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Florida Prisoners are on Strike to Protest Price Gouging and Their ‘Current Slave Arrangement’

Resident gardening in a California prison
Justin Sullivan/Getty

Florida Prisoners are on Strike to Protest Price Gouging and Their ‘Current Slave Arrangement’

Prisoners in Florida are in the midst of a huge and risky protest: They started a strike and boycott on Martin Luther King Jr. Day meant to last through the month.

The protest challenges exorbitant prices at canteens; urges Florida to extend parole, as an incentive for good behavior, to all prisoners; and demands payment for prisoners’ labor. But the tactic has sparked heavy pushback from the Florida Department of Corrections. Prisoners have told outside strike organizers that the department is trying to stifle the strike by retaliating against those who are participating and cutting off their communications with each other and with family and friends on the outside.

In their original statement outlining the motives for the strike, posted on the website of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, Florida prisoners said they would stop working their prison jobs and boycott the canteens starting January 15 “until the injustice we see facing prisoners in the Florida system is resolved.” That includes what the prisoners describe as the “current slave arrangement,” in which they are made to work without pay.

According to data collected by the Prison Policy Initiative, jobs that support prison facilities in Florida can pay as little as nothing at all; at most, prisoners make 32 cents per hour for work such as laundry, maintenance, or food service, and a high of 55 cents per hour for producing goods, such as sewn products or farm crops, that are sold to government agencies and outside businesses.

Apart from the obvious injustice, prisoners say, empty pockets make reentry difficult. Prisoners who are released are given just $50 and a bus ticket. “[T]he reality is it’s not enough to do anything with!” they argue in their statement. Getting paid for work, on the other hand, would allow them to save up for life after prison.

Prisoners are also protesting marked-up prices at the canteen, where, for example, they say a case of soup costs $17. In a San Francisco Bay View articleabout the action, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, who is incarcerated at Florida State Prison, wrote that items like a stick of deodorant, toilet paper, and packs of oatmeal cost significantly more in Florida prisons than in the Texas prison system, where he was previously held. According to Johnson, a bottle of water costs more than six times more in Florida than in Texas — 99 cents versus 15 cents.

“Coupled with Florida prisoners receiving no wages, [prisoners] must purchase basic hygiene supplies, seasonal clothing, shoes and supplemental foods and beverages from a grossly overpriced commissary and package system, which weighs heavily on their loved ones,” Johnson wrote. “Otherwise prisoners must do without.”

“We intend to sit down and refuse to work, have an economic protest,” one in-prison organizer said in an audio interview shared with The Nation ahead of the action. “We want to create an environment where someone can do their time, be rehabilitated, and enter into society with some type of hope.”

It’s been difficult for organizers to get a full count, but people confined in at least 14 Florida prisons have participated in the strike, according to Karen Smith of the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, one of the groups that helped organize the strike. “As far how many people are participating, there’s just no way of knowing,” she told In Justice Today. “All we see is the letters we get back.”

Smith’s organization has gotten multiple reports through letters from incarcerated people that the Florida Department of Corrections has taken steps to repress the strike, including putting people in solitary confinementand shutting down phones. Prison officials have even threatened those who communicate with her organization and other outside entities with “Security Threat Group” status, which would label them as part of a gang for the remainder of their sentences, limiting their placements and privileges.

Johnson recently wrote in a second San Francisco Bay View article about a warden “unleash[ing] swift retaliation” against him because of his first article on the strike, which prison officials said in a disciplinary report amounted to “inciting a riot.” Johnson sent a letter to the Abolitionist Law Center saying he was being “literally tortured” by being denied heat in 30-degree weather and given a non-working toilet.

Smith says the crackdown reflects the movement’s increasing power. “Prisoners are just getting organized, so the state is just starting to use these tactics,” Smith said.

In response to an inquiry from In Justice Today about the use of confinement and threats of Security Threat Group status, a spokesperson for the Florida DOC said, “Inmates are rarely put into single man cells. However, inmates will receive a disciplinary report should they refuse to do their assigned work duties.” The spokesperson also asserted, “No Florida inmates participated in work stoppages or strikes. All daily operations are continuing as normal, including inmate phone privileges.” The spokesperson confirmed that prisoners “are not paid” for laundry, cooking, and maintenance duties.

Smith is confident the DOC won’t be able to stop the strike, nor to stem the growing tide of organizing inside prisons. “I don’t think any of their tactics are going to make it impossible for this movement to continue on,” she said. “In recent years, it’s just been growing.”

