Since September 9, inmates in at least 29 prisons (maybe as many as 50) have staged labor strikes, hunger strikes, and various kinds of protests. The actions took place in at least 12 states and involved at least 24,000 inmates (and potentially many more). Taken together, the past month has seen one of the largest, if not the largest, prison protest in US history. Organized across facilities and states and planned for the 45th anniversary of the Attica prison uprising, the actions have disrupted incarceration-as-usual across the country. And yet few people outside inmate solidarity networks have heard anything about it.1

The national awareness gap boils down to the particular nature of prison strikes, and how inmates remain largely at the mercy of prison guards and officials, even when it comes to getting the word out about their protests. Many of the actions that outside organizers have been reporting to the media remain unconfirmed: Public awareness can lag months, years, and sometimes decades behind events and conditions inside prisons. Public information officers can stonewall journalists, and prison officials sometimes deny actions, despite strong evidence that they have occurred, within their facilities. That’s why The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, and CNN, among others, have all failed to cover the actions.2

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the extent of the strikes, and of the retaliation occurring behind bars. But strikes and actions did happen, and in many cases are ongoing.3

What We Know So Far

Even before the actions were scheduled to kick off on September 9, organizers in multiple prisons were transferred, put in solitary confinement, or had their privileges restricted. In South Carolina, in the weeks leading up to the strike, officers took preemptive measures to “isolate, transfer, [and] place in solitary” inmate organizers, according to Dee (a pseudonym), a jailhouse lawyer and an inmate in the Perry Correctional Institute. Jason Walker, an inmate in the Clements unit in Texas, wrote to me, “They just trying to cover their asses in case that strike really does happen. So in other words, it’s pre-damage control.” Walker later wrote: “At 3:00AM 9-5-16 they put the prison system on lockdown.”4

On September 7, at least 400 inmates in Florida’s Holmes Correctional staged an uprising, followed by strikes, protests, and uprisings in at least four other Florida facilities in subsequent days. Inmates refused orders, refused to work, took over dorms and cellblocks, and damaged buildings. Riot squads attempted to subdue the uprising with canisters of gas. According to reports from The Miami Herald, understaffing, excessive heat, and incidences of violence have plagued Florida’s prisons for years. Kimberly Schultz, president of Teamsters 2011, the union representing Florida’s correctional officers, expected that “These riots will continue to increase in frequency.”5

In Michigan the day after prisoners went on strike in conjunction with the nationwide work stoppage on September 9, according to Evelyn Williams, the fiancée of Anthony Bates, an inmate in Kinross Correctional Facility, striking inmates who were marching peacefully in the yard, after discussing their demands with the warden, were accosted by a tactical team with “guns, rifles, tear gas, and shields.” Approximately 150 inmates were handcuffed with zip ties and left out in the rain for five or six hours. Some were also allegedly tear-gassed in the face. As reported in the Detroit Free Press, prison officials initially tried to downplay the loss of control and extent of the damage, and there are still disputing narratives, but what is clear is that “inmates set at least one fire, smashed numerous windows…and left at least one unit temporarily unlivable.” It was the first time in over 35 years that the state sent armed officers into the prison to regain control.6

In Wisconsin, inmates in Waupun Correctional Institution, who were already on hunger strikes by September 9 in protest of long-term solitary confinement, were bolstered by the national strikes, according to IWOC organizer Ben Turk. Some of the inmates were being force-fed through a nasal tube prior to and continuing after September 9. At least 15 inmates in Waupun were continuing their hunger strike as of September 23, according to an inmate letter.7

In Texas, one of the states where past strikes have received the most attention, multiple prisons went on lockdown on or before September 9, though officials denied that there was strike activity. One family member, however, reported that, in response to a September 9 strike in the Allred Unit, “Guards in riot gear showed up and blasted tear gas and physically restrained and assaulted several inmates.” I spoke with the wife of one Texas inmate who told me that her husband had planned to participate in a September 9 strike in the Michael unit, which, as of October 2, was on lockdown due to “shortage of staff,” according to a receptionist at the prison. In the Coffield unit, another of the lead national organizers, Malik Washington, was placed in long-term solitary confinement on September 15. Washington writes: “This step was taken in response to my peaceful organizing of prisoners for the September 9 National Prison Work Stoppage.” Another lead inmate organizer, Jason Walker, in Clements unit, wrote to me that his unit went on lockdown on Labor Day, and remained locked down until, at least, September 19. He drew a picture of his breakfast, which, he said, was typical during a lockdown and inadequately portioned. “Nobody deserves to get fed like this,” he wrote. In Alabama, last May, inmates accused prison officials of “bird feeding,” giving them, during a lockdown, a purposefully low-calorie diet of non-nutritional and sometimes disgusting food.8

