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Activists Brace For Further Retaliation In The Wake Of The National Prison Strike

As media attention wanes, “this is the most dangerous period with any prisoner action,” one organizer said.

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The national prison strike that swept headlines formally ended Sept. 9. Yet in many ways, advocates say, the work has just begun. Some prisoners are still engaging in protests, while others will face retaliation and need support. And the groups that helped organize the strike hope to use its momentum to push for lasting change.

Supporters say facilities in 16 states took part in the national action through work stoppages, hunger strikes, and boycotting commissaries and other prison facilities, although it’s hard to verify. Officials in Indiana, Nevada, and North Carolina confirmed to Mother Jones that protests and strikes had occurred in their facilities, while those in Alabama, California, Florida, Oregon, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington denied any activity. Reports from participating prisoners and facilities tend to trickle in, so the number of participants could climb in coming months, said Brooke Terpstra, a member of the Oakland, California, chapter of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC).

While organizers had officially planned to end the strike on the anniversary of the 1971 Attica prison uprising, they said actions are still continuing in some facilities. “September 9th has passed, but it is up to the people in each prison who are participating in boycotts, hunger strikes, work strikes or sit-ins to determine the right day and time to close out their actions,” the groups organizing the strike, IWOC and Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, said in a press release on Sept. 11. They reported a series of continuing hunger strikes, including in California, Missouri, and Texas,, and a boycott of paying to use the phones in Michigan.

Karen Smith, a member of the Gainesville, Florida, chapter of IWOC, spoke to prisoners in Ohio who were still boycotting after Sept. 9. “People who are making progress or are feeling empowered are taking the strike beyond that,” she said.

But now that the national attention is waning, activists are gearing up for the next steps, knowing the work will now get even harder.

‘A much freer hand’

Organizers say retaliation by prison officials hindered participation in the strike. Smith said people reported being transferred, put in solitary confinement-like or other restrictive conditions that cut them off from communicating with fellow prisoners. Others said their phone privileges were taken away or the phones shut down.

In one instance, one of the prominent leaders of the strike, Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan, was placed in solitary confinement in Ohio State Penitentiary for receiving mail about and speaking about the strike, keeping him from participating or communicating. He engaged in a hunger strike to protest and has filed an appeal of the disciplinary action, saying there is “no tangible evidence” he was involved in “rioting, or encouraging others to riot” and calling them “fabricated charges.”

Another leader, Ronald Brooks, was transferred from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, to David Wade Correctional Center after 20 years at Angola. His family told The Appeal that the warden told them one reason for his transfer was punishment for his organizing work, although the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections said transfers are not disciplinary.

Either way, it had the same effect. Rev. Raymond Brown, who leads the New Orleans-based civil rights group National Action Now, had been communicating with Brooks and coordinating a rally outside Angola at the start of the strike to support the actions inside. “March, April, May, June, July we were going back and forth talking about what we should do,” he said. “Then out of nowhere Ronald disappeared. … Ronald got isolated, that choked off everything.” Brown said neither the strike nor the rally took place after that.

Brown is now trying to visit Brooks and highlight his situation. “Ronald can become a rallying cry,” he said. “Ronald right now is a political prisoner.”

Yet another leader, Kevin Rashid Johnson, who wrote an op-ed for The Guardian about the strike, was brought before the authorities in Sussex state prison in Virginia and faced being transferred to a different facility, although Terpstra said his group had heard from Johnson’s lawyer that his transfer has been stalled after protests.

But organizers are concerned that retaliation is about to get worse. “This is the most dangerous period with any prisoner action,” Terpstra said. “This is when attention wanes.” After prisoners in Florida staged a strike and boycott on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, prison officials put people in solitary confinement, shut down the phones, and threatened them with “Security Threat Group” status, which would label them as gang members for the rest of their sentences and limit their privileges. The last national prison strike in 2016 was also followed by reports of retaliation. In Alabama, after prisoners refused to work, they said prison administrators brought prisoners from other facilities to replace them and transferred those who had been leading the organizing. And at the Kinross Correctional Facility in Michigan, prisoners reported a severe crackdown after the strike, where they were left in restraints on the ground for long periods of time, being forced to soil themselves because there was no access to a bathroom. Days later, according to the National Lawyers Guild, 250 prisoners were transferred out of the facility, many to maximum security prisons.

