In this episode, we discuss how some of us are preparing for the upcoming 2018 Prisoner Strike — slated to take place between August 21st and September 9th. We speak with members of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee of the IWW, Oakland chapter, about the lead-up to the strike and how you can get involved.
This year’s actions come in the wake of the extraordinary 2016 prison strike — the largest and most widespread prisoner strike in U.S. history. It is estimated that about 50,000 imprisoned workers in more than two dozen different states refused to do the work that keeps prisons running. In August 2017, the Millions for Prisoners march led prison officials in Florida and South Carolina to preemptively lock-down their entire prison systems — impacting over 121,000 imprisoned people.
Rustbelt Abolition Radio covered these historic events in our September 2017 episode, Reports from the Prisoner Resistance Movement, as well as in our Making Contact audio documentary, Specters of Attica: Reflections from Inside a Michigan Prison Strike.
The prisoner resistance movement takes another step this August 21, 2018, as prison rebels in more than 17 states will refuse to labor and maintain the institutions that perpetuate their captivity.
Image credit: Inmates playing chess from prison cells, Attica Correctional Facility, Attica, New York, by Cornell Capa
Click here to display the episode transcript.
a Maria: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is a Maria. In this episode, we discuss how some of us are preparing for the upcoming 2018 Prisoner Strike — slated to take place between August 21st and September 9th. We speak with Adam and Peter, members of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee of the IWW, Oakland chapter, about the lead-up to the strike and how you can get involved. This year’s actions come in the wake of the extraordinary 2016 prison strike — the largest and most widespread prisoner strike in U.S. history.
It is estimated that about 50,000 imprisoned workers in more than two dozen different states refused to do the work that keeps prisons running. In August 2017, the Millions for Prisoners march led prison officials in Florida and South Carolina to preemptively lock-down their entire prison systems — impacting over 121,000 imprisoned people. Rustbelt Abolition Radio covered these historic events in our September 2016 episode titled “Reports from the Prisoner Resistance Movement” as well as in our Making Contact audio documentary titled “Specters of Attica: Reflections from Inside a Michigan Prison Strike.” The prisoner resistance movement takes another step this August 21, 2018, as prison rebels in more than 17 states will refuse to labor and maintain the institutions that perpetuate their captivity.
August 21st is going to be lit.
Kaif Syed: I’m Kaif Syed, here’s some news you may have missed
On July 24th, Inmates at the Bristol County House of Corrections in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, launched a hunger strike in solidarity with ICE detainees. ICE detainees in Bristol county had launched a hunger strike the previous week to protest lack of medical care, inedible food, and other abuses. Over a hundred inmates in the Bristol County House of Corrections have participated in the hunger strike.
On July 26th, The Idaho Department of Corrections claimed that 364 Idaho inmates hacked JPay software and accumulated over a quarter million dollars in credits. JPay has been criticized for years for overcharging inmates for basic services like staying in touch with their families. Inmates’ families have told the associated press that the incident was a glitch and not intentional.
As of July 13th, at least 11 lawsuits have been filed against the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Hunderdon County, New Jersey, for sexual abuse against women inmates. Two of those lawsuits are class-action lawsuits highlighting systemic abuses by corrections workers. According to one inmate’s account from court documents, there had been a “a widely acknowledged understanding by both inmates and corrections officers, that corrections officers had sexual contact and sexual relationships with inmates under the custody and control.” The Edna Mahan Correctional Facility has had a long history of abuse cases dating back to the 1990’s.
a Maria: I’m a Maria here with Alejo and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio an abolitionist media and movement building project based in Detroit, Michigan. We’re here in Oakland, California, and we’ll be speaking with Adam and Peter, members of the incarcerated workers organizing committee of the IWW Oakland chapter. Welcome Adam and Peter and thank you for joining us.
Adam: Thanks for having us.
Peter: Yeah, thank you so much for having us on your show. Really appreciate your work.
Alejo: Thank you. So we’re here on the eve of the nationwide 2018 prisoner strike –and unlike the 2016 prisoner strike –this year, actions are set to take place between August 21st and September 9th. These dates have historical significance. On August 21st, 1971, the Black radical intellectual and Black Panther, George Jackson, was murdered in San Quentin prison. Weeks later, on September 9th, the Attica prison rebellion broke out. Can you talk about the actions planned across these dates in 2018?
