Incarcerated Organizers Are Resisting Amid Deteriorating Conditions

While officials spin false narratives blaming violent crime on bail reform, and police insist too many people are getting out of jail, conditions in U.S. jails and prisons remain nightmarish. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes talks with organizer Brooke Terpstra about a hunger strike at the Santa Rita Jail in California, and about some of the complexities and political dynamics of organizing in jails and prisons.

Music credit: ​Son Monarcas and Amaranth Cove

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. We talk a lot on this show about movement building, abolishing prisons, and the need to end capitalism before it ends us. Today, we are going to hear about a hunger strike organized by imprisoned people in California, and we are also going to talk about some of the conditions, dynamics and contradictions that imprisoned organizers and their co-strugglers have to navigate in their work. We will be hearing from Brooke Terpstra with Oakland Abolition & Solidarity, an organization that supports imprisoned people’s “efforts to organize for their own self-defense against inhumane treatment.”

Whether you are an abolitionist or not, we should all feel compelled to highlight what’s happening in jails and prisons in this country right now. The prison-industrial complex is a social disposal system, and during times of crisis, such systems become even more brutal, deadly and exploitative. That has been the case for incarcerated people during the pandemic, who have endured conditions like continuous lockdown — which means mass solitary confinement — and rampant COVID infection without the ability to practice social distancing or access to functional health care. They also face water shortages, inedible food, and more horrors than I can enumerate here. Meanwhile, we see local officials papering over their own failures, including the carceral violence they oversee, with fear mongering about crime and the need to crack down on violent criminals. Mayors tell already debunked lies about bail reform driving crime, and police insist that if more people were sitting in jail, we would be safer, even though no evidence supports this conclusion. They are driving a narrative about the need for a form of disposal in which guilt is determined by arresting officers and sentences begin immediately. Focusing on “law and order” as the solution to many of the crises we face prevents us from asking deeper questions about why we are experiencing violence and what real safety would look like. It also dehumanizes millions of people who are ensnared by the prison-industrial complex and reinforces the idea that it’s for the best if they simply disappear into the system.

We cannot allow the normalization of human disposability to go unchallenged now, or ever, but especially now. We must resist the ways in which prisons make people disappear from our sight and the way corporate media makes them disappear from our minds. The abandonment and disposal of human beings are intensifying, so that capitalism can survive, and restore some semblance of a status quo. But people behind jail and prison walls are not passively accepting their oppression — they’re fighting back. To aid our understanding of that struggle, I asked Brooke Terpstra for some background on some of the resistance imprisoned people have been leading in Oakland lately.

Brooke Terpstra: Out here in Oakland, we have our county jail, and as to what’s going on there right now, Santa Rita is a mega jail. It was completed in ’89, at the same time Pelican Bay SHU [Special Housing Unit], our supermax prison, was completed here in Northern California right during the prison building boom. Santa Rita, at its peak design capacity, can hold about 4,000 people, even a little bit more, and its neighbor out there, in this big complex out in the suburbs, which used to be an army base, there’s also FCI [Federal Correctional Institution] Dublin, which is a federal facility for women.

Santa Rita is a notorious shithole. Like, all jails and prisons have essentially the same mandate and issues going on within them, but even comparatively, Santa Rita has a particular reputation.

In the immediate, there are multiple things going on within Santa Rita right now, independent of COVID. Primarily, what we’re focusing on right now is a hunger strike that was initiated January 8th, by a group of a few dozen prisoners, around food conditions, around commissary price gouging, and shoddy food being served on their trays, that’s foul, filthy and inadequate. We’re essentially in phase two of this hunger strike now, where it’s gone from several dozen incarcerated folks in multiple units on a liquid-only hunger strike to a rolling hunger strike in one unit, with a core group that’s taking turns on hunger strike.

Now, for all of those of us that have either been locked up or had family locked up, we’re pretty acquainted with the realities of commissary. Commissary is where you can buy supplemental food and hygiene supplies, and paper, pens, pencils inside, but also, you can buy packages to send in to your people inside. And a big group that does this is called the Keefe Group, K-E-E-F-E, and they’re one of these corporations that runs a multitude of “services” for incarcerated people, whether it be phones, or financial services, like money transfers, but they run, primarily, a big commissary operation.

