Why the Prison Strikes Going on Across America Really Matter
Inmates across America are staging strikes and protests over what many call a system of slave labor inside the prison-industrial complex.
(Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA via AP)
This piece was published in partnership with the Influence.
Summer is drawing to an end here in the South, but in the region's prisons—and across the most incarcerated nation on earth—things are just starting to heat up.
Friday marked the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison Uprising. It also saw the launch of a coordinated series of nationwide work stoppages and hunger strikes by incarcerated Americans, perhaps the largest of its kind in history.
Organizers (and, as a formerly incarcerated person, I am one of them) currently estimate that incarcerated workers at more than 40 facilities in at least 24 states are participating. Since prison administrations' knee-jerk response to these actions is to lock down the facilities—and since, as I predicted when I previewed these actions last month, mainstream-media coverage is muted—it's difficult to gauge precisely how widespread the strikes are, where exactly inmates are striking, and how successful they've been.
But reports have trickled in from around the country, and through networks of organizers, media reports and communications from incarcerated people, we've worked to keep track.
One of the earliest reports came from Holman State Prison in Atmore, Alabama. The state has been a hotbed of prison organizing since at least 2014, when the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), inspired by the 2010 Georgia prison strikes, began to crystallize. Growing out of a class for jailhouse lawyers, FAM has become one of the leading voices in national discussions of prison reform and abolition.
According to inmates there, around noon on September 9, "All inmates at Holman Prison refused to report to their prison jobs without incident. With the rising of the sun came an eerie silence as the men at Holman laid on their racks reading or sleeping. Officers are performing all tasks."
At publication time, Holman's officers were still performing those tasks, with no signs of change.
Prior to the official strike kickoff, inmates at Holmes Correctional Institution, in the Florida panhandle, led an uprising that forced the facility to be shut down. More than 400 inmates participated in that rebellion, which the prison administration has linked to the national strikes.
As the list of facilities involved expands, the South continues to lead the way. Prisoners in multiple Alabama prisons, at least two other Florida prisons, Fluvanna women's prison in Virginia, and prisoners in North Carolina and South Carolina all reportedly engaged in various forms of resistance. Most Georgia prisoners don't work on Fridays, but some on-the-ground reports indicate that they plan to join the actions when their work week begins today (September 12).
But the South does not stand alone. More than 400 prisoners at Kinross Correctional Facility, Michigan, held a protest on the prison yard and caused property damage to the prison, prompting officials to transfer 150 of them to other facilities. Clallam Bay Correctional Center in Washington State is also said to be on lockdown after actions there.
Many women prisoners are involved: Those held at Central California Women's Prison, a women's prison in Nebraska, at Lincoln (Nebraska) Correctional Center, a women's prison in Kansas, and at Merced Jail in California have either refused to work, are on hunger strike, and/or have led uprisings in their facilities, I'm told.
It's significant that so much of the resistance is focused on women's facilities (although this certainly isn't without precedent: The 1974 Bedford Hills and 1975 North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women uprisings are two of the most significant events in US prison history). Women, especially young women of color, make up the fastest-growing corrections population, at least in local jails. And the history of resistance in US women's prisons continues to rapidly unfold, even if the media pays it little attention.
The actions haven't been limited to jails and prisons, either. Friends, family, and supporters of incarcerated people took to the streets across the country to express solidarity and support for the strikes. Atlanta, Arizona, Portland, Lucasville (Ohio), Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, St. Louis, New York, Providence, Richmond, Durham, Austin, Denver, Los Angeles, and plenty of other large and small US cities have seen protestors, sometimes numbering into the hundreds, take to the streets or picket prisons.
In Atlanta, where I live, about 50 people disrupted business Friday at Wendy's, McDonald's, Starbucks, and Aramark—companies that have been accused of exploiting barely compensated incarcerated labor—during street protests. According to witnesses, police responded by trying to run over protesters and dousing protesters, bystanders, and one another with pepper spray.
On Saturday, protesters from as far away as Atlanta and Athens, Georgia, met with members of Mothers and FAMilies (of FAM) to stage a solidarity protest outside the gates of Donaldson Correctional Facility in central Alabama.
Solidarity also came from outside the US—including Quebec, and from as far away as Greece, where prisoners offered a salute to their US counterparts, as well as Serbia. Such a broad display of unity and support across prison walls is unprecedented.
