Keeping the Spirit of the Prison Labor Strike Alive

In 2005, when I was in Lompoc US Penitentiary, prison authorities sent me a slip telling me they had returned a book a publisher had sent me because it included a chapter entitled “How to Organize a Strike.” They deemed this as inappropriate reading material — a measure of their paranoia about the “S”-word.

Thirteen years later, the prison authorities haven’t changed. Their fear of collective action by people in prison is central to their identity. Hence, when I hear about events like the Prison Labor Strike of 2018 and its aftermath, I find it stunning that so many people behind the walls are now prepared to take mass action against the system of incarceration.

The Prison Labor Strike of 2018

This year’s Prison Labor Strike was one of the most amazing mobilizations of liberatory politics in the past decade. It was the latest iteration in the most recent generation of prison rebellions, which has included labor strikes in Georgia prisons in 2010, the three Pelican Bay Hunger Strikes in California 2011-2013, and the direct predecessor of the latest action: the strike against prison slavery in 2016.

The authoritarian nature of prison bureaucracies prevents us from compiling a precise chronicle of what takes place behind the walls. However, according to the lead organization in the strike, the network of prisoners known as Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, actions occurred in 16 states and federal prisons. Plus, over 200 people went on strike in the Northwest Immigration Detention Center.

Amani Sawari, the official spokesperson for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, emphasized that the mobilization took many forms. In some prisons, striking meant refusing work; in others it involved hunger strikes or refusing to spend money for commissary and phone services. Apart from actions inside prisons, Sawari reported that more than 200 community organizations across the country endorsed the strike. These supporters carried out dozens of solidarity actions including call-in campaigns known as phone zaps, noise demonstrations, teach-ins, sit-ins and massive email campaigns.

Strike, Not an Insurrection

The Prison Labor Strike of 2018 was organized very specifically a strike — not an insurrection or attempt at revolution. Since strikes are so rare in the US, we might revisit exactly what a strike implies. While revolutionaries may engage in strikes, in all but the rarest of circumstances, a strike does not aim for radical change. When workers go on strike, they typically have a specific set of demands they want their bosses to meet. A strike may win some demands but perhaps more importantly will provide worker organizations (and even unfortunately for the bosses as well) a quick assessment of the balance of forces. Strikes teach workers what is possible and show that what they have to do to extend the boundaries of possibility. The more strikers have the capacity to learn from past actions, the greater their potential to advance their interests in the future.

The 2016 strike was an open-ended mobilization to end prison slavery. While this provided powerful lessons about the nature of the prison system, the demand was clearly unwinnable at any time in the foreseeable future. With no specific deadline, the action created some confusion among strikers and supporters about how long to carry on. The lack of a specific deadline made it uncertain for strikers and supporters as to how long they should continue their actions.

By contrast, the carefully crafted program for this year incorporated a specific time frame (August 21 to September 9) and put forward ten demands, which organizers had whittled down from an original list of 35. These demands focused on the key pieces that hold the system of mass incarceration together. They aimed, in Sawari’s words, at “making prisons better and safer places for the people who have to live there.” While ending prison slavery remained a key element, the list targeted narrower reforms such as ending truth-in-sentencing laws and racialized over-charging, eliminating life without parole, and increased training and education opportunities for people inside prisons.

Clearly the criminal legal system would look a lot different if these demands were implemented, but it would still not be abolished. While many of the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak leaders identified as prison abolitionists, their approach accepted that ending mass incarceration is a long, complicated political struggle, not the product of one insurrectionary event.

While the demands represented the key change from 2016, three other points were also salient. First was the recognition that not all prisoners labor under conditions of chattel slavery. Although in rural southern prisons like Angola in Louisiana, men do pick cotton, people in other states have varying work regimes. Some incarcerated people work in factories under contract from private companies, but far more are warehoused, remaining locked in their cells with few if any work opportunities and an ever-shrinking menu of education and other programs. The 2018 approach to organizing embodied an expanded understanding of prison slavery — the notion of slavery as a system of total control, a total lack of freedom in which laboring without pay is but one element.

Second, the connection between this strike and the killing of seven men at Lee prison in South Carolina in April was profound. The men in Lee were not killed by guards but as a result of in-fighting between prisoners. In a sense, this is similar to the hundreds of cases we unfortunately witness every year in the streets of our urban communities, where residents, especially youth, kill each other through gun violence. The deaths at Lee ultimately happened because the guards waited seven hours before intervening. In other words, like many urban police forces, they were content to let the killing go ahead.

In response, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak did not press for the guards to do their job more effectively or call on their comrades to exact revenge on those who carried out the killings inside Lee. Instead, similar to activists in urban communities who don’t call for more police to solve the problem, the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak leadership properly identified the root cause of the killings as the oppressive system of mass incarceration. They developed their demands to draw attention to, and challenge, that system. This strategic response was a big part of why the 2018 strike got far much more attention from the mainstream media than previous strikes.

How Organizers Built Upon the Lessons of 2016

Five groups were listed as organizers of the strike: Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee (IWOC), Fire Inside, the Free Alabama Movement and Millions for Prisoners. In the end, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak and IWOC were the key drivers. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak had a very different presence than the 2016 strike leaders of the Free Alabama Movement.

During 2016, much of the media profile and communication centered around key incarcerated individuals, especially Kinetik Justice and Malik Washington. Largely due to the limitations of communicating from inside prison, the Free Alabama Movement’s messaging at times was sporadic and contradictory. Plus, on occasion media spokespeople put out information of questionable veracity.

