A strategy of disruption: Thinking through the prison strike as an abolitionist tactic

Three years after the nationwide September 2016 prison strikes, abolitionist intellectual “HH” re-joins us on the show. He speaks about what the few months before the prison strikes looked like from inside Michigan’s Kinross prison and we discuss the tactical advantages of the strike within an abolitionist strategy of disruption.

Image credit: Norman Lewis

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Alejo: My name is Alejo Stark and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio an abolitionist media and movement building project. Today we speak with  HH .  is an abolitionist intellectual that, last time we spoke with him, was imprisoned at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility in Michigan. We spoke with him after he was put in solitary confinement for almost a year for his involvement in the 2016 prison strike that took place in the bowels of the Michigan Kinross prison. Today we are overjoyed to say that he joins us here face to face. So welcome  or welcome back to to our show.

HH : Glad to be here. Glad to be here.

Alejo:  So really, really overjoyed to have you here talking with you face-to-face. Like I said, you’ve been with our show actually since the very beginning. In our second episode we, which was released actually a few months after the Kinross prison strike in 2016, we featured a letter that you wrote, which got published in the San Francisco Bay view in which you wrote “I will try to give you a brief concise description of the events that precipitated — the fall events, meaning the Kinross strike. So can you sort of briefly tell us what precipitated the 2016 prison strike as it was instantiated here in Michigan at the Kinross prison? How did you sort of live the months leading up to the strike to the work stoppage and then from there move on to what happened during September 9 and September 10.

HH: Yeah, well I guess as far as prison strikes go or activists work or the abolition movement agenda’s concern, I guess Kinross was a perfect storm, I guess, for an uprising. Prior to going to Hiawatha, which is from on the new Kinross, we were all uprooted. 1200 inmates from one prison en masse and moved them to another smaller prison that wasn’t ready for them as far as conditions. So in that regard, to fuel an uprising, created the perfect storm for, or the perfect platform to be able to do it. When we got there, the ventilation mold as you’ve heard from recent, I mean prior accounts, people got sick just as soon as they turned on the ventilation system. People went to the hospital, it was discovered, got abscesses on the lungs after being there for days from breathing through the ventilation, there were not enough blankets, the heat didn’t work. No curtains, plumbing was messed up. So, living-wise, Hiawatha wasn’t prepared for us. Also the food situation at the time, Aramark to Trinity. In that whole transition from privatized food to state food was going on. We were getting fed inadequate meals. Well it’s privatized, capitalistic motivated. So you know, that they were trying to save money — to save money, they can’t give us more. They had to give us less and they gave us less, it didn’t meet caloric or nutritional standards, but yet, they still gave it to us. And then some of the rules that were going on as far as visits, you had to sit across from your visit when by policy, you could sit next to your visit, you can hug at this facility specifically — they weren’t allowing that to happen.

HH: So we planned our first uprising — our first uprising was actually a mass stand-in just to show that we were upset and when they seen us do –well, what, what it consisted of was all of the inmates came out and stood in front of the unit at a set time. Nobody spoke, nobody said anything. And at a set time we left together showing that we were unified and that we were upset. We wanted to send clear and concise message, that there’s something going on with the inmates and you need to figure it out. And we all unified in it about four months before this, which got the desired result. They called us up, said they were going to make changes and everything they were going to work everything out. Long story short, they didn’t — which was another log in the fire for the 9/9 incident.

HH:  So when we finally heard about the national movement plan, the work stoppage, it fit perfectly with what we were already trying to do. So we got involved in that, you know, 9/9, we all decided nobody goes to work. We did it on 9/10, an angry response from all sides. Another protest occurred. Protest was another stand-in — what was really a walk around an area that we weren’t supposed to be at but we were up in the ante and I guess they upped the ante on they anger too, and it escalated into the 9/10 incident.

Alejo: So let’s maybe just, you know, you’re describing this as a perfect storm and Kinross was a perfect storm, right? That’s the word you used. So it’s really sort of confluence between local conditions, right? In this prison that was reopened. We kind of tell the story in our documentary “Specters of Attica: reflections from inside Michigan prison strikes”, which people can listen to, which you and other folks inside kind of give us this view that there’s this local conditions: air ducts, family visitation, but also food, right? Food as you’re saying, but also wages, right? Which is a central part of the prison strike, so there’s sort of these local conditions, which in many ways are sparked by the 2008 crisis — budget crisis, right? This prison is closed and reopened. It reopened in shoddy conditions and you’ll have to face these conditions as you moved in in 2015. So there’s sort of confluence between local and nationwide demands. One of which is wages, right? You say in the letter that I mentioned earlier, Kinross created a united mindset to stand against, finally, against the these conditions, right? So what is it specifically about wages and this aspect of it that that really made this confluence work?