In California, around 100 inmates in Merced County Jail went on hunger strike on September 9. Inmates in Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County Jail planned to join the hunger strike on October 1.9

In South Carolina, there were repeated moments of tension throughout the month. At least one inmate died in the state’s McCormick facility after an inmate-on-inmate stabbing, prompting what one inmate called an “active rebellion.” The prison reportedly went on lockdown. (Officials didn’t return my calls for a statement).10

On September 29 in North Carolina, four prison officials were attacked by inmates. It is unclear if these uprisings were related to organizing around September 9, but incidences of violence in the Carolinas seem to be on the rise. Dee, the jailhouse lawyer in South Carolina’s Perry Correctional Institution, told me, “There is much more collective unity among the prisoners” after September 9. Another inmate in South Carolina said, “The spirit of Attica is in the air.”11

In Alabama, where the movement for the September 9 action began, inmates in Holman Correctional Facility shut down the prison for at least a day. According to inmate organizer Kinetik Justice, even prison guards joined the strike on Saturday, September 24, to protest unsafe conditions. (Officer Kenneth Bettis was stabbed by an inmate at the facility on September 1, and died from his injuries on September 16). The day after the guards joined the strike, on September 25, Justice said, there was an “emergency situation…and the warden was wheeling the meal cart to serve the prisoners dinner.” Justice, as well as outside organizers from the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), told me that though the work strike has ended, protests continue, and tension in Holman remains high.12

Although the Alabama Department of Corrections officials denied that guards joined the strike—confirming only that at least nine guards did not report for their shifts on September 24—Justice told me that almost no guards were working at the prison that day, and “that the violence was beginning to erupt again.”13

Justice said: “They [the guards] won’t go in the dormitory [anymore]” where inmates are confined. There have been reports of multiple inmate-on-inmate stabbings in Holman, and, according to Justice, “Authorities have no control of a maximum security prison.” According to Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, spokesperson for FAM, at least two of the striking officers he spoke with cited understaffing as connected to the death of officer Bettis. Glasgow also told me that striking guards “agree with the inmates [that] Admin is creating a hostile environment.”14

When Bettis was stabbed, according to Justice, he was the only officer in charge of approximately 230 men in the dining hall. In the last three months, according to Justice, over 20 corrections officers have quit their jobs. Holman has seen three different wardens in the past 10 months; the previous warden, Carter F. Davenport, was stabbed by an inmate in March and retired shortly afterwards—FAM had been calling for him to step down since April. ADOC officials confirmed that Holman is understaffed. On October 2 there were more reports that officers were once again striking. According to ADOC spokesperson Bob Horton, six officers did not report to work, but “There was no strike.”15

Perhaps one of the few things preventing Holman from descending into total chaos is that leaders of FAM and other prison organizations, including prison gangs, convened an inmate Peace Summit last month to take control of prison security, which was being neglected by the guards. One of the participants in the Peace Summit said, addressing fellow inmates: “We are not enemies. These COs have no power to change laws or effect change on the senseless administrative policies. They are not the real enemy. The laws have us oppressed.”16

On October 6, likely in response to the strikes, the Justice Department announced it will be conducting an investigation into the conditions of prisons in Alabama, citing the constitutional requirement that prisons “provide humane conditions of confinement,” and that “All citizens, even those who are incarcerated, should expect sanitary conditions of habitation that are free of physical harm and sexual abuse.”17

Working to Sustain the Movement

There were reports of other protests, uprisings, labor strikes, and hunger strikes in multiple other states, but details and confirmation are still lacking. Outside of prisons, actions organized by FAM, IWOC, Anarchist Black Cross groups, and other allied organizations, took place in dozens of states. There are already calls for renewed strikes and protests inside prisons from October 15 to October 22, as well as a planned “Millions for Prisoners Human Rights March” in Washington, DC, for August of 2017.18

Siddique Abdullah Hasan, an inmate in Ohio State Penitentiary, summed up to me the inmate-organizing efforts in an e-mail: “We understand that [this] movement is a protracted struggle and it’s going to take more than one national demonstration to break the back of the prison-industrial complex, a powerful and oppressive system. Nevertheless, our ultimate goals are to abolish prison slavery, mass incarceration, super economic exploitation of prisoners and their families, and end police brutality in poor and minority communities.”19

Though inmates in multiple states are protesting a range of injustices, they have found common ground against what they see as a brutal, retaliatory, racist system of criminal justice and mass incarceration. Continued inmate organizing could incite further federal investigations into—as well as increasing public attention of—America’s prison system, which is the largest in the world. After the uprising in the Attica prison, in 1971, it has taken decades for the truth of what happened within the prison’s walls to make the light of day—as this year’s publication of Heather Ann Thompson’s book, Blood in the Water, shows. Hopefully, the public’s understanding of today’s conditions and the protest movement behind prison bars won’t lag so far behind.20