[Pnews] Keeping the Spirit of the Prison Labor Strike Alive

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Oct 2 10:40:43 EDT 2018


  Keeping the Spirit of the Prison Labor Strike Alive

By James Kilgore - October 1, 2018

In 2005, when I was in Lompoc US Penitentiary, prison authorities sent 
me a slip telling me they had returned a book a publisher had sent me 
because it included a chapter entitled “How to Organize a Strike.” They 
deemed this as inappropriate reading material — a measure of their 
paranoia about the “S”-word.

Thirteen years later, the prison authorities haven’t changed. Their fear 
of collective action by people in prison is central to their identity. 
Hence, when I hear about events like the Prison Labor Strike of 2018 and 
its aftermath, I find it stunning that so many people behind the walls 
are now prepared to take mass action against the system of incarceration.

    *The Prison Labor Strike of 2018*

This year’s Prison Labor Strike was one of the most amazing 
mobilizations of liberatory politics in the past decade. It was the 
latest iteration in the most recent generation of prison rebellions, 
which has included labor strikes in Georgia 
<https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/12/us/12prison.html> prisons in 2010, 
the three Pelican Bay Hunger Strikes 
in California 2011-2013, and the direct predecessor of the latest 
action: the strike 
against prison slavery in 2016.

The authoritarian nature of prison bureaucracies prevents us from 
compiling a precise chronicle of what takes place behind the walls. 
However, according to the lead organization in the strike, the network 
of prisoners known as Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, actions occurred 
<http://sawarimi.org/archives/2522> in 16 states and federal prisons. 
Plus, over 200 people went on strike in the Northwest Immigration 
Detention Center.

Amani Sawari, the official spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, 
emphasized that the mobilization took many forms. In some prisons, 
striking meant refusing work; in others it involved hunger strikes or 
refusing to spend money for commissary and phone services. Apart from 
actions inside prisons, Sawari reported 
<http://sawarimi.org/groups-organizations-in-solidarity> that more than 
200 community organizations across the country endorsed the strike. 
These supporters carried out dozens of solidarity actions including 
call-in campaigns known as phone zaps 
noise demonstrations, teach-ins, sit-ins and massive email campaigns.

    *Strike, Not an Insurrection*

The Prison Labor Strike of 2018 was organized very specifically a strike 
— not an insurrection or attempt at revolution. Since strikes are so 
rare in the US, we might revisit exactly what a strike implies. While 
revolutionaries may engage in strikes, in all but the rarest of 
circumstances, a strike does not aim for radical change. When workers go 
on strike, they typically have a specific set of demands they want their 
bosses to meet. A strike may win some demands but perhaps more 
importantly will provide worker organizations (and even unfortunately 
for the bosses as well) a quick assessment of the balance of forces. 
Strikes teach workers what is possible and show that what they have to 
do to extend the boundaries of possibility. The more strikers have the 
capacity to learn from past actions, the greater their potential to 
advance their interests in the future.

The 2016 strike was an open-ended mobilization to end prison slavery. 
While this provided powerful lessons about the nature of the prison 
system, the demand was clearly unwinnable at any time in the foreseeable 
future. With no specific deadline, the action created some confusion 
among strikers and supporters about how long to carry on. The lack of a 
specific deadline made it uncertain for strikers and supporters as to 
how long they should continue their actions.

By contrast, the carefully crafted program for this year incorporated a 
specific time frame (August 21 
to September 
<https://www.thenation.com/article/september-9-1971-attica/> 9) and put 
forward ten demands 
<https://incarceratedworkers.org/campaigns/prison-strike-2018>, which 
organizers had whittled down from an original list of 35. These demands 
focused on the key pieces that hold the system of mass incarceration 
together. They aimed <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0iSKhm3AWpA>, in 
Sawari’s words, at “making prisons better and safer places for the 
people who have to live there.” While ending prison slavery remained a 
key element, the list targeted narrower reforms such as ending 
truth-in-sentencing laws and racialized over-charging, eliminating life 
without parole, and increased training and education opportunities for 
people inside prisons.

Clearly the criminal legal system would look a lot different if these 
demands were implemented, but it would still not be abolished. While 
many of the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak leaders identified as prison 
abolitionists, their approach accepted that ending mass incarceration is 
a long, complicated political struggle, not the product of one 
insurrectionary event.