HH: To me, the wage situation is the most important situation out of all of them. While I’m not for prison reform, right? Just general fairness — wages in the 40 years in the Michigan penal system, maybe 50 years now in the Michigan penal system have not changed. I have institutional pay wages and stipends policy which shows you intricately what inmates make per day. The highest pay for inmate per day is $1.37 and that’s at the highest job. And I don’t want everybody to get it twisted that the parameter is, okay, $1.37 a day, even though that’s not sufficient for any humane living condition. Still at the highest pay, there’s only about seven people out of 1200 people, I might be exaggerating that. It might be about 20 people who make that much out of 1200 people, –the average person in prison makes 37 cent a day.

HH: Well if you, if you did the averages for the 1200 people — and you got to remember that all 1200 people don’t have a job because there are not enough jobs to facilitate 1200 people in a prison environment — So once again, an economic crisis, we don’t have enough work for 1200 men. Some men are left without work, without a means of taking care of themselves, even in the limited capacity that the department offers. So you already create a poverty stricken environment, but even with the pay at 37 cent a day, right? And you got to remember this don’t just include a person buying food. And you might say that the state gives three meals a day and they put clothes on your back and they put a roof over your head so you don’t have them bills to contend with, so you don’t need money.

HH: But any normal person, any person who’s been living in the world, period, knows that you still need trivial things: Toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, deodorant. You got to pay for your phone calls, combs, brush, just every day small things. We charge retail value — world, right now, outside prison, world retail value — for all things at a 10% markup and the 10% markup is supposed to go to the inmate benefit fund to provide for things that the inmate might need institutional wide as a whole, but the markup still exists. So we pay him retail value as you pay out here right now for example, deodorant by itself is $4 in prison, right? And if you make 37 cent a day, right? If you average it out a month, it’s like a third of your income is going toward one deoderant, right? So you can see just in that dynamic by itself that monthly a person can’t sustain the self

HH: in the ways that’s given right now in prison, especially in relation to the retail market for inmate, we still paying retail prices in the world, severely underpaid though. Which creates poverty stricken environment. And we know just from studying history, anytime you add poverty to 1200 people, right? It’s disastrous. It’s inhumane. Either way it go it’s going to create an inhumane environment. And this is supposed to be under controlled, structured, government ran institution, right, where it should be impossible for an environment this inhumane to exist. But when you set up, when you systemically set up a system that doesn’t take into account all of those things, and they just try to look at numbers kept from a capitalistic point of view, when they just try to look at numbers, how to save money, how to do this the least cost effective of whatever, right? And that’s all they concentrate on. You took the human out of all of it cause, you see what I’m saying, because now it’s just, it’s just numbers. It’s just numbers. The human element is took out and they under the belief that since we prisoners, it doesn’t even matter.

Alejo: So it seems like the bloated prison system that is holding tens of thousands of people captive here in Michigan, as you say, you have to get it down to the bare 77 cents a day.

HH: Yeah. 77 cents a day to feed one inmate. This is the strategy that they came up with, those who tried to feed us and save money at the same time, they’ve whittled the cost of feeding a person down in prison to 77 cents a day statewide. They’ve actually came up, like, it’s some kind of weird twisted, wicked. It’s gotta be some wicked people behind this who can come up with, who can crunch the numbers enough, who do the math enough to crunch the numbers to where they can come out economically stable enough to say, to feed them, figure out that they can keep you alive by my 77 cent a day. How to keep a person alive, feeding them with 77 cent a day. Right? If you put the wage to 77 cent a day right now it still don’t come up to enough for fully grown person to take care of themselves in prison at retail value.

HH: Even if you put the 77 cent meal with it, even if you put the clothes. I got the quartermaster prices for what they have for the pants, shoes, state pants, state shoes, state shirt costs. If you put all that together, everything to the state offers you right now, if you put it all together that the state necessarily is not paying full by they sales anyways. Taxpayers paying for it either way it go. It’s only private entities like the food administrators or whatever, the private food company that feeds us, that used to feed us who whittled down the numbers, right? The state. We make our own clothes. The inmates make the clothes that we were at the same kind of wage, right? But then they charge us for the same clothes that we make. A pair of state shoes was not even sufficient for a winter.

