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“We’re Freedom Fighters”: The Story of the Nationwide Prison Labor Strike

Are people incarcerated for their labor or to erase them from the landscapes being gentrified for the privileged?

(Image: IWW Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee)

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The first national prison labor strike in US history launched on September 9. Billed as a “Call to Action Against Slavery in America,” the spark for the action came from the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), a prison-based organization that has been mobilizing across the state since 2012. Alabama has one of the most overcrowded prison systems in the country.

Reports from FAM’s base within Holman Prison indicated a universal refusal of the population to go to work on September 9. Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, the chief outside spokesperson for FAM, speaking to Truthout on the day of the launch, said significant strike action also took place within prisons in South Carolina, Virginia and Ohio.

“These men have gone beyond religious barriers and race barriers and most of all, incarceration barriers,” Glasgow told Truthout. By Wednesday evening, the Incarcerated Workers’ Organizing Committee (IWOC) estimated that 15,310 people in prisons were on lockdown in facilities where organizing or strikes had been confirmed.

Several actions related to the strike have gained considerable attention. The night before the national action, some 400 men in Florida’s Holmes prison staged a rebellion that lasted most of Thursday night. By Monday, collective resistance had spread to five Florida prisons, including civil disobedience by 40 men in Columbia Correctional Institution in Lake City and a two-day work stoppage at nearby Mayo. In Northern Michigan’s Kinross Correctional Facility, the men took a more low-key approach, with about 400 incarcerated individuals staging a demonstration inside the gates. Immediately after the action, 150 of them were put on buses and sent to other institutions.

Political prisoner Chelsea Manning also began a hunger strike on Saturday, September 10, apparently timed to coincide with the national actions. By Wednesday morning she had reportedly won her demand for gender-affirming surgery.

The Legacy of Slavery

The linkage between the strike action and slavery largely grew out of the extreme labor conditions inside Alabama prisons. In these facilities, many people work in license plate factories and on plantation-like farms for a few cents a day or, in some cases, no remuneration at all. The exploitation of prison labor in the state has been accentuated since the state legislature passed a law in 2012 to permit private contractors to employ people behind bars.

But the FAM vision also situated the exploitation of prison labor in the context of broader notions of injustice. Their launching statement said: “Our protest against prison slavery is a protest against the school-to-prison pipeline, a protest against police terror, a protest against post-release controls.” They went on to posit the potential systemic impact of their actions: “When we abolish slavery, they’ll lose much of their incentive to lock up our children, they’ll stop building traps to pull back those who they’ve released. When we remove the economic motive and grease of our forced labor from the US prison system, the entire structure of courts and police, of control and slave-catching must shift to accommodate us as humans, rather than slaves.” As Free Alabama member Melvin Ray summed it up, “We’re freedom fighters. We’re not just fighting for wages, we’re simply pointing out the fact that this is a slave model of free labor.”

Historical Roots

This action has deep historical roots. The day chosen to launch the strike, September 9, coincided with perhaps the most famous prison uprising in modern US history — the rebellion in New York’s Attica prison in 1971. On that occasion men of Attica’s D yard took over their section of the prison and held it for four days. They issued a set of demands for improved conditions, but the bottom line was articulated by one of the leaders, L.D. Barkley: “We are men, we are not beasts, and do not intend to be beaten or driven as such.” In the end, Barkley and 38 other men died in that prison yard after an armed assault launched by state troopers. The dead included 10 prison staff.

While the Attica legacy has drawn much attention as an inspiration for the recent strike, the rebellion in upstate New York was an expression of a national awareness among people on the inside during that period. Sundiata Tate spoke to Truthout about this history. Tate was a long-time activist inside California state institutions and close associate of legendary prison revolutionary George Jackson, who was murdered at San Quentin prison in August 1971.Tate told Truthout that there were often-forgotten links between resistance in California prisons and the events in New York. Tate recalled that the seizure of D yard took place less than a month after the murder of Jackson. “People on the East Coast had heard about him, people in the prisons… George was able to reach out into society,” he said. Once the men in Attica seized the yard, Tate noted, “One of the things they mentioned was the death of ‘Comrade’ (Jackson).” At the time, Jackson was a well-known member of the Black Panther Party as well as well as the author of a bestseller written from behind prison walls, Soledad Brother.

