On Sunday, April 15, a riot broke out inside the Lee Correctional Institute, a maximum-security prison in South Carolina that confines about 1,500 men. The riot was a culmination of eight years of cuts in the state’s prison budgets, which reduced funding for rehabilitative services, prison amenities, activities and staffing, leaving the prisoners responsible for their own health and safety in an already tense environment. Add to that overcrowded facilities, rival gangs housed in the same dormitory and Lee Correctional set up the perfect conditions for a disaster. Seven men died and 22 needed to be hospitalized.
The riot and its aftermath have led to the formation of a new coalition of incarcerated people around the United States. The coalition has organized a national strike to condemn the events of April 15, and to demand better living conditions and higher wages for people in prisons across the country. Today, August 21, marks the beginning of this 19-day national strike.
The strike began on August 21, the 47th anniversary of George Jackson’s assassination. Jackson was arrested for stealing 70 dollars at gunpoint, and was sentenced to a year to life in prison. He was radicalized in prison and became a Marxist writer and intellectual. On August 21, 1971, he was murdered by a guard in what many believe to be an assassination orchestrated by the government. The prison strike will end on on September 9th, the anniversary of the Attica prison rebellion.
The strike takes place during Black August, a month started by political prisoners, most of whom were members of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP) and the Black Liberation Army (BLA).
About the Strike
Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, an incarcerated group of prisoners’ rights advocates, published the national strike’s list of 10 demands on Twitter, among them “an immediate end to prison slavery,” an end to all racist practices and improved access to rehabilitative services for all.
The strikes over the next few weeks will take place in state, federal and immigration prisons. They will consist of sit-ins, hunger strikes, boycotts, and worker strikes. The variety of strike tactics enables more people to participate, providing options for people who don’t work, who can’t leave work or who are on lockdown. While it’s nearly impossible to estimate how many people will take part in the strike, prisons in at least 17 states are participating.
Striking for Higher Wages
Staggeringly low wages for incarcerated workers have recently come to national attention with headlines about the prisoners who “volunteered” to combat the massive California wildfires. Over 2,000 incarcerated men, including 58 “youth offenders” (read: boys under the age of 18), are being paid $1 an hour on top of $2 a day to work these incredibly dangerous jobs. While the California DOC brags about the success of their inmates, these men and boys’ criminal records will prevent them from making a living as firefighters after they are released.
Prisons in every state vastly underpay incarcerated workers. As of 2017, incarcerated workers in U.S. prisons make an average 86 cents an hour. In Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Texas, regular prison jobs are unpaid. When paired with the overpriced goods and services available to people incarcerated in the United States—such as commissary items, e-messaging services and phone calls—these wages often don’t get very far. That’s why the prison strike organizers argue that slavery has not ended; these predominantly Black and Brown people make massive capitalist profits via unpaid or vastly underpaid labor.
The national strike encompasses a number of issues in addition to low wages and intolerable conditions, and it’s worth explaining the other nine demands to understand why they are so important.
The National Prison Strike Demands
Demand 1: Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
Although the coalition of strikers has not specified which conditions or policies need to be remedied, there is no shortage of possibilities. Everything from prisoners’ educational opportunities to their treatment by correctional officers are unacceptable.
Many prisons lack adequate amenities for the climates in which they’re located. In states where the winter temperatures drop below freezing, prisons without heat force people to suffer through the cold while wearing their heaviest winter coats indoors. During the warmer months in the southern states, summer heat can bring the indoor temperatures to a deadly 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Just this past summer, 10 people in a Texas prison were hospitalized for heat-related illnesses.
Some prisons are built near toxic sites, where the air and drinking water slowly poison the people confined there, resulting in chronic illnesses. In one prison in Pennsylvania, the water is so polluted that correctional officers bring bottled water for their dogs to drink. But the people incarcerated are expected to drink the tap water.
Many state prisons still don’t provide free menstrual products to people who need them. Some states still shackle incarcerated pregnant women when they’re in labor. People in solitary confinement can spend upwards of 23 hours a day alone in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell, every day, for years.
