A Strike Behind Bars

Amid the press coverage of Donald Trump, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on Catholic Church sexual abuse, John McCain’s funeral, the 2018 midterms, football season, back to school, and whatever else is going on with the world, there are plenty of news stories that fall through the cracks. One of these is a 3 week nationwide strike behind bars of which most will never see. Demonstrations began on Tuesday, August 21, 2018 and are scheduled to last until September 9, which marks the anniversary of the bloody uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility in New York. During this time, inmates in 17 states have taken part in sit-ins, hunger strikes, and work strikes in an attempt to draw attention to poor prison conditions and what many view as exploitative labor in American correctional facilities. In addition, they’re calling for boycotts against agencies and companies benefitting from prisons and prison labor. As protest spokesperson Amani Sawari told Vox, “The main leverage that an inmate has is their own body. If they choose not to go to work and just sit in in the main area or the eating area, and all the prisoners choose to sit there and not go to the kitchen for lunchtime or dinnertime, if they choose not to clean or do the yardwork, this is the leverage that they have. Prisons cannot run without prisoners’ work.”

The demonstrations come 2 years after what was then viewed as the largest prison strike in United States history with protests breaking out in 12 states in 2016. While the 2016 protests were largely planned on September 9, they ended up taking part over weeks or months as prison officials tried tamping down on prison demonstrations and mitigate the protests’ effects. These current demonstrations can be even larger than those previous protests since they’re spread over 3 weeks to make it more difficult for prison officials to crack down. The inmates have outlined 10 national demands. These include “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons” and “an immediate end to prison slavery.” They also target federal laws that boosted mass incarceration and have made it harder for inmates to sue officials for potential rights violations. In addition, they call for an end to racial disparities in the criminal justice system and an increase to rehabilitation prison programs. These demands are on top of specific local and regional requests the prisoners are making. I will get to more of these list items later, explaining what these mean.

These prison strikes are a part response to the prison riot at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Institution in April, which state officials described as a “mass casualty” event. According to the Associated Press, 7 inmates were killed while at least 17 were seriously injured. An inmate told the AP that bodies were “literally stacked on top of each other,” claiming that prison guards did little to stop the violence between inmates. Most of the fatal injuries appeared to be due slashing and stabbing, although some inmates may have been beaten to death. No prison guards were hurt. The riot was the worst in a US prison in a quarter-century.

Based on reports following the riot, it seems some of the major causes besides personal and potentially gang-related disputes, were poor prison conditions and understaffing. So there weren’t enough guards to stop the fighting. This is part of a growing problem. According to an investigation by South Carolina’s The State, the number of inmates killed in the state’s prisons, “more than doubled in 2017 from the year before and quadrupled from two years ago.” And it wasn’t the first time Lee experienced violence that year either. Three weeks before the riot, inmates overpowered a guard, held him hostage, and took control of part of a dorm for an hour and a half before releasing him unharmed. In February one inmate fatally stabbed another. Nor is its problems with violent unique. For in Columbia’s Kirkland Correctional Institution, 4 inmates were strangled in 2017.
Obviously, violence is generally a huge problem in US prisons. According to a 2009 study, during a 6-month period, about 21% of male prison inmates are physically assaulted while 2-5% are sexually assaulted. But the problem seems particularly acute in South Carolina’s correctional facilities in recent years. One reason is understaffing for South Carolina prisons have struggled to find enough workers, making it difficult to keep these places under control. Another cause is poor prison conditions like underfunding, overcrowding, and lack of rehabilitative interventions. A strike spokesperson told Vox, “Prisoners were placed in some really aggravated conditions. They were placed on lockdown all day. They weren’t allowed to eat or use the bathroom. They were placed in units with rival gang members. And then their lockers were taken away, so they didn’t have any safe place to put their personal belongings, which really aggravated and caused tensions among prisoners — to the point where fights broke out, inevitably.”
However, for prisons, fixing the problem these demonstrations raise will require money, which cash-strapped state governments may not want to put up. This raises real questions on whether the inmates’ demands can or will be heard. Hiring more guards and paying them more money to make the job attractive to more people costs money. So does improving prison conditions in general. All of that cash could be spent elsewhere.
Nonetheless, I should give you all a rundown on the demands the prisoners have made in the strike.

1. Immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.– in the United States, there’s a tendency for society to throw people behind bars, completely dehumanize them, and forget about them. As history shows, we tend to forget that convicts are human beings with rights and some say over their lives. Being behind bars doesn’t throw all that away. As a Jailhouse Lawyers Speak statement read, “Prisoners understand they are being treated as animals. We know that our conditions are causing physical harm and deaths that could be avoided if prison policy makers actually gave a damn. Prisons in America are a war zone. Every day prisoners are harmed due to conditions of confinement. For some of us, it’s as if we are already dead, so what do we have to lose?”

2. An immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.– this is a major issue and affects you more than you think. If there is an issue you should care about and what unites prisoners, it’s prison labor. In many states, prisoners are forced to work for cents an hour or even for free. Though according to The Marshall Project, the average prisoner pay is 20 cents an hour. This was permitted after the 13th Amendment’s passage which banned slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Across the US, hundreds of thousands of inmates have jobs. While California inmates have been recruited to fight the state’s record wildfires for $1 an hour and $2 per day, American prisoners also do more typical jobs like kitchen work, cleaning, and GED tutoring. Sometimes the jobs take inmates outside of prison, although more often they mimic real-world jobs or involve menial chores that need done around the prison. They also make a vast array of consumer goods like lingerie, blue jeans, toys, military equipment, and car parts. They’ve harvest Florida oranges and shoveled snow in Boston after a blizzard. Like the protestors in the 2016 prison strike, the 2018 demonstrators characterize this practice as modern slavery. And since black people are disproportionately likely to become incarcerated, there are racial disparities in this often forced, low-wage labor. In addition, companies also take advantage of prison labor. which generates over $1 billion a year for the private sector. Now both prison officials and advocates agree that prison labor helps inmates gain much-needed real-world working experience. But even if it does, that doesn’t justify paying pennies or nothing at all. In fact, if prison work programs are beneficial, spending on them should be increased so everyone can participate and get more pay for their work. Furthermore, these inmates are still often the primary breadwinners for their families and are expected to meet some financial obligations even before their release. As Sawari told Vox, “Prisoners do like having the opportunity to earn, because they do have to support themselves financially in a lot of ways. Prisoners have to provide for their health care, their dental care. They have to buy food if they want to eat outside the three times a day most prisons serve. … They have to buy clothes like jackets and boots, hygiene products, cosmetics, books, study materials, paper, tape, scissors. Any little thing they need, they have to buy that. So they want to be able to.” At the same time, they’re often subject to exorbitant markups on personal products at prison commissaries and often grossly overcharges on the ability to communicate by phone or internet with family and friends on the outside.

3. The Prison Litigation Reform Act must be rescinded, allowing imprisoned humans a proper channel to address grievances and violations of their rights.– called the PLRA, this law makes it much harder for prisoners to file and win civil rights lawsuits in federal court. To file a lawsuit, inmates must exhaust all administrative grievance processes available to them within the correctional facility before taking their case to court. Working through these avenues can be complicated, have difficult deadlines, and often be fruitless. While suits about physical injury are allowed, those alleging mental or emotional harm are restricted. Courts can no longer waive court fees for incarcerated people but require installment payments instead. While an incarcerated plaintiff who’s had 3 lawsuits dismissed will have to pay in advance. Should a lawsuit succeed, there are limits to litigation costs the court can order the prison to pay to the prisoner’s attorney. This reduces the number of lawyers willing to take good winnable cases on behalf of incarcerated people with only 5% of prisoner civil rights cases having legal representation in 2012. In addition, the law limits the courts’ ability to change prison policy.

4. The Truth in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Reform Act must be rescinded so that imprisoned humans have a possibility of rehabilitation and parole. No human
shall be sentenced to Death by Incarceration or serve any sentence without the possibility of parole.- in the United States, Truth in Sentencing refers to policies and legislation aiming to abolish or curb parole so that convicts serve out the period to which they’ve been sentenced. In some cases, truth in sentencing is linked to movements like mandatory sentencing (in which particular crimes yield automatic sentences regardless of extenuating circumstances) and habitual offender or “three strikes” laws in which state law requires courts to hand down mandatory and extended periods of incarceration to those convicted of a criminal offense on multiple occasions. The US has the Violent Offender and Incarceration and Truth in Sentencing Program which awards grants to states so long as they pass laws requiring Part 1 violent offenders must serve at least 85% of their sentence to qualify for parole eligibility. As of 2008, the District of Columbia and 35 states qualify for this additional funding. As part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, the Sentencing Reform Act is a US statute in federal intended to increase consistency in federal sentencing. In addition to establishing the US Sentencing Commission, it abolished federal parole save for those convicted of federal crimes before 1987, those convicted under DC law, those who violated military law held in federal civilian prisons, “transfer treaty” inmates, and defendants in state cases and in witness protection. Nonetheless, both policies have contributed to mass incarceration and prison overcrowding. Many also believe that the death penalty is a stupid idea while life without parole offers no chance of a release.