As the strike recedes from headlines and public attention, “prison officials know they have a much freer hand,” Terpstra said. So his group and others will be focused on assisting and protecting the victims of retaliation where they can. “Our primary duty right now is to keep people engaged and do anti-repression work,” he said, maintaining the attention and pressure. “We have to protect right now those who stood up first and foremost.”

Exposing ‘modern day slavery’

One of the top demands of the national strike was to end “prison slavery,” putting a spotlight on underpaid prison labor. But much of prison labor remains invisible and difficult to eradicate.

An estimated 900,000 of the 2.4 million prisoners in the U.S. work, often for hourly wages of just a few cents, or sometimes nothing at all. This cheap labor is used to support prison operations or is farmed out to governments or private businesses, such as staffing call centers, building furniture and office supplies, or farming. In federal prisons, about 17,000 prisoners work at more than 50 call centers, factories, and farms that sell goods and services to government agencies and private businesses. Prisoners have also been dispatched to fight fires and clean up after blizzards.

In Florida, prison labor is used not just to maintain the prisons themselves but also by local governments in public works like road and park maintenance and the upkeep of city buildings. They also make products used by the state government, such as furniture, uniforms, and license plates. “That’s what prison slave labor looks like around here,” Smith said.

Striking prisoners aren’t just demanding better pay for their work, but also better conditions. Prisoners in Angola have complained of being made to work long hours doing manual labor in the heat without enough water to keep them hydrated. Lawyers also contend that disabled prisoners are made to work without accommodations, putting them in dangerous conditions in fields and factories. Two prisoners died fighting fires in California this year. Because courts have ruled that incarcerated workers are not technically employees, prisoners are not covered by worker protections like minimum wage, overtime, or health and safety standards.

As the strikes and boycotts wind down in many facilities, attention will turn to pushing for concrete change. “The next step for Jailhouse Lawyers Speak is the endorsement of a campaign to pressure politicians to enact legislative change,” the Sept. 11 press release said. “Both JLS and IWOC will be taking stock of the strike with their members over the coming weeks to consider what other future actions will be necessary to build a movement strong enough to push for the rights of incarcerated peoples.” Past prison strikes have had some limited impacts: The Attica uprising and other protests in the ’60s and ’70s led to small pay raises, the creation of prisoner-led unions, and safety improvements in some places, while a 2011 hunger strike in California’s supermax prison sparked small changes in solitary confinement policies and a lawsuit that prompted bigger reforms.

One particular area of focus will be a push to restore the right to vote for people who have lost it because of past convictions. “Organizing across states for the strike has mobilized prisoners as a unified voice to an extent we have never seen before,” Janos Marton, state campaigns manager of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Campaign for Smart Justice, told The Guardian. “The most tangible impact of that amplified voice after the strike ends is a specific effort over voting rights.”

In Florida, organizers will be pushing for Gainesville to cut its contracts that use prison labor. She pointed out that the kind of work done by prisoners in Florida for little to no pay could instead by done by local workers. “These jobs could be performed by them and, even better, they could be performed by union members who could make demands and use collective bargaining,” she said.

They also plan more efforts to raise awareness of prison conditions. “We will just become more coordinated,” Smith said. “Our network doubles with every action.” Her group has planned three teach-ins in the coming months to educate the community about their goals. A similar effort is underway in Oakland, where the local chapter is now figuring out how to incorporate all the new people who said they want to be involved in the movement during the strike.

“This action really solidified this movement as a coordinated force that can strike as one, which is what we’ve been building towards for years,” Smith said. “An epiphany has come out of this action.”