcerated, Convicted People, and Families Movement
<https://ficpmovement.wordpress.com/>(FICPFM), and IWOC—
<https://iwoc.noblogs.org/>which has chapters across the country and
with which I’ve been involved for several years.
FICPFM has scheduled a national conference
9-10 to coincide with the main strikes, which have also been endorsed
the National Lawyers Guild.
These widespread and coordinated actions haven’t happened overnight;
they’re the result of years of struggle by people on both sides of the
prison walls. Significantly, it’s incarcerated people who are taking the
reins in organizing the strikes this time around—despite
If history is an indicator, the state will do all it can to limit media
coverage. So organizers inside and outside are organizing communication
via YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. The “revolution” may not be
televised, but these strikes will be accessible in real-time via social
media, despite prison officials’ efforts to keep them hidden.
*Leaning on History and Technology*
Organizing incarcerated people on such a large scale is unprecedented
for a reason. As recently as 2009, during my two-year stay with the
Georgia Department of Corrections, simply /talking/ about unions was
unthinkable for fear of retaliation and isolation.
Now, not only are incarcerated workers in Georgia and across the country
talkingabout fighting back against an unjust system—they’re actually
Many of us involved with organizing this wave of strikes weren’t even
born when Attica happened. But we do have the twin resources of plenty
of history to learn from and modern communications—especially mobile
phones and social media—to lean on as we seek to shape resistance.
Attica happened at a time when, like today
racial tensions and conflict between police and people of color and poor
people were high. In 1971, the Civil Rights Movement and the
assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were fresh in
the public mind, and the government was systematically targeting and
eliminating leaders of more militant groups like the Black Panthers.
Three months before the Attica Uprising, President Richard Nixon had
<http://theinfluence.org/nixon-advisor-we-created-the-drug-war-to-destroy-black-people-and-leftists/> his War
on Drugs. The combined US state and federal prison population then
hovered below 200,000 people
Through the Reagan
and Clinton years—which ramped up the drug war and introduced mandatory
minimum sentencing—until today, that number ballooned to over /1.5
million. /In total, over 2.2 million people now behind bars—in jail,
prison, immigration detention
or youth detention
any given day.
This makes the United States the world’s number one prison state
and massively raises the stakes for organized resistance. Millions of
people’s lives and freedom are on the line.
*Earlier Uprisings and the Long March to Reform*
The few improvements we’ve seen to the US incarceration system have been
painfully slow in coming—and they frequently occur only
/after/resistance from inside
pressure from outside, like the 2009 Rockefeller drug law reforms
The Attica uprising led to sweeping changes in New York’s penal system,
but many of the particpants’ grievances remain problems today. The
demands of recent prison strikers strongly echo Attica’s Manifesto of
Demands <http://rac.sagepub.com/content/53/2/28.extract#>and the earlier
demands of inmates at Folsom
California: basic medical care; fair pay for work; an end to abuse and
brutality by prison staff; fair decisions by parole boards; sanitary
living conditions; and adequate and nutritious meals.
One of the clearest, and least known, examples of prison workers
striking to improve conditions came from North Carolina Correctional
Institute for Women (NCCIW) in 1975, four years after Attica.
Incarcerated women there staged a sit-in strike against conditions at
the state’s only prison laundry facility.
Their nonviolent protest was met with force by prison guards, who
corralled them into a gymnasium and assaulted them. The women fought
back, triggering the state to send in 100 guards from other prisons to
quell the uprising. The prison resumed normal operations four days after
the strike began, but the prison laundry was closed shortly after the
incident. [1. & 2.]
The NCCIW strike, the Attica Uprising, and the Lucasville, Ohio prison
rebellion of 1993
only major prison uprising in the US to be resolved peacefully— provide
vital lessons for prisoners and their allies on the outside.
Siddique Abdullah Hassan, who participated in the Lucasville uprising
and remains incarcerated, was recently interviewed by IWOC members
<https://itsgoingdown.org/final-straw-free-ohio-movement/>. He expressed
the need for solid support from the outside during prisoner resistance:
/“[I]t is a sad commentary on our part, meaning both those people
behind enemy lines and on the outside who are activists. When people
step up to the plate and fight in a righteous cause, I think that we
should not leave those people for dead.”/
*2010: A Flashpoint in Georgia*
The wave of hunger strikes and work stoppages that have built up to the
September 9 coalition began in December 2010, when inmates at six
Georgia prisons refused to report for meals and work assignments.
Since almost all the work that allows Georgia’s prison system to
function comes from unpaid inmate labor—cooking meals, maintaining
facilities, picking up trash, repairing storm damage, and doing other
work for county government that would otherwise be filled by members of
the community (many incarcerated workers work alongside workers from the
free world), even building new prisons and handling administrative tasks
for prison officials—the strike made an immediate and lasting impact.
The strikers’ demands were simple and familiar
So was the State’s response. The Georgia Department of Corrections
reacted by shutting off water and electricity to the strikers’ living
quarters. Most of them quickly succumbed to these harsh measures, but a
handful dug in and continue to resist.
The state retaliated against 37 inmates who were identified as
organizers with extreme isolation and punishment.
Prison guards at Smith State Prison in South Georgiawere captured on
film brutally beating Kelvin Stevenson and Miguel Jackson with hammers
[/caution:graphic violence/]. In what prisoners say is a long-running
practice, the two men were isolated from public view and denied visits
from family members and legal counsel until their wounds healed.
Three Georgia corrections officers were convicted in 2014 for an earlier
beating, but justice continues to elude Jackson, Stevenson and their
families. The Georgia Department of Corrections responded to the
beatings by asking Google to censor
Four of the original Georgia strikers, now under close security, staged
another hunger strike in 2015. This time their only demand was that
their security level be reconsidered, per state policy.
