As reports of the 2018 Prison Strike actions and state retaliation continue to come in, we speak with Amani Sawari –organizer and media contact with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak— about ways to support prison rebels. We also hear from J, who’s among the strikers inside a South Carolina Prison.
To get more news and reports from the strike, be sure to visit:
Image credit: Amanda Priebe, Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative
Click here to display the episode transcript.
a Maria: Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is a Maria. As reports of the 2018 prison strike actions and state retaliation continue to come in, we speak with Amani Sawari, organizer and media contact with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, about ways to support prison rebels. We also hear from J, a prison rebel who’s among the strikers inside a South Carolina Prison.
But first, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.
Kaif Syed: Throughout the months of August and September, popular demonstrations and actions spread like wildfire throughout the United States in support of the ongoing nationwide prison strike. From banner drops in Boston, to noise demonstrations in Brooklyn and militant marches in Philadelphia and elsewhere: people have been mobilizing to support strikers on the inside. In Michigan’s state capital, a group of community members, formerly incarcerated people and activists rallied and marched to the Michigan Department of Corrections building, posting prisoner demands on the front doors and blocking vehicle traffic into the Department of Corrections parking structure. In Decatur, Georgia, activists staged a noise demonstration that eventually pushed its way inside Dekalb County Jail, blocking the jail entrance and disrupting jail business. These actions have drawn widespread media attention to the nationwide prison strike and the demands of prisoners, in the face of limited mass media coverage and sympathy. Outside mobilizations in support of prisoners is ongoing.
While the prison strike continues to call for better conditions for inmates and the abolition of prison slavery, several inmates died or were otherwise hospitalized in the month of August due to both clear abuse by prison staff or other mysterious circumstances. On August 31st, a 27-year old woman inmate with chemical dependency issues in Mineral County Jail in Nevada died while detoxing, after being denied medical care by prison staff. In three separate states, Fentanyl exposure has sickened inmates and prison staff and has killed several inmates. In the last week of August in the state of Arkansas, at least five inmates died from overdose due to mysterious fentanyl exposure; Subsequently, multiple inmates and staff have fallen ill due to a similarly mysterious drug exposure in Pennsylvania and Ohio prisons.
Passport denials and revocations appear to be surging, according to several reports throughout the month of August. Carrying on the US government’s continued effort to strip migrants from their families and communities, the state department has launched a campaign targeting US-born Latinx citizens, citing fraudulent birth certificates as the justification. In several incidents, passport applicants have been jailed and forced into deportation proceedings. In other cases, passports have been revoked at the border, when Latinx citizens have tried to re-enter the US from Mexico. This upsurge in denials and revocations are the latest attempts by the white supremacist Trump administration to ethnically cleanse migrant communities from the US, whether they have documents or not.
JLS MEDIA INTERVIEW
Alejo: This is Alejo and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan. We are here with Amani Sawari, a media contact and organizer with Jailhouse Lawyers Speak. Hello Amani and welcome to the show.
Amani: Thank you for having me.
Alejo: So before we start with the latest updates on the 2018 prison strike, we wanted to ask you to basically just tell us a little bit about yourself. A lot of your family lives in Michigan, right? But you graduated from the University of Washington right in the first year of the prison strike, right? In 2016 I believe.
Amani: Yeah. So yeah, I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan. I was born in Pontiac and I moved to Washington maybe five years after my dad moved here. After he was laid off from Ford, he started working at Boeing. And then my senior year of high school he called and asked if I wanted to go to UW and if I did, he paid for my school. So I said sure. And I flew out to Washington and got my bachelor’s degree in media communication studies and law and economics. And so after I graduated was when the 2016 prison strike was happening and so that following year is when I was recruited by Jailhouse Lawyers to write their newsletter for the upcoming Millions for Prisoners March. So I wrote a monthly newsletter that went out to hundreds of prisoners on updates of the march in solidarity actions that were happening around the country from that October 2016 all the way through that following until the march, August 19th and I guess they really liked me, so they asked me to be their spokeswoman for the national prison strike this year, which includes writing their newsletter as well as posting updates on my website and doing media requests and I’m just working on their behalf, organizing on the outside and then also having events here in Washington state where I’m at. We’ve had rallies and marches and protests and noise demos over here, so it’s definitely been a great path from Michigan over here. But I definitely miss home for sure.