Peter: Yeah, actions set to go off inside, are going to occur in over a dozen states. Hopefully by the time this airs is maybe over two dozen. They’ll include work stoppages, folks inside will refuse movements, and hold sit-itns and peaceful yard demonstrations like we saw in Kinross two years ago. Boycotts of commissary– like we saw in Florida earlier this year –and and hunger strikes like we’ve seen in, several states over the last decade.
Alejo: So work stoppages, sit-ins, boycotts, and hunger strikes are some of the actions planned by folks on the inside. For supporters on the outside, the focus is to make sure that the retaliation that rains down on those inside is attenuated. So what is the strategy for people on the outside? What kind of solidarity work can we do as outside supporters?
Adam: There’s multiple ways to kind of be in the loop and to really participate in assisting and providing support to folks inside. There will be call ins that will occur when boycotts and strikes happen. But there’s also opportunities to spread awareness and to do outreach and to kind of garner support throughout throughout the strike process. And so a large part of that will kind of be building coalitions and with folks of as many tendencies as interested in possible and also to build a network of phone trees so that when repression does happen that people are ready to kind of correspond in.
Peter: Yeah. Locally, we’ve been organizing, you know, an expansive phone tree and we’re, we’re trying to get as many organizations, groups and individuals as possible to say “yes I will call” and pressure wardens, and corrections authorities to end repression when it happens. And we’ve seen success with this, both in California and at the national level over the last few years. Phone a phone zaps, you know, created heat relief here in Corcoran last summer when folks are facing triple digit conditions and being held in their cells without air conditioning or any resources to cool down. And people were being hospitalized. We had a phone zap that was organized primarily by folks inside and their families with our support, that, that created relief for those people. We’ve seen it, we saw it work in Florida earlier this year to get Kevin “Rashid” Johnson out of solitary confinement where he was being held in freezing conditions, and, his depression had to do with the article that he wrote about Operation Push. We see phones zaps, work, and you know, when we started doing it, I kind of want to emphasize the, it isn’t a, it isn’t a sort of call your congressman kind of tactic where asked very politely for corrections authorities to do the right thing. What this tactic is about is about shutting down phone lines and creating the kind of pressure on the institutions themselves and its infrastructure and to sort of force them to do the right thing.
a Maria: Can tell us about the origins of this call, as well as the lessons learned between 2016 and 2018, and some of the changes in tactics — the ones that we can openly talk about, obviously.
Adam: One tactic I will kind of emphasize and what kind of one lesson you’ll see then you can kind of garner from both within the, both within the context of strike organizing in abolitionist organizing in general is that it can be a slow process, but it requires reflexiveness. The reason being is because often when you’re corresponding with folks inside, you’ll find that just getting mail even into a correctional facility can sometimes take a month, two months to bounce back. Sometimes you might not hear from it at all because it’s labeled as contraband or it’s even worse. Even just gets lost in the system. It just gets lost in the bureaucracy, what have you, but in terms of when you’re able to respond, when things happen, prisoners are waiting to hear from people. And so the capacity for folks to on the outside to provide them with any coverage as much as possible through mass organizing and mobilization is part of it is part of a long term systemic process, and helping folks and abolish the conditions that are being forced upon them.
Peter: Yeah. And for the reasons that Adam pointed out, you know, we’ve got our local chapter has been organizing since the, since just ahead of the 2016 strike. And so that’s, that’s about two years and in, in terms of building relationships and solid trust between the inside and the outside and that’s still very, very young organization and, that’s a process that, like you said, takes a tons and tons of time. So that’s, that’s one thing that I’ve learned personally over the last couple of years. It’s just how, how time is different when you’re working with folks on the inside and how time is just longer.
Peter: One thing I wanted to say to your question too, in terms of, in terms of lessons learned and, the importance of internalizing these strategies is that, you know, something that you said recently about, prisons being places of darkness and a sort of information silos and um, you know, places that are designed very intentionally to be unseen and you know, the media work that you all do and that we’re also trying to involve ourselves in is, um, is I think a really crucial way of pushing against those those blinders, like getting, getting information out that wouldn’t otherwise and, and, and spreading it as wide as possible and, and being, being a conduit or a, just sort of existing as an infrastructure to amplify, to amplify the voices And the thinking and the organizing that’s happening inside.
