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As National Prison Strike Continues, Incarcerated People Face Retaliation

Now in its second week, a strike staged by prisoners over poor conditions, low wages, and other issues is resulting in consequences, including harsh conduct reports and placements in solitary confinement.

A prisoner behind bars with his hands cuffed
Caspar Benson/Getty

As National Prison Strike Continues, Incarcerated People Face Retaliation

Now in its second week, a strike staged by prisoners over poor conditions, low wages, and other issues is resulting in consequences, including harsh conduct reports and placements in solitary confinement.

In April, Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, a group of people incarcerated in South Carolina that organizes for prisoners’ rights, called for a national prison strike to begin on Aug. 21. One of the strikers’ demands was for the rescission of the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), a 1996 federal law that makes it much more difficult for prisoners to file federal lawsuits regarding conditions of confinement or abuse by prison staff and therefore nearly halved such litigation in the six years after its passage. But before the strike even began, prisoners in several states, including Ohio, reported retaliation and repression because of it.

As this reporter wrote the day the strike started, Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan was placed in solitary confinement on July 27 after receiving correspondence about the strike. Hasan’s conduct report stated the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s “STG Intelligence Unit have been monitoring communications and social media postings related to planning a nationwide prison strike from August 21 to September 9, 2018.” The report, written by a correction officer, used mail correspondence Hasan received about the strike and Hasan mentioning the national strike while speaking at public events (via the prison’s phones) as evidence of rule violations.

The report listed five rule violations: rioting or causing others to riot, engaging in or encouraging a group demonstration or work stoppage, conducting business operations with any person or entity outside the institution, use of telephone or mail in furtherance of any criminal activity, and violation of rules pertaining to receiving money from unapproved sources (a union wanted to pay Hasan $250 to speak to their members by phone). Central Ohio Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) told The Appeal that Hasan engaged in a hunger strike to protest the conduct report from July 28 to Aug. 8.

On the same day Hasan ended his hunger strike, Greg Curry, another prisoner at Ohio State Penitentiary, reported that some prisoners in his unit decided to begin a work stoppage due to retaliation from guards. “Meanwhile, the low wage cops [are] harassing us, looking to create problems,” Curry wrote to his supporters via the blog Lucasville Amnesty. “So Enough prisoners that recognized this decided to start protest that include[s] refusing to work!” After a hearing on the conduct report, Hasan was moved to Extended Restrictive Housing Level 3 (where prisoners are held in their cells for 22 or more hours a day for at least 30 days) and had his phone privileges taken away for a year, according to Central Ohio IWOC.

Since the national prison strike began, Central Ohio IWOC announced that there are at least two prisoners on hunger strike at the Toledo Correctional Institution in Ohio: James Ward and David Easley. Ward and Easley are protesting abuse, communication restrictions, and lack of mental health treatment. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction did not respond to a request for comment.

Some prisoners in Ohio have come to expect retaliation. The Appeal spoke by phone with a man in a minimum-security Ohio prison who asked to be identified only by his nickname, “Fridge.” “Intimidation, threats all of that is coming down the pipe, without a doubt, for even discussing [the strike],” he explained. Fridge also said Ohio prisoners are still reeling from a protest several years ago when they demonstrated against the state parole board’s inaction on parole, pardons, and commutations. Ohio’s parole rate declined from 48.5 percent in 2004 to 15.93 percent in 2017.  “Here in the state of Ohio, the parole board pretty much has complete autonomy and no oversight whatsoever,” Fridge told The Appeal. “The brothers were pretty much fed up because you know a lot of guys sitting around here rotting—30, 40 years. The brothers tried to make a statement by saying we ain’t participating [in parole hearings] … it was a desperate plea for help.” Those who participated in the parole hearing boycott were sent to the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison, according to Fridge.

Prior to the Aug. 21 strike, however, Ohio prisoners in IWOC released a set of 18 demands to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC). They called for ending long-term solitary confinement; paying prisoners no less than the minimum wage for their labor; the immediate release of all inmates sentenced before they were 18 years old; the release of “old-law” prisoners (meaning they were sentenced before 1996’s “Truth in Sentencing” law, which required judges to issue “flat sentences” for a specific number of years) who have completed their minimum sentence; reducing exorbitant commissary prices; allowing prisoners to participate in on-camera media interviews; and firing and criminally indicting correctional officers who physically abuse prisoners when they are restrained.