*The Rising Tide*
The Southeast, which incarcerates more of its residents than any other
US region, has been a focal point of prison organizing.
Inspired by the actions of their Georgia neighbors, incarcerated workers
and supporters in Alabama began organizing work stoppages and hunger
strikes of their own under the banner Free Alabama Movement (FAM). Since
its inception, FAM has organized for a flurry of work stoppages and
minor uprisings at St. Clair, Holman and Staton Correctional Facilities
earlier this year
FAM organizers explain in this YouTube video
they’re organizing incarcerated workers:
/“They [Alabama Dept. of Corrections] not gonna make this man go to
school if he needs a GED. They’re not gonna make him get a skill or
trade. They’re not gonna make him do the things that will help him
be successful when [he] gets back to the streets. They gonna make
him work for them and provide free labor. And that’s where Free
Alabama Movement comes in.”/
FAM developed a manifesto called “Let the Crops Rot in the Fields,”
which lays out a framework that’s spread to prisons across the country.
Instead of relying on support from the outside or passive actions like
hunger strikes, incarcerated workers are utilizing the most powerful
tool they have: their labor.
Incarcerated workers are paid pennies an hour—or not at all in Georgia
and Texas—for often-backbreaking labor that keeps prisons operating and
benefits the state and, increasingly, private corporations
If they refuse or are unable to work, inmates say they’re subject to
punishment <http://freeohiomovement.org/call_to_action.html>, including
“isolation, restraint positions, stripping off our clothes and
investigating our bodies as though we are animals.”
FAM is also working within the system to enact legislation geared toward
improving conditions for incarcerated people in Alabama. They recently
presented the Alabama Freedom Bill
<http://freealabamamovement.com/12-18-14%20fam%20bill.pdf>, which would
expand access to education, rehabilitation, and reentry
services—services which are already supposed to exist on paper, but
rarely do in practice.
Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, a formerly incarcerated person whose
organization, The Ordinary People’s Society (TOPS), was a critical
player in the early resistance in Georgia and Alabama, says: “They
created the School-to-Prison Pipeline, we want to flip that and organize
a Re-entry Pipeline.”
Considering the barriers to employment
housing created by a criminal record, reentry services are vital,
yet the state rarely gives them priority—if they provide them at all.
*An Alternative to the Silence of Mainstream Unions *
At a time of high tension, this coalition finds itself at a critical
intersection of racial, structural and economic oppression.
Mainstream unions have been largely silent on the issue of inmate labor.
In fact, major unions like American Federation of State, County, and
Employees International Union
American Federation of Government Employees
and the Teamsters
corrections officers and police across the country—placing them in
direct conflict with prison workers and the most marginalized people in
These unions frequently fight to keep prisons open, even when their
members are guaranteed work elsewhere
This effectively puts them in the same boat as private prison companies
like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, whose contracts
often contain quotas which require a certain percentage of beds remain
IWOC currently counts about 1,000 incarcerated members
<https://itsgoingdown.org/strike-against-white-supremacy/>, a number
which continues to grow as September 9 approaches. This makes it the
largest area of organizing within Industrial Workers of the World
<http://iww.org>—a labor union controlled directly by workers which
operates outside the mainstream union model.
Most, though not all incarcerated people have committed crimes—or at
least, what are considered “crimes” under our current system. But they
often do so out of necessity, sometimes to support drug problems where
treatment or harm reduction services don’t exist and, too often, to
support families or just survive in a system which discriminates by
race, gender, sexuality and economic status, and robs anyone with a
criminal record of opportunities.
Incarcerated workers are still workers, regardless of criminal records.
Other than by ending or massively reducing incarceration itself, it is
only by building connections between workers behind bars and in the free
world that will we begin to reform a system that feeds on human suffering.
*A Canary in the Coal Mine*
September 9 could be the most powerful call in over a generation to
reform—or dismantle—a system that IWOC organizer and Ohio prisoner Sean
“third world colony” within the US and a “canary in the coal mine.”
Conditions in prison today foreshadow what workers on the outside might
face in the future, because the oppression inside is merely an amplified
version of the oppression faced by poor people everywhere. In this way
and others, this issue impacts /all/ working people, not just those
living in prison.
Most incarcerated people will be released one day. Do we want people who
are bitter, humiliated, lacking work skills and education, desperate
just to put food on the table and at great risk of reoffending living
Or do we want people who can work, who have ties to their communities,
have maintained relationships with loved ones, and who have a vested
interest in helping build stronger, more socially and economically just
communities when they return home?
If we succeed in making the US pay attention to the events of September
9, it might just help the country decide which of those paths to pursue.
/1. /The New York Times/, “Women Inmates Battle Guards in North
Carolina,” June 17, 1975./
/2. /Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South
<https://www.akpress.org/dixie-be-damned.html>/, “On the 1975 Revolt at
the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women,” Neal Shirley and
/Jeremy Galloway is harm reduction coordinator at Families for Sensible
Drug Policy <http://fsdp.org/>, program director at Southeast Harm
Reduction Project <http://facebook.com/SoutheastHarmReduction>,
co-founder of Georgia Overdose Prevention
<http://www.georgiaoverdoseprevention.org/>, and a state-certified peer
recovery specialist. He lives in North Georgia with his wife and three
cats. He writes and speaks regionally about drug policy reform, harm
reduction, his experiences, and the importance of including the voices
of directly impacted people in policy decisions. His last article for
The Influence was “Let’s Abandon the Assumption That If You’ve Been
Addicted to a Drug, Total Abstinence Is Essential
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415
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