[Pnews] "A Call to Action Against Slavery"—We're About to See the Largest Prison Strikes in US History

Prisoner News 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

Jeremy Galloway

/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 
<http://criticalresistance.org/about/not-so-common-language/>in general, 
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 
<https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news/2011/sep/15/remembering-attica-forty-years-later/> (pictured 
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 
<https://newundergroundrailroadmovement.wordpress.com/>(CA), Formerly 
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 
<https://itsgoingdown.org/organizing-prisoner-class-interview-iwoc/> by 
the state.

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 
/doing/ it.

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 
<https://www.thenation.com/article/after-attica-uprising/>or public 
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 
<http://libcom.org/blog/folsom-prison-strike-manifesto-bill-rights-1970-05012012> in 
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 
YouTube video.

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 
in 2014 
<http://www.alabamaprisonwatch.org/2015/02/support-strike-at-st-clair-correctional.html> and 
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 
<http://theinfluence.org/ban-the-box-movement-fights-to-end-discrimination-against-formerly-incarcerated-college-applicants/> and 
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 
Municipal Employees 
<http://www.afscme.org/union/jobs-we-do/corrections>(AFSCME), Service 
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 
our society.

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 
Swain calls 
“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 
next door?

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 
Saralee Stafford/


/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 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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