Forty-five years ago today, imprisoned people began one of the largest prison rebellions in the history of the United States. A few days later, New York State Police and hundreds of sheriffs would end that rebellion by raiding the Attica Correctional Facility and firing more than 2,000 rounds at prisoners and hostages alike. In the massacre that ensued, the police killed 29 prisoners and 10 guards, brutally establishing to the world at large that prison officials would rather kill dozens of prisoners, as well as their own employees, than meet the demands of imprisoned people who were seeking the most basic means of survival and sanity.
Attica has since become a rallying cry for prison abolitionists and imprisoned organizers fighting for the rights of the incarcerated. The organizers of the 2018 prison strike, which began August 21, chose the anniversary of the Attica revolt as the official end of their 19-day-long series of work stoppages, hunger strikes, boycotts and other tactics meant to disrupt the daily order and financial functions of the prison system. The mere presence of people caged in US prisons generates profits, whether prisoners act as workers or not. But the prison lockdowns that often accompany strikes are costly for the state, with or without work stoppages, due to the cost of paying prison guards overtime. Indeed, there is a vast network of profit flowing in and out of prisons, whether they are labeled as “private,” for-profit institutions, or as public facilities, which are equally geared towards generating profits for the powerful. From privatized, over-priced phone calls and hygienic products to the uniforms imprisoned people wear and the low-quality food they are served, prisons are dungeon economies.
As a prison striker identified as JLS told Shadowproof, “Regardless of what they say, it’s always profit driven,” explaining that both prisons and immigrant detention centers treat human beings as commodities.
JLS added that the solidarity that has emerged between prison strikers and detained migrants was a natural bond, saying, “why we’re in solidarity, the biggest reason is because we understand those cages. And not only that, but it’s all the same system.”
Undocumented immigration rights organizer Aly Wayne recently told Truthout that “many migrants’ rights activists have started to articulate an increasingly abolitionist analysis.” Wayne, who is on the steering committee of Black Immigration Network, went on to explain that many of his fellow organizers appear to be “deepening their understanding that the immigrant detention system is but a subset of the larger prison industrial complex,” adding that an increasing number of immigration rights activists are forming “intentional” connections with “the broader incarcerated population.”
Some detained migrants have been placed in segregation units, which are akin to solitary confinement, for attempting to join the hunger strike, while others have been threatened with accelerated deportation. But whether they are forced to abandon their efforts or not, the mutual solidarity between prisoners and detainees reflects an analysis that troubles notions of who “deserves” to be subjected to a system of torture and who does not.
Meanwhile, the labor-based aspect of the strike is a powerful one, and has greatly contributed to solidarity efforts from outside of prison walls. Industrial Workers of the World, for example, has played a critical role in elevating the demands of the strikers and the broadening of their communications platform. There is much to be learned from the labor aspects of the national call to action. It is, after all, a “prison strike,” but as imprisoned organizers and their allies have continuously stated, participation has taken many shapes, and the demands prisoners are leveling address a broad scope of dehumanization.
Inhuman Conditions Lead to Violence and Despair
Amid heightened searches, and with the knowledge that organizers of previous strikes have faced violent retribution, one of the national organizers of the strike, whom I will refer to as “Eddie,” recently chose to take part in a conversation with four other journalists and me by way of a contraband cell phone. Eddie, who joined the call from a prison in South Carolina is imprisoned in a facility that, like Eddie’s legal name, will not be revealed in this piece. We were given a brief talk by an intermediary before Eddie joined the call, informing us that Eddie would be making the call in secret, and that his fellow prisoners would be taking pains to prevent his discovery. We were warned that the call could come to an abrupt end at any time.
Eddie opened the conversation by reminding us of how the strike began: It “was called due to the tragic deaths that occurred down at the Lee County Correctional Institution in the state of South Carolina.”
The deaths he was referring to occurred in April 2018, when seven prisoners were killed, with dozens more injured, after a prison brawl at Lee that emergency personnel characterized as a “mass casualty incident.” Prisoners say they were denied drinkable water for days at a time, and subjected to squalid conditions that fueled despair and anger among prisoners at Lee, setting the stage for a violent conflict. Corrections officers refused to intervene or secure care for injured prisoners for seven hours.