Alejo: Can you take us back a little bit, could you tell us a little bit about how you lived through the prison strike in 2016. Tell us a little bit more about the 2017 Millions for Prisoners March, I think I believe you spoke right at the, at the march. Tell us how, how, how you live those moments.
Amani: So I graduated in June of 2016 and I watched the national prison strike sort of just as a spectator from the outside and as a supporter. So in school I was studying race and criminal law and how the media’s representation of certain minority groups has a huge role in the way that they’re treated politically and economically and the way that they’re treated by our criminal justice system. So I had this huge interest in drawing the connections between the media and the way that it was rolled out legally and with the law. So I watched sort of from the outside in was really vocal on Twitter and I started my own website, sawarimi dot org, to sort of write articles about what was happening in my community and responding to what was going on around me and I really was an advocate for prisoners’ human rights and that’s when around the time on Twitter that one of the Jailhouse Lawyers reached out to me and asked if I wanted to help out with the millions for prisoners march, which I was super excited about. I love writing newsletters at the time I was writing a monthly newsletter for my real estate firm, so this was going to be a much more exciting topic. And so I was writing news for Jailhouse Lawyers, putting articles that they would send me into the newsletter, adding photos from different solidarity events and just letting people on the inside know what work was happening on the outside on their behalf. And so that same sort of work was happening this year with the national prison strike in addition to all the other responsibilities that I had as a spokeswoman.
Alejo: So for listeners that don’t maybe know sort of what a prison newsletter looks like and can you tell us how it’s such an important tool in organizing folks on the inside and, and connecting with folks on the outside as well?
Amani: Newsletters are super crucial because prisoners are very limited in their ways of communicating with the outside. They’ve got a few different platforms for communication, telephones–which costs money, it costs in Michigan about $3 and twenty cents for 15 for 15 minute phone call that’s monitored– and they’ve got JPay, which is, they’re paid emailing service, uh, which is what, twenty five cents or something like that per every few emails that you send and it goes by the page. And so then then they have snail mail, which is how we send our newsletters. And the newsletter is really important because it’s a way that they can get updates on what’s going on around them and on the outside and in support of them. So I would make a newsletter and like for example, this, this newsletter, the Solid Black Fist, that comes out. It’s been coming out every other week, the month before. And it’ll be going throughout the strike and the month after the strike will be, we’ll be putting it out every other week. It has a message from Jailhouse Lawyers, the 10 demands, articles that have been written about the strikes, some of the articles prisoners are featured in, so they get really excited to see how their stories are spreading on the outside, pictures of solidarity events and just seeing that things are happening all around the country and then an updated map of which prisons in which states are also involved. So this is one of the only ways that prisoners can see what’s happening in the other prisons. For example, in Michigan, prisoners can’t write other prisoners, so there’s no way for them to communicate with each other and share information. So the newsletter is a conduit for that. Allowing information to be shared across the walls. And that’s why the newsletter is called “Freedom fighter news across the wires.” So it’s a way for us to share news and fight with each other and for each other, regardless of what side of the wall were on. And the newsletter is just as important on the inside as it is on the outside. People on the outside or getting to the same sort of updates, although they can look it up online and see it, the information is just as just as important and valuable for them to have access to.
Alejo: Yeah. And that’s super, super crucial platform for people to communicate, particularly to spread the word of the strike as well, right? I mean a lot of the Millions for prisoners March, uh, actions, but as well as the 2018 prison strike in in a way was facilitated through these kinds of publications. So, you also have some connections at least in writing, right? with, with some Michigan prisoners, like Lacino Hamilton and Chanton Miles, who, who you’ve sort of at least mentioned in, in the speech, right? you gave last year at the Millions for Prisoners March….
