[Pnews] Inside the Prison Labor Strike: New Tactics Pay Off in Mainstream Coverage

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Sep 4 16:38:00 EDT 2018


  Inside the Prison Labor Strike: New Tactics Pay Off in Mainstream Coverage

By James Kilgore Truthout - September 4, 2018
“Fundamentally, it’s a human rights issue. Prisoners understand they are 
being treated as animals. Prisons in America are a warzone. Every day 
prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us 
it’s as if we are already dead, so what do we have to lose?” –Pre-strike 
from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak

When the 2016 US prison strike kicked off, the media barely whispered. 
Despite efforts by the Free Alabama Movement 
<https://freealabamamovement.wordpress.com/>, an organization centered 
around the men inside Holman prison, to spread the message through 
social media and compelling video 
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gaICtjixMo> footage taken inside 
prisons, mainstream journalists weren’t biting. While independent media 
outlets covered the strike 
an action that ultimately involved thousands of people in two dozen 
states drew virtual silence from mainstream media.

With the current ongoing prison strike, we find a totally different 
scenario. The New York Times 
the Guardian 
Al Jazeera 
and The Washington Post 
all ran sympathetic op-eds at the strike’s outset. MSNBC’s Al Sharpton 
had a segment 
on the strike in which he interviewed a formerly incarcerated man 
(Darren Mack). USA Today ran an article 
on support demonstrations. Suddenly, prison militancy has become 
headline-worthy. As someone who spent six-and-a-half years behind bars, 
I have to wonder: What the hell is going on?

    *Testament to Hard Work*

Several factors are at play here. First, as prison historian Dan Berger 
observes, “it is a testament to the hard work that has been happening.” 
Due to the efforts of millions of activists, mass incarceration has 
grown into an issue of political importance. We have national campaigns 
to end 
cash bail, local efforts to close <http://www.closerikers.org/> jails, 
networks <http://www.blackandpink.org/> formed to defend the rights of 
LGBTQ folks who are locked up, and massive resistance 
<https://www.immigrantdefenseproject.org/community-stop-deportation/> to 
immigration detention and deportation. Organizations of formerly 
incarcerated people like All of Us or None 
JustLeadershipUSA <https://www.justleadershipusa.org/> and the National 
Council of Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls 
<https://www.nationalcouncil.us/> continue to proliferate.

In parallel with the growth of this movement has been a swelling in the 
ranks of the Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee. Closely linked 
to the revolutionary unionists of the Industrial Workers of the World 
(IWW), the Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee has been the most 
vibrant source of support on the streets for both strikes. In its 2018 
iteration, the Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee also draws 
activists from a resurgent left 
<http://sawarimi.org/groups-organizations-in-solidarity>, typified by 
the Democratic Socialists of America, now the largest socialist 
formation in the US in decades.

As the understanding of the oppressive nature of the prison system has 
grown, rebellion has begun to appear increasingly justified. Prison 
strike action is almost becoming normalized, an expected part of the 
social landscape. Since the first hunger strike 
at Pelican Bay Prison in California, this is at least the fifth major 
mass action by prisoners since 2011. Heather Thompson 
author of the award-winning chronicle 
of the 1971 Attica 
prison uprising, /Blood in the Water/, explained to Truthout that in 
2016, “there was a faith among many in the media that criminal justice 
reform was being handled, as it should be, by a bipartisan political 
effort.” In her view, many reporters at that time “perhaps felt that 
prisoners were making things worse by erupting.” Now, with hopes for 
bipartisan reform solutions fading away, people “are more willing to 
listen to the prisoners themselves,” the very people “whom everyone 
should have been listening to all along.”

The New York Times, the Guardian, Al Jazeera and The Washington Post all 
ran sympathetic op-eds.

The killing of seven men in South Carolina’s Lee prison in April of this 
year provided further evidence 
that conditions in many prisons are reaching the boiling point and 
formal political processes are doing little to address the issue. 
of the tragedy said the deaths occurred due to conflict among various 
factions in the prison population, but that guards waited seven hours 
before intervening.

An additional windfall adding legitimacy to strike action came with the 
widespread publicity 
given to the hundreds of incarcerated firefighters risking their lives 
battling the historic blazes in California for a few cents an hour, then 
facing a future where their criminal backgrounds would prevent them from 
being employed as firefighters after their release.

    *New Leadership*

The high profile of this strike, however, is about more than heightened 
public awareness. There has also been a major shift in the aims and 
tactics of strike organizers. According to Brooke Terpstra of IWOC, not 
only has their organization grown in the past two years, but during that 
time, they have engaged in an intense study program in partnership with 
people inside prisons. Their goal was to both deepen their understanding 
of the prison-industrial complex and reflect on political strategy and 
ideology more broadly.

