For almost two years Bennu Hannibal Ra-Sun has been in and out of solitary confinement at the St. Clair and William E. Donaldson correctional facilities in Alabama. Typically this means going without human contact, being isolated from other prisoners, and having zero contact with the outside world. Yet thanks to a network of smuggled phones, social media and snail-mail correspondence, Bennu — whose legal name is Melvin Ray — took a lead role in the coordination of what's been called the largest prison strike in United States history.
On Sept. 9, an estimated 24,000 prisoners in 24 states began to engage in various work stoppages and hunger strikes designed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the 1971 Attica Prison riot, when over 2,000 inmates overtook a supermax institution in upstate New York to protest overcrowding, mistreatment by guards, and unsanitary facilities.
Decades later, the grievances are much the same. From Alabama to California, prisoners are asking their local administrations for better food and sanitation, access to legal aid, and fair wages for prison labor. This past spring Hannibal's organization, the Free Alabama Movement, released a call to action "to every prisoner in every state and federal institution across this land… to stop being a slave… to go on strike and cease reproducing the institutions of your confinement."
By the day of the strike, prisoners and activists in other anti-prison organizations like the Austin Anarchist Black Cross, Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, and Merced Organizing Project had released their own variations online, like an eight-point demand list shared to Facebook by prisoners in South Carolina.
Hannibal, who is serving life without parole for murder, called me on Skype from his solitary cell. The Donaldson prison is not part of the strike, so he spends his time using his cell space as one would a satellite office. He schedules calls, updates his YouTube page, and makes plans with prison reformers across the country. I asked Hannibal how he got his phone and put his network together, but he would not say.
He showed me his space, which primarily consists of the cement slab and 3-inch mattress he sleeps on without a blanket or pillow. "I haven't had lights in my cell in over a month. The air filters are completely covered in dust. It is a very small cell. There is a sewer system out there every night; I can smell the stench, this foul-smell odor."
"The issues have not changed, the conditions have not changed," Hannibal told me, referring to Attica. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are over 1.3 million more people incarcerated in state and federal prisons today than there were at the time of the riot.
Besides conditions, Hannibal takes issue with the practice of prison labor, where inmates earn far less than minimum wage. Today there are approximately 900,000 inmates working in prisons across the U.S., performing jobs that range from laundry and janitorial chores inside the prison to manufacturing consumer products and picking cotton off-site. Often prisoners make less than 40 cents an hour; in states like Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas, prisoners are not paid at all for their work.
With these conditions, Hannibal says, prisons are like modern-day slave plantations. In 1865 the 13th Amendment famously outlawed slavery and less famously maintained an exception for its use "as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." Hannibal argues that poor conditions and unpaid (or minimally paid) labor serve the same purpose in prisons today as they did on plantations 200 years ago: "You know when we talk about slavery, [when] we talk about the 13th Amendment, we're not just using the time to try to equate one thing to another; we're actually showing that the institution of slavery is not just the free labor," Hannibal said. "Well, before you get a man or a woman or child to go out into the field to work for you for free 12, 14, 16 hours a day, there has to be a breaking-down process. They have to be broken down spiritually, they have to be broken down mentally, they have to be broken down physically."
Though thousands of prisoners had joined the strike, it started to show signs of breakdown pretty quickly. The Wall Street Journal reported just five days after it began that in parts of Michigan, Florida, and Alabama, prisoners had already begun to return to their jobs. One week in, The Intercept reported that only 11 of the original 24 states still had some degree of strike activity. Prison activists and organizers like Hannibal maintain that lockdowns and staff retaliation forced the slowdown.
Another reason for dwindling participation may be the lack of response from any of the affected prison administrations. According to Victoria Castillo, an activist and the wife of a detainee at California's Merced County Jail, the sheriff's department and county administration promised a response to the prisoners' list of concerns, but they have yet to follow through. "They were told on 9/15 that there were responses to the demand letter, but nothing in writing was issued," Castillo explained. Prisoners in California resumed their hunger strike at midnight on Oct. 1.
If strikes prove ineffective, the organizers will shift to Plan B. According to Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, an activist working with Hannibal on the outside, "the next phase" of the fight is promoting a public boycott on corporations that benefit from prison labor. Glasgow did not share the list of targets, but big-name corporations like McDonald's, Walmart and AT&T have reportedly used prison labor. In the past, companies have contracted prison labor for everything from cleaning up oil spills to sewing Victoria's Secret lingerie.
Near the end of our conversation, Hannibal showed me how he dries his prison uniform on a contraband clothesline. "They don't want us to have a clothesline, but that means that when we take a shower at night we have a facecloth, towel, we have all this stuff… If we let it sit around, it will soil… They tell us, 'Don't put a clothesline up.' We just have to do it anyway."