Why Prison Strikers Are Demanding the Right to Vote

Today we bring you a conversation with Janos Marton, the state campaigns manager for the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Campaign for Smart Justice. Marton offers updates on the ongoing US prison strike, noting that many tactics are being used and immigrants in detention are striking in solidarity. Marton also says that unlike in past years, many outside the prison system are beginning to fundamentally question the criminal legal system, and explains how people can support the prison strikers from the outside.

Sarah Jaffe: We are talking right now because there is a national prison strike going on. A little less than a week into that, what is going on and what is the status that we know of?

Janos Marton: A couple of things are clear one week into the prison strike. First, there are a lot of states participating. It is hard to get an exact count of which facilities have actions relating to this strike going on because it is really difficult to get real-time information from prisons, particularly during a strike, because strikes very often result in lockdowns, and during lockdowns it is even harder than usual to get information out.

But we can say with some certainty that a number of states have activists inside of prisons who are participating in this strike. The other thing that we can say with certainty is that the strike is actually being covered, and that is a huge difference than even 2016 when the Free Alabama Movement led a strike that did in fact end up having support and solidarity all across the country. Most of the coverage of that came out after the fact, and almost all of the mainstream publications and news channels totally ignored it….

When we are talking about a prison strike, what kinds of tactics are we talking about? There is work refusal, but I know that people have been doing various different tactics to express participation in the strike.

In terms of what the strike actually means, it is worth noting that the strike itself is organized in a decentralized manner. Jailhouse Lawyers Speak [is] one of the main prison groups behind the strike, but even in pulling different collectives together, they made clear that different facilities will call for different tactics.

It depends on so many factors, like what the response of Corrections has been in the past to different tactics and how well they can coordinate with each other. But common examples are work stoppages, not showing up to assigned work shifts, hunger strikes, refusing to leave your cell, and one interesting one that has emerged in the last few days is not participating in the prison economy. Not only not buying from commissary and things like that, but encouraging loved ones not to make these paid phone calls that are very expensive and are controlled by a few companies that coordinate the phone messaging in prisons; asking folks not to send money, which comes with its own fiscal penalties that go to whoever coordinates the financial aspects of commissary. There are all different ways in which people can show their support for the strike from the inside.

Let’s talk a little bit about the specific questions of prison labor that are being raised. They are talking about both specific forms of prison labor like the firefighters in California who get paid almost nothing and don’t qualify for firefighting jobs when they get out, but are still risking their lives. Then, it is just a broad question of prison labor and the 13th Amendment and the connections to slavery.

This has been a really key aspect of the strike. In an interview that was published right before the strike started going, the organizers made clear that they wanted this message to be present throughout coverage of the strike, that a lot of this is about respecting human dignity, and one of the ways that in our society that we respect human dignity is through capital. It is through how we pay people, and people in prison are making sometimes $0.12, $0.08, $0.20 an hour doing work that is perfectly real, and in some cases, very dangerous work.

The firefighters are a great example of extremely dangerous, life-threatening work, but even working in laundromats or in kitchens, this doesn’t come without its risks to people’s health, and yet people are making far less than a dollar an hour doing this work. Which is only permitted because of the 13th Amendment’s exception to slavery, as you noted.

You mentioned that the difference now is that this is being covered … in the context of a broader movement where people are really not only questioning the mass incarceration situation that we have had in this country, but really questioning the logic of incarceration fundamentally. Can you talk about the way that this has changed over the last few years and how, even in the midst of Trump, we are seeing this growing movement?

Over the last few years, we have seen that people across this country are willing to entertain new ideas, both good and bad. I think this is part of what led to Trump’s rise in some respects, but largely across the United States, people understand that the current system is broken … I think it is no mystery to communities that have been most harmed by policing and mass incarceration for decades that jail and prison don’t work, and the whole theory in [the US] of prison being a place where somehow you can be rehabilitated despite the total lack of resources is a fiction. But for the public, it has only been in the last few years that this has become really apparent and it has become a combination of people who are currently and formerly incarcerated telling their stories and their stories getting out there … challenging our basic assumptions about what goes on in [the US’s] jails and prisons.

I think that at this particular moment in American history, people are really open to changing their ideas in a significant way. Like I said, not only around this issue, but also around criminal justice. So, questions like, “Why do we even have jails?” where almost everybody who is in jail is in there pre-trial and hasn’t been convicted of a crime. For anybody who has worked in this space, that has always been a fundamental contradiction. How can you be holding somebody without having proven [them] guilty? That is totally reversed from the system that we claim to have in the United States. But it has only caught up with the general public more recently that maybe jail doesn’t have a purpose in our society.

That is why there are jail closure campaigns now with momentum all around the country. People have pushed for this for a very long time, but right now you see that there is actually significant political momentum behind this.

Since we mentioned Trump, we are also hearing reports that people in immigrant detention are also joining the strike.

Yes. I have no particular inside information on that except for what I have read. It has been a goal when the organizers announced this prison strike that they wanted to demonstrate solidarity with people being held in immigration detention facilities. I think it is really great that people have answered that call.

I want to talk specifically about the jail closure campaign that you were a part of in New York for a while, the Close Rikers fight. Talk about where that got started, your involvement in it and where it has ended up now. Rikers is not closed, but people have announced that they are trying to close it.

Yes, I would go even further than that. I would say that the political consensus is that Rikers will be closed and that it needs to be closed. The debate now is over how fast and how successfully it will happen. That is really a tremendous amount of progress from where we were a couple of years ago. The idea of the campaign to close Rikers … again, whenever you talk about these criminal justice issues, people who have been most impacted by this policy have wanted the change for a very long time….

