California has long been plagued by natural disasters, upending communities and causing casualties in their indiscriminate paths. Just this past August, the state suffered its largest wildfire in history around Mendocino County along the northern coast. Exhaustive efforts over days were utilized to contain its spread, including employing a seemingly unlikely population as firefighters: local prisoners. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation offers vocational classes to rehabilitate inmates, propel post-carceral means of employment, and to reduce recidivism, and inmates have the opportunity to learn firefighting alongside plumbing, welding, cosmetology and other skills. These trained inmates are then deployed to the eye of these fiery storms, putting their lives on the line for their hourly pay of just $1. Not only are they making nothing more than pocket change for this death-defying work (for comparison, full-time firefighters earn on average of about $41,000 a year), California law also prevents them from seeking employment as firefighters upon their release, as firefighters are required to become certified emergency medical technicians, a license that is denied to those with criminal records. With steady jobs that can secure permanent housing, the formerly incarcerated are less likely to return to prison and can better reintegrate into their communities. Why California, and America, is so invested in this free labor— labor that is also incredibly pricey for taxpayers as it costs anywhere between $31,000 to $60,000 a year to keep ONE inmate behind bars— instead of providing opportunities for people in prison to move on from their pasts is one of myriad reasons behind the Prison Strike of 2018.
A mass prison strike across several states in America began on August 21, 2018, to coincide with the anniversary of the assassination of social movement leader and organizer George Jackson, who taught fellow prisoners during his tenure at San Quentin to defend themselves through non-violent (education and radical politics) and violent (martial arts) means, and concluded this week on September 9th, the anniversary of the start of the Attica prison rebellion of 1971. Prison uprisings are not a new phenomenon, as prisoners have rebelled since incarceration became profitable after the fall of the Reconstruction. In the midst of the strike, prisoners spoke out in their own words about the conditions they were forced to endure, and documented how they took part in disruption, from sit-ins and hunger strikes, to refusing to leave their cells, to boycotting the commissaries and phones that the prison industrial system profits from, and refusing to perform various aspects of labor they are assigned to— ranging from farming prison food using rudimentary tools, to manufacturing products for mass consumption for corporations like McDonald’s, Starbucks, Nintendo and many more.
Exploiting prisoners has been easy: prisoners are primarily consistent of marginalized people— poor, disabled, people suffering from mental illness, LGBTQ communities, people of color— and an indifferent American population turns a blind eye, believing that caging these people makes their neighborhoods safer. Common rhetoric regarding people in prison is that they are animals, and inside they are treated as such, and much like the villainization of immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, detained and separated from their families before deportation, it’s easy how words can translate into subsequent systemic violence if you repeat them long enough.
Behind these bars, prisoners suffer from inhumane conditions: teenagers as young as 16 years old are still incarcerated alongside adults in several states, and many are subject to solitary confinement for extensive periods of time, leading to longterm psychological deterioration and self-harm. The argument is that teens are segregated from the general prison population for their protection, but in the case of teenaged Kalief Browder, the months he spent without human contact had irreparable effects, leading to his suicide in 2015 as he carried the burdens of prison life with him even after his freedom. Heather Ann Thompson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Attica uprising, said, “Attica’s lessons are that if you do not treat people as human beings inside of institutions, they will eventually erupt—” sometimes internally, other times externally.
Carceral institutions breed violence from all angles. The incarcerated are also subject to violence at the hands of prison guards, and many in authority get away with inflicting harm because the word of men and women in bondage is almost never taken as truth. Prisons themselves are unfit for human inhabitance as many suffer from neglected infrastructure: walls crumble, pipes leak water and sewage, electrical wires are left exposed, toxic mold grows, vermin of all varieties roam freely, with the hottest of high temperatures in the summer and frigid climates in winter with little relief in either situation, overcrowded cells leading to unsanitary and infectious conditions, all standards that are considered outrageous to the outside world. And through it all, the incarcerated must sit there, day after day, and force themselves to endure or experience brutality lest they complain. After the incarcerated are released, the spirit of this violence haunts them, and carry with them more burdens than what they brought inside. Prisons offer little treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, and trauma endured during their sentences only compound their problems. At the end of the day, imprisoning humans has no effects on crime rates; we are no safer by building more jails and investing millions in the prison industrial complex.