While the demands represented the key change from 2016, three other 
points were also salient. First was the recognition that not all 
prisoners labor under conditions of chattel slavery. Although in rural 
southern prisons like Angola in Louisiana, men do pick cotton, people in 
other states have varying work regimes. Some incarcerated people work in 
factories under contract from private companies, but far more are 
warehoused, remaining locked in their cells with few if any work 
opportunities and an ever-shrinking menu of education and other 
programs. The 2018 approach to organizing embodied an expanded 
understanding of prison slavery — the notion of slavery as a system of 
total control, a total lack of freedom in which laboring without pay is 
but one element.

Second, the connection between this strike and the killing 
of seven men at Lee prison in South Carolina in April was profound. The 
men in Lee were not killed by guards but as a result of in-fighting 
between prisoners. In a sense, this is similar to the hundreds of cases 
we unfortunately witness every year in the streets of our urban 
communities, where residents, especially youth, kill each other through 
gun violence. The deaths at Lee ultimately happened because the guards 
waited seven hours before intervening. In other words, like many urban 
police forces, they were content to let the killing go ahead.

In response, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak did not press for the guards to do 
their job more effectively or call on their comrades to exact revenge on 
those who carried out the killings inside Lee. Instead, similar to 
activists in urban communities who don’t call for more police to solve 
the problem, the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak leadership properly identified 
the root cause of the killings as the oppressive system of mass 
incarceration. They developed their demands to draw attention to, and 
challenge, that system. This strategic response was a big part of why 
the 2018 strike got far much more attention from the mainstream media 
than previous strikes.

    *How Organizers Built Upon the Lessons of 2016*

Five groups were listed as organizers of the strike: Jailhouse Lawyers 
Speak, Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee (IWOC), Fire Inside, 
the Free Alabama Movement and Millions for Prisoners. In the end, 
Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and IWOC were the key drivers. Jailhouse Lawyers 
Speak had a very different presence than the 2016 strike leaders of the 
Free Alabama Movement.

During 2016, much of the media profile and communication centered around 
key incarcerated individuals, especially Kinetik Justice and Malik 
Washington. Largely due to the limitations of communicating from inside 
prison, the Free Alabama Movement’s messaging at times was sporadic and 
contradictory. Plus, on occasion media spokespeople put out information 
of questionable veracity 

In 2018, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak chose to remain in the background and 
communicate through Sawari who anchored a media team that comprised 
freelance journalist Jared Ware plus half a dozen IWOC members, 
including Brooke Terpstra. This committee performed magnificently. Its 
members kept their voices on the sidelines and promoted the words of 
Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. They constantly re-directed mainstream and left 
media attention to the strikers’ demands when journalists wanted to 
divert the message down some other sensationalistic route. In addition, 
they offered insightful analyses 
when called upon to do so. Moreover, the structured time frame of the 
2018 strike enabled a more planned approach to communication efforts.

IWOC continues to often puzzle both the mainstream media and other 
elements of the political left. While linked to the anarchist-leaning 
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), according to leading member 
Brooke Terpstra, IWOC is the “prisoner led section of the IWW.” 
Terpstra, who has had family members incarcerated, told Truthout their 
successes were the fruit of “working our asses off.” He rejected any 
categorization of IWOC as a solidarity group that was distant from the 
realities of prison but stressed that a large portion of IWOC members 
are “critically impacted” and this is what drives their passion. “We got 
skin in the game,” he told Truthout.

IWOC’s growth and development offer useful lessons in what it means to 
be an ally or an accomplice in a struggle of the oppressed. They have 
now played a leading role in the last two prison strikes, helping 
coordinate communication between in-prison leaders and community 
activists while also engaging in popular education about mass 
incarceration. While IWOC stresses that a considerable portion of their 
ranks are “critically impacted” by mass incarceration, they have also 
found a way to extend their message into the ranks of students and 
organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America for whom 
incarceration is not a reality.

    *Who Was Missing?*

Predictably, the voice of organized labor was very faint in the choir of 
support. Of the more than 200 supporting organizations, only a handful 
of US unions featured-three local branches of the United Auto Workers 
and two Graduate Employees Organizations. Despite efforts to frame the 
strike as a workers’ action, IWOC and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak were 
unable to crack the general failure of trade unions to recognize mass 
incarceration as a working-class issue. The unions’ excessive 
concentration on industrial and public sector workers often leaves 
people in prison and other precarious layers of the laborers outside 
organizing orbits. Moreover, once again the strike failed to report any 
action in women’s prisons or jails.