“It wasn’t just the seven deaths,” Eddie told us, but also over forty of these men were wounded and left to languish alongside seven people who bled to death. “We just want everybody to remember the horrific conditions that brought these deaths about.”
Eddie detailed conditions in his own facility that were similar to those that escalated the violence in Lee County, due to tensions fueled by despair and deprivation. “We’ve had a high increase of prisoners fighting each other in the cells … with no interruption whatsoever,” he explained. Eddie also described a situation in which prisoners are sometimes “only afforded one shower a week” and a meal system that lacks basic components such as fruit and fails to provide for the nutritional needs of prisoners, leading to fatigue and weight loss.
“There’s a massive lockdown right now, in particular of all the maximum security prisons — medium and maximum — level three facilities as some would call it,” he said, adding that since April, hardly any prisoners have been allowed to access the medical staff.
“No recreation in the state of South Carolina, and we have steel plates over the windows, so there’s definitely no sunlight coming into the rooms, so people are kind of sitting in the dark,” he added, explaining that there’s been an increase in suicide attempts inside the state. “Prisoners have been slicing themselves with razors. I mean recently we heard a case where a guy sliced himself and tried to bite his vein out his arm.”
At one point during the call, Eddie told us to hang on and went silent. I held my breath, hoping he hadn’t been discovered by prison guards, but the pause was brief, and he continued.
Since April, imprisoned people at Eddie’s facility have been more or less warehoused, like non-human commodities who have been confined to their cells, unable to stretch their limbs except through sit-ups and push-ups in the cramped space.
Despite massive search efforts at prisons across the country, and the widespread confiscation of cell phones, Eddie feels certain that the strike has been a success. “We feel pretty good about the outreach, communication … we feel very damn good about the people who have been participating,” he said. Eddie also noted that news coverage of the strike has often oversimplified the effort by portraying it mainly as involving work stoppages, when in reality many prisoners do not have the option of working, and instead participated via sit-ins, boycotts and hunger strikes.
With various solidarity efforts happening outside of correctional facilities, Eddie emphasized the need for non-incarcerated allies to hold lawmakers accountable, saying public officials were “responsible for what’s taking place inside this country,” including conditions within the prison system. “Lawmakers … created these conditions,” he said. “And until their mindsets begin to change, nothing back here is going to change.”
Eddie also offered a dire warning about the future, predicting that “if we keep on this same track we’re going to have issues … far worse than Attica. And it’s coming very, very soon.”
Frustrations with the Media
The 2018 National Prison Strike has garnered considerably more mainstream coverage than previous strikes. While heartened by the added attention, imprisoned organizers and their allies have also voiced frustration with some of the media’s characterizations of the strike, and with the incomplete picture some outlets have presented. Some of the complaints imprisoned organizers have expressed about media coverage echo those of organizers within other movements — such as reductivist storytelling that oversimplifies their narrative and demands — while other complaints, according to organizers, have arisen from the media’s failure to research and understand the repression and surveillance imprisoned people face.
Eddie, for example, and other prisoners at his facility must seek permission to talk with the press. Such requests are unlikely to be honored at a time of unrest, but would also be used as a means to identify organizers. Prison phone calls are monitored and press coverage is tracked, leaving little room for traditional lines of communication. Some prison strikers have complained that journalists do not appreciate the lengths that imprisoned people must go to in order to protect their identities.
During the Georgia prison strike of 2010, Eddie says corrections officers “went after all the leaders off the top — every single leader — and we found those leaders was beat with hammers” and “black sticks.” In 2013, footage of some of those beatings surfaced, confirming prisoner accounts of horrific acts of retaliation for their organizing. As was the case with Attica, it can take years for the details of such retaliation to surface.
Eddie said organizers of prison strikes are also routinely placed in Supermax facilities. In Pelican Bay, where striking prisoners were already confined in a Supermax facility — a facility where prisoners are kept in full-time solitary confinement — Eddie says organizers were “placed in more darkness while right there in Pelican Bay.”
I tried to imagine what “more darkness” might look like, for a person already living in solitary confinement. Was it literal darkness? I feared there was little time to ask, and also hesitated to ask Eddie to describe in greater detail the kind of repression he might face, both because of his position as an organizer and because of his conversation with us.