Like George Jackson, Albert Woodfox spent 43 years in solitary confinement— the longest known sentence in American history— in Louisiana State Penitentiary, before his release in 2015. A former plantation with a wicked reputation, Angola remains a center of grievous abuse as the largest maximum security prison in this country. While incarcerated, he joined the Black Panther Party and organized alongside as part of the Angola Three with Robert King and Herman Wallace. During their four-decade sentences, these men became advocates for prisoners’ rights, organizing for more humane conditions. The modern Angola Prison had barely evolved from its days as a hub for slave labor; thousands of prisoners with Black faces find themselves working long, hot days in the farming fields on the premises, harvesting crops under the watch of overseers armed with guns and ready to kill in a blink of an eye, hardly different a scenario than of those enslaved before the Civil War. The Angola Three and their acolytes resisted against the rigorous labor, and widespread physical and sexual violence within the institution through hunger strikes, petitions and boycotts. Activists believed that Woodfox and Wallace were punished for their resistance to the system as they were charged with the murder of a prison guard, despite the lack of evidence, as many who are incarcerated are weighed down with punishment and violence for standing up for themselves. Isolation did not stop Woodfox’s efforts to liberate the minds and spirits of the incarcerated, nor did it stunt those who continue to resist.
Prisoners are making demands in their actions; as human beings, the inmates participating in the strike are demanding their human rights, and being incarcerated, like slavery, is an act of dehumanization. First and foremost, these prisoners recognize that many of them are incarcerated because of their race and ethnicity, as racial profiling and over-policing has created a disproportionate amount of Black and Latinx prisoners despite the fact that crimes are committed at the same rate among all races, and Black and Latinx people are only a fraction of the general American population. As prison educational and vocational programs are continuously in jeopardy, the incarcerated become even more ill-prepared to equip for life outside their cages, creating further opportunities for them to return. Prisoners are fighting for the restoration of Pell Grants to earn the education they were never afforded. Criminal records make survival on the outside very near impossible, affecting employment and housing opportunities. Without a way to create a life, a return to crime is easy in a system that only values these marginalized people as prisoners. Inmates are also demanding their post-carceral voting rights, as many are disenfranchised after serving their time. Without the right to vote, former prisoners continue to feel their status as second-class citizens, with few opportunities to shape their futures. With crucial midterm elections upcoming this November, Democrats have the chance to take control of the government and instill more progressive and less oppressive legislation. By installing newfound voting rights to the millions of formerly incarcerated, this can have significant effects on our democracy, and will spell trouble for those determined to keep America at status quo by restricting the voices of the least privileged.
In addition to instilling voting rights and human rights, many activists are calling to close dangerous prisons, most notably Rikers Island in New York City, a symbolism for oppression and where Kalief Browder suffered needlessly for three years. Many argue that replacing Rikers within 10 years with smaller, newer jails that can better serve those who need resources, including mental health services, would be a better use of funds. But prisoners and grassroots organizers are also facilitating the movement for prison abolition, and to use the extensive funding used in mass incarceration to finance underserved communities that suffer from crime because there are abysmal educational systems and few avenues of survival above the underground economy. To these activists, there is no room for reform, only to end this form of systemic oppression that has plagued us since the days of convict leasing. Activists have put pressure on Mayor Bill de Blasio for years to close this haven of violence and trauma, where men, women and children are often held without trials, often because they can’t afford exorbitant bails, as the criminal justice system clearly favors the rich. While actions have been taken to end cash bail for non-felonious offenders— and creating reforms for speedier trials and more paroles for the nonviolent offenders in efforts to diminish the prison population— organizers feel that the state is stalling in dismantling the prison, with questions surrounding the new jails that will be built or refurbished in its place instead of just putting that money into better educational programs and economic relief for those who need it. Extricating our deeply embedded ties to incarceration from a country borne on free slave labor and fueled by a capitalist system that only benefits so few requires much more than just talk.
It’s September and hurricane season is now upon us. As this is written, Hurricane Florence stands to menace the Carolinas and Virginia as what’s being called the most wrathful storm our country has witnessed in modern times makes its way closer. Americans witnessed the administrative abandonment of brethren in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria’s battery left 3,000 dead and completely destabilized the island, with nary a glimmer of hope on the horizon. In times of natural disaster, prisons are often ignored from evacuation protocol, leaving those locked inside left to die. In Louisiana’s Orleans Parish Prison, 517 inmates were never recovered after they were abandoned by their countrymen when Hurricane Katrina hit, most of them were presumed dead from the storm. At the conclusion of #PrisonStrike2018, as people at liberty to escape the storm’s path still face incredible danger, what about those who will weather this storm within a cage, and will likely go without fresh food or air, clean water and plumbing— if they survive— on top of the grotesque living circumstances they already face? Or does their lives and abject fear only matter to us in the form of cheap, disposable labor? In the words of Albert Woodfox, “if you are a citizen of this country… you have to stop ignoring what is going on in the prison systems throughout the world, especially in the United States of America.” The virulent oppression inside Angola, Rikers, Attica, San Quentin and other institutions of abuse around the country, around the world, is merely a microcosm of widespread oppression that strikes those of us who are “free.”
Get involved in organizations working towards rectifying our criminal justice system. Learn more about our partners doing hands-on work to help those caught within the web of mass incarceration, Correctional Association, Human Rights Watch, The Doe Fund and Open Society. Follow the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee on Twitter for updates on #PrisonStrike2018 and ways you can take action.
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