These absences relate to a bigger question: how to connect this movement 
led by people inside prisons to those folks on the outside struggling 
for their own survival. The family and community members of those in 
prison are largely from the precarious layer of the working class, the 
population most impacted by the growing inequality, white supremacy, 
xenophobia and lack of services in our society. This cohort suffers not 
only from losing loved ones to prison, but from the lack of housing, 
education, health care, and living wage employment. In other circles, 
the mobilization of family members, particularly women, has become a key 
component of campaigns against mass incarceration. Groups like the 
Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People and Family Movement 
<https://www.ficpfmmovement.org/>, the National Council of Incarcerated 
and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls 
<https://www.nationalcouncil.us/>, Legal Services for Prisoners with 
Children <https://www.prisonerswithchildren.org/>, Families Against 
Mandatory Minimums <https://famm.org/>, Moms United Against Violence and 
<https://momsunitedagainstviolenceandincarceration.wordpress.com/> and 
California Families Against Solitary Confinement 
as well as many locally based groups have become essential vehicles in 
bringing together critically impacted communities. Hence, it was 
surprising not to see these forces leading the demonstrations, 
formulating the messaging and handling the media queries during this strike.

    *What Comes Next?*

According to Sawari, those who supported the strike should focus on two 
immediate tasks: fighting back against efforts by prison authorities to 
punish strikers and organizers and pushing elected officials to move 
ahead on the demands of the strikers.

Minimizing retribution is a mighty challenge. As historian Heather 
Thompson reminds us, previous uprisings by people in prison have brought 
vicious retribution. The classic case is the Attica Prison Uprising in 
which concluded with state troopers mounting a brutal military offensive 
against the prisoners, killing 39 people in the process and torturing 
many more men in its wake.

The Prisoners’ Legal Advocacy Network of the National Lawyers’ Guild has 
been compiling a list of retaliatory acts carried out by prison 
authorities surrounding the 2018 strike. In the first two weeks after 
the strike, they received reports from people behind the walls in twelve 
states who chronicled physical abuse, pre-emptive lockdowns before the 
strike, along with placing jailhouse lawyers and other activists in 
solitary confinement. Those who have loved ones in prison echoed the 
observations the Prisoners’ Legal Advocacy Network in interviews with 

Prisoners who did not participate in the action are also facing 
retaliation. Sarah Roogow, who visits Atiba Ajamu Olugbala in a Maryland 
prison, told Truthout that Olugbala is being “victimized” now, even 
though there was no strike action in that state. In her words, “whenever 
you’re politically active in these institutions it’s easy to be a target 
for retaliation, especially when you’re educated.” Despite the 
repression visited on Olugbala, she says the strike is “necessary,” that 
ultimately this is a “peaceful way of saying something’s got to change 
without causing chaos.”

Apart from direct retaliation, mass action in prisons often triggers 
repression not directly attributable to the strike but emerging from the 
paranoia that collective action prompts among prison personnel.

In this vein, at the end of August the entire prison system of 
Pennsylvania went on lockdown, allegedly due 
to a number of guards becoming ill after exposure to an “unknown 
substance,” later identified as a synthetic form of marijuana known as 
K2 or spice. Authorities concluded that the substance was entering the 
prison through the mail system. They immediately banned direct 
communication by letters. Instead, according to Justina, whose husband 
is in a Pennsylvania prison and who asked that her last name be withheld 
due to her fear of retaliation against her partner, all those wanting to 
correspond with someone in a Pennsylvania facility were instructed to 
send their letters to an address in St. Petersburg, Florida, where they 
would be photocopied and sent to the addressee. The Pennsylvania ACLU 
protested <https://www.apnews.com/839f6b1b2f9c44ff83e8e3abe7f49b9f> this 
lockdown, arguing that it jeopardized the health of the men inside 
prison and left their families “in the dark” on the welfare of their 
loved ones.

Even in the face of such repression, Sawari urged those who supported 
the strike to push forward with the demands advanced by Jailhouse 
Lawyers Speak. In its post-strike statement, the media committee 
concluded: “It has been a huge success of the 2018 prison strike that 
the 10 points have been pushed into the national and international 
consciousness. The work of spreading and fighting for these demands will 
continue on all fronts until they are actualized, and then beyond that 
onto what [Jailhouse Lawyers Speak] aptly calls ‘the dismantling 
process,’ as we build a movement toward abolition.”

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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