The demands also included rights for non-incarcerated citizens, including a demand that the minimum wage in Ohio be raised to $15 by 2020.  “Improving wages and working people’s lives on the outside,” the prisoners said, “is interconnected with prisoners’ struggle because such improvements will protect many people from either entering or re-entering the prison system.”

‘We thought it was important to knock down doors’

Lewis Conway Jr., a formerly incarcerated activist running for Austin City Council, sits down with The Appeal.

Lewis Conway Jr. at a recent campaign rally
Matthew Bradford/Hank+Tank Photography

‘We thought it was important to knock down doors’

Lewis Conway Jr., a formerly incarcerated activist running for Austin City Council, sits down with The Appeal.

For Lewis Conway Jr., deciding to run for office was the easy part. The Austin native was a community activist looking for another way to make change. But until mid-August, the fate of his candidacy for City Council was uncertain. He had served eight years in prison and 12 on parole, and although his voting rights were restored, city officials questioned his eligibility. Only this month was he officially cleared for the November ballot.

Conway is chestnut-hued, husky, and 6 feet 6 inches tall. You can’t miss him. Yet, years before he entered the spotlight, he says, he felt like a “walking ghost.”

When he returned home from prison, he explains, his family and community didn’t “know how to deal with somebody they had a funeral for.” Now, years after settling into his purpose, he feels like he’s back from the dead and eager to connect with voters. “I don’t have time to make you feel good,” he said. “I got time to make you feel me.”

Conway, who is married and has three children, isn’t afraid to talk about his past. In 1992, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after he stabbed a man during a fight over drugs he said the man had stolen from him. Conway said it was self-defense. Politics were foreign terrain when he was released from prison in 2000, he says, and running for office definitely wasn’t part of his parole plan.

He did, however, want to find a job, but says it felt impossible to find one. “I realized that I was society’s worse perceived nightmare. I was a big, Black man that had been convicted of a violent crime, expecting to be treated normal.” Denied too many jobs to count, he created his own, working as a DJ, music and video director, and author.  Ultimately, he made his way into community organizing. In 2016, as political director of the Second Chance Democrats, he helped pass Austin’s Fair Chance Hiring ordinance, which prohibits most employers from asking about or considering a job applicant’s criminal background before making an offer.

The first time someone suggested he run for office, Conway, a self-described democratic socialist, was skeptical. “I’m an organizer,” he remembers thinking. “I fight politicians.” Still, in 2017, he decided to join the race to replace departing incumbent City Council member Ora Houston. He quickly learned that according to Texas election code, a convicted felon cannot run for office unless he or she has been pardoned or “released from the resulting disabilities” of the conviction.

Although Conway’s campaign was slowed by the indecision over whether he could run, the Working Families Party endorsed him in early August. He also hopes to secure the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America.  

Conway recently spoke with The Appeal about criminal justice reform, disenfranchisement, and being radical about change.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Appeal: There were a lot of questions about whether you were legally allowed to run.

Conway: The language is purposefully ambiguous to give the impression that someone can’t run.

When I saw it as part of the election code, I was like, “That’s crazy, that’s crazy. I’m not falling for that. I’m not.” And so, I don’t see anything here that says my disabilities aren’t resolved. As a matter of fact, what disability are you talking about? Are you talking about the fact that I can’t get housing? That I can’t get employment? Are you talking about the fact that I go into a place of business and I’m automatically stared at?

The Constitution said I could run for Congress, the Constitution said I could run for president, the Constitution said I could run for Senate.

You got to be crazy as hell to tell me I can’t run for City Council.

Conway files paperwork to run for City Council in Austin.
Credit: Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

You’re part of a wave of democratic socialists running for office nationwide, including Cynthia Nixon and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. What does that affiliation mean to you?

What it means to me is democratically deciding how our budget is disseminated. Democratically deciding how our community receives services and what monies are being spent to provide those services. Democratically determining, in the community, what participatory democracy looks like.