In 2018, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak chose to remain in the background and communicate through Sawari who anchored a media team that comprised freelance journalist Jared Ware plus half a dozen IWOC members, including Brooke Terpstra. This committee performed magnificently. Its members kept their voices on the sidelines and promoted the words of Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. They constantly re-directed mainstream and left media attention to the strikers’ demands when journalists wanted to divert the message down some other sensationalistic route. In addition, they offered insightful analyses when called upon to do so. Moreover, the structured time frame of the 2018 strike enabled a more planned approach to communication efforts.

IWOC continues to often puzzle both the mainstream media and other elements of the political left. While linked to the anarchist-leaning Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), according to leading member Brooke Terpstra, IWOC is the “prisoner led section of the IWW.” Terpstra, who has had family members incarcerated, told Truthout their successes were the fruit of “working our asses off.” He rejected any categorization of IWOC as a solidarity group that was distant from the realities of prison but stressed that a large portion of IWOC members are “critically impacted” and this is what drives their passion. “We got skin in the game,” he told Truthout.

IWOC’s growth and development offer useful lessons in what it means to be an ally or an accomplice in a struggle of the oppressed. They have now played a leading role in the last two prison strikes, helping coordinate communication between in-prison leaders and community activists while also engaging in popular education about mass incarceration. While IWOC stresses that a considerable portion of their ranks are “critically impacted” by mass incarceration, they have also found a way to extend their message into the ranks of students and organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America for whom incarceration is not a reality.

Who Was Missing?

Predictably, the voice of organized labor was very faint in the choir of support. Of the more than 200 supporting organizations, only a handful of US unions featured-three local branches of the United Auto Workers and two Graduate Employees Organizations. Despite efforts to frame the strike as a workers’ action, IWOC and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak were unable to crack the general failure of trade unions to recognize mass incarceration as a working-class issue. The unions’ excessive concentration on industrial and public sector workers often leaves people in prison and other precarious layers of the laborers outside organizing orbits. Moreover, once again the strike failed to report any action in women’s prisons or jails.

These absences relate to a bigger question: how to connect this movement led by people inside prisons to those folks on the outside struggling for their own survival. The family and community members of those in prison are largely from the precarious layer of the working class, the population most impacted by the growing inequality, white supremacy, xenophobia and lack of services in our society. This cohort suffers not only from losing loved ones to prison, but from the lack of housing, education, health care, and living wage employment. In other circles, the mobilization of family members, particularly women, has become a key component of campaigns against mass incarceration. Groups like the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People and Family Movement, the National Council of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration and California Families Against Solitary Confinement as well as many locally based groups have become essential vehicles in bringing together critically impacted communities. Hence, it was surprising not to see these forces leading the demonstrations, formulating the messaging and handling the media queries during this strike.

What Comes Next?

According to Sawari, those who supported the strike should focus on two immediate tasks: fighting back against efforts by prison authorities to punish strikers and organizers and pushing elected officials to move ahead on the demands of the strikers.

Minimizing retribution is a mighty challenge. As historian Heather Thompson reminds us, previous uprisings by people in prison have brought vicious retribution. The classic case is the Attica Prison Uprising in 1971, which concluded with state troopers mounting a brutal military offensive against the prisoners, killing 39 people in the process and torturing many more men in its wake.

The Prisoners’ Legal Advocacy Network of the National Lawyers’ Guild has been compiling a list of retaliatory acts carried out by prison authorities surrounding the 2018 strike. In the first two weeks after the strike, they received reports from people behind the walls in twelve states who chronicled physical abuse, pre-emptive lockdowns before the strike, along with placing jailhouse lawyers and other activists in solitary confinement. Those who have loved ones in prison echoed the observations the Prisoners’ Legal Advocacy Network in interviews with Truthout.

Prisoners who did not participate in the action are also facing retaliation. Sarah Roogow, who visits Atiba Ajamu Olugbala in a Maryland prison, told Truthout that Olugbala is being “victimized” now, even though there was no strike action in that state. In her words, “whenever you’re politically active in these institutions it’s easy to be a target for retaliation, especially when you’re educated.” Despite the repression visited on Olugbala, she says the strike is “necessary,” that ultimately this is a “peaceful way of saying something’s got to change without causing chaos.”

Apart from direct retaliation, mass action in prisons often triggers repression not directly attributable to the strike but emerging from the paranoia that collective action prompts among prison personnel.

In this vein, at the end of August the entire prison system of Pennsylvania went on lockdown, allegedly due to a number of guards becoming ill after exposure to an “unknown substance,” later identified as a synthetic form of marijuana known as K2 or spice. Authorities concluded that the substance was entering the prison through the mail system. They immediately banned direct communication by letters. Instead, according to Justina, whose husband is in a Pennsylvania prison and who asked that her last name be withheld due to her fear of retaliation against her partner, all those wanting to correspond with someone in a Pennsylvania facility were instructed to send their letters to an address in St. Petersburg, Florida, where they would be photocopied and sent to the addressee. The Pennsylvania ACLU protested this lockdown, arguing that it jeopardized the health of the men inside prison and left their families “in the dark” on the welfare of their loved ones.

Even in the face of such repression, Sawari urged those who supported the strike to push forward with the demands advanced by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. In its post-strike statement, the media committee concluded: “It has been a huge success of the 2018 prison strike that the 10 points have been pushed into the national and international consciousness. The work of spreading and fighting for these demands will continue on all fronts until they are actualized, and then beyond that onto what [Jailhouse Lawyers Speak] aptly calls ‘the dismantling process,’ as we build a movement toward abolition.”