“We intend to sit down and refuse to work, have an economic protest…. We want to create an environment where someone can do their time, be rehabilitated, and enter into society with some type of hope.”

Even prisoners who have been put on lockdown say they’re still participating in the protest. “We’re getting word back that there’s whole camps on lockdown,” said Smith. “Any amount of lockdown time is a win for a prison strike, because officers are triple-staffed and performing duties that the prisoners would have, and that’s expensive. That’s the whole point of this disruption: to disrupt their business as usual and hurt their profits.”

Prison uprisings have a long history in this country, with a swell of organizing in recent years. In 2016, on the 25th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion, people confined in state and federal prisons in 24 states, including Florida, went on strike to protest what they called slave labor conditions. Prisoners make, on average, just 14 cents to $1.41 an hour across the country, and in many prisons earn nothing at all. In August, in response to organizing for another protest, all of Florida’s prisons were put on lockdown, an unprecedented step.

Smith says one reason the current strike might not be making headlines is that it’s less visible than some other prison protests. “Some actions of the past were really visible because things were literally on fire and there were major physical uprisings, dorms were torn down,” Smith said. The Florida prison strike, by contrast, is harder to track because the prisoners are engaging in non-violent protest. Smith also noted that the DOC can transfer inmates from other locations who may not be part of the strike to have them perform work duties. It’s “a replaceable workforce,” she said. “So it’s a challenge.”

But, she argues, people housed in Florida prisons will continue to fight against exploitative labor practices. Currently, her organization, Support Prisoners And Real Change, and another called the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons are working on next steps for the rest of the year. “Right now, the focus is economic,” she said. “The way you do that is with strikes and boycotts.”

“This isn’t a one-and-done, one-day mission accomplished,” she said. “This is going to be a lot of work.”

Pennsylvania’s Death Row Prisoners Argue That the Right to Execute Does Not Include the Right to Isolate

Flickr user jmiller291 (CC BY 2.0)

Pennsylvania’s Death Row Prisoners Argue That the Right to Execute Does Not Include the Right to Isolate

Historically, whenever a Pennsylvania court handed down a death sentence, it was effectively condemning the defendant to live the rest of his or her years in isolation. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections mandates that people on death row be held in solitary confinement. And Pennsylvania isn’t the only state to do so: A recent survey by The Marshall Project found that of the 2,802 state prisoners sentenced to death nationwide, 61 percent are isolated for 20 hours or more per day.

On January 25, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, along with three other law firms, filed a federal class action lawsuit challenging this policy’s constitutionality.

The five plaintiffs have each spent over a decade in solitary confinement. These men spend between 22 and 24 hours per day in a “small cell, the size of a regular parking spot,” where the lights are never turned off, according to the complaint. One of the plaintiffs has been in solitary for 27 years. Nearly 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s 156 death row prisoners have been there for over a decade.

“There is a difference between saying this person can be put to death, and saying our constitution actually allows people to be tortured while they’re in prison,” said Susan Lin, an attorney at Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin, one of the law firms that filed the suit.

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who frequently touts himself as a criminal justice reformer in media interviews and on academic panels, is the lead defendant in the lawsuit. This practice is hard to square with his reform-minded reputation.

This isn’t the first time Wetzel has been a defendant in a lawsuit challenging his department’s policies on solitary confinement. In 2016, he was sued for keeping an intellectually disabled man, Arthur Johnson, in solitary for 37 years. The federal court judge ruled that because there weren’t adequate grounds to consider the man a threat to other prisoners or guards, his prolonged isolation constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

The new ACLU-led lawsuit challenges mandatory solitary for death row prisoners as violating both the Eighth Amendment and the constitutional right to due process. The suit argues that just because a person is death-sentenced, he or she is still entitled to a process to determine the necessity of isolation.

Civil rights attorneys are using this due process argument more frequently in similar suits challenging mandatory solitary. “We are increasingly recognizing that solitary confinement is a form of torture, that it is categorically a different kind of punishment than just being in prison,” said Johanna Kalb, professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans, who has written about long-term isolation, “There is a liberty issue when you’re put there without a meaningful process.”

The United States Supreme Court declined to hear a similar argument in 2015, in part because the case became moot when Virginia executed the defendant, Alfred Prieto, before the high court could rule on his final stay application. In Prieto’s case, a trial court ruled that the conditions he and other prisoners on death row faced in solitary were “dehumanizing” and “undeniably severe.” As such, the trial court ruled that prison officials should either decide whether a person needs to be in solitary on a case-by-case basis, or make the conditions of solitary more humane.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, shot down this decision. In a 2–1 ruling, the court maintained that Prieto “can only be deprived of that to which he is entitled.” Due process doesn’t apply, the court decided, because it is explicitly written into Virginia state law that people sentenced to death should be placed in solitary confinement; thus he was not entitled to any other placement.