I think too often leadership from elected officials has been top-down as opposed to bottom-up. And so, we started our campaign with a people’s assembly where we made ourselves available to folks and we wanted to hear what people had to say about their conditions. Because we believe people are experts in their own conditions.

When I began this race, even though it was a nonpartisan race, Austin is a partisan town. The state is Republican but Austin is Democrat. And I have seen what the Democrats have done to Black folks over the last 45 years of my life in Austin, so I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a Democrat.

So, coming into it, I was familiar with Black Marxism, I was familiar with Chokwe [Antar] Lumumba’s campaign in Jackson, Mississippi. And Lumumba’s campaign about [trying to make Jackson] the most radical city on the planet is what I built my campaign after. So, I knew that socialism was going to be the only way that I was going to get the kind of ideas that Black folks needed to embrace in order for us to realize the best conditions in our lives.

You have a lot of work to do on that front. I’ve read, for instance, that Black people in Austin are seven times more likely to be arrested for low-level marijuana arrests than their white counterparts. Is that something you’d tackle in office?

Absolutely. We [Grassroots Leadership] were the organization that led on the “Freedom City” Resolutions. … In 2015, we put out a Travis County racist-jailing report that showed … Black folks are being arrested at a higher rate and were being jailed for a longer time period than white people are.

So, even with the juvenile curfew, the juvenile curfew was one of the ordinances that the incumbent voted to keep in place [though she later reversed her stance]. And that juvenile curfew, of course, targeted brown and Black kids in parts of town that are historically populated by people of color. And so, the school-to-[prison] pipeline process in Austin is well-entrenched in our public schools. And it’s definitely well-entrenched in the policy that governs how elected officials interact.

You mentioned the Freedom City resolutions. Those restrict police questioning of immigrants and aim to cut down on nonviolent arrests, which tend to disproportionately affect Black and Latinx residents. How much will they help?

There’s always a lot of political will spent in passing these types of ordinances, but there’s little political will spent on the implementations.  I think it’s important for us to realize they are just resolutions; they are not policy or best practices. And we need to really be adamant about making sure that the stakeholders who are involved in this process, that we are working closely with law enforcement and making sure we’re giving folks alternatives besides arrest and incarceration.

Conway speaks at the Fight Toxic Prisons Convergence in Denton, Texas in 2017.
Credit: Jordan Mazurek

Supporters say you’ve served your time for the offense, while some, including the mother of the man you killed, argue that you don’t deserve this opportunity. How do you plan to earn the trust of your constituents?  

As an organizer, we practice transformational justice. And that means that’s a two-way street. That means I have to hold a space for people to feel how they feel. And I have to hold a space for people that I have harmed to hold me accountable.  

So, when the victim’s mother came out and said what she said, I didn’t do a public apology. I reached out to her pastor, I reached out to the reporter, and I opened up a space for her to hold me accountable. Not for me to apologize, but for her to hold me accountable.  

Just like it’s an opportunity for me to advance the cause for more than 4 million Texans with criminal justice involvement. It’s also an opportunity for us as a community to advance the cause of healing.

I don’t ask for any special consideration. I ask the people to judge me based upon my merit. What have I done at City Hall? What have I done at the State Capitol? What have I done on behalf of people who have backgrounds [in the criminal justice system], for people who’ve been in mental health institutions, right?

So, I think that’s a fair question, and my immediate response is, you know, “When do we allow people the space not to be the same person that they were 27 years ago?”

As of July 15 campaign finance filings, you’d raised less in campaign donations than your opponents. Why do you think that is and how important is it?

I couldn’t raise the money because there was this cloud of doubt of if I would even be eligible to run. From July to July, it has been a question about if I can run or not. They wait for the last day of filing to say, “OK, he’s officially on the ballot, right.” I announced my candidacy December 4, 2017. So, for nine months I’ve been having to campaign, and the first question people ask me is, “Are they going to let you run?”

So, that has been the tenor and the tone of the coverage and our campaign. This is the first time we’re actually able to campaign without the miasma of doubt hanging over our heads.