Amani: So I wanted to use this platform to amplify the voice, the voices, of two friends of mine, Chanton Miles and Lacino Hamilton incarcerated in the Michigan Department of Corrections:
Amani: “It’s a pleasure to be a part of something so significant and have an opportunity to stand here through a great friend of ours to address one of the many ways racism hides itself in policy and institutions. We thank everyone for all the sacrifices, time and energy it took to organize, plan, and complete this mission, much love and appreciation to the people the most important aspect of any movement for showing up and demanding their voices to be heard. Not allowing this blatant form of dehumanization to continue on. Today. We’re not marching asking for anything. We’re demanding for Congress to remove the stark form of disrespect for human life. The 13th amendment to the United States constitution is a reminder that America’s, slave and racist origin is alive and striving. They’re striving in the police, the courts, and the prison system. Even if we successfully pressure conference- Congress- to abolish the 13th amendment, it will be no solution to abolishing the power Congress has to begin. Such a demand, maybe great to raise awareness about interlinked systems and marginalization and policing and imprisonment, but it’s not a realistic effort to smash caging, caging people for part of or all of their lives. It would not prevent imprisonment from being the primary mode of state inflicted punishment. Not, one prisoner would go free. America would still lead in the world of imprisonment.”
a Maria: So we’re recording here in the final days of planned activity in the 2018 prison strike; can you update listeners on what’s gone down in the past few weeks since the strike started on August 21st.
Amani: So prior to the strike starting, we had 17 states signed on to participate in the strike. Of those 17 states, in the first week we heard reports back from at least 10 states and then in the second week we had reports back from at least 14 states. And then we also had reports from overseas, three countries that were also in solidarity. So we’ve definitely seen this evolve and I’m mentioning that we had reports back because we know that for every single report that we do get, there are prisons that are striking that don’t have access to communication right now and aren’t able to send in their report. But we expect that when communication lines open up and retaliation sort of falls back when the strike is over on Sunday that we will be able to get the rest of those reports in. So I’m gonna list off the reports that we have in California with at least two prison prisons participating.
In new Folsom prison, we’ve got a hunger strike that was initiated by her Herberto Garcia on August 21st, and then California state prison in Lancaster also has a group hunger striking. In Florida we’ve got five institutions that are participating in Charlotte Correctional Institution, Dade, Holmes, Apalachee and Franklin correctional institution. In Georgia, Georgia state prison in Reidsville, and Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson — We have strikes and boycotts that have been reported, and it’s really important for us to mention boycotts because although they aren’t actions that we can directly see, they are choices that prisoners are making to restrict their ability to talk on the phone, to purchase hygiene products, foods, a cosmetic products and other things that they would need from commissary. They’ve chosen for for over two weeks to limit their use of these items, just to prove the point. And then in Kentucky we’ve got boycott activity happening at Federal Correction Institution in Manchester. In Indiana, at Wabash Valley Correctional Institution
We have prisoners — All the prisoners in their segregation unit have initiated the hunger strike and they started on August 27, so another important factor is that as prisoners are finding out about the national prison strike, they’ve joined in during different dates, which is really fun to see when they started, when they found out about the news, whether it’s through a newsletter or word of mouth. Some prisoners even have heard it on the radio, so it’s really special to see how the different platforms have hit the different institutions. And then in Maryland in Jessop correctional institution. Michigan at Algiers correctional facility is where prisoners are boycotting Global Tel-link, the phone company that facilitates telecommunications there. In New Mexico, we’ve got prisoners in Lee County Correctional Institution and they have also been suffering from retaliation in the form of daily strip searches since the morning of August 20th. In North Carolina, we’ve got prisoners at Hyde Correctional Institution and Polk Correctional Institution. Ohio at Toledo Correctional Institution.
There’s six institutions in South Carolina that are participating at Broad River Correctional Institution, Lee Correctional, Mccormick Correctional, Kershaw and Lieber correctional institution as well as the federal correctional institution in Edgefield. And then in Texas we’ve also got hunger strikes happening at the Telford unit as well as the Texas Gulf prison. In Virginia at Sussex, we have a group that is on hunger strike in Washington at the Northwest detention center where I was able to go and do some noise demos there. We’ve got over 200 immigrant detainees there that are hunger striking. And then overseas in Nova Scotia, Canada, we’ve seen hunger strike activity happen there and prisoners have also released their own demands in solidarity with the National Prison Strike. And then we’ve also had solidarity statements read by prisoners in Palestine and in Greece. So we’ve been able to see activity on a nationwide, and even on an on an international scale with the prison strike so far.
a Maria: Thank you so much for that rundown. I was wondering if you could tell me how — what your sense is of smaller boycotts that aren’t getting reported. We know that this year the strike is broadly conceived as boycotts, work stoppages and hunger strikes, as you mentioned. Can you talk about the smaller actions and the ways that work stoppage may not be as important as it was in 2016?
