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.”