Now, when you go onto their website to order a package for your people inside, you will notice that first of all, you have to designate which facility you’re ordering from, because the prices change from facility to facility. The deals they cut with jailers vary from one county to the other, and they’re widely different. When a free citizen, in the outside world, a so-called free citizen, when you order from Amazon, the prices are the same nationwide. When you’re locked up, the prices completely vary according to the whims of your jailer, or how much they’re ripping you off.

So essentially, the Keefe Group covers commissary for multiple counties here in the Bay Area, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Alameda County. During COVID, they just went through at the end of December, the second big price hike during the pandemic. And to give you an idea of the price gouging going on…. And these are all items that you essentially need to buy in order to supplement the foul and inadequate food that they give you. You do not get enough to basically live on inside, and you do not get enough hygiene supplies. This is a myth from the movies, that you get this little packet of stuff. They hand you your towel, and your toothpaste, and your toothbrush, and all that stuff, and they feed you these trays in a big chow hall, that are big… They’re slop, but like plenty of it.

These things come in on plastic or rubbery trays, through your door or to your POD, you know, your dormitory, really minor portions, carbohydrate heavy, fat heavy, cheap, sometimes coming from ingredients that are labeled, “Not fit for human consumption,” on the bags and cans, and these are now largely prepared by other corporations, that Santa Rita, the in-house food, is cooked and distributed by Aramark, another big corporation that exists essentially to privatize what was before a function of the state, or you know, so-called convict labor inside facilities. They run a for-profit kitchen out of our mega jail at Santa Rita, and even ship food to other facilities out of this kitchen, that was built on taxpayer money.

So essentially, you need to buy commissary just to not starve to death, or even to have coffee, or to even have toothpaste. So you have to buy this stuff in order to live. Even just buying your own shower shoes, an extra towel. Essentially, ramen and coffee, again for the folks that are locked up or had folks locked up, basically half this country knows that these are the two big items. That and honey buns are the big items inside. Now, for the rest of the folks that don’t know what it’s like to be locked up, these are basic… You can trade them or drink them, but they’re almost currency inside, but also like fundamental foodstuffs in your cell.

Now, ramen costs 25 to 30 cents at your corner store. This recent price jump in December jacked it up from a buck 13 to a buck 49, almost six times what you would pay at the corner store. Coffee, a little four-ounce bag of instant coffee, goes for a buck 79, like at Walmart. It was $4 in December. Now it’s been jacked up to 6.75. And to give you an idea of this, I want to read a little statement from someone inside, that basically was explaining what’s going on.

His name is JJ. He’s a hunger striker. Quote:

I started doing the math and every month, I usually spend 500 to $550 on food, and that’s been going on for almost three years, so that’s around $18,000. I don’t come from a family with money. My mom works at a grocery store. She’s been working throughout the pandemic, even though a lot of people there have gotten sick and quit, and she still puts money on my books every month, even though I don’t ask her to. I have been eating the jail food, and sometimes I’ve mixed it with commissary food. It was when I found out about the profits that it just broke me down, because my mom pays to put money on my books. My mom pays taxes and the jail makes money off of her and off of us as inmates, and they’re getting away with it.

That’s essentially a kind of snapshot of your lot in life when you’re locked up, and off the commissary, the sheriff takes 40 percent of the profits here. 40 percent. They claim it goes towards an inmate welfare fund, except no one on the inside sees that. There are no programs inside, nothing being paid for [by] the inmate welfare fund, and all attempts by outside groups to audit the sheriff department have been met with a political battle and denied.

So essentially, these folks inside have had enough, and on the outside, there’s a group of folks that have gathered to basically lend pressure and collaborate with them in terms of changing their conditions inside. And now, we’re basically coming up, in about a week, on two months of inside-outside organizing. That’s essentially the conditions inside the jail right now.

And as a goal, San Francisco recently basically set the bar for pricing as an example. We’re struggling basically just to even out the prices across the Bay. San Mateo recently had a hunger strike on similar terms, but it was during the uprising in 2020. Jailers and cops were nervous, and they gave in pretty quickly, and essentially, they stopped ripping off prisoners to the degree they are, they still are, over here in Alameda, and evened up their prices with San Francisco, so ramen there is basically 52 cents, essentially 40 percent of what it is now here, and this makes a huge difference in people’s lives, and also in terms of economic hardship upon families.

KH: Brooke elaborated on some of the important differences between organizing in jails and prisons, and how COVID-19 has impacted those dynamics.