Low quality food, a dearth of education programs, and lack of recreational spaces plague the prison system. As one man incarcerated in a South Carolina prison states,
“We need an end of dehumanizing conditions, and that means food improvement. We need open yards again, not just enclosed rec yards, we need these open rec yards again, where prisoners can move. We need prisoners to start being treated like humans. We need more rights to our visits. We need education programs.”
Every year, thousands of people report that they have been sexually assaulted by prison personnel; that they received extremely delayed medical attention in emergency situations; that when they most desperately needed mental health interventions, they were locked up in the box instead.
The list goes on. State and federal prison administrations always opt for the least expensive option, leaving assuring inhumane conditions for hundreds of thousands of people.
Demand 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.
As mentioned above, jobs for incarcerated people in the United States pay drastically below the state minimum wage. Working for giant corporations like Victoria’s Secret, McDonalds, Microsoft, Starbucks, Whole Foods and Walmart (just to name a few), incarcerated workers make meager wages, leaving them without the resources to buy necessary items, communicate with loved ones on the outside or save up for life after prison.
One (anonymous) representative from Jailhouse Lawyers Speak emphasizes the extent to which these jobs are involuntary. He says,
“I know many, many, many prisoners would prefer to be out of their cells, getting some leg room, getting some leg stretches, being able to wander around and being able to talk, if they can. And when you give them the opportunity to do that if they work, obviously they’re going to choose to work. Because this is the opportunity they have to get out, but you’re getting out is based on whether or not you’re going to do this particular labor or not. Your entire existence is based on whether or not you’re going to do this particular labor or not.”
The fight for higher prison wages cannot end with the implementation of state minimum wages. Current minimum wages in the United States can barely support individuals, let alone entire families. All the while, the capitalists make massive profits off of the workers’ labor, seeking to pay workers the least possible. That’s why we have to fight for workers, to make at least a 15 dollar minimum wage– whether incarcerated or not.
Demand 3: The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) is a U.S. federal law passed in 1996 that makes it more difficult for people in prison to file lawsuits in federal court. In practice, this means that when prisoners wants to file a grievance, they must first do so through the prison’s grievance procedure. Only once they exhaust all available administrative procedures within their institution are they eligible to file that grievance in federal court. The PLRA has thus created a bureaucratic maze for incarcerated people to navigate. It slows down and complicates the process of addressing grievances from within prisons, including abuses by correctional officers, prison officials, prison staff and other incarcerated people. This hurdle allows the federal government to avoid responsibility and turn a blind eye towards the inhumane conditions in prisons.
Demand 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.
The Truth in Sentencing (TIS) Act has contributed significantly to longer sentences, prison overcrowding and the growing population of imprisoned elders. Before the TIS Act, it was common practice for parole boards to release offenders convicted of a violent crime after serving less than half their sentence, especially if they had demonstrated good behavior while incarcerated. The TIS Act was put into place in 1994 to prevent early release. People are now repeatedly denied parole, even though they have served more than half their sentence. Some have even earned multiple college degrees, founded prison group programs and demonstrated model behavior. Parole boards have the power to keep people in prison long after their minimum.
For prisons, the TIS Act was an opportunity to make an extra buck. Under the law, state prisons receive federal funding if people convicted of a Part 1 violent crime serve 85% or more of their sentence. Thus, there is a material incentive to keep prisoners locked up for as long as possible.
Another law, the Sentencing Reform Act, also helps keep people locked up for a greater portion of their original sentence. Originally part of President Reagan’s notorious Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, the law standardized federal sentencing guidelines by creating the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The Commission limits judges’ discretion, abolishes federal parole and replaces rehabilitative services with a sentencing system that authorizes punishments in proportion to the severity of the crime.
Rescinding these two laws would work to get people out of prison before they’re sick and dying, reduce prison overcrowding, address the abuses behind prison walls and provide people the rehabilitative services they deserve. Ending these laws would hardly be radical; it would simply remove legislative obstacles to sentencing practices and reporting methods.
Demand 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.
Demand 6: An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and Brown humans.
At every point within the criminal legal system, from arrest to parole, Black and Brown people are subject a racist policing and carceral system that violently abuses people. We see it in videos of police brutality, in the numbers of incarcerated Black people and in the absurdly long sentences handed down by judges. While Black and Brown people get obscenely long sentences for non-violent crimes, cops who kill Black people never go to prison. The evidence here is ample.