In Alabama, the historical roots of the strike also lie in the day-to-day political work done by many incarcerated activists and their families over the years. For instance, former political prisoner Sekou Kambui, who spent 47 years in Alabama state prisons, used his decades behind bars as an educator and organizer, building political awareness and commitment amongst the population and the community, laying the groundwork for present-day activists.

The Significance of the Strike

The strike represents the nexus of several waves of recent social justice activism: the growing movement against mass incarceration; offensives against systemic racism, led by the Movement for Black Lives; and the actions by low-wage workers to gain the $15-an-hour minimum wage. The call for a living wage on the streets resonates behind prison walls, where wages have stagnated for decades while those in prison have seen their living conditions deteriorate due to the cutbacks in educational programs and job training, and the addition of copays for services like health care.

This latest prison strike also constituted an ambitious escalation in scale and tactics of a wave of resistance in prison in recent years. The three hunger strikes in California prisons — largely a protest against solitary confinement in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit and the use of “gang validation” to justify prolonged isolation of prisoner/organizers — have drawn the most attention. However, those in Pelican Bay are not alone. In June of this year, several men inside the Waupun Correctional Institute in Wisconsin embarked on a prolonged “Dying to Live” hunger strike that resulted in forced feeding by prison authorities.

Many other actions have also occurred: labor strikes in Georgia prisons in 2010 along with recent work stoppages in Texas and several Alabama prisons, including an April uprising in Holman. Immigration detention centers have also been the scene of many actions, several led by women. Last fall, women prisoners at Yuba County Jail in California joined a hunger strike initiated by their counterparts who were held in immigrant detention centers in California, Colorado and Texas. These mobilizations are largely a protest against the criminalization of people seeking asylum in the United States as a result of political violence in Central American countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Assessing the Strike

Though information on the level of activity remains limited, the strike appears to have fallen short of the predictions by FAM of the involvement of incarcerated people from 25 states and 54 prisons. The reasons why the action may not have reached anticipated levels are not difficult to discern. To begin with, since prison officials were forewarned, many institutional authorities may have simply imposed a lockdown before September 9, short-circuiting any opportunity for people to refuse to go to work. Evidence of this came via video from one man in a South Carolina prison who posted a clip of water in his cell after men on his block flooded the area as a protest against four days of lockdown.

Second, organizers both inside and outside prison possibly underestimated the difficulty in mobilizing people who are incarcerated, especially at a national level. Most prisons and jails ban meetings or even doing physical exercises in groups. In addition, prison officials have a range of punitive tools available to block coordination and communication. Apart from the possibilities of physical beatings, individuals suspected of organizing collective resistance can be placed in solitary or have visiting and phone privileges denied. Most importantly, for those who do not have a life sentence, receiving a disciplinary infraction can result in an extension of their sentence. In addition, prisons typically have surveillance capacity. They can listen to outgoing phone calls and eavesdrop on visits.

Plus, the widespread use of confidential informants within the institutions provides authorities with an ear to the ground of the details of planned actions. Several instances of reprisals against individuals identified as strike leaders have already been reported. All of these, when combined with the lack of access to information technology inside prisons, pose formidable obstacles to coordinated action.

Perhaps the surprise is not that the strike didn’t reach the level hoped for, but that the spirit of protest and rebellion penetrated as widely as it did.

The Successes

Ultimately, this strike achieved a number of important milestones. Most importantly, strike organizers highlighted the oppressive labor and living conditions inside prisons. No other action in recent times has shone as bright a light on the fact that incarcerated people perform the bulk of the work that keeps the institutions running, from cooking to cleaning to managing the HVAC systems and repairing the electrical circuits. And they do this for little or no pay.