That same year, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, in a concurring opinion regarding a death-row prisoner’s legal challenge on an unrelated issue, that the “near-total isolation” of solitary “exacts a terrible price.” He went on to quote Dostoyevsky: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Solitary confinement for people on death row is often justified by the belief that prisoners sentenced to death are too dangerous to live among the general population. But according to Kalb, “The data increasingly shows us that this just isn’t true.” For example, since Colorado stopped automatically housing death-sentenced prisoners in solitary in 2014, prison officials have reportedthere was no rise in the level of violence.

A Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokesperson, Amy Worden, declined to comment on the ACLU lawsuit or the state’s policy, but in a statement wrote that the DOC is “undertaking changes that will allow more out-of-cell time in capital case housing units.”

As research on the psychological and physical detriment caused by long-term isolation proliferates and a national movement to limit the use of solitary confinement gains traction, abolishing these policies is critical, Kalb explained. “In some ways, this is a very mild and moderate ask,” she said. “Don’t put people in it automatically. Look at them as individual people.”

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NYC Agency Uses Brooklyn Gang Raid To Encourage Evictions Of Entire Families From Public Housing

Early on the morning of January 19, police raided the Sheepshead/Nostrand Houses in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, arresting 13 alleged members of the Towaz Boyz Gang.
Scott Heins for In Justice Today

NYC Agency Uses Brooklyn Gang Raid To Encourage Evictions Of Entire Families From Public Housing

Early on the morning of January 19, the New York Police Department and local and federal partners raided the Sheepshead/Nostrand Houses, a large public housing complex in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, arresting 13 alleged members of the “Towaz Boyz gang.”

Unnamed law enforcement authorities described the scene to the Daily Newsas a “New Jack City-style sales operation” — a reference to the iconic 1991 Wesley Snipes movie about the crack cocaine trade, in which a paramilitary-type drug organization takes over an entire pubic housing complex. The New York City Department of Investigation also touted the raid in a lengthy press release, detailing its 16-month investigation into the alleged drug sales operation. The release quotes William Sweeney, assistant director of the FBI New York Division, praising DOI. “People deserve to leave their homes without fearing the drug dealers and violent gang members loitering around their front doors,” he said.

But the charges against the total of 18 defendants (two men were already in custody on the morning of the raid) do not involve violent crimes. Moreover, the raid description and accompanying set of DOI policy recommendations are a transparent attempt to push the New York City Housing Authority to more regularly utilize its power to kick entire families out of public housing permanently through its tenancy termination policy, advocates told In Justice Today.

2938 Avenue W, the site of one of the raid arrests.
Scott Heins for In Justice Today

“This particular instance is being used to make a point,” said Alison Wilkey, director of public policy at the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College.

Four of the 18 defendants are charged with conspiracy to sell narcotics in the fourth degree, a charge that can be based on as little as a conversation that suggests a person is knowledgeable of drug sales. Another four are charged with criminal sale of heroin or cocaine in the third degree, which can apply to small, nickel- and dime-bags. Only two defendants, Michael Warren and Larry Davis, are charged with criminal sale in the first degree — heroin and oxycodone in excess of two ounces. Three NYCHA employees are also charged: one with trespass for allegedly unlocking a vacant apartment at Sheepshead/Nostrand so dealers could sell drugs there, two with marijuana possession for allegedly purchasing out of the apartment while on shift.

“It’s not kilos,” said Babe Howell, professor of criminal law at CUNY Law School. “It’s not, ‘We’re flooding your neighborhood with drugs.’ This is essentially a small retail drug house.” The New Jack City narrative, she added, is meant “to keep us in a position of fear and antagonism towards poor people of color in this city” despite the fact that crime in New York City is at record lows.

“I think it’s pretty racist, honestly,” a 28-year-old Sheepshead/Nostrand resident told In Justice Today on a recent Friday (he declined to provide his name). “That’s all it is. Who needs police around as much as they are? They just make it worse, honestly. They harass people for no reason.”

“Oh, wow. Not Sheepshead,” added Ebony Humphrey, 36. “It’s nice. The only thing I could complain about is the work that NYCHA does. Like the mold and stuff.”