Alejo: So you all just mentioned this is a self organizing force, right? The 2016 percent strike came out of a call from the Free Alabama movement and this year the strike– the call for the strike– came out of the Jailhouse Lawyers Speak (JLS). Right? Can you tell us a little bit about, about the about that, the beginning of the call and the importance of working with different tendencies , working in coalition, again, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak speak is a Black-led organization for folks in the inside. To what extent does IWOC Oakland’s –or IWOC in general– interface with JLS and the importance of coalition building.
Peter: The organizing around this particular strike, which kind of happened similarly to the strike in 2016 where, where IWOC, existed at the time, but sort of coalesced to respond to the call by the Free Alabama Movement into it was sort of the IWW’s way of, organizing toward that, that call to aid and support. That’s happened again, this strike, like you said, it was called by a Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, who early this year, made a strategic decision not to call for a national strike this year until the horrifying events in South Carolina where I think nine people were killed and dozens of people were injured. And you know, folks were left, on lockdown in a yard without medical attention for several hours. And, in the wake of that Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, sort of reversed their decision. It seemed to them an obvious move. And so that, that event created the impetus, I think, for, for their call to, to this strike and for the formation of the 10 demands.
Alejo: Yeah, I think seven comrades were killed in South Carolina. But before we go on, let me read the ten demands published by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak on April 24. These demands, as you say Peter, which came out in the wake of the massacre at Lee Correctional facility in South Carolina. Ok? So here are the demands published by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak for the 2018 Prison Strike:
- Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.
- 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.
- The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.
- 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.
- An immediate end to 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.
- An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.
- No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.
- State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.
- Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.
- 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.
Alejo: So these are the ten demands made by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak — an organization of imprisoned workers that are leading the push for the nationwide August 21, 2018 Prison Strike. In relation to our previous question about coalition-building, and its possibilities for the moment we are in, we should mention that Jailhouse Lawyers Speak made a call — just a few months after the call for the strike — standing in solidarity with migrants resisting ICE detention. Just a few weeks after that, we also saw the broad calls for the abolition of ICE by a fairly wide political sector — including both liberals and progressives alike. So it seems that even just the name “Abolition” evokes a sense of, it allows us to tie together different struggles. That is, tie together the struggle against immigrant detention centers in jails and prisons, but also the ways in which the carceral state extends beyond prison walls into lives to our everyday lives. What possibilities do you all see in, in Oakland and beyond, to organize in tandem with folks on the inside, you know, in the wake of, again, what appears to be another historic prisoner strike alongside immigrants both inside and outside detention centers?
Peter: Yeah. I think that the attention that ICE detention centers are getting is an opportunity to connect these struggles and, and I think in general that, that connecting the movement to abolish prisons with, you know, all forms of struggle against the State and against, incarceration in general is, is a crucial part of this kind of organizing. I also think that, or I guess my hope is that the attention that conditions within ICE detention centers are getting in mainstream consciousness is an opportunity for, for people on a much greater scale to engage themselves with the realities of incarceration. People being tortured and neglected in ICE detention centers, isn’t exactly a surprise to people who’ve been working with prisoners for any amount of time. Medical neglect, physical and psychological torture are routine in detention centers just as they have been and are in prison. For, you know, for as long as they’ve existed.
Peter: I think that the, the idea of family separation is another is another among many connections between, uh, between what’s happening in ICE detention centers that is getting so much attention and what routinely happens, when people are sent to prison. And then. So I think like rhetorically or, or what have you. That’s, that’s another thing to pay attention to like this. This, I’m like the idea pushing against the idea that, what’s happening in ICE detention centers is exceptional or that Trump is exceptional. I think is, is important in this time. No, this is what, this is what prison does, this is what incarceration does. It separates families. It subjects people to physical and emotional torture and social death. And that, that that’s happening in ICE detention centers, is not a new reality. It has and will continue to happen in prisons too, you know, to two and a half plus million people.