The strike also raised the specter of coordinated national action to emphasize the systemic, national quality of not only conditions of prisons as a workplace, but also as a site of punishment and enslavement.

In addition, although as noted above, most prisons provide no access to the internet or cell phones, the action offered a showcase for how information technology can become an effective tool for sharing the experiences and aspirations of incarcerated people. Individuals on the inside are discovering new ways to make their voices heard on social media. While people like Mumia Abu-Jamal have long communicated with the outside through interlocutors, the men at Holman went further — producing videos earlier this year that exposed the oppressive conditions under which they live. They also captured real-time action of their uprising in April. Kinetik Justice, one of the leaders of FAM, spoke live on Democracy Now! during a strike in May, telling the world that “the prison system is a continuation of the slave system.” Justice has been in solitary confinement for 28 months since playing a leading role in a 2014 protest at Holman but still found his way to the airwaves.

Moreover, social media were crucial in organizing support for prison resistance in communities across the country. IWOC, a relatively small organization, has maintained a constant vocal presence on Facebook and Twitter, with local activists posting videos, photos and written updates in real time. As a result, communities across the country stood up in support of the strike. Actions took place in some 60 locations, including all major cities. Even small towns like Hutchison, Kentucky; Champaign, Illinois; and Merced, California staged noise demonstrations, educational events and mobilizations outside of prisons. IWOC’s webpage produced a daily log of dozens of solidarity actions, which began in early August, while a Google doc tracked strike actions. IWOC’s reach, coupled with the moral appeal of the voices from inside prison, even succeeded in drawing statements of solidarity from European countries, such as Serbia, Lithuania, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

Lastly, the strike has added further momentum to reconstruct or replace the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment bans slavery and involuntary servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” effectively permitting the enslavement of those who have been convicted of a crime. The spirit of this amendment flies in the face of increasing pressure for full rights of citizenship and equality for all those convicted of a crime or with a record of incarceration. As Pastor Glasgow put it, “As long as it sits in our Constitution, along with it sits slavery in our Constitution… the 13th Amendment needs to be reconstructed.”

Attention to the 13th Amendment’s legalization of slavery for people who have been convicted of crimes is likely to further heighten later this month when Ava Duvernay’s Netflix film, The 13th, launches at the New York Film Festival.

Key Issues for Social Movements

This strike has also brought to the fore a number of important issues relating to the struggle against mass incarceration and the building of broad movements for social justice and liberation.

The fundamental nature of the strike action raises interesting questions. In a telephone interview with Truthout, talk show host, writer and activist Bill Fletcher, also a former trade union official, expressed uncertainty as to whether the national action was a rebellion or an effort to organize a union. If it was a unionization effort, he was unclear what the specific objectives were and, given the lack of collective bargaining rights inside prisons, “if there is a way to sustain any kind of victory.” Certainly the demands of FAM, as well as those in Kinross and other prisons, went well beyond traditional labor notions of increased pay, shorter working hours and better working conditions. Moreover, a large number of the actions were not refusals to work but other forms of protest, including hunger strikes and demonstrations. While the IWOC literature on the strike has stressed the low wage levels and encouraged the formation of union chapters at the prison level, FAM has not adopted this strategy. Pastor Glasgow stated that FAM views prison labor as slave labor that must be ended rather than fall under a union ambit.

The issue is further complicated by attempting to identify the beneficiaries of prison labor: Who is making money? According to Glasgow, companies in Alabama are not outsourcing labor overseas — they are “insourcing” to people in prison. Yet, much of the production taking place in Alabama prisons, such as license-plate making and agriculture, is designed for use by government rather than for private profit. This is the case across the country, where a relatively small number of people behind bars actually work under contract to private companies. The question then emerges as to whether prisons are primarily profit centers for exploiting labor or a political project driven by white supremacy and neoliberal economic restructuring.