The people who have donated to our campaign up to this point really believed in us, really believed in the power of transformation, really believe in the power of another chance. I don’t like to use that second-chance language because some folks need a third and fourth chance. We need another chance.

Austin is a gentrifying city and I’ve heard your campaign volunteers are racially diverse. How are you mobilizing different types of people?

There are more white people [than Black people] in Black Lives Matter T-shirts in Austin. … Some Black folks look at civil rights issues in Austin like the status quo, like, this is how it’s always been. Many have been conditioned in Austin since the 1928 master plan, [which segregated the city] almost a hundred years ago, that politics wasn’t and isn’t a significant factor in our lives as Black folk. The reason why I have a coalition of white folks going to doors for me is because the establishment Black folks won’t embrace me, have not embraced me.

Black college kids love me, the white college kids love me, the white old ladies love me. … We have built a multicultural coalition … made up of folks who have fought for criminal justice, who are directly impacted by criminal justice. But also honestly believe that they want a change in their leadership and they believe in diversity in leadership.

Conway holds regular meet-and-greets at an Austin coffee house to reach students and people without access to the internet.
Courtesy of Conway campaign

We’re seeing various forms of activism around criminal justice, most recently the nationwide prison strike. What do you think are the most crucial steps to dismantling mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex?

The top thing that we have to do is rescind the 13th Amendment. The 13th Amendment, of course, as we know, allows for the enslavement of folks who are incarcerated. For me, as an abolitionist, it goes beyond free slave labor. It speaks to everything that encompasses the definition of slave: loss of identity, no human or civil rights.

When we look at the way our economy is built upon law enforcement, you know, we’ve got local police, we got school police, we got state police, we got federal police, we got secret police, we got secret police that watch the secret police. We got judges, we got lawyers, we got courtrooms, we got prisons. So, our whole economy is built on a law enforcement modality.

In order for us to address the criminal justice system, we have to rethink our business model.

Addressing mass incarceration is going to require us to address re-entry, is going to require us to address alternatives to incarceration, it’s going to require us to address housing, employment. And then there’s the whole sentencing component, right. We have to address federal sentencing laws, we have to address local sentencing laws, stop keeping people in jail because they can’t pay bond.

The prison industrial complex, you have to kind of see it like the music industry before CDs came in, when we still had albums. You had people that pressed up the albums, you had people who recorded the albums, you had people that shipped the albums, you had people that made the album covers. See, there was a whole industry of putting out a piece of music. Well, there’s a whole industry around disenfranchisement of a person. Until you look at it like an industry, as opposed to these single pieces, we’re going to always be having this conversation of mass incarceration.

Any fears in taking on this race?

My only fear is the impact on [two of] my children, you know. There’s a lot of stuff they were too young to know about and now it’s starting to come out in the press. I think that’s my only fear, that they find out I gave up custody and don’t know why.

There have been some vague allegations floated against you regarding that child custody dispute with your ex-girlfriend. What can you tell us about that?   

A decade ago, I was involved in an ugly court battle, like Austin court battles get, and some untrue allegations were made that were false then and are false now. And those allegations were devastating to my family, the relationship with my children. And for me, it’s about all of the other fathers that may not have the same platform to defend themselves.

How hopeful are you about your chances of winning?

Not only are we going to win, but we counted wins along the way. … We felt like it was important to change the narrative, and count that as a win. We thought it was important to knock down doors, we thought that was a win. But most of all, we feel that if the people of Austin elect someone with our background, that is not only a win for District 1, it’s a win for Austin, and it’s a win for Texas and ultimately that translates into a win for America.

More in Explainers

Why the California bail overhaul might backfire

Why the California bail overhaul might backfire

What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: Why the California bail overhaul might backfire

  • Justice in America Episode 6: The faces of mass incarceration

  • In Pennsylvania, defendants pay a fee just to plead guilty

  • Two cops said they saw a man grope women. The women disagreed. The DA charged him anyway.

