A brief review of the 2018 US prison strike from central California.
From August 21st to September 9th, 2018, incarcerated people nationwide struck over their abysmal living and working conditions in us prisons and in protest of the prison-industrial complex that disproportionately targets black men and other people of color. Though hardly the first event of its kind in recent history, like all prison strikes it’s remarkable considering the relative complacency of the us labor movement as a whole and the extreme repression that participants in prison strikes face. Strikers in prison can look forward to such joys as getting their visiting and phone call privileges revoked, having their mail withheld, or being placed in solitary confinement. Yet incarcerated workers still struck, demanding better working and living conditions aimed at putting an end to the prison-industrial complex as we know it.
The motivation for this strike is attributed to a riot in April at the Lee Correctional Facility in South Carolina, which left seven incarcerated people dead — making it the deadliest riot in a us prison in the last twenty-five years. The incarcerated folks at the facility report that the riot was provoked by the guards, who then refused to intervene or provide medical attention for any of the inmates for hours after the riot started. It was in the aftermath that organizers decided there needed to be a nationwide prison strike to bring attention to the suffering of incarcerated people in the United States.
The nationwide strike and the demands that accompanied it were primarily designed by incarcerated organizers with the particular needs and circumstances of the incarcerated population in mind. Many were affiliated with organizations like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and the Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee and used carefully-laid communications networks to get the word out to other prisons and allies on the outside. The ten demands of the nationwide prison strike were:
- Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
- An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.
- The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
- The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
- An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
- An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
- No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
- State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
- Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
- The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.
All of these demands honor the basic human rights that are all too often denied to people who are or have been incarcerated, a fact that takes on a particularly sinister aspect when one considers the systemic racism prevalent in the US criminal justice system. The timing of the strike was also significant as the planned dates from August 21st to September 9th coincide with the 47th anniversary of revolutionary George Jackson’s death in San Quentin and the anniversary of the Attica Prison Riot, respectively.
Initially, prisons in seventeen states planned to take some form of action relating to the national strike, either through some form of work stoppage or a hunger strike. Information concerning prisons is usually scarce even in the best of times, so the exact number of strikers is not known. Many prisons took preemptive action to prevent any sort of inmate protest by locking down their facilities or by placing individuals who have been labeled as leaders in solitary confinement. The incarcerated organizers gave out little information to those on the outside in fear of this kind of retaliation. Part of the reason that plans for a national strike were only made in seventeen states was because reliable communications and networks of organizers had not been established in those facilities by the groups that planned the national strike. What is known is that there were actions taken by facilities all over the US and that several facilities holding immigrants for deportation also saw hunger strikes in protest of their treatment by US officials and ice.
Allies on the outside assisted with the nationwide prison strike primarily through phone zaps and noise demonstrations. Phone zaps were the more common way to show solidarity and provide support as noise demonstrations require physically going to a prison and making a lot of noise outside. Usually, phone zaps are started when organizations like iwoc hear of a striker being severely repressed by prison staff or when a facility is particularly egregious in its treatment of the incarcerated population as a whole, and then the organization sends messages to outside allies telling them to start a phone zap. This author took part in a phone zap that had the participants gather together in a small group, determine which official to call first (such as the Attorney General or the individual in charge of that particular facility), and take turns calling. Sometimes the phone is answered and sometimes it’s not. When it’s not, all of the participants in the phone zap call at once with the aim of tying up the lines until someone answers. Occasionally the callers get sent to voicemail, which provides an opportune time to play prerecorded music loudly into the phone. When a call is answered, the participants in the phone zap put them on speakerphone and everyone takes notes on what is said. Usually there is a script of what questions to ask and what statements to make about the situation, but sometimes conversations with officials require some improvisation. Another favored tactic by the author’s group of phone zappers was to use fake names and to pretend to be journalists from an obscure publication, or students working on a project for school. Even though the facility in question might be on the other side of the country, allies can still be in danger because of their activism and may still face retaliation.
Once the strike was set into motion, details started to trickle out of prisons and into public view. The October 15th update from the Prison Strike Media Team reported that allies and incarcerated people in twelve states were able to give some details of the repression against the incarcerated strikers and their supporters. Many facilities reported that staff were physically abusing strikers, destroying their personal possessions, and placing jailhouse lawyers in solitary confinement to prevent them from providing services to fellow inmates. In facilities where repression was the most prevalent, prison officials refused to acknowledge there was anything happening — a fact which can be confirmed by the author, who participated in several phone zaps to various facilities. Some of the repression affected allies on the outside as well; for instance, two letters from Florida Times-Union journalists to the Okeechobee Correctional Institute concerning the strike were rejected for supposedly being a threat to “the security, order, or rehabilitative objectives” of the facility. Many allies in Ohio were also permanently banned from visiting prisons, and Leslie Hernandez, the mother of whistleblower Aaron McDonald, is currently facing charges for her organizing work on the outside.
As far as it’s known, none of the ten demands have been fully met by the powers-that-be in the country, though some progress has been made in some areas, such as the restoration of voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals in Florida. Another action is being planned for this year, though the exact nature and timing is still unknown. There will likely continue to be prison strikes such as this as long as the ten demands continue to go unmet and as long as incarceration exists in the United States.