This shift has coincided with a re-shuffling of leadership. While the 
Free Alabama Movement and its charismatic leader, Kinetic Justice, 
played the leading role in 2016, this time around, the overall direction 
on the inside has shifted to Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. Unlike the Free 
Alabama Movement, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is not identified with a 
single state or institution but is a network of legal activists in 
various facilities. Their approach is more cautious, more oriented 
toward legal change and more tightly structured.

People “are more willing to listen to the prisoners themselves,” the 
very people “whom everyone should have been listening to all along.”

Whereas in 2016 local strikers were creating their own demands, this 
time, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, perhaps drawing inspiration from the 
Ten-Point Program of the Black Panther Party 
produced carefully phrased demands 
<https://incarceratedworkers.org/campaigns/prison-strike-2018> for the 
entire strike. They called these 10 demands a “human-rights oriented” 
platform. The demands focus 
on systemic issues like ending prison slavery, but also target specific 
legal reforms. These include the restoration of federal Pell Grants for 
people in prison wanting to undertake college study, an end to 
racialized over-sentencing, an increase in rehabilitation programs and 
several demands stressing access to legal due process, like rescinding 
the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act. This legislation heavily 
restricted the capacity of people in prison to file lawsuits. All told, 
these demands reflect an abolitionist approach that sees major change in 
the prison system as a long-term, deliberate process.

Furthermore, unlike the open-ended style strike in 2016, this strike set 
a strict time frame, with a very symbolic beginning (August 21, the day 
Black prison revolutionary George Jackson 
<http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/rodneyjackson.html> was killed 
by guards in San Quentin in 1971) and end (September 9, the 47^th 
anniversary of the Attica prison massacre).

    *New Messaging*

The emphasis on universal demands went hand-in-hand with the adoption of 
new approaches to messaging and methods of mobilization. The media 
messaging of 2016 centered on ending “prison slavery.” Moreover, the 
rhetoric of organizers implied an insurrectionary stance, emphasizing in 
their initial announcement 
that the strike would “coordinate and generalize these protests, to 
build them into a single tidal shift that the American prison system 
cannot ignore or withstand.”

Underlying that approach was the notion that most people in prison were 
in the employ of major corporations, laboring under semi-feudal 
conditions for a few pennies an hour. While a number of Southern prisons 
still resemble plantations (and some, like the notorious Angola Prison 
in Louisiana are actually sited on former plantations), in many states, 
jobs and paid labor are scarce. In some prisons, especially those at the 
higher security levels, only a small percentage of people actually work. 
Warehousing of bodies has replaced cheap labor regimes. Renowned Chicago 
radical lawyer Alan Mills’s observation 
about Illinois likely applies in many places: “Unlike many states where 
the problem is prisoners are forced to do jobs that are horrible with 
very little money, in Illinois prisoners are made to sit in their cells 
with nothing whatsoever to do.” Mills said that many feel that “even if 
a job is poorly paid it’s an improvement to confinement.”

There has been a major shift in the aims and tactics of strike organizers.

Journalist and current strike media committee member Jared Ware told 
Truthout the recognition of the varying work regimes across prisons 
prompted a re-think about how to connect with people. Darren Mack, who 
spent two decades in prison and is now a leading member of decarceration 
advocacy group JustLeadershipUSA 
<https://www.justleadershipusa.org/about-us/>, echoed Ware’s 
observations. “Incarcerated people have learned lessons from the 
previous strike so they actively engaged supporters on the outside by 
giving them clear directions on ways to support bringing attention to 
their policy demands,” Mack told Truthout.

Amani Sawari, the official spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak on 
the outside, told Truthout how this new orientation drew recognition 
from around the globe, with solidarity statements 
coming from people in prisons in Germany, Greece 
and from a group of Palestinian political prisoners. She also noted the 
changed tactics led to a different approach to mobilization. “Some 
prisoners don’t have the privilege to have a job,” she told Democracy 
adding that they could participate through sit-ins as well as boycotting 
purchases of prison commissary items or using the phones. Even those 
without funds, she stressed, could take part via hunger strikes. After 
the first week she reported to Truthout there were strike actions 
confirmed in 11 facilities, with solidarity actions in 21 different 
cities. Since prison officials try to suppress information about strike 
actions by cutting off communication, she said she expects to get 
reports of many more facilities having taken action once the strike is over.

In diversifying courses of action for their mobilization, the strikers 
drew inspiration from a set of essays called “Redistribute the Pain 
written by Brother Bennu aka Hannibal Ra-Sun of the Free Alabama 
Movement. His work called for people on the inside to use their economic 
power as consumers to hold back the money they spent in the system, 
pointing out that these funds were often used to purchase the equipment 
used to punish people inside — items like Tasers, pepper spray and stun 

Creative uses of cellphones, Facebook and other social media have helped 
project the analysis and culture of those inside prisons.