In other words, are people incarcerated in order to mobilize their labor power inside prison, or to erase them from urban landscapes that are being gentrified into enclaves of race and class privilege?

The Complexities of Solidarity

A second crucial question arising from this strike concerns the challenges of building solidarity between people inside prison and those on the outside. IWOC has played the major role in promoting awareness of the strike and getting the statements and voices of FAM and others behind bars onto the streets. An offshoot of an early 20th century labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies), the IWOC says its key aim is to “further the revolutionary goals of incarcerated people and the IWW through mutual organizing of a worldwide union for emancipation from the prison system.”

In mobilizing support for the September 9 action, IWOC has helped create one of the most widespread, social-media-savvy networks in the history of the struggle against mass incarceration. Yet IWOC also has a determination to build the strength of its own organization by creating local chapters inside prisons. Its website even includes a link to donate money to pay the annual dues of an “incarcerated worker.” According to activist Claude Marks, the support efforts for the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers, of which he was a part, took a different approach. He told Truthout: “We focused on raising money to mobilize the families of those incarcerated to organize and speak out.”

While clearly there is a need to incorporate people who are incarcerated into the movement against mass incarceration and for social justice, the complexities of the difference between amplifying the voices of those inside and speaking for them pose key challenges for all those involved in such work. The differences in these approaches have important gender and racial implications. While most of the people involved in the actions inside are men, their family support networks are predominantly women. By lifting up the voices of the families, organizers are acknowledging that individuals who are incarcerated do not do their time alone. Their loved ones also suffer and are willing to fight back. To date, in the September 9 strike, the voices of the families have been faint.

Moreover, efforts to build solidarity and the profile of the movement create uncertainties about how to handle information that comes from unverifiable sources, be they prison officials or individuals who are incarcerated. The repressive conditions in prisons during moments of conflict heighten the complexities of verification. This context perhaps leads to attempts by organizers and supporters to engage in questionable practices like implying that the ongoing hunger strikes at Guantanamo have some relation to the September 9 action.

The third question is perhaps the most obvious: Where was organized labor during this strike and the run-up to September 9? As Fletcher points out, “Organized labor has, up until recently, ignored the issue of mass incarceration.” While prisons and jails hold millions of marginalized workers, the unions’ reluctance to take a position on mass incarceration relates to membership issues. Some of the country’s largest and most significant unions, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), count on prison and jail workers, including guards, to boost their membership. Pushing back against incarceration could likely jeopardize these jobs. However, over the years union leaders have consistently criticized the use of prison labor, arguing that it undercuts the bargaining position of prison staff. Still, when the incarcerated labor force actually took action, the trade unions remained mute. Repeated efforts by Truthout to elicit a comment on the strike from national and regional officials of the AFL-CIO as well as the SEIU and AFSCME drew silence, apart from one AFL-CIO official who said that they “have not done work around prison labor for many, many years.”

More Fire to Come?

In addition to the strike not surfacing on trade union agendas, mainstream and even alternative media sources have largely steered clear of the story. Though in some ways this strike may be as significant as Attica, media coverage and historical memory are more easily triggered when there is blood on the ground, especially the blood of rebellious, politically-conscious Black people. In last week’s strike, we have an apparently unspectacular case of people standing up for their dignity by refusing to work. In taking this action, the activists behind bars, despite the intense efforts by IWOC, FAM and many others to publicize their actions, may not have done anything dramatic enough to draw significant media attention. The invisibility of worker issues blends with the invisibility of prison activities to create a low profile. Moreover, the ability of prison authorities to both suppress information and punish the rebels without recrimination relegates the heroic efforts of the strike to a sidebar in the chronicle of social justice struggles.

But it seems unlikely that those who want to silence or erase these actions forever will win the day. A flame of resistance inside prisons and in communities across the country is definitely burning. The prison strikers, along with their allies and accomplices on the street, will be on fire again soon.

Also see: Prison Revolutionaries of the ’60s Generation: Role Models for Contemporary Strikers

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