HH: It’s $23. You can get a decent pair of shoes to wear through the winter out here for $23. In prison, they give you some fake leather, like bare necessity shoe for $23 and it’s only one pair of shoes. Only one shoe that you can get. So you can’t like work out. You can’t stay healthy. You can’t work out and go to the gym in this shoe. You can only walk back and forth from a job to or wherever you walking to, chow hall or wherever you walk into in this shoe. If you try to do anything else It’s going to tear up and you can only get one new pair of shoes every 90 days, every 90 days. But if you played basketball one day in that shoe, you would need another pair of shoes. You would need another pair of shoes. You’ve got to see that they, they, everything that they do for us, they do at a bare minimum with the least cost to themselves, but they charge us exponentially for all of these things.

Alejo: So there is a sort of way in which this bloated prison system has to be able to maintain itself through, in part, the exploitation of a section of the labor population, right? It’s a small, a small section, as you said, and also charging those inside for all the services, like you said. Right? And so how does the 9/9, September 9, which is of course the university of Attica, how does the tactic of the strike, in a way, interrupt that system, that reproduction of that system, and how does it set in crisis this scheme that is set up? Why the strike as a tactic?

HH: For me, to me, and I’m by no means am I an expert on this, right? But to me, the strike is the most viable, the best option for a prison movement. First, for me, it keeps the inmates the safest. And when I say the safest, I mean from actual cruelty, from the cruelty of the police being able to come in in force, right? Because that’s a real live living thing, right? That matters. In any other situation where they are allowed to come in and force, they can actually, they can kill, right? With no accountability. They can kill. Anytime a n ERT team has to be brought- there is possibility for an inmate death. The ERT is emergency response team. And these are guys who train in tactics and maneuvers in how to squash rebellion. So how to put inmates down in a, in a volatile situation, in any kind of situation that they deem inmate is a danger or threat.

HH: They trained in hand, hand combat, knee strikes, elbow strikes, weapons. They trained in weapons and all forms of weapons. And they trained in strategy on how to infiltrate volatile situations. This is the whole purpose.  But in any incident when they called in, the probability of someone getting hurt goes up. So the work stoppage strike fits best because they can’t call it ERT team in first. That’s number one. But it also causes the state to have to spend money when the inmates refuse to work. When the inmates don’t work, somebody has to do the work. There are elements in prison — every job that has to be done, this is a necessary job. Whether it’s porter…a porter is a janitor, somebody who cleans up, right? Uh, by policy, we have to live up under certain — up to certain inspection codes.

HH: We can’t live in filth and nastiness. So if an inmate refuses to do his porter job, the state has to provide someone to do that porter job. So that means they have to pay someone, not the wage that they pay an inmate. They have to bring in an outside person who they have to give at least the minimum wage. And that’s for every job that exists in prison. That’s for every job that exists in prison because even at a work stoppage, because you’d only have a few inmates that have jobs, you still had the rest of the inmates who still have to be able to do what they allow to do in prison, considering “rec” — or whatever it might be, the normal prison operation doesn’t stop. It continues to move on. The only difference is it won’t be inmates doing it.

HH:  And if out of the 1200 people, 600 of them have a job, those 600 jobs have to be replaced by somebody who’s getting $13 an hour. And if you add an element where working in a prison is a hazardous environment, the pay rate goes up. People who work in prison get paid more because they live — it’s a security issue because they have the hazardous environment pay. So those people would actually have to get that pay as well. So we would cost the state so much more money with the work stoppages. At the Kinross— if we’d have kept it up for more than one day…. Right? Now they say it cost them $0.9 million. 1 million is good, but it could have been better. It could have been more, if we could’ve did the work stoppage.… If the 9/10 incident hadn’t happened, the work stoppage would have still been going on for a whole week or a week or whatever. It would’ve made more. It would cost them more than a million dollars.

Alejo: Okay, so let’s talk about that, so, so you’re saying the strike both keeps people inside relatively safe because it will not allow for an immediate repression— though as you know very well, the Department of Corrections considers a strike and a riot as the same ticket, right? as a riot or a strike ticket. But let’s say that it keeps people safer and that’s number one. Number two, it also increases costs for the state, right? As we said before, this is the state, a state in which it is trying to reduce the cost of prisons, right? And so when people don’t go to work, it forces the state to have to — as in Kinross— work for even more money and so then there’ll be the necessity to extend the strike as much as possible. So let’s talk specifically about Kinross. So the 9/9, September 9 strike did happen. Kitchen workers did not show up to work. What happened after?

