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Rumblings in the Belly of the Beast

Prisoners in multiple states carry out a prison strike.

Libby Rainey Sep 4

Issue 239

News of the nationwide prison strike spread slowly at first. After a flurry of media coverage on August 21, the first day of the nearly three-week-long prisoner-organized demonstration, there was nothing to do but wait for information to emerge from behind bars.

But then stories started to trickle in from across the country. In Washington, at least 60 detained immigrants at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma declared a hunger strike. In North Carolina, prisoners at the Hyde Correctional Institution hung three banners on the prison fence there, demanding better food and earlier parole dates. By the second week of the strike, organizers announced that prisoners from at least 10 states had protested from behind bars to demand improved conditions behind bars, the right to vote, greater access to rehabilitative programs and the end to “modern-day slavery.” By the time the strike is through, incarcerated people in at least 17 states are expected to join the demonstrations through work stoppages, hunger strikes, and commissary boycotts.

“This is quickly becoming the largest and most recognized prison strike in U.S. history,” said strike organizer Amani Sawari, speaking on behalf of the prisoner group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak in the second week of the strike.

The strike began August 21, on the anniversary of the 1971 killing of Black Panther George Jackson at California’s San Quentin State Prison. Soon after, prisons in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Indiana saw strike activity, according to organizers. Individuals in Texas, California and Ohio went on hunger strike, including some in solitary confinement. Prisoners communicated their activities through a network of prison activists and outside organizers using family contacts, contraband cell phones, letters and other methods to tell the outside world about their demonstrations.

“It’s prisoners that have called for this strike, it’s prisoners that have drafted this list of demands, and its prisoners that continue to communicate with us and relay to us the conditions they face, the retaliation they face,” said organizer Cole Dorsey, a member of IWW’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, in a video promoting the strike. “Listen to these prisoners… and take their direction.”

The seeds of what would become a nationwide protest were planted in the days after violence broke out at the Lee Correctional Facility in South Carolina this April. A riot left seven prisoners dead. Six of them were black. Witnesses reported seeing bodies stacked on top of one another as the violence dragged on. Correctional officers failed to stop the bloodshed quickly, instead allowing the riot to continue for hours. Outrage mounted as prisoners and advocates around the country recognized the conditions that led to the Lee riot could lead to another riot like it in any prison in America.

That’s when Jailhouse Lawyers Speak declared a national strike. They issued 10 demands in late April, among them calls for the elimination of racist policies that disproportionately affect black and brown communities and the end of “prison slavery” in which prisoners receive pennies per hour for their labor including work for corporations such as AT&T, Verizon, McDonald’s, Kmart and Victoria’s Secret.  The strike is set to run until September 9, the anniversary of the legendary Attica prison uprising. It is expected to be larger than the previous nationwide strike in 2016, when more than 20,000 prisoners protested around the country.

But as news of the strike began to emerge, so did reports of lockdowns and what organizers say are attempts at prisoner suppression. The New Mexico Corrections Department shut down prisons across the state the day before the strike began. Kevin Rashid Johnson, a prisoner in solitary confinement in Virginia, wrote an op-ed for the Guardian describing the retaliation striking prisoners face.

“Because of my refusal to work, and the efforts I’ve made to organize strikes and publicize the horrors that go on behind bars, I have faced regular reprisals,” he wrote. “In recent years I’ve been bounced around from state to state in an attempt to silence me: they sent me from Virginia to Oregon, from there to Texas and Florida, then back again to Virginia.”

A prison strike can look many different ways. From outside the walls, it can often look like nothing at all. This makes it hard to know exactly how many prisoners are involved and what their participation looks like. It also means that the blowback from taking a stand can be brutal and unregulated by the public eye. The prison strike is putting the voices of people behind bars at center stage — and also highlighting how difficult it is for them to be heard and seen in the first place.

This will remain true after September 9, when the strike will officially finish, but the response to prisoner activism will only be beginning, according to Professor Heather Ann Thompson, the historian and author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.

“Eyes on what’s happening on the inside is critical,” Thompson said in a recent interview on Democracy Now! “It’s highly likely that there will be folks that will experience some serious retaliation from prison management, and we’ve got to watch what’s going on, demand entry, provide lawyers and make sure that folks on the inside are protected.”

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Illustration by Charlyne Alexis.