Alejo: Yeah, I think also — just to go beyond rhetorical strategies — we can tie the migrant struggle and prison abolition struggles together–which people have been organizing around for a long time — I think a really tangible way in which folks can connect the two for the August 2018 prison strike and beyond is by doing noise demonstrations at jails that also act as detention centers for migrants. You know, in some states, jails are both used as detention centers. So people can organize actions, such as noise demonstrations or whatever, outside those sites. I mean, detention centers are prisons too, no matter what distinctions the state makes between people and the documentation they might have. That’s one potential in which can connect these struggles materially.
a Maria: So what are some things for people on the outside, people who have friends or family on the inside –concrete things– that people can begin to gear up, in order to engage and support the strikers and minimize or address the inevitable retaliation?
Peter: I think two things. There’s a, there’s an inward facing, if you will, and an outward facing component to this, inward facing. We’ve talked a little bit about the phone blasts that, you know, we’ll see that will happen like on a rolling and sometimes emergency basis. And, when information comes out from strikers about the oppression that they’re facing, so to, to (a) to immediately mobilize as many people as possible to put pressure on those institutions to shut down their phone lines to read these demands or others that come out of the strike. And basically what happens when that kind of pressure comes from folks on the outside is that, the, the actions that prisoners are taking in signed and the demands that they’re making now have a material force now have a now have a force of people acting on their behalf to pressure the institutions in ways that add to the pressure that they’re putting on institutions by hunger, striking or engaging in work stoppages or sit-ins, boycotting commissary, or what have you.
The other is the sort of outward facing component, which is to voice loudly on social media and face-to-face, and in whatever capacity, folks are able to, both the ten demands that JLS has released, information about everything that is happening inside. Any information that, that gets out about actions and conditions should be spread widely, you know, obviously where it’s not incriminating. To break down the shroud that exists over these places so that, so the prisoners actions are seen so that the repression that they face is seen. And then so that the things that they say in the demands that they make are seen. Also, you mentioned folks who have loved ones in sign and that’s a crucial way of the information gets out and that’s kind of the way the information gets out when things are happening in real time and, you know, snail mail just doesn’t cut it sometimes.
Adam: Yeah. I would say that the biggest and the most, the principal component, even up to a lot of this, a lot of the outreach that can be done is to send her incarcerated voices who are, you are already doing a lot already experiencing a lot of the repression in doing a lot of the work and really emphasizing that whenever you are communicating with people kind of about what is happening in terms of actions and in terms of how, how the strike is manifesting.
There’s plenty of opportunity right now to reach out to communities and orgs that you’re a part of. And even just to kind of discuss, even then discuss, discuss involvement in ways to cut ways to help out with what the strike itself. There’s, there’s opportunity to raise awareness and there’s opportunity to, in a more direct way in, inwardly to build, build a network, of folks who are ready to respond when prisons are seeking to oppress people inside a and there and they are. And they know that they can do so on a whim. And the only way to end, the only way to stifle it isn’t really the way to stifle it, is let them know that people are watching them outside.
Alejo: Okay. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us today for all the organizing you all do.
Peter: Thank you so much for having us. This has been a real pleasure.
Adam: Yeah. Thank you so much. Yeah, I really appreciate the opportunity to meet you all very much. Definitely love Rustbelt Abolition Radio and I am always looking, always looking, always looking to talk more about it with my friends. So thank you.
KEVIN “RASHID” JOHNSON AUDIO
Alejo: The 2018 Prisoner Strike will likely come at a great cost for both our comrades inside as well as those that hold them captive. We know that retaliation by the State will be swift, and so we encourage you all to help support prison rebels by visiting prisonstrike dot com and by spreading the fire of rebellion wherever you may be. As our comrades from The Fire Inside collective write on their latest zine about the 2018 Prison Strike,
“Nineteen days of facility or state-wide work refusal, sit-downs, or lockdown will cost the system dearly, in terms of both money and legitimacy. Replacing 19 days of prisoner labor can cost millions, not to mention the cost of breaking occupations and repairing damaged facilities. This action can bankrupt not only prison systems, but entire state budgets. Exposing retaliation and drawing attention to horrendous conditions and routines also corrodes the prisons’ public legitimacy. By the end of this protest period, any impacted government is likely to grant substantive concessions to prisoner demands, and to open their minds to harm-reducing reforms, alternatives, and policy changes. This is how direct action on the inside rapidly advances every aspect of the multi-pronged struggle against mass incarceration or for abolition everywhere.”
August 21st is going to be lit.
Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes or read their transcriptions on our website at http://www.rustbeltradio dot org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: a Maria, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.