Amani: Yeah, so work stoppages were really a focus in 2016 as prison slavery was a huge focus. And prison slavery has carried over into being a huge focus this year as well, but prisoners want people to recognize the other nine demands that they have, which is why they have listed out other actions, not all prisoners work in the prison and not all prisoners have the privilege to have jobs and earn a wage while they’re incarcerated. So for those that aren’t working, they can participate by being in a sit in and that is just when prisoners gathered together and peacefully sit in one area of the prison and refused to move. As you mentioned, there’s also boycotts and prisoners have chosen to boycott in a number of ways. It’s a really special form of protest because it doesn’t require them having to put their body on the line for anything. They just make a choice within themselves, you know, I’m not going to talk on the phone or spend money on the phone for the next two weeks or I’m not going to buy anything from commissary. That is a really big choice and we should support them at the very least on the outside by choosing alternatives to those companies.
a Maria: Yeah, and I think that’s important, especially knowing what we know about prisons, about the way that communication is hampered, both within the facilities and especially from within to outside, and so just really emphasizing what you said that we don’t have a lot of the information yet and as organizers and people doing media work around this, we have to be really patient and just keep really close contact going with people, especially in these times when when part of that choice is for instance, to boycott the lines of communication themselves.
Amani: Yeah, and prisoners had been doing an amazing job getting these reports out under the extreme cases of retaliation and limited communications that they’ve had through these two and a half weeks. But we’ve seen the statewide lock down, the daily strip searches, the moves into solitary, and even in those instances, prisoners have been able to get reports out in at least 13 of the 17 states. Now we know that there are many more states that are involved and many more prisons that are involved, so it is very important that as the strike winds down and comes to an end in the next couple of days, that we keep an eye on this. Prisoners are still going to be suffering from retaliation after the ninth, especially those who were who were connected to be leading in the strike. They’re still going to be in solitary, there’s still going to have their communications heavily censored, so it’s up to us to still support them. By following this and amplifying their demands
a Maria: And have JLS or any of the other groups started making concrete recommendations for other ways that people on the outside can support as this inevitable wave of retaliation comes
Amani: Yes, they have. One of the things that jls has communicated to me is that they really want people to reach out to politicians and their elected officials and make them aware of these demands. We can’t hold them accountable for making these demands happen if they’re unaware. So as a strike come to an end, every single person should be looking over the 10 demands and picking at least one that resonates with them even if you don’t agree or support every single demand. There should be at least one on there that resonates with you. Jls has also mentioned to me that they want to start a prisoners’ human rights coalition, perhaps in partnership with millions for prisoners that already has their coalition developed. So people that are interested in joining that coalition, please visit http://www.Sawarimi.org.
Alejo: So in relation to that, to the question of demands right — so what do you — what do you say to folks that might say that some of these events I might agree with, but on the whole they’re not necessarily abolitionist demands.
Amani: These are all demands that prisoners they expect to see in the next year and the next couple of years. These are really criminal justice reform demands. Uh, they’re supposed to transform our criminal justice system on the inside so that that can have effects on the outside. Prisoners crafted these demands in prisoners whittled these demands down from 35 earlier this year to 10 and made them succinct and targeting every single issue within the criminal justice system that affects prisoners on a national level. So these are the demands that they want. They are the ones whose lives depend on seeing these demands fulfilled. So if we support them and if we’re in solidarity with them, we should respect the leadership that they have. They want to take the lead in making the changes necessary in the criminal justice system because their lives depend on it. It’s been too long that people on the outside who are completely unaffected by the criminal justice reform laws are making these laws have been like Truth in Sentencing laws and Prisoner Litigation Reform Act.
These sorts of laws have inhibited prisoners from being able to attain access to rehabilitation that they need and being able to have their human rights protected by the courts, so if prisoners want to see an end to those laws and they want to see the demands that are spelled out here, access to rehabilitation, funding towards rehabilitation, pell grants reinstated — even if they don’t seem radically revolutionary, it’s what they want right now. This is what they want to see in the next year unfold so that they can have conditions that are more livable for them because some of these men are going to be incarcerated for the next sometimes 10 years, so they want to have access to earning good time. They want to be able to improve the conditions that they’re forced to live in right now. We know that we’re not going to see all the prisons come down next year, but we know that we could see the prisoner litigation reform act be rescinded so that prisoners can have access to the courts so that the criminal justice officials can be held accountable for the abuses that they’ve done on prisoners.
