Florida’s Prison Laborers Are Going On Strike

Florida’s Prison Laborers Are Going On Strike

Florida’s Prison Laborers Are Going On Strike

Demanding fair pay for their work and an end to brutal conditions, the inmates are putting pressure on the Florida prison system’s bottom line.

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Inmates in Florida state prisons plan to begin a work-strike today in protest of prison overcrowding, brutal living conditions, and working for no or little pay. The strike is being coordinated between at least 10 Florida prisons, and may involve thousands of inmates’ participating in the nonviolent “laydown”—vowing, for at least one month, to refuse to show up to work assignments or buy items at their prison’s commissary.

Organizers of the strike argue that not being paid sufficiently for their work makes it exceedingly difficult for them to reenter society upon release. Florida’s policy is to give freed inmates $50 and a bus ticket, which inmates claim is insufficient to weather the shocks of reentry.

Price-gouging at the commissaries—affecting both inmates and their families who send them money to supplement low-calorie or unsavory meals—is another principal complaint. An example inmate organizers give is of a $4 case of soup that costs $17 inside prison. “This is highway robbery without the gun,” the strike announcement reads.

The inmates are also demanding the reintroduction of parole incentives for inmates serving life sentences, the restoration of voting rights to released inmates with felony convictions, and an end to the death penalty. (In 2016 the US Supreme Court found Florida’s death sentencing scheme to violate the Sixth Amendment in that a judge, and not a jury, could impose the death penalty. After the state rewrote its law to conform with that ruling, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the updated law violated the Eighth Amendment. The state has nevertheless continued with its executions).

Organizing inmates are being supported by outside advocacy and political networks, including the Miami-Dade and Broward County Chapters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, Supporting Prisoners and Real Change (SPARC), and the national Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), which is run by the Industrial Workers of the World.

“We intend to sit down and refuse to work, have an economic protest,” one inmate organizer, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of recriminations, said to an IWOC interviewer. IWOC organizers shared the audio with me. “We want to create an environment where someone can do their time, be rehabilitated, and enter into society with some type of hope.”

“We want to emphasize that this is a nonviolent protest,” he continued, noting the influence of Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy of nonviolent resistance. But King is only one of the inmates’ inspirations: Another is the Haitian Revolution, in which slaves overthrew their French colonial subjugators and established a free nation by 1804. A statement from Haitian inmates in Florida prisons in support of the strike reads, “Prisons in America are nothing but a different form of slavery plantations and the citizens of the country are walking zombie banks. There are so many Haitians, Jamaican, and Latinos in the FDOC serving sentences that exceeds life expectancy and or life sentences who are not being deported. They use all immigrants, for free Labor and then deport them. [sic]”

The laydown comes after a series of other protests and strikes that have shaken Florida’s prisons. Last August, all of Florida’s 97,000 inmates were put on lockdown for four days for alleged disturbances as inmates and advocates rallied for the Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March, which took place in Washington, DC, but also sparked protests at prisons across the country. During 2016’s nationally coordinated prison strike, inmates in a number of Florida prisons went on strike and rose up, resulting in property destruction and lockdowns across the state. As I reported at The Nation in 2016, in September of that year around 400 inmates in Florida’s Holmes Correctional Institution staged an uprising, followed by strikes, protests, and uprisings in at least four other Florida facilities in subsequent days.

The nationally coordinated 2016 protests against prison labor conditions were part of a growing movement of inmate organizing and increasing national political consciousness of the racially targeted policies of mass incarceration. Kevin Rashid Johnson, a former Texas inmate who was transferred to Florida last summer for allegedly having a weapon in his cell (he believes he was transferred for persistently publicizing the abuses of the Texas prison system), wrote: “Mass imprisonment and the growth and concentration of increasingly militarized police in the oppressed communities are, like the slave patrols and racial terror of the old plantation slave system, weapons of counterinsurgency aimed at containing potentially rebellious social groups, in order to protect and preserve the political-economic ascendancy of the ruling class.”

Though many books on racial and carceral politics, including Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (deemed inadmissible due to its “racial overtures”), have been banned in Florida prisons since 2014, Florida inmates continue to discuss their struggle through the lens of racial and class politics. Many of the inmate organizers have adopted Haitian-inspired sobriquets, including Lion’s Den, 1804, and Neg Lakay. Karen Smith, secretary of the Gainesville Branch of IWOC, told me that Florida prison officials “do not want material to help prisoners to draw connections between slavery then and slavery now.”

Panagioti Tsolkas, an organizer with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, told me that the “dynamics are changing rapidly with the ability of prisoners to communicate,” both with each other, between facilities, and with the press. “For decades, for centuries,” Tsolkas said, “there has been a seamless flow of revolts and uprisings” of slaves and prisoners. Cell phones and a rapid-fire news cycle have only made the “visibility of prisoners higher.” This may be one of the reasons Tsolkas and others have seen cross-racial organizing, as well as more co-organizing between separate facilities and across state lines.

Like other state prison systems with notoriously harsh conditions, Florida inmates’ list of grievances is long, and grounded in documented abuses. A particularly egregious case from 2012 was the death of inmate Darren Rainey, who died after being forced by prison guards into a shower stall that poured 180-degree water onto his body for two hours—nurses reported that his severely burned skin came off at the touch. Fellow inmate Harold Hempstead, who accused guards of using burning hot showers as punishment—and murdering Rainey—was shipped to Tennessee on the same day that the guards were cleared in Rainey’s death, in what he alleges was an effort to silence him. The death is one of a string of terrifying abuses described by The Miami Herald in its series, “Cruel and Unusual: Deadly Abuse in Florida’s Prisons,” which documents deadly beatings, death threats from guards, guards gassing inmates as punishment, abuse of mentally ill patients, as well as disdain, corruption, and cover-ups from the state.

The current strike is not only about specific prison conditions, however: The statement made by the Haitian inmates names President Trump (who last week referred to Haiti as a “shithole” country) and his anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as the culture of exploiting immigrants for their free or low-paid labor.

“The way to strike back is not with violence,” an inmate, using the pseudonym Neg Lakay (a Haitian idiom roughly meaning staying true to your roots) wrote in a recent zine, or pamphlet, sent out by IWOC to around 1,000 Florida inmates. “If we show them violence they will have a legitimate excuse to use brute force against us and explain to the public that they had to use brute force in order to contain the situation.” Some contributors to the zine were subsequently targeted by prison officials and placed in solitary confinement, according to IWOC’s Smith.

And EZ (another inmate pseudonym) explained the economic situation, referring to Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises (PRIDE), a nonprofit organization that trains inmates and puts them to work making office furniture and uniforms, among hundreds of other items, while paying only 55 cents (or less) an hour:

“Having recently worked for the private billion-dollar industry known as P.R.I.D.E. that operates inside Florida’s DOC at the tag plant at Union CI’s southwest unit and employs inmates at below sweatshop wages, I can attest to the disparity at this particular monopoly. We process 10,000+ license plates on an average work day for all the DMV’s in FL, earning 20-50 cents an hour. 60-70 hours in a biweekly pay period yields new workers about 12 bucks. 12 freaking dollars! Inmates have been injured, maimed, and permanently disfigured while working on heavy machinery with no proper training. Hot and unsafe conditions compound the situation.”

That is the kind of economic exploitation at the heart of the strike. “Our goal is to make the Governor realize that it will cost the state of Florida millions of dollars daily to contract outside companies to come and cook, clean, and handle the maintenance,” the strike announcement reads. As Florida prisons likely go on lockdown in response, it may take weeks or longer for information to leak out to the public, but prison officials, as well as other inmates across the country, will have surely heard the call.

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