Reflecting on the Prison Labor Strike: Driving Toward the “Dismantling Process”

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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 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 in 16 states and federal prisons. In addition, 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 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.

Those are the broad details of what happened. Let’s dive in a little deeper.

Differences from 2016

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. 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 9) and put forward ten demands, 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, 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 changing sentencing laws and charging practices.

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.

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 fighting between prisoners. The deaths at Lee ultimately happened because the guards waited seven hours before intervening.

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, the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak leadership correctly 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 more attention from the mainstream media than previous strikes.

How Organizers Built Upon the Lessons of 2016

Unlike the high-profile Free Alabama Movement in 2016, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak chose to remain in the background and communicate through Sawari, who anchored a media team comprised of freelance journalist Jared Ware and half a dozen Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) members, including Brooke Terpstra. 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.

IWOC continues to often puzzle both the mainstream media and other elements of the political left. 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.” He rejected any categorization of IWOC as a solidarity group that was distant from the realities of prison, stressing that a large portion of IWOC members are “critically impacted,” and that this is what drives their passion. “We got skin in the game,” he told me.

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 (including UIUC’s!). Despite efforts to frame the strike as a workers’ action, IWOC and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak were unable to reverse the general failure of trade unions to recognize mass incarceration as a working-class issue. 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. 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.

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 and pre-emptive lockdowns, along with solitary confinement of jailhouse lawyers and other activists.

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.”

James Kilgore is an activist, writer and researcher based in Urbana, Illinois. He is the Co-Director of First Followers Reentry Program and is also has a 2017 Soros Justice Fellow to develop a campaign against electronic monitoring, Challenging E-Carceration. He is the author of five books, four of which were drafted during his six and a half years in prison. Reach him @waazn1 or waazn1@gmaillcom.


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