EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced in partnership with The Appeal.
Prisoners across the country are launching a strike today, on the anniversary of the death of incarcerated activist George Jackson. Jackson, a member of the Black Panther Party, was a leading voice and theorist in the 1970s prison movement—a time that saw hundreds of uprisings behind bars. On April 24, prisoners in South Carolina announced the strike, which is expected to last for 19 days and ends on the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising in New York.
The call to action—created by members of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS), a group of people incarcerated in South Carolina that organizes for prisoners’ rights—lists a variety of ways prisoners can get involved, including work strikes, sit-in protests, boycotts, and hunger strikes. Amani Sawari, a spokesperson for the protests, said outside organizers have heard of plans or wishes to strike in 17 states (but, out of fear of retaliation, the states will not be named until after August 21). Over 150 organizations have expressed solidarity with the strike, including BYP-100 and the NYC Jericho Movement, and solidarity rallies outside prisons have been planned in at least 10 cities.
With the announcement of the strike, prisoners also released a list of 10 demands that included improving the conditions of prisons immediately, rescinding the Prison Litigation Reform Act, restoring the voting rights of all confined citizens, an immediate end to racist gang-enhancement laws, ending death by incarceration, and rehabilitation services for all prisoners, including violent offenders.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act, a law passed under President Bill Clinton in 1996, places barriers and restrictions on prisoners trying to file a federal lawsuit, including requiring prisoners to go through all administrative grievance processes within their prison before filing a case, not waiving court fees, limiting litigation costs that can be paid to the prisoner’s attorney after a successful lawsuit, and restricting court cases that allege only emotional or mental harm. The result is a lack of access to the courts for prisoners when their constitutional rights are violated. JLS is calling for the law to be rescinded.
Their second demand, which reads: “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,” has been a theme in work strikes over the past five years and speaks to a JLS slogan, “#Abolishthe13th,” referencing the 13th Amendment of the constitution.
In an interview with Shadowproof, a JLS representative incarcerated in South Carolina described prison as a continuation of slavery. “I can remember my great-granddaddy and them, they were talking about it. Prison is slavery. They never really referred to it as prison or as jail, they referred to it as being forced back onto the plantations again. This is something we’ve always understood. Of course, as things evolved more, the system evolved, it’s a little more sophisticated, and you know people tried to change the language and there was a disconnect.”
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Another demand, ending death by incarceration, targets lengthy prison sentences. Death by incarceration is “any exorbitant amount of time that a person is given behind bars, assuming that they’ll die behind bars based on the length of that sentence,” Sawari explained. Life without parole is one example of death by incarceration—but it can also include sentences like 50 years behind bars. In 2017, over 200,000 people were serving life sentences or “virtual” life sentences (50 years or more), according to The Sentencing Project. Fifty thousand of those people were serving life without the possibility of parole.
“There’s no way that you can look at someone when they’re being sentenced and decide when they’re gonna finish their process of rehabilitation,” Sawari argued. “Especially [when it’s] a young person. A 17-year-old or a 16-year-old being sentenced to life in prison is absolutely ridiculous. So prisoners are calling that no person ever be sentenced to death by incarceration.”
A week before the strike was announced, Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina made national headlines when a prison riot left seven people dead—Raymond Scott, Eddie Gaskins, Cornelius McClary, Corey Scott, Damonte Rivera, Joshua Jenkins, and Michael Milledge—all of them prisoners. The Department of Corrections blamed the riot on contraband; saying that opposing gang members were fighting over territory, money, and prohibited cell phones. The solution, the DOC asserted, was to block all cell-phone signals in the prison system. But prisoners painted a more complicated picture, saying that the overcrowding has made prison conditions unbearable and guards’ waiting hours to intervene resulted in the high body count. While the DOC is trying to blame cell phones for the violence, it’s those same phones that allow prisoners to organize, speak to the outside world and the media, and keep in touch with family amid exorbitant prison phone fees.
South Carolina prisoners and members of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, decided to announce the national prison strike in response to this deadly riot. “Prisons can’t function without prisoners doing the work that needs to be done. Prisoners [are] the ones that work in the kitchen, that do the cleaning. They manage so many different aspects of the prison,” Sawari told The Appeal.
Since the riot on April 15, Sawari reported that units at Lee County Correctional Facility have been on lockdown. During lockdown, prisoners are allowed out of their cell for only one hour a day, a practice that has been labeled solitary confinement, and often must eat in their cells.
The strike set to begin today is just the latest in a string of strikes that have been organized inside prisons over the last five years. In 2013, 30,000 prisoners went on hunger strike in the California prison system to protest indefinite, long-term solitary confinement. Two years later, the state agreed to limit its use of indefinite solitary—with mixed results. In 2016, prisoners in Alabama coordinated a national labor strike on September 9, after conducting multiple work strikes within their state prison systems. The strike was to protest prison labor and the low wages paid to prisoners; work stoppages occurred in Alabama, Florida, and Michigan. Prisoners in Texas, Alabama, and Florida were thrown into solitary confinement for mentioning that national strike.
“Let this nationwide strike be a wake up; Prisoners will destroy the crops,” read a statement about today’s strike that JLS released on August 10. “We will not comply. We will not allow you to exploit our families’ hard earned dollars anymore. Striking the match let it go up in a blaze. We are humans!”
In the statement, JLS said that influential prisoners have already faced repression for aligning with the strike and that other prisoners say they are being threatened by guards not to participate. In Ohio, Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan was sent to solitary confinement on July 27 because of correspondence about the strike. According to Ohio’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Hasan’s conduct report listed five violations, including rioting or causing others to riot and “engaging in or encouraging a group demonstration or work stoppage.”
But JLS says the strike will go on. “Fundamentally, it’s a human rights issue. Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. We know that our conditions are causing physical harm and deaths that could be avoided if prison policy makers actually gave a damn,” the statement said. “Prisons in America are a war zone. 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?”