In addition to exposing prisoners to potentially violent reprisal, revealing the identities of strike organizers would deal a major blow to the larger struggle for prisoners’ rights. “We’d be killing our movement off,” Eddie told us. “And that’s what we don’t want to happen.”
The Prison Strike’s 10 Demands
Organizers have circulated news of the strike, as well as suggested tactics, in a number of ways. One tool that prisoners have used to amplify their own message is a zine created with materials by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, The Fire Inside Collective and the National Lawyers Guild. In their section of the zine, The Fire Inside Collective offers “some historical context, careful thoughts, and the reasons we believe this summer will see the stars align behind the rebels.”
The zine also offers strategic organizing and legal advice to prisoners and details some of the varied ways imprisoned people can participate in a strike. While advising prisoners whose rights have been violated to exhaust their options within their prisons’ grievance system, the authors also voice an awareness of how little justice such processes offer, stating: “Whether seeking abolition or reform, decarceration or policy change, the struggle against mass incarceration advances most when driven by direct action inside prisons.”
One of the zine’s suggestions for supporters — an ask that has been echoed by many prisoners and allies — is that non-incarcerated allies work to circulate the prisoners’ ten demands, rather than simplifying the strike to just one demand, as much coverage has: the goal of eliminating “prison slavery.” The demands, which can be found in the zine as well as public statements from strike organizers, are:
1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
2. 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.
3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.
5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.
6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees.
The strikers’ tenth demand is deeply rooted in liberation struggles, such as the Civil Rights movement. In a country where prisoners are routinely denied the right to vote, both during and after incarceration, the battle for suffrage behind bars, and after release, could not be more fundamental in a larger battle for civil rights. In fact, with over 2 million people who have been stripped of their rights, liberty and dignity by the prison system, the prison vote could be a game-changing force to be reckoned with — and the United States government, which has been content to let imprisoned people vanish into the hellish conditions of state dungeons, might be faced with a reckoning of its own.
Reclaiming Human Dignity
Prison abolitionists have often discussed the concept of civil death — the manner in which incarcerated people are stripped of their civil and human rights and cut off from any meaningful participation in society. When the torturous nature of prisons is understood, it becomes clear that a life sentence is a civil death sentence, and that even upon release, many prisoners find themselves locked out of society, rather than locked into a prison. Measures like house arrest, disenfranchisement, barriers to education and employment, as well as the trauma of torturous prison conditions, prevent many formerly incarcerated people from experiencing what most of us would characterize as “freedom.”
The dismantling of the prison system is unthinkable to most people who have never seen the inside of a prison, but the conditions imprisoned people are forced to endure should be equally unthinkable in the eyes of the public. It is therefore incumbent upon us to consider the prison strike as a battle for the moral reformation of a society that can no more cage its way to a better world than it can bomb its way there.
Like war, prisons are often treated as a necessity for the public good, despite all evidence to the contrary. Questions like, “what about the dangerous people?” are used to ward off any discussion of abolishing a system that profits from anti-Blackness, Native invisibility, disposability culture and the commodification of living beings.
Indeed, the prison system is fueled by fear, just as the military-industrial complex is maintained by a false notion that we must bomb countries that pose no threat to us in order to defend our own freedom. The vulnerable suffer so that the powerful may profit, and we, the public, allow torture and atrocity to be carried out in our own names — because we have been duped into fearing one another more than we fear what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world: My own Government.”
As Eddie warned, the conditions prisoners face will only deteriorate in the current political climate, and the system will consume ever more victims — such as the detained migrant families whom the Trump administration will now house in indefinite detention centers. Anti-protest laws also place activists and the journalists who cover their movements at greater risk of incarceration. The march of Trumpism, which should be rightly named as fascism, will put more and more of us, and our communities, in the crosshairs of the prison-industrial complex.
In a society so misguided that it has elevated a reality TV star to the presidency — a man whose relationship with the truth is nonexistent, and whose unpredictable antics endanger all life on Earth — how do we move forward, and what hope do we have, in such dark times, of dismantling entrenched oppressions? Amid our head-spinning news cycles, and a seemingly endless stream of crises, where would such a story even begin?
Imprisoned organizers like Eddie are offering us a beginning to that story. It’s a story of hope in the darkest of places, where people subjected to civil death battle for civil resurrection, and for whatever soul our society has left.