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href="https://truthout.org/articles/inside-the-prison-labor-strike-new-tactics-pay-off-in-mainstream-coverage/?utm_source=sharebuttons&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=mashshare">https://truthout.org/articles/inside-the-prison-labor-strike-new-tactics-pay-off-in-mainstream-coverage/?utm_source=sharebuttons&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=mashshare</a></font>
        <h1 class="reader-title">Inside the Prison Labor Strike: New
          Tactics Pay Off in Mainstream Coverage</h1>
        <div class="credits reader-credits">By James Kilgore
          Truthout - September 4, 2018<br>
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              <aside>“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 <span><a
href="https://itsgoingdown.org/pre-strike-statement-from-jailhouse-lawyers-speak/">statement</a></span>
                from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak</aside>
              <p>When the 2016 US prison strike kicked off, the media
                barely whispered. Despite efforts by the <span><a
                    href="https://freealabamamovement.wordpress.com/">Free
                    Alabama Movement</a></span>, an organization
                centered around the men inside Holman prison, to spread
                the message through social media and compelling <span><a
                    href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gaICtjixMo">video</a></span>
                footage taken inside prisons, mainstream journalists
                weren’t biting. While <span><a
href="https://truthout.org/articles/we-re-freedom-fighters-the-story-of-the-nationwide-prison-labor-strike/">independent
                    media outlets covered the strike</a></span>, an
                action that ultimately involved thousands of people in
                two dozen states drew virtual silence from mainstream
                media.</p>
              <p>With the current ongoing prison strike, we find a
                totally different scenario. <span><a
href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/26/us/national-prison-strike-2018.html">The
                    New York Times</a></span>, the <span><a
href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/aug/20/prison-labor-protest-america-jailhouse-lawyers-speak">Guardian</a></span>,
                <span><a
href="https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/08/animals-prisoners-gear-nationwide-strike-180820145529741.html">Al
                    Jazeera</a></span> and The <span><a
href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/08/21/inmates-across-us-are-staging-prison-strike-over-modern-day-slavery/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.27dbdbf59c76">Washington
                    Post</a></span> all ran sympathetic op-eds at the
                strike’s outset. MSNBC’s Al Sharpton had a <span><a
href="http://www.msnbc.com/politicsnation/watch/prison-strike-2018-1306705987628?v=raila">segment</a></span>
                on the strike in which he interviewed a formerly
                incarcerated man (Darren Mack). <span><a
href="https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/08/22/prison-strike-sparks-nationwide-protests/1065723002/">USA
                    Today ran an article</a></span> 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?</p>
              <h2><strong>Testament to Hard Work</strong></h2>
              <p>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 <span><a
href="https://www.aclu.org/blog/smart-justice/we-cant-end-mass-incarceration-without-ending-money-bail">end</a></span>
                cash bail, local efforts to <span><a
                    href="http://www.closerikers.org/">close</a></span>
                jails, <span><a href="http://www.blackandpink.org/">networks</a></span>
                formed to defend the rights of LGBTQ folks who are
                locked up, and massive <span><a
href="https://www.immigrantdefenseproject.org/community-stop-deportation/">resistance</a></span>
                to immigration detention and deportation. Organizations
                of formerly incarcerated people like <span><a
href="https://www.prisonerswithchildren.org/our-projects/allofus-or-none/">All
                    of Us or None</a></span>, <span><a
                    href="https://www.justleadershipusa.org/">JustLeadershipUSA</a></span>
                and the <span><a href="https://www.nationalcouncil.us/">National
                    Council of Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls</a></span>
                continue to proliferate.</p>
              <p>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 <span><a
                    href="http://sawarimi.org/groups-organizations-in-solidarity">resurgent
                    left</a></span>, typified by the Democratic
                Socialists of America, now the largest socialist
                formation in the US in decades.</p>
              <p>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 <span><a
href="http://solitarywatch.com/2011/06/30/hunger-strike-in-the-supermax-pelican-bay-prisoners-protest-conditions-in-solitary-confinement/">hunger
                    strike</a></span> at Pelican Bay Prison in
                California, this is at least the fifth major mass action
                by prisoners since 2011. <span><a
href="https://truthout.org/articles/racist-preconceptions-and-an-ongoing-cover-up-mark-the-attica-rebellion-s-legacy-author-heather-ann-thompson/">Heather
                    Thompson</a></span>, author of the award-winning <span><a
href="https://truthout.org/articles/seeking-justice-for-the-victims-of-attica/">chronicle</a></span>
                of the 1971 <span><a
href="https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/prison-strike-uprising-attica-today-heather-ann-thompson">Attica</a></span>
                prison uprising, <em>Blood in the Water</em>, 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.”</p>
              <aside>The New York Times, the Guardian, Al Jazeera and
                The Washington Post all ran sympathetic op-eds.</aside>
              <p>The killing of seven men in South Carolina’s Lee prison
                in April of this year provided <span><a
href="https://truthout.org/video/bloody-violence-in-south-carolina-prison-shines-light-on-inhumane-conditions-across-us/">further
                    evidence</a></span> that conditions in many prisons
                are reaching the boiling point and formal political
                processes are doing little to address the issue. <span><a
href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/28/opinion/how-a-south-carolina-prison-riot-really-went-down.html">Reports</a></span>
                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.</p>
              <p>An additional windfall adding legitimacy to strike
                action came with the widespread <span><a