HH: Okay, two things. First I want to talk about the ticket. The name of the ticket is “incite to riot or strike.” But the protocol for handling each one of these things is different. The protocol for handling a riot involves ERT. The protocol for handling the strike is totally different. ERT, don’t get called unless you picketing in, in front of somewhere. We not supposed to be something like that, but just I’m not going to work. You can’t call a ERT seeing them because I don’t, I don’t. I’m not going to work. You can’t justify doing it. Second to the, to the later part of inquiry. In order for this to be effective, it has to be allowed to maintain it. It has to. It has to have a period of time to where it cripples, not just the normal operations of the institution where it completely obsessed the normal operations of the institution.

HH: It has to, it has to last long enough to where they have to bring in outside workers, right? They have to bring in outside workers. The Kinross incident. It could have went a lot better. To me.… like I had, and this was amazing to me. I’ve never thought about on a grand scale like that to be able to do a work stoppage or whatever. So when it was introduced it was the perfect idea for the moment. Uh, and I seen all the possible ways that it cripple the institution or the state. It can cripple the state. For Kinross it had the desired effect after one day, after one day, like the warden was pliable. Either way it go, he wanted it to end.

HH: One of the aspects about the Kinross riot that was unique— usually if you have one of the things that they did, uh, cause I guess 20 hindsight is 20/20. And when you get to trying to cover up for what you’ve done to meant a lot of things that had been said about the Kinross incident that are true to a degree and some that aren’t right. But one of the things that happened during the Kinross riot that that was unique. Nobody went to work and nobody got a ticket. Now— they— later on it came back and they wrote guys tickets because they found that that’s where they will be seen as at fault. One of the things about the system that goes on with the tickets and things like that. You catch a ticket, you go see a hearing investigator. You get a ticket, you get reviewed on a ticket within 24 hours. They tell you have a ticket, they have to mandatory, they have to let you know. You have to go up there and sign for ticket within 24 hours.

HH: In that 24 hours you —when you go to sign for you ticket, it’s called a ticket review— when you go sign for your ticket, they can offer you some days right there. They can offer you some days you could take days, plead guilty, and you leave guilty in a ticket. Or you go get your days or you can ask for hearing. If you ask for a hearing, a due process protocol ensues. One of the part of the due process is you see a hearing investigator and you give the hearing investigator yo statement, or whatever, whatever and you getting. He supposed to be there to help you collect relevant information to help you. But that’s not really what he does, right? What he does is he hears your side of the story and then comes up with a defense against your story to give to the hearing officer.

HH:  So when you go see to hear an officer, they’ve already heard your tale, they’ve already heard what your defense is going to be, so they can already plan to find you guilty. And if you go look at the percentages for people who get found guilty of a misconduct, and I don’t care what kind of misconduct it is, you’re going to find, it’s like 7% of the people get found not guilty. Out of the multitudes of tickets that they write every day, 7% of the people… everybody gets found guilty… or everybody takes the days that they give them, they offer them. Because if you don’t, if you don’t take the days they give you in your review that they offer you at review, they doubled them when you go get heard on review. So it’s coercion. I said all that to show you the role of the hearing investigator. They heard from us, we all caught a ticket.

HH:  We all didn’t go to work. I mean we all caught the riot ticket. This was the next date on the 10th— no on the 11th we all caught the riot ticket when they brought us, cause they rode us out. Took us out. But I’m, I’m skipping ahead just to show you one facet to this and show you how they came up with writing people tick is who didn’t go to work after instead of during. Right? And this is where they tried to cover themselves. After the whole situation and we were all moved to different facilities or whatever we caught the tickets. They brought us the tickets. We went to see the hearing investigator.In our defenses we wrote, “Hey, we had a work stoppage. Nobody got a ticket.” Right? This wasn’t supposed to happen. The warden caused this by calling in the ERT team. We were all calm.

HH: They read all of those. Now you gotta remember that 400 people caught those tickets. So 400 people responses got the hearing investigator at different facilities got 400 defenses before hunt. They got 400 pages worth of information about what our defense was going to be. And in there it said that we had caught, we had not went to work. We had did a work stoppage and it didn’t catch tickets. So from them reading that they call back and said to the warden, and they sayin’ got everybody in here saying that they didn’t catch a ticket when the work stoppage happened. You at fault for that. Why? Why wouldn’t you have written them tickets? It empowered them and gave them cause, right? So they came back later on and wrote tickets. I’m just showing you a facet of how the MDOC work to cover itself and how it’s geared so much against the inmates. And another reason why we we rebel. Why we rebel. Because it’s a system, it’s an inhumane system, that covers itself.