According to DOI, two Sheepshead/Nostrand residents on the indictment were living in NYCHA apartments despite already having been banned from public housing, or “permanently excluded.” Eight others were allegedly living in public housing or government-subsidized Section 8 apartments without authorization, meaning their names were not listed on leases. The agency is now referring these addresses to NYCHA, and urging the authority to consider further action.

“I think it’s pretty racist, honestly. That’s all it is. Who needs police around as much as they are? They just make it worse, honestly. They harass people for no reason.”

DOI has released two previous reports on safety in NYCHA buildings, including in March 2017, urging NYCHA to “more aggressively prosecute tenancy termination cases,” or exercise its ability to evict entire households based on the actions of one member. NYCHA formally rejected this recommendation last July.

Still, DOI Commissioner Mark Peters’s Sheepshead/Nostrand press release encourages NYCHA once again to aggresively pursue permanent exclusion of individuals, and to evict entire families in cases where the leaseholder “participated in, or knew or should have known of serious criminal activity” by someone living there. If the leaseholder was unaware of the activity, and the person under scrutiny is part of a localized gang, DOI suggests moving the family to a “far away” NYCHA property.

“Today’s arrests highlight the inherent dangers of allowing serious, recidivist criminals to continue to reside on NYCHA property,” Peters stated.

Inside 3595 Nostrand Ave., the site of at least one NYPD arrest at the Sheepshead/Nostrand Houses.
Scott Heins for In Justice Today

NYCHA has historically moved to evict entire households only when a convicted criminal is the primary leaseholder, according to Wilkey of John Jay College. While the number of eviction and permanent exclusion cases tends to fluctuate from year to year, depending on how aggressively the NYPD is reporting incidents, she said that “evictions are always in the minority.”

In 2016, the most recent data available, NYCHA evicted 97 households over alleged dangerous conduct, 74 by default because the leaseholder missed his or her mandatory appearance before NYCHA’s Office of Impartial Hearings. In 649 other cases, a household member was permanently excluded. Another 985 cases were dismissed without any action.

“Mark Peters keeps saying, ‘You’ve got to evict, you’ve got to be much more aggressive in evicting families,’” said Lucy Newman, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society who also sits on a task force with the Prisoner Reentry Institute. As for the family relocation suggestion, “people can be just caught up in these gang sweeps and they’re not involved in the activity at all. And to make their families move is absolutely ridiculous.”

Gang raids at NYCHA properties have become commonplace in recent years, driven by a policing strategy that views gangs or “groups” as the primary drivers of violent crime. In June 2014, the NYPD arrested 40 men and boys at the Grant and Manhattanville Houses in East Harlem. Of that total, 25 were charged with conspiracy in the first degree, a felony with sentences ranging from 15 years to life. The vast majority of defendants took a plea (93 percent of the total) and thus acquired criminal records that can negatively impact their job and housing prospects. In April 2016, 78 people were arrested and charged with conspiracy at the Eastchester Gardens Houses in the Bronx.

According to Newman, the Sheepshead/Nostrand raid is the first time DOI has “gone the extra step to then go back to NYCHA and see who’s permanently excluded and who isn’t,” ramping up the pressure to more aggressively evict individuals and households.

These actions increase NYCHA residents’ likelihood of becoming homeless in the midst of a citywide housing crisis, she added. Newman says that NYCHA should instead be dedicating more resources to after-school activities, job training, and programs like NYC Cure Violence, which trains NYCHA residents, mostly young men, to mediate conflicts.

The fourth-floor hallway of 3677 Nostrand, where the NYPD claims to have arrested at least one gang member in the early morning hours of January 19
Scott Heins for In Justice Today

NYCHA declined to say explicitly if it will heed DOI’s recommendations for stricter eviction policies. “NYCHA’s permanent exclusion policy balances the need to exclude dangerous individuals while protecting the tenancy of other family members,” spokesperson Jasmine Blake told In Justice Today. “We always welcome recommendations on how we can improve as safety and security of our residents is our top priority.”

Marie D., an 18-year-old Sheepshead/Nostrand Resident, told In Justice Today that she often feels unsafe in her home. “There’s poor supervision,” she said. “People that are not supposed to be here, they know that, and they still come back here.” But evicting entire households isn’t fair, she added. “That shouldn’t happen because there are entire families with kids, you understand?”

Raids, she said, don’t make her feel safer. A few months ago, police officers banged down Marie’s boyfriend’s door at 6 a.m. She was asleep, and police handcuffed her before they realized their mistake, she said.

“It was actually scary,” Marie recalled. “They said, ‘Oh, we had the wrong apartment,’ and they ended up leaving and going to do it to other apartments.”

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