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The Appeal Podcast: Prison Strikes Are the Front Line Against Mass Incarceration

With Appeal staff reporter Raven Rakia.

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by Justin Merriman / Getty Images

This fall, thousands of incarcerated people in dozens of states went on strike to protest harsh and exploitative conditions in America’s prisons. Prisons, and the cruel conditions they foster, are often the last thing with which the public wants to be confronted. But incarcerated people throughout the country are using the only leverage they have—their personal labor—to force the issue. Our guest, Appeal staff reporter Raven Rakia, joins us to talk about these efforts and what the future holds for the prisoners’ rights movement. Read more of Raven Rakia’s prison strike coverage here and here.

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Adam Johnson: Hi welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod, you can follow us on Facebook at The Appeal Facebook page and you can always subscribe to us on iTunes. This fall, thousands of prisoners in dozens of states went on strike to protest harsh and exploitative conditions in America’s prisons. Prisons and the cruel conditions they foster are often the last thing the public wants to see much less debate, but incarcerated persons throughout the country using the only leverage they have in their personal labor are forcing the issue on the front burner of a country that would rather talk about anything else. Our guest, Appeal writer Raven Rakia, joins us to talk about these efforts and what the future holds for the prisoner rights movement.

[Begin Clip]

Raven Rakia: Labor conditions in general across the country in prisons it’s kind of twofold because on the one hand, some of them are very laborous and they’re used as punishment at times or retaliation, and on the other hand, some prisoners enjoy some work conditions because it means it can get them out of their cell. What organizers in prison have been trying to push in terms of their ideology and theory behind it, from what I’ve seen, is that the two choices aren’t really choices because people in prison only want to work because that means they get out of a cage. In that sense it’s still forced labor.

[End Clip]

Adam: Welcome to the show. Thank you so much for coming on.

Raven Rakia: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Adam: So we’re going to talk about prison strikes today. Um, there was a massive prison strike a couple months ago from August 21st to September 9th. I want to talk about that and then I want to broaden the topic if you will, to broader prison conditions. Of late prison strikes have gotten, at least they appear to have gotten more frequent. Uh, we typically associate them with sixties, seventies uprisings, but they seem to have gotten more frequent. Can you talk about the organizing that’s been going on amongst prison reform and prison abolitionists and the prisoners themselves of late and what the, what the sort of primary instigator of this recent wave of strikes is?

Raven Rakia: Yeah, sure. So I think, uh, it’s important to, to quote what another journalist Victoria Law tweeted earlier, which is that prisoners are always organizing. So even though like now we see a lot, we’ve seen a lot of strikes and a lot of visible things, I think it’s important just to note that it’s pretty much throughout history prisoners have been organizing and they will continue to. So it’s just kind of difficult to put dates on things in terms of wave of prison strikes. But starting in 2010, I think we started seeing a lot more prison strikes. Um, and in 2010 there was the prison strike in Georgia where prisoners in multiple prisons in Georgia decided to, uh, do a work strike and they refused to go to work and several prisoners were punished for it. Eventually correction officers were indicted on beating an inmate who had organized the prison strike and they beat him pretty badly. He had a lot of physical health issues after that. So I think that was when at least I started noticing prison strikes in terms of in the recent years and then since then we’ve seen like organizations like IWOC [Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee], Anarchist Black Cross and plenty of others, The Ordinary People Society and other organizations that with people outside the prison who are then organizing and communicating with people inside the prisons. And of course IWOC also includes union members in prisons as well. And so we’ve seen like multiple prisons strikes. There was also like the California hunger strike in 2013, um, which was organized by multiple abolitionist and reform groups in California working with people inside to get over 