5. An immediate end to the racial overcharging, over-sentencing, and parole denials of Black and brown humans. Black humans shall no longer be denied parole because the victim of the crime was white, which is a particular problem in southern states.– this refers to the racial disparities in sentencing practices which is rampant across the United States. Nonwhite inmates are subject to harsher charges, longer sentences, and more parole denials than their white counterparts. This especially goes when the victim is white.

6. An immediate end to racist gang enhancement laws targeting Black and brown humans.– another addressing racial disparities in law enforcement which pertain to gangs. Gang enhancements are measures to ensure that anyone who commits a felony for a gang’s benefit, which results in a mandatory prison sentence in addition and consecutive to the penalty they receive for the underlying crime.

7. No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.-the film Birdman of Alcatraz offers a compelling case for this argument since Robert Stroud was indeed a violent offender. Though the real Stroud wasn’t a particularly nice guy.

8. State prisons must be funded specifically to offer more rehabilitation services.– in the United States, funding rehabilitation services for prisoners isn’t a high priority. Yet, the lack of rehabilitation programs for prisoners has contributed to high recidivism rates and prison overcrowding. Many released prisoners find themselves unable to adjust to outside life. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67.8% of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years and 76.6% were arrested within 5 years.

9. Pell grants must be reinstated in all US states and territories.– in most of the US, prisoners are denied the same opportunities and ways to get ahead and secure a job, which often leads to recidivism. And it doesn’t help that many of these inmates come from poverty either. For inmates seeking a college education which helps reduce their chance of recidivism, many are denied the grants and aid most college students on the outside enjoy. Nonetheless, if the drug gang members in The Wire had access to the same opportunities from the inside or out, most of them would not be selling crack on the street.

10. The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count.– in most of the United States, convicts and ex-felons are frequently denied the right the vote. Felony disenfranchisement laws depend on each state. In Pennsylvania and 13 other states, felony disenfranchisement only lasts as long as the convict is behind bars and are restored upon release. But other states are much harsher. In 4 states including New York, felony disenfranchisement ends only after parole. In 19 states, felony disenfranchisement ends not only after incarceration or parole, but also after probation. In 7 states, restoration of voting rights after sentence completion and depending on circumstances of the crime. While 4 states like Florida require restoration to voting rights to convicts after all offenses through individual petition. In Florida, this petition must be made 5-7 years after completion of incarceration, parole, and probation. It’s said that Florida’s felony disenfranchisement laws are so harsh that in 2014 more than 1 in 10 Florida residents and 1 in 4 African Americans in the state were shut out of the polls. Nonetheless, while proponents often argue that loss of suffrage is only fair to deny political decision making to known criminals, felony disenfranchisement can create dangerous political incentives to skew criminal law in favor of disproportionally targeting groups who politically oppose those who hold power. And many of these felony disenfranchisement laws were made during segregation to keep African Americans from voting and continue to keep many blacks from the polls in several southern states. Not to mention, many states have often used prisoners’ disenfranchised status to exercise prison gerrymandering.

Despite the strike’s limited scope and difficulty corroborating the organizers’ claims, national and local media have covered the strike in earnest, some calling it, “the largest national prison strike in US history.” On the strike’s first day, news of the strike and goals have been reported on NPR, Washington Post, The Guardian, New York Magazine, Vox, Al Jazeera, BBC World News, Mother Jones, and other many other outlets. However, history shows that political actions by prisoners often have mixed results. Some prison reform advocates say that fear of reprisals coupled with the difficulty communicating between prisons makes widespread action unlikely. But some media attention is a small victory in that it has brought the issue of inhumane prison conditions to a wider audience in a way that Stephen King hasn’t. Yet, the number of prisoners striking is unknown and won’t be confirmed. So there’s no hint that the strike will be larger and more robust than past efforts. Some outlets reposted unchecked information put out by outside strike organizers, including details on how many prisons are participating. Others balanced the organizers’ accounts with official statements by state corrections departments. Nevertheless, generating media attention is the strike’s main goal since it’s very difficult to get any. Mostly because it’s hard enough to know what’s going on in prisons across the country since there’s little information available. Hopefully, this 2018 prison strike could mark turning point in meaningful criminal justice reform in the future.

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