BT: The demands nationwide, even across most of the Global North, and South, it’s around conditions, the most basic things. Prisoner activity and agitation goes up, and it goes down, and it comes when you least expect it. Like here, we didn’t organize this hunger strike from the outside-in. We’re basically playing catch-up, and folks inside already took it on.

So, organizing happens all the time inside, if folks don’t know, in one way or another, and resistance looks very different, and happens in 1,000 different ways, whether it’s just taking care of each other, whether it’s refusing movements, whether it’s maintaining a certain degree of autonomy, whether it’s noncooperation with the cops, whether it’s just sharing food and medicine, which is contraband inside. That’s forbidden. All these different ways a certain level of organizing goes on, and in all prison yards and in jail dormitories, there’s a certain kind of miniature society, with its own kind of rules and culture that develops.

Now, within prisons, there’s people serving much longer time in a much more kind of established culture, which is understandable, considering that some people are spending the rest of their lives in there. Within county jails, it’s a bit different. Although essentially, the mandate and structural function of a jail is very similar to a prison, and that is to destabilize communities, essentially to be a violent stopgap and kind of violent backup to every kind of demand and order that the state gives you, and also kind of the invisibilization of every single social problem or contradiction that exists in the outside world gets essentially shoved into the prison and into a black box that they try to keep intact and out of the way. Here in our jail, it’s actually even out of the line of sight from residential housing. It’s behind big berms, so not only is there communications blackout, a political blackout, but actual, physical hiding away of what’s going on.

But within counties, it’s a much more transitory population. There are people going in and out all the time, which is essentially serving the same purpose. In this country, there are 11 million arrests every year, and basically, five-and-a-half, six million people get churned through jails and then released, and this is a perpetual object lesson being levied on the populations that are policed and imprisoned. They’re a constant reminder, a constant spanking, a constant like punch to the face, on exactly what you can expect if you step out of line, and it’s a constant destabilization of these communities.

Now, but inside, that leads to a population that doesn’t spend much time together, that doesn’t have much time to develop this kind of organizing culture or this kind of established hierarchy, or even establish their own kind of lines of communication in and out of the facility or amongst each other on different yards. In a prison, essentially, even if they transfer you to another yard, there’s a very developed kind of network of people kind of passing kites or getting word to each other through quarters, due to the kind of offhand stability that’s created with these long sentences.

But with COVID, there’s been a backfire. Like, so many people are spending so much time inside, waiting for their cases to be done, it’s lent this inside population much more longevity and time with each other to develop kind of a culture amongst each other, and also much longer times essentially spent inside to witness the pattern of what’s going on. When you’re going in, some people think they’re just visiting, and then it takes basically three to six months for that to wear off and realize, “Okay, this is going to be my life for a while, while I spend two, three years fighting my case, because I’m poor and working class, and can’t buy my way out of here,” that they see the patterns going in and out, the people going in and out, and essentially, their daily life is instructing them exactly on the contradictions and nature of the state, and the nature of incarceration. So there’s been a backfire. It’s not only the stress of COVID, and the kind of escalation of abuse and neglect that comes with the pandemic that’s led to increased incarcerated activity inside and agitation, but it’s due to the longer time and the stability that’s been lent to these populations.

KH: Brooke and I also discussed the complexities of engaging with struggles for better conditions within institutions that should not exist. In my own organizing work, incarceration-related demands tend to center on getting people out of jail, prison or detention. But when people are trapped inside, their well-being must be defended, and with millions of people locked in torturous, fascistic conditions, we are going to see mobilizations around those conditions, led by imprisoned people. We have to meet those mobilizations the way we would meet any group of marginalized people rebelling against the deadly conditions being imposed upon them.

BT: As abolitionists and as people that have come to an understanding about what structures our world, and that is mainly antagonisms and domination, and the people that have come to an analysis that points towards a revolutionary process, what is the sense of organizing around these immediate conditions? Are we essentially trying to build, piece by piece, a more humane jail? Are those folks agitating against their landlords for their heat to be turned on, like agitating for a healthy exploitive landlord exploitation relationship? Are the people organizing in their workplace essentially trying to iron out humane capitalism or humane exploitation?

In certain ways, liberalism says yes, that it’s essentially a corruption or a failure of engagement, civic engagement, or just kind of a relationship that’s gone awry, but remedy lies within legal processes, or reform, to essentially right the sinking ship, and this is something worth saving. For those of us that do not believe in this at all, and find that completely ahistorical, and also a dismal misreading of history and present conditions, what is the sense of organizing around conditions?