  • Jury sentences white officer to 15 years for killing Black teen

  • Massachusetts DA argues for more pretrial detention

  • Estimated cost to cool dangerously hot Texas prison drops as soon as litigation ends

  • New report sheds light on the ‘trial penalty’

In the Spotlight

Why the California bail overhaul might backfire

“There are two things we want to see in bail reform legislation,” Insha Rahman of the Vera Institute of Justice told The Daily Appeal in a phone interview. “One is the elimination of cash bail, taking money out of the equation. The other is reducing the number of people detained awaiting trial.” Senate Bill 10, the California legislation that Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Tuesday, does a great job at the first of these goals, and does nothing for the second. In fact, it might make things worse. The law, Rahman says, creates broad categories of people eligible for pretrial detention at the judge’s discretion, including anyone who is charged with a violent felony or who has been charged with one in the recent past, anyone who is pending sentencing or on parole or probation. “Deeply troubling is that there is a presumption of detention written into those categories,” she says.

“New Jersey is the best counterpoint to this,” Rahman adds. “They decided to take money off the table. And even if they didn’t go as far as California to completely eliminate cash bail, they essentially did in practice, but without creating huge swaths of people eligible for pretrial detention.” New Jersey also created all sorts of due process safeguards that made it harder, not easier, to detain people. This included access to counsel and rigorous conditions before even considering preventive detention. “There is also a speedy trial provision within the bail statute itself. None of those due process provisions are present in SB 10.”

As a cautionary tale, Rahman points to Maryland, where bail reform seems to have increased preventive detention. Like in California, there are not enough safeguards. “The problem is that you’re really trying to legislate culture change in the courts, so if a statute doesn’t go far enough to force actors to act in another way, they’re not going to do it,” she explains. “There is no incentive to do it unless it’s prescribed in an explicit and specific way.” A June report from Prince George’s County, Maryland, found that although “cash bails have decreased, judges have opted to hold more people without bond instead of releasing them on their own recognizance,” according to the Washington Post. Those trends “track similar findings from studies conducted by Princeton University and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender as well as anecdotal observations from local public defenders.” [Lynh Bui / Washington Post]

An earlier version of SB 10 would have led to a far more radical change “by putting the burden on judges to prove why someone should be detained as opposed to presuming detention,” according to Mother Jones. “And it would have narrowed the pool of defendants who could be detained to only those charged with the most serious crimes.” After judges complained that such a move would hinder their independence and judicial discretion, that version failed. [Olivia Exstrum / Mother Jones] The version that passed lost the support of many of its initial backers and led Reason magazine to say that it is “worse than doing nothing.”

“At issue is what these advocates view as a system that gives almost absolute power to local judges, who are elected officials in California and might be tempted to pander to law-and-order voters by keeping defendants locked up,” writes Abbie Vansickle for the Marshall Project. “In many ways, it replaces one evil with one that’s even worse in that it gives unbridled discretion and power to judges,” says San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi. Critics add that the new version makes the system more vulnerable to biases. The ACLU, an advocate of the earlier bill, now opposes the measure because it cannot “provide sufficient due process nor adequately protect against racial biases.” State public defenders worry about increased incarceration. “It’s an abomination of what the prior bill set out to do,” says Adachi. “It gives pretty much all the power to judges who, for the most part, were the major culprit in high incarceration rates, particularly of poor people.” [Olivia Exstrum / Mother Jones]

Critics also focus on the power the bill gives to counties in deciding what risk assessment tools to use and how they should be used. These tools have come under fire for baking bias into the decision-making process, and the California bill does not provide safeguards to prevent  the same result. [Olivia Exstrum / Mother Jones] John Raphling, a senior researcher with the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, says that this bill will take an unjust system and replace it with something that is potentially worse, “empowering judges to take away our liberty based on biased algorithms and the judges’ own subjective choices, with no standards and no due process.” [Jazmine Ulloa / Los Angeles Times]

And for all the fanfare around bail reform, it would seem that California has not made much progress. A 1968 California Law Review article, “Tinkering with the California Bail System,” stressed the importance of reducing “the number of arrestees legally ineligible for release on bail,” the very thing worrying advocates today. Those legally ineligible for bail, in 1968, fell into three categories: “capital offense; the accused felon who has not yet been arraigned; and the arrestee taken into custody by virtue of a warrant which either specifies no bail or orders the arrestee held for transfer to another jurisdiction.” The author says that magistrates “should be reluctant to issue warrants which do not specify an amount of bail,” and urges the legislature to take a look. Many critics are urging their legislature to do just that today, 50 years later. [John Hoskins / California Law Review]

Stories From The Appeal

Essie Justice Group’s “Black Mamas Day Bailout” event in May.