We know that we could probably see truth in sentencing act rescinded so that prisoners can earn good time all across the country in in all of our states. We know that we can see an end to racist gang enhancement laws that mandate that prisoners who are associated with a gang have extra years added onto their sentence. And these types of laws are laws that contribute to mass incarceration, so we want to see an end to mass incarceration and if these are the demands that prisoners put out that they want to see within the next year, then people who support prisoners’ human rights should support these demands. Hands down.
Alejo: Yeah, and as you said, these are very broad based demands, right? So people don’t have to be working on the exact same thing. People can support the prisoners resistance movement in whatever ways they see fit and are able to and are willing and so on. It was really interesting. I was looking through the Attica prison liberation faction manifest of demands from 1971 and there’s just so many continuities, right? Not only food, but even work and wages, uh, so in a way we are continuously inhabiting what Attica was not able to actually solve for us right? So in a sense, the specters of Attica continue to inhabit us, but the struggle will also continue, right? So what do we go from here? What’s, what’s next?
Amani: What’s next is educating the people around us and especially our legislatures on the demands and on what’s been going on with the strike and joining the human rights coalition so that we can push forward every single demand.
a Maria: Well, thank you so much for joining us today.
Amani: Thank you for having me!
J: Hi, this is J . I’m calling in the South Carolina Department of Corrections. Um, I’m currently behind the wall and uh, with the rest of the strikers here and across the nation. Really though, I’m just calling in because I wanted to say thank you and that’s on behalf of the strikers here in South Carolina, for all the outside support that we have been receiving as well as the support from other strikers across across the nation. Um, as many of you may already know, you know, we’re experiencing oppression at its worst in this moment, it’s an attempt to suppress our voices and, crush our unity. To further elaborate, those who decided to take a stand and participate in the strike are being placed in solitary confinement. Um, at this time there are 30 individuals, just to my knowledge, who have been placed in solitary confinement. Um, I’m sure there are more, that I’m not aware of at this time.
All of those was cafeteria workers. They were cafeteria workers who , you know, work in the kitchen and they just decided that they weren’t going to go to work and due to them sayin’ they weren’t going to work they were placed on solitary confinement, on lockup status. So, yea, those individuals were placed on solitary confinement, due to work stoppage. And of course, there’s not enough room to place everyone in solitary confinement. So, uh, what they have done is swap comrades out with individuals who have been in solitary confinement for a long stretch of time. And when you have someone who’s been confined for years on end, they’re more than happy to take up a working position. A went to a place at Lee county back in April of this year. You know, we have been on 24 hour lockdown and that means no movement whatsoever. So at this moment we’re only receiving one shower a week. We’re being denied any form of cell cleaning. We’ve had several boiled water advisories while still being denied clean drinking water. We’re receiving our foods at all times. Whereas the meat has gone bad or seriously undercooked. Um, this is not word of mouth, this is factual. You know, I’m back here and I’m experiencing it with all of my comrades as well. And we do receive food packages labeled “not for human consumption.” Um, again, this is factual.
One of the issues I feel the public is misinformed about is their belief that we’re just back here being taken care of by the taxpayer dollar, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We’re charged from everything from underwear to medical care. So before they elaborate, if I needed to see the nurse due to a headache or feeling sick, that’s $5 just to sign to know. And if I was to receive Tylenol or Ibuprofen, you’re charged $5 for every prescription received. Um, I find this hard to grasp when if you work at, or for, a prison industrial job, referred to as PI, you’re only paying sixteen cents an hour. And if you happen to get sick, half of your paycheck goes towards medical. So this strike as well as the awareness is much needed. Since the strike, there’s been a number of suicides and attempts. I would like to see the condolences to the families that were affected in the worse way. I want to be sure that everyone knows that even though our effort to being physically involved are being suppressed, uh, we are with you all mentally and emotionally and we really wanted to send out our appreciation out for the support and special thanks to the IWOC representatives. So we really appreciate that.
Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes on our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: a Maria, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Special thanks to “Bursts” from The Final Straw. Original music by Bad Infinity.