Laws that establish “gang sentencing enhancement” make it illegal to participate in a street gang and call for anyone who commits a felony for a gang’s benefit (even if they are not a gang member) to be sentenced with a mandatory minimum. The charge of acting on behalf of a gang is typically added on top of other charges (such as drug possession or theft), which only lengthens a given person’s sentence. These gang laws disproportionately target Black and Brown people, and have become particularly prominent in California.
To call for an end to racist practices within the criminal legal and carceral systems is to upend the very values on which they are based. Prisons and the labor they thrive on are present-day forms of slavery, working to keep Black, Brown and poor people underfoot.
Demand 7: No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
If prisons administrations had a choice, they would not provide rehabilitative and educational programs behind bars, despite their cost efficiency (with which prisons administrations are so obsessed). It is only thanks to prison reform and prison abolition advocates that these changes have been put on the table.
That being said, reforms pushing to give incarcerated people access to rehabilitative services have generally been pretty weak. As reformers seek to inch forward with new legislation, they tend to water down their goals to make them more palatable to state politicians. When it comes to rehabilitative programs for incarcerated people, they have focused on securing services for people convicted of low-level and nonviolent offenses.
This strategy leaves half the U.S. prison population—over 1 million people—largely without access to such resources. Even the prisons that can afford to offer mental health or counseling services are overcrowded, unequipped and understaffed, which means most people won’t see a health professional for months after they request it.
Rehabilitative services need to be free and accessible to all people. Period. The severity of someone’s prior convictions should not bar them from essential care.
Demand 8: State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
Rehabilitation services don’t make the cut on the list of prisons’ priorities. In 2015, 68% of prison spending went to the salaries, overtime and benefits of prison personnel. Meanwhile, only 11% was used for prison health care, such as “payments to outside health care providers, pharmaceuticals, and hospital care”. Funding for rehabilitative services such as counseling, addiction treatment and reentry programs most certainly fall below 10%.
While rehabilitation services work on an individual level, and may help people break out of cycles of poverty and incarceration, they do nothing to disrupt violent systems created and supported by the state. While prisons still exist, states must provide adequate funding to support these services and provide incarcerated people with the tools to heal from the trauma of incarceration itself, never mind the traumas that contributed to their ending up in prison in the first place.
Demand 9: Pell grants must be reinstated in all U.S. states and territories.
In his 1994 Crime Omnibus Bill, President Clinton banned Pell grants for incarcerated students, thereby revoking access to higher education for many incarcerated people. The only other financial aid option for incarcerated people hoping to continue their education is taking out a loan. But repaying a loan is impossible for prisoners earning 30 cents to $1 an hour.
Demand 10: The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.
Voting rights for currently and formerly incarcerated U.S. citizens vary from state to state. Only Maine and Vermont do not bar people with felony convictions from voting at any point, whereas all other states bar them from voting at some point during or after incarceration. In 13 states, voting rights are revoked indefinitely. Felony disenfranchisement in the United States currently forbids 6 million people from voting in any election. This disproportionately disenfranchised Black and Brown people from the vote.
At its very core, the prison system profits from the confinement and exploitation of poor people and Black and Brown people. It’s evidence of the continuation of slavery into the 21st century, and every issue listed in this set of demands will not be eliminated until prisons themselves are abolished. Until the day that every prison closes, we will stand in solidarity with the people locked inside fighting for fair wages, for their freedom and for their humanity.
Act on Your Solidarity
Strikers are asking people on the outside to show their solidarity with the demonstrations and demands. Their call to action is as follows:
“Make the nation take a look at our demands. Demand action on our demands by contacting your local, state and federal political representatives with these demands. Ask them where they stand. Spread the strike and word of the strike in every place of detention.”
Follow Jailhouse Lawyers Speak @JailLawSpeak on Twitter for updates over the next 18 days of the strike, and use #August21 to show your solidarity with strikers on social media.
For more on the prison strike, see “‘I’m for Disruption’: Interview With Prison Strike Organizer From Jailhouse Lawyers Speak.”