href="https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/08/20/californias-volunteer-inmate-firefighters-denied-jobs-after-release-column/987677002/">publicity</a></span>
                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.</p>
              <h2><strong>New Leadership</strong></h2>
              <p>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.</p>
              <p>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.</p>
              <aside>People “are more willing to listen to the prisoners
                themselves,” the very people “whom everyone should have
                been listening to all along.”</aside>
              <p>Whereas in 2016 local strikers were creating their own
                demands, this time, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, perhaps
                drawing inspiration from the <span><a
href="https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/workers/black-panthers/1966/10/15.htm">Ten-Point
                    Program of the Black Panther Party</a></span>,
                produced carefully phrased <span><a
                    href="https://incarceratedworkers.org/campaigns/prison-strike-2018">demands</a></span>
                for the entire strike. They called these 10 demands a
                “human-rights oriented” platform. The demands <span><a
href="https://truthout.org/audio/why-prison-strikers-are-demanding-the-right-to-vote/">focus</a></span>
                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.</p>
              <p>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 <span><a
                    href="http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/rodneyjackson.html">George
                    Jackson</a></span> was killed by guards in San
                Quentin in 1971) and end (September 9, the 47<sup>th</sup>
                anniversary of the Attica prison massacre).</p>
              <h2><strong>New Messaging</strong></h2>
              <p>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 <a
href="https://iwoc.noblogs.org/post/2016/04/01/announcement-of-nationally-coordinated-prisoner-workstoppage-for-sept-9-2016/">announcement</a>
                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.”
              </p>
              <p>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 <span><a
href="https://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2018/08/25/why-the-nationwide-strike-against-modern-day-slavery-may-not-reach-illinois-and-why-its-already-here">observation</a></span>
                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.”</p>
              <aside>There has been a major shift in the aims and
                tactics of strike organizers.</aside>
              <p>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 <span><a
                    href="https://www.justleadershipusa.org/about-us/">JustLeadershipUSA</a></span>,
                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.</p>
              <p>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
                <span><a
href="https://incarceratedworkers.org/day-2-press-statement-nationwide-prison-strike">solidarity
                    statements</a></span> coming from people in prisons
                in Germany, <span><a
href="https://325.nostate.net/2018/09/01/solidarity-text-to-prisoners-of-lee-correctional-institution-from-prisoners-in-larissa-usa-greece/">Greece</a></span>,
                <span><a
href="https://incarceratedworkers.org/news/letter-support-2018-prison-strike-termite-collective-canada">Canada</a></span>
                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 <span><a
href="https://truthout.org/video/after-10-days-prison-strikes-spread-to-11-states-to-demand-end-to-slave-labor/">told
                    Democracy Now!</a></span>, 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.</p>
              <p>In diversifying courses of action for their
                mobilization, the strikers drew inspiration from a set
                of essays called “<span><a
href="https://freealabamamovement.wordpress.com/2017/12/30/campaign-to-redistribute-the-pain-partiv-2018/">Redistribute
                    the Pain</a></span>,” 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 guns.</p>
              <aside>Creative uses of cellphones, Facebook and other
                social media have helped project the analysis and
                culture of those inside prisons.</aside>
              <p>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.</p>
              <h2><strong>Solidarity: Making New Allies</strong></h2>
              <p>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 <span><a
href="https://rewire.news/article/2018/08/28/immigrants-in-washington-detention-center-join-national-prison-strike/">Northwestern
                    Immigration Detention Center</a></span>, where
                hunger-strikers declared their actions were specifically
                in solidarity with efforts to “end prison slavery.”</p>
              <p>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 <span><a
href="https://abolitionjournal.org/im-for-disruption-interview-with-prison-strike-organizer-from-jailhouse-lawyers-speak/">interview</a></span>:
                “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.</p>
              <p>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.</p>
              <aside>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.</aside>
              <p>The strike media committee has made enormous efforts to
                ensure the amplification of the voices of those on the
                inside. The <span><a
href="https://shadowproof.com/2018/08/16/im-for-disruption-interview-with-prison-strike-organizer-from-jailhouse-lawyers-speak/">interviews</a></span>
                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.</p>
              <p>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 <span><a
href="https://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2018/08/25/why-the-nationwide-strike-against-modern-day-slavery-may-not-reach-illinois-and-why-its-already-here">interview</a></span>
                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.</p>
              <p>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.</p>
              <h2><strong>Outcomes of the Action?</strong></h2>
              <p>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 <span><a
href="https://www.democracynow.org/2018/8/30/update_on_prison_strike_demanding_end">reportedly</a></span>
                have been sent to isolation. No doubt there will be more
                efforts by authorities to punish, vilify and isolate
                those they identify as leaders.</p>
              <p>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.”</p>
              <p>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.”</p>
              <aside>
                Copyright © Truthout. May not be reprinted without <a
                  href="mailto:editor@truthout.org">permission</a>.
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