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A Prison Strike in Minnesota Actually Got Results

Most prison strikes are met with retaliation and abuse, but one recent work stoppage is starting to pay off.

Minnesota department of corrections
Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo via Minnesota Department of Corrections

On Nov. 29, Antonio Williams, who has been incarcerated in Minnesota for 11 years, was speaking to 30 recently admitted prisoners about the policies and procedures of their prison. When Williams began speaking to the group about their rights to file grievances, he was interrupted.

According to Williams, a guard who overheard him ordered him to get up. Williams was sent to administrative segregation, the prison’s term for solitary confinement.

“My time in solitary confinement was torturous. The conditions back there are meant to break you,” Williams, who is in Rush City Correctional Facility, told The Appeal in a letter. “They leave the bright fluorescent lights on from 6 AM to 10 PM, They only allow us to flush our toilets once every half hour; it is freezing cold in every cell and they ignore prisoner’s complaints.”

Williams was sent to solitary confinement shortly before 115 prisoners went on a work strike to protest conditions at Rush City and call for an end to solitary confinement. Other prisoners went to work but slowed down, or sabotaged, their work production. Most of the prisoners who went on strike worked at the MINNCOR factory housed in the prison, where they package balloons and Minnesota license plates. Prisoners who work in the kitchen later participated in a massive lay-in, where they lay down in their cells and refused to go to their assignments.

The reasons for the strike were manifold. A change in the canteen distribution schedule meant certain items like deodorant, dental floss, migraine medication, and envelopes were delivered in two weeks instead of one. Prisoners told The Appeal that they feel exploited by high canteen prices that outstrip their $2-a-day wage, and they complained of guard abuse and overcrowding that leads to violence. Their demands also include accountability and transparency for guard misconduct.

This place has become a pressure cooker that’s about to blow.

Antonio Williams incarcerated at Rush City Correctional Facility for 11 years

On his third day in solitary confinement, Dec. 1, Williams said a guard used chemical spray on a prisoner; due to lack of ventilation, the spray got into most people’s individual cells.

“My eyes were blood red and stinging, my face burned, I struggled to breathe because I was coughing so much and snot and drool was pouring from my nose and mouth,” Williams told The Appeal. “I really felt like I could die.”

In his response to Williams’s grievance, the warden wrote that the dispersal of chemical irritants “are used to gain compliance when offenders continue to act out negatively. The ventilation system is working and the unit is purged after each use of chemical irritant.”   

In a letter to the deputy commissioner on Nov. 28, Williams warned that tensions in the prison were growing. “There is a system that prevents the bad officers from being held accountable. Along with the constant lockdowns, delays in normal ‘free’ time out of our cells, not having enough phones to accommodate the amount of prisoners in each unit and the other ‘normal’ stuff prisoners deal with on a daily basis—this place has become a pressure cooker that’s about to blow,” he wrote.

Prison activism has grown nationally in recent years, but demonstrations typically have been met with retaliation in the form of lockdowns, transfers to other prisons, or physical abuse. In Minnesota, however, the strike elicited a different response: Prison officials were willing to negotiate.

The strike led the warden and other prison officials to sit down with a group of prisoner representatives on Dec. 1 to discuss their concerns and demands.

Jeff Titus, the warden of Rush City Correctional Facility, said he felt it was important to keep meeting with prisoners. The talks included the canteen changes and how the prison handles complaints about guard conduct.

“We’ll take ownership—and I will, as the warden—that when we changed the canteen process, we didn’t communicate that very well or do as good a job as we could have in helping everybody understand what we were doing and why we were doing it,” Titus told The Appeal. “So I felt it was important to meet and talk about that.”

He said the prison looks into every allegation of abuse. “It’s my expectation as the warden that staff are always respectful and professional,” he said. “We all know that that’s probably not perfect all the time, but when it rises to a point where it feels like the offenders have questions about that, I want to make sure that we sit down and talk about them.”

“We had several meetings over the next couple of weeks, just to hear each other’s perspectives and continue the dialogue, and we’ll continue to do that, because I think it’s very important that we hear concerns and find solutions,” Titus added.

As talks began, work strikes continued at Rush City into the evening of Monday, Dec. 3. Aaron Swanum, information officer for the Minnesota Department of Corrections confirmed that several prisoners stopped or slowed down their work “in an effort to raise concerns they had with facility operations.”  

A warden sitting down with a group of concerned prisoners after a protest is uncommon, prison organizers told The Appeal.

“That was the first time I’ve ever witnessed that out of the 15 years that I’ve been [in prison],” said Demetrius Dobbins, one of the prisoners who met with the warden. “I’ve never really seen them come in on their day off, and get ahead of the issue before it blows out of control, which is what he did.”

It is extremely unusual for prison officials to even acknowledge the legitimacy of prisoner grievances, much less negotiate with them.

Paul Wright co-founder of the Human Rights Defense Center and Prison Legal News

“It was affecting just the way things were running in the prison,” said Nat Clarke, an organizer with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC). “It was bigger than was manageable for them.”

Paul Wright, co-founder of the Human Rights Defense Center and Prison Legal News, agreed that prisoner strikes rarely result in negotiations.

“It is extremely unusual for prison officials to even acknowledge the legitimacy of prisoner grievances, much less negotiate with them,” Wright said. “The response is almost invariably one of repression and silencing and terrorization to dissuade others from standing up for themselves.”

In recent years, work strikes have occurred across prison systems around the country,  such as Alabama, California, Florida, and Georgia as well as two nationally coordinated prison strikes in 2016 and 2018. Many correctional officers and prison officials have responded with discipline and retaliation like putting people in solitary confinement, removing phone or visiting privileges, or physical abuse for doing as little as mentioning or discussing the strike.

Williams, who prison records show was removed from solitary confinement on Dec. 3, said Rush City prisoners are still anticipating retaliation. “We believe we’re being investigated and watched closer, and that retaliation could be forthcoming especially when the media coverage stops,” Williams said. “I really believe I would still be in solitary confinement if my fellow prisoners and the IWOC didn’t stand up and expose the injustice of me being placed in solitary confinement.”

Roughly a week after meeting with the warden, officials told prisoners that the canteen delivery policy would go back to one week, instead of two. Their most immediate concern was addressed, but answers to other concerns remain more elusive.

Dobbins said he is encouraged by regular meetings between prisoner representatives and the prison’s leadership, and he thinks the talks are in the prison leadership’s best interest.

“He’s really just being a good leader, by knowing that we’re the residents here; they go home at the end of the day. We can make it hard for them if we want to, you know what I mean?” Dobbins told The Appeal. “Because we outnumber them, period, and we all realize that.”