Now, we’re essentially engaging in politicization. We’re not going to endlessly organize around food conditions, or this, or that, and we don’t. We evaluate where we have to put our time and energy as politically engaged people in struggle, towards what makes sense over a certain trajectory, over a certain stretch of time. It has to point in a certain direction.

Now, when you’re locked up… I mean, if you don’t know already, once you get locked up, all the explanations as to what the institution is about or why you are there, nothing makes sense. Nothing makes sense anymore. You’re basically being kidnapped and being held hostage for next to no reason. Like, even if you haven’t been convicted, nothing that’s happening to you actually makes sense. There’s no rehabilitation. Whatever harm you might have caused, this is being compounded, and every condition that basically pointed you towards harm, even if it happened, and you have to remember, half the people inside counties haven’t even been convicted of anything yet [Editor’s Note: In California, three quarters of all imprisoned people in county jails have not been convicted of a crime], except de facto being poor. Like, you cannot buy your way out.

So essentially, you’re being chided for being violent, or stealing, or whatever your charge is, and keep in mind, your charges have next to nothing to do with what actually went on. Your charges are a function of what the DA has, the cards they have to play, or their own career, or if the cops have it out for you, but nothing inside makes any sense in your daily life. So essentially, from every second of every day, you’re face-to-face with a violent, intense contradiction, all day long. Like, the arbitrariness of it, the pettiness of it, the violence of it. Imagine being charged and vilified for charges of violence while basically, you’re being violently treated 24/7, every single day, the height of that hypocrisy.

So, essentially people reach for explanations of this, and when they reach for explanations of it, there are certain things ready-made to catch them, like ideology or liberalism, that we need to reform the system, we need to legislate or vote something into place to change this. Or, you have the other mythology of legal action, that these things will be changed, these conditions, or the structure that’s landed you in there can be changed by court case or litigation. We’ve come to an understanding that none of these are true. These are mythologies that are in their own way counterinsurgent and oppressive. These are the methods by which the system is kept in place.

So again, to bring it back to organizing around conditions. How does organizing around conditions actually challenge or get past those mythologies? Well, in our understanding of this current historical period, that the principal obstacles for working-class people to basically get involved, for basically what we call world majority people, like nonwhite, or diasporic, or immigrant, Black, new African populations, working class whites, to get involved, or defend themselves, or build an actual liberatory movement. Number one is the neoliberal socialization of passivity or fatalism, that or a professionalized or counterinsurgent industry of advocacy, the nonprofits. And on number three too, social movements are still dominated by the middle class.

So against these basic blocs, we’re essentially helping people organize on their own behalf, but like overcoming, one, that passivity and fatalism. Number two, helping people organize on the inside, and ours, we see as essentially a collaborative arrangement. We’re not saving anybody, and we’re willing to collaborate with you on basically negotiated points of alignment. We don’t organize with white supremacists or with groups of prisoners that target other groups of prisoners. We have certain criteria, but it has to point in a certain direction. But like folks organizing on behalf, like in this hunger strike around conditions, they’re taking the most direct activity possible.

KH: While Brooke and his co-strugglers do not believe the prison system can be redeemed through the courts, they do engage in some collaborative efforts with attorneys, and I think Brooke laid out some important considerations for organizers who want to ensure they are leveraging a legal resource, rather than surrendering control of their struggle to attorneys or non-profits.

BT: We take by any means necessary, at its face. We don’t reject a tactic because it doesn’t fit a purity principle, but in actual what it delivers, and what’s going on in terms of political economy, and relationships, and the larger trajectory, does it make sense?

And the predominant method, you have to realize… Just lay out the basic facts of the present context. Present context is that the legal avenue is presented as a system-affirming pull, a gravitational center, as a fully functional mythology that’s hegemonic. It’s presented by the state and presented by liberalism as the proper way to proceed, and it is dominant. So if you’re going to engage with it, you have to be very clear about where power lies and on the terms in which you engage with legal proceedings.

Everywhere you go in this country, the lawyers are going to try to set the strategy. You need to organize on your own behalf and have your shit tight, and also the criteria very clear, that lawyers are a servant of the political struggle. The politics are not a servant of a legal struggle. You need to basically retain the prerogative to say no or determine the course of what the lawyers are doing.