I was privileged enough to serve basically as the campaign manager for that in my capacity as director of policy and campaigns at JustLeadershipUSA for two years. During that campaign, we organized in directly impacted communities, we built the large coalition, we put political pressure on Mayor de Blasio, given that Rikers Island is a New York City jail and it is the mayor’s purview. We put a lot of pressure on Mayor de Blasio and built support among other political figures to keep the pressure on him to close it.

Finally, after 13 months of our campaign, he agreed that Rikers Island should close as a matter of city policy. That was spring of last year. However, we only consider that a partial victory because we do not feel that his commitment was sincere. At the time, he said he would do it, but it would take 10 years and he didn’t give a plan for how he planned to do it, even though we had all put a lot of effort into designing a really effective way to decarcerate New York City as part of closing Rikers…. To the credit of folks in his administration, there has been some forward movement, but overall, it has been way too slow. He has not shown the urgency that he needs to. This is a human rights crisis happening on his watch.

The Close Rikers campaign, which I am no longer formally affiliated with, is still very active and still working to put the spotlight on this mayor and hold him accountable to the promise that he made.

Now the campaign you are working on is involved in all sorts of fights around the country. Tell us a little bit about that and what is going on there.

The Campaign for Smart Justice is … calling for [a] 50 percent decarceration rate across the country…. It is a bold plan, but right now really it is a time for bold plans.

As you noted, this is really a series of campaigns all around the country. We call it one campaign, but as you know, the criminal justice system is really state and county jails. A lot of this is really a series of individual campaigns being undertaken by ACLU state affiliates from places like Arizona to Oklahoma to New Hampshire and Michigan. It is not quite a 50-state effort yet, but it is definitely getting there. Blue states, red states, urban areas, rural areas…. The goal is essentially to focus on issues like bail, sentencing reform, parole…. These are all some of the main drivers of mass incarceration almost universally around the country….

To bring this back around to the prison strike and the demands that have been put forward, where are we seeing progress right now? Has there been any movement on any of the demands? What can people watching and trying to be supportive do?

When I spoke with some of the organizers of this strike a few months before it started and asked them, “Of these 10 demands, which one or ones do you think are the most important to stress?” I was actually somewhat surprised that they were adamant that Demand #10, which is universal suffrage, is the most important demand for people on the outside to highlight in supporting this strike. That means the right to vote for all people who are currently incarcerated or formerly incarcerated on parole, which is something that is currently only true in Vermont and Maine.

The reason for this is that all other rights emanate from the right to vote…. It has been great to see that particular demand highlighted in certain outlets and in certain conversations, because when I was looking at trying to get certain voting rights legislation passed in New York, the best we could do in terms of a couple of years ago was coalition appetite for the right to vote while you are on parole.

Whereas now, I think many more people are open to the idea of universal suffrage. I just hope that becomes a standard position of people who claim to be progressive politicians: acknowledging that the most basic right — the right to vote — is something that should be given to everyone and never taken away.

We have seen a couple of very important elections in the last year be swung because they were states that had just re-enfranchised formerly incarcerated people.

Absolutely. The organizing done in prisons and with people who were formerly incarcerated [in] Alabama was … if the Democrats win back the Senate, they might be able to point to that as one of the dramatic reasons why.

Certainly, in Virginia, where Terry McAuliffe was able to — through his executive order — re-enfranchise a number of people, that was really important for the Virginia vote. Definitely people of all political stripes will be watching very closely what is going on in Florida. There is a ballot initiative that would restore the right to vote for people on parole … I believe 1.6 million people are disenfranchised in Florida currently as a result of their existing voting restrictions. One can imagine that should that change following November’s ballot initiative; that would have really important consequences in 2020.

We mentioned supporting these demands, but what can people who are on the outside do to continue to support and uplift the actions of the prison strike and these other campaigns?

People have been asking me what they can tangibly do. The organizers made clear in the lead-up to this strike that they weren’t expecting people on the outside to be able to do a whole lot to actually support the strike as it is happening because it is something that is facility-specific and driven by and organized on the inside.

But they made a few exceptions. One is to the extent that there are protests being held outside of facilities; they said that it not only gives them energy and hope when they see people protesting in solidarity outside of their own facilities, but it also generally causes Corrections to think twice before retaliating, which is a major concern we had as an organization in the lead-up to the strike — that the organizers of the strike are going to be retaliated against, either during or after the strike is over. The people can participate in local actions, that makes a big difference.

There is a Twitter account, @IWW_IWOC, which has been posting updates from the strike and occasional calls to action, usually around this issue saying something like, “Call such and such facility to make it clear to them not to retaliate against people participating in the prison strike.” Just continuing to amplify these messages.

I think the idea that there is a prison strike and what the demands of the prison strike are are still not well understood [by] the broader public. So, the more people who are aware of these issues can do to amplify the 10 demands and the fact that the strike is happening, then that is helpful, too.

On a final note, when people read through the 10 demands, they may be surprised to see how many of them they already knew about and agreed with. Even though this is a radical act — to strike in a prison setting and that is why we have to show such solidarity to these brave men and women — at the end of the day, what they are asking for is very much in line with what people have been demanding for a very long time outside of prison walls, as well: an end to racist policing, investing in rehabilitation in the system rather than punishment, reducing the length of sentences and ultimately this right to vote, this right to participate in democracy for all people.

I encourage people to familiarize themselves with these demands and act on them not just during this strike period, but moving forward.

How can people find those demands and more information online about the strike? How can people keep up with you and your work?

If people want to follow my work, they can follow me on Twitter at @JanosMarton and to follow the prison strike and learn more about it and to share the demands, people can go to IncarceratedWorkers.org/campaigns/prison-strike-2018.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.