Apart from acknowledging the variety of prison work regimes, the 
messaging of the 2018 strike by allies and accomplices also shows a less 
defensive stance. In 2016, organizers on the outside placed considerable 
attention on data and headcounts, trying to prove the success of their 
actions statistically. Such an approach had an inherent weakness in that 
prison authorities control the data and are not susceptible to 
fact-checking. While Brooke Terpstra provided no analytics, she said the 
strike was a success for three reasons: 1) the media were covering it; 
2) people in prisons were coming together in coordinated action; 3) the 
people on the inside were controlling the information and narrative.

    *Solidarity: Making New Allies*

The 2018 strike represents a qualitative and quantitative leap forward 
in both organizing and messaging. A critically important aspect of the 
2018 actions has been connecting with resistance in the immigration 
detention centers. In fact, some of the most militant and effective 
actions have taken place in the Northwestern Immigration Detention 
where hunger-strikers declared their actions were specifically in 
solidarity with efforts to “end prison slavery.”

In turn, organizers in Jailhouse Lawyers Speak have fully recognized the 
similarity in the plight of immigrants facing deportation. As an 
anonymous incarcerated Jailhouse Lawyers Speak spokesperson told Jared 
Ware in an interview 
“As far as the connection and why we’re in solidarity, the biggest 
reason is because we understand those cages .. it’s all the same 
system.” How to deepen these connections is an important issue not only 
for prison-focused organizers, but also for social justice movements 
across the board.

As Dan Berger suggested in a phone conversation with Truthout, it is 
worth looking at the present prison uprisings through the lens of the 
1970s when “a broad popular front against prisons,” was a reality. 
Another key aspect of solidarity in the strike has been the relationship 
among Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, the Free Alabama Movement, the 
Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee and other organizations on 
the street. This raises the question of how people on the street support 
actions by those inside prison without upstaging them and silencing 
their voices, especially given the repression of communication by prison 
authorities. Creative uses of cellphones, Facebook and other social 
media have helped project the analysis and culture of those inside prisons.

Resistance is a permanent feature in women’s prisons, but the weapons 
are not typically strikes or insurrections, but rather daily acts of 
rebelling by asserting one’s humanity.

The strike media committee has made enormous efforts to ensure the 
amplification of the voices of those on the inside. The interviews 
conducted by Jared Ware with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak have been exemplary 
in bringing the voice and views of people who are locked up front and 
center. Given the difficulties of communication across the razor wire, 
these have been remarkable. Nonetheless, the presence of a group largely 
made up of white activists directing the media traffic, rather than 
family and community members of those inside, represents a source of 
tension in the legitimacy of representation, a topic to be examined when 
the dust from this period settles.

Another source of concern has been the virtual absence of action in 
women’s prisons during the strike. While some of this may be due to more 
sophisticated responses by authorities, there are other issues. In an 
with the Chicago Reader, activist Monica Cosby, who spent 20 years in 
Illinois state prisons herself, stressed that resistance is a permanent 
feature in women’s prisons, but the weapons are not typically strikes or 
insurrections, but rather daily acts of rebelling by asserting one’s 
humanity. The organizers of the strike, as well as many activists on the 
issue of mass incarceration, have much to learn from Cosby’s observations.

While the high points of strikes and overt rebellion help draw attention 
to the problems of mass incarceration, there is a need to think about 
ways in which people in prison engage in what labor historians refer to 
as “informal resistance.” This resistance may range from defying rules 
to asserting one’s right to be human by engaging in activities like 
sharing meals (what we call “spreads” in prison) or getting involved in 
sports, music and graphic arts. While such acts don’t rock the prisons 
to their foundations, they are the kernels of positive spirit that keep 
those inside strong enough to be able to endure, carry out actions like 
the 2018 strike and withstand the horrific repression that unaccountable 
authorities visit on organizers and rebels.

    *Outcomes of the Action?*

As with any mass action in a repressive setting like a prison, there 
will be backlash from prison authorities. From the 2016 strike, leaders 
like Kinetic Justice of the Free Alabama Movement and Malik Washington, 
founder of the End Prison Slavery Texas Movement. have suffered long 
periods in solitary confinement. Already, those identified as 
“instigators” in Texas, Ohio and South Carolina reportedly 
have been sent to isolation. No doubt there will be more efforts by 
authorities to punish, vilify and isolate those they identify as leaders.

Optimistic outcomes of the 2018 actions would be the restoration of Pell 
Grants, a measure already partially in motion, and a repeal of the 
Prison Litigation Reform Act. As Darren Mack said, “It’s urgent that 
elected officials respond to the 10 policy demands in order to tackle 
the systemic problems of mass incarceration and racist criminal justice 
policies that have led to tragic events like the Attica massacre and 
devastated millions of lives.”

But regardless of actions by elected officials, as Heather Thompson 
observed, “No matter how many folks were actually able to sit in or stop 
working or not eat, on the outside, vital attention was drawn to the 
issue of how horrific prison conditions are and also the longer history 
of prisoners standing up to be heard at places like San Quentin and Attica.”

Copyright © Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission 
<mailto:editor at truthout.org>.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/ppnews_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20180904/e6cee725/attachment.html>

More information about the PPnews mailing list