Now, in terms of waging successful campaigns, I think you have to be real about who’s setting agendas, and of cost-benefit, and ask hard questions, and that demands honesty, which, truth be told, is a very rare quality in movement circles. Like, that level of self-examination or even grasp of the realpolitik of one situation. So it’s difficult, but it’s not impossible. It’s just that you don’t take orders from the lawyers, and don’t take orders from the legal ideology either. But we’re working with lawyers now, because this is actually how the conditions and the changes… how the state makes them legible. Even if it concedes something, and even if that concession is just a containment strategy for a movement, this is how it manifests within the apparatus of the state, as written policy, as a resolution, as a legal precedent.

But the real tension is between something that’s… It’s not between the menu of tactics you’re engaging in. I think the much harder thing to measure and evaluate in terms of movement and revolutionary strategy is actually measuring and maintaining a clear eye on where power lies. Like, who is making decisions, and are we actually successfully politicizing away from becoming lobbyists, or preaching civic engagement, or making good citizens through litigation, or is our trajectory actually positioned outwards, towards an autonomous, and self-reliant, and revolutionary base of power. Like, do we actually believe in ourselves? Are we actually capable of saying no to a legal strategy?

Because if you can’t actually say yes or no, or modify a legal strategy, you’re not really making a choice whatsoever. And that’s, what is the essence of strategy? Like, one of the few things we have is strategy. We don’t have all the guns. We don’t have position. We don’t have the capital. All movements are very minoritarian, but one of the things we do have is strategy, and the essence of strategy is what? It’s making choices.

And if you don’t have a choice as to what you pursue, sometimes that’s dictated by context, but sometimes it’s dictated by the cop in your head or the ideology in your head. So we’re not averse to pursuing using a legal tool, as long as we acknowledge that it’s a tool, and that we aren’t the tool being used by the legal system.

KH: In December, Roxanne Barnes wrote about Timothy Phillips, who is incarcerated in Santa Rita Jail. Phillips is a jailhouse lawyer, which means he is an imprisoned person who represents himself and provides legal help to others using self-acquired expertise, rather than formal training. Phillips described being thrown into solitary or otherwise forcibly separated from people he assisted, like an autistic friend and former cellmate who Phillips would help write grievances. On one occasion, Phillips inquired about why he was placed in solitary confinement and was told by a deputy that he was being punished for “complaining too much.” As Barnes wrote, “The [Prison Litigation Reform Act] literally mandates that incarcerated people exhaust the grievance process before litigating. Yet Phillips was sent to solitary for ‘complaining too much’ — in other words, for being exhausting.”

The system is rigged against the people it seeks to manage and control, and it’s reach is ever-expanding. I remember, when the earlier waves of COVID were peaking in some cities, there were stories about crematoriums running around the clock. Some municipalities were making special allowances for the air pollution being generated. In disastrous times, jails and prisons don’t have to get special permission to cause more hunger, suffering or death. They did not ask permission to become major engines for the spread of a deadly contagion, even though the system’s impacts were predictable. Crematoriums needed permission to create added smoke, as they disposed of the dead, but the prison-industrial complex does not need permission to cause more suffering and death. Prisons and jails extract time from people’s lives, while containing and controlling human beings, in order to maintain the norms of capitalism. They are doing what they are meant to do, right now, with all of the intensity that crisis brings, and with the brazenness that invisibility affords. Because unlike the smoke of the crematoriums, the damage done in jails and prisons is not being treated like a harm to the public that must be weighed and considered. It is not being treated like a crisis at all. It is being invisibilized while officials tell us that the real crisis is that not enough people are wallowing in those places, and that too many people are getting out.

You can help combat that erasure by uplifting stories of struggle, like what’s happening in the Santa Rita Jail, and by supporting groups that organize inside and outside of prison walls for the well-being, survival and liberation of imprisoned people. If you want to get more involved in supporting incarcerated organizers and other solidarity work, we will have some links you can check out in the show notes of this episode on our website at truthout.org. I want to thank Brooke Terpstra for talking with me about the situation in Santa Rita Jail and some of the powerful organizing that incarcerated people are doing. I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

  • You can learn more about Oakland Abolition & Solidarity here.
  • Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS) is a national collective of imprisoned persons fighting for human rights by providing other prisoners with access to legal education, resources, and assistance. JLS organizes with organizers across the country inside and outside the prisons. You can learn more about how you can get involved and support their work here.
  • Survived and Punished is a network of groups working to end the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence. You can learn more about their work here.

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