Justice in America Episode 6: The Faces of Mass Incarceration. Beyond the numbers of America’s incarceration crisis. [Josie Duffy Rice and Clint Smith]

In Pennsylvania, Defendants Pay a Fee Just to Plead Guilty. The plea fee stems from a state law passed in the 1980s and can cost nearly $200, depending on the county. [Joshua Vaughn]

Two Cops Said They Saw a Man Grope Women. The Women Disagreed. The DA Charged Him Anyway. An 11-month prosecution of a ‘forcible touching’ case in Manhattan sharply diverges from the office’s treatment of Harvey Weinstein, defense attorneys say. [George Joseph and Simon Davis-Cohen]

Stories From Around the Country

Jury sentences white officer to 15 years for killing Black teen: Yesterday, a Dallas County jury sentenced ex-police officer Roy Oliver to 15 years in prison for killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards. “Jurors spent about five hours deciding the fate of the former Balch Springs lawman, who was described as a ‘killer in blue’ during an impassioned closing statement by the Dallas County district attorney,” according to the Dallas Morning News.  “In the end they rejected the defense argument that it was a crime of passion when Oliver, 38, opened fire on a car full of teens in April 2017, killing Jordan instantly. In addition to the prison term, the jury assessed a $10,000 fine.”  Oliver’s attorneys have begun the appeals process, saying they believe errors were made at trial. “Oliver still has four pending aggravated assault charges: two from the night Jordan was killed, and two from an unrelated road-rage incident two weeks before” the shooting. [Tasha Tsiaperas / Dallas Morning News]

Massachusetts DA argues for more pretrial detention: The Boston Globe today ran an op-ed by Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn, who argues that the statute allowing those accused of certain enumerated crimes to be held without bail for 120 days ought to be expanded to cover any crime. At a time when people across the political spectrum are waking up to the urgent need for bail reform, this change would allow far more people to be held in jail without being convicted of any crime. “Dangerous criminals need to be held without bail” he writes. “Unfortunately, this is not always the case in Massachusetts courts … dangerous defendants are released every day, and this needs to stop.” Quinn is running for re-election unopposed. [Thomas M. Quinn III / Boston Globe] A former Massachusetts public defender commented to The Daily Appeal that “what Quinn is asking for is very much like the worst case scenario under the new California bail statute in a lot of ways.”

Estimated cost to cool dangerously hot Texas prison drops as soon as litigation ends: Four years ago, several incarcerated Texans sued the state, claiming the lack of air conditioning in the notoriously hot Wallace Pack prison was unconstitutional, citing multiple deaths from heat stroke, 10 during one heat wave alone. The department fought the lawsuit for years, claiming that the cost was too burdensome, and last February, the department and the incarcerated people announced a settlement, with the prison agreeing to permanently install air conditioning at the Pack Unit. Last year, an expert retained by the corrections department put the cost at over $20 million, but at a hearing yesterday, the cost was estimated at approximately $4 million. The state spent more than $7 million on the lawsuit over installing air conditioning in the Pack Unit’s housing area. [Jolie McCullough / Texas Tribune]

New report sheds light on the ‘trial penalty’: A new report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, The Trial Penalty, describes how the American justice system, premised on the right to a fair trial, has “turned into a plea-bargain factory,” according to the website Prosecutorial Accountability. The report emphasizes one of the most devastating features of the federal system: “individuals who choose to exercise their Sixth Amendment right to trial face exponentially higher sentences if they invoke the right to trial and lose.” The power of prosecutors to extract pleas derives from their broad discretion in levying criminal charges and draconian sentencing ranges. Overcharging allows prosecutors to offer substantial reductions to charges or sentences in exchange for a guilty plea. And as pleas have “come to dominate the landscape, the opportunities for citizens to hold the government accountable for overreach have diminished.” [Prosecutorial Accountability]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

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