Alejo: So, so part of disrupting, that system is through the strikes, which as you said, is only after people had already been crushed right by the Emergency Response Team that the tickets were written up. So there’s a discussion right now about what, what tactics would “make crumble” this state. Right? And there’s maybe multiple tactics, right? One of which is the strike as you said, but, and you, and you kind of emphasize the fact that a strike cannot be as easily squashed. Right? Right. As, as let’s say, a riot or a more direct confrontation. One story that Fred Williams, who is was at Kinross at the time —and is in a documentary, which I think you heard— he says that as the strike had turned into a riot on September 10th, right….He asked the question: what would have happened if there would’ve been other prisons that had gone on strike and potentially these had also turned into riots? There would not have been enough Emergency Response Teams to respond to this crisis. Right? So what about that aspect as well?

HH: Well, we were in communication with other prisons, tried to get some much prisoners, and tried to get as many prisons to cooperate as possible. Well, what we have to remember in that dynamic is this. I mean, the system been in Michigan has been set up for years, right? And the state — like they done figure some things out, right? On how to run prisons and how to squash rebellions long before they start. And they use different tactics. Ride out influential people to crush it. Same thing with slavery. If you ever read “The Willie Lynch syndrome: the making of a slave,” they kind of use those tactics. We’re gonna crush inmates. Any inmate who does try to rebel at certain prisons or at any prisons, period, we’re going to come together and we’re going to, we’re going to treat him so bad. We’re gonna crushing so bad in front of everybody else.

HH : Maybe not physically, but administratively, we’re gonna crush him so bad. We’re gonna send him to the max for 10 years or whatever, right? We’re gonna put him in the “hole,” keeping him in “hole” for a long time or whatever. They used these kind of tactics of crushing inmates. The same thing that they use in the Willie Lynch syndrome. When they brought one slave out in, in ripped him apart, tied him to four horses and drove off in different directions and rip him apart in front of all the other slaves. It put fear into the other slaves to make them not want to do whatever it was that that slave did to cause that right. Same thing with this, right? They administratively crush one inmate so bad or at a different institutions. Now within the last 20 years maybe, the MDOC seen them really, really figured out a way to get his grips in the majority of its prisons.

HH: Kinross was the last vestige of old school where inmates still ran the prison. Which is why say I said it’s the perfect storm. But at the majority of prisons they have the grips in and um, a lot of the inmates is operating off fear, right? They just keeping their heads down trying to get by or whatever because really they don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel for any kind of activism because it doesn’t exist to them. Right? They don’t even know that this kind of stuff exists out out here. Right? That they have this kind of support and kind of help out there. And that’s one of the facets I think we need to expound upon too. But at another time. Right? A lot of the stuff we gotta do at another time. But we reached out to other prisons to try to get them to do it.

HH:  The vibe of the prison or the mind state, of the prisoners in the majority wasn’t ready to do it. But if we could have got two more prisons to do it, three more prisons to do it, it would’ve been an epidemic in Michigan. I believe it would have swept like wildfire first. If we could’ve got two more prisons to do it. One more prison to do it, I believe they would’ve seen it. That’s another tactic they use. They cut off the TVs, the channels, the local channels that report knows that report news— if there’s a riot or rebellion going on at a prison, they block it from the TVs to try to keep it down. But as you can see, we got cell phones and stuff like that. So we in constant communication with other inmates. But if we could have got three or four, I believe it would have swept like wildfire.

HH:  I wanna believe we did ended up with like 20 or 30 and there would’ve been no way possible they would’ve been able to squash it. They wouldn’t have been able to send us anywhere because all the other prisons would have been involved in it too. You see what I’m saying? So they would’ve had to deal with the same amount of inmates and because that’s one of the tactics they use to try to squash these rebellions. They ride out the influential inmates out. But if you’ve got 30 prisons at Michigan, I believe. If you’ve got 15 of those that incite, right, or riot or strike. Or just strike. They can’t really do anything. And it cripples them to the point where it becomes an emergency situation. So if you want to shut down some stuff or call national attention to these things and get these things looked at. If you get 15 prisons to strike, right, it’ll shut Michigan down. Not only will it shut the carceral society down. Or prison or the MDOC down. It’ll cripple Michigan. Because it would become an epidemic in Michigan. Because prisons affect so much of what’s going on. There won’t be a governor alive who won’t give attention to whatever it is we’re talking about. If 15 prisons shut down in Michigan or anywhere.


Kaif: Thanks for tuning in. If you want to listen to more on the Kinross uprising, be sure to check out our audio documentary series entitled “Specters of Attica” on our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: a Maria,  Alejo Stark and Kaif Syed. Original music by Bad Infinity.