Strike organizers in different cities and states have expressed a broad range of goals, some immediate and some longer-term, but one theme ties the actions together: an end to prison slavery.
FAM organizers point out that the "13th Amendment to the US Constitution continues to permit slavery to exist in this country 'as Punishment for crime whereof the person shall been duly convicted,' and the institution and enterprise of slavery was legally transferred to the State government's prison systems." (Read the full text of the 13th amendment here.)
What constitutes a "crime" is, of course, a political decision—and one often taken deliberately to the detriment of certain populations, as the history of the war on drugs perfectly demonstrates. The modern prison system has been built on the ashes of chattel slavery, first through the convict leasing system, then the notorious "chain gangs"—which lasted into the 1950s—up to modern mass incarceration. As long as prison slavery is protected by the US Constitution, poor people and people of color will continue to find themselves victims of a harsh system that exploits free and cheap labor for the benefit of the state, corporations, and the ruling class.
Today, the signs of oppression and institutional violence are inescapable. Reports of police killing unarmed people of color have become commonplace, so much so that only the most outrageous cases gain national attention. Many of us barely bat an eye at the nonstop stream of stories about people behind bars being physically or sexually abused by guards and being forced to live and work in deplorable conditions, often without access to basic medical care or adequate food.
We also live in a time of resistance that our country hasn't seen in well over a generation, if ever. People directly impacted by modern mass incarceration, draconian drug policies, police violence, and the laws intended to protect but end up criminalizing sex workers by police violence—they are not only demanding change, they're making it themselves.
That, perhaps more than anything else, sets these modern social movements apart from liberation struggles of the past.
At the actions in Atlanta on Friday, a police captain, as soon as he appeared on the scene, asked protesters, "Who are the leaders?" Our group didn't miss a beat, responding that "we're all leaders." The system doesn't know how to respond to a movement without leaders to intimidate, harass, or even assassinate. In fact, the tone of the police changed dramatically after that, with officers allowing us to march in the streets to our final stop at Aramark, one of the biggest prison contractors in the country.
Whether the current growing wave of strikes will result in an end to prison slavery, of course, remains to be seen. Right now, events are unfolding so fast it's difficult to keep pace. But one thing is certain: Like Attica before it, September 9, 2016, opened a new chapter in US prison history.
Where this goes will be up to the people on the inside putting what little freedom they have on the line, and those of us on the outside fighting for their voices to be heard.
These strikes are the result of years of planning by people on both sides of the prison walls and follow on the heels of dozens of smaller strikes and uprisings that have swept through the prison system in the last six years. Many of us carry the scars of having lived through the largest prison system in world history for years, even decades, after we're released—if we're released at all.
Which is why solidarity is vital. It's easy to turn a blind eye to the struggles of people society has branded "criminals" when we haven't walked in their shoes. Hell, it's even tempting for those of us who have served time to turn our backs and forget about our incarcerated neighbors once we leave those jail and prison cells.
But incarcerated people are our neighbors today—odds are there's a county jail, probably even a state detention facility, in your backyard—and most incarcerated people will be released one day.
Slavery is alive and well in the modern US. The wheels to undo it are in motion at this very moment. How will we respond when they ask where we were while they screamed out for compassion, support, and solidarity? On which side of history will we wake up tomorrow?
Now, perhaps more than ever before in our lives, it's time to ask ourselves such questions.
The prison strikes are sponsored and supported by a broad coalition, including Free Alabama Movement, the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People, and Families Movement, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) of the Industrial Workers of the World, the Ordinary People Society, various Anarchist Black Cross Federation local chapters, the National Lawyers Guild, It's Going Down, along with many other organizations and individuals. For updates on what actions are taking place and which facilities are currently on lockdown, visit the IWOC Facebook page.This site also has a link to a document with regularly updated information on the actions.
Jeremy Galloway is a harm-reduction coordinator at Families for Sensible Drug Policy, program director at Southeast Harm Reduction Project, co-founder of Georgia Overdose Prevention, and a state-certified peer-recovery specialist. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and three cats. He writes and speaks regionally about drug-policy reform, harm reduction, his experiences, and the importance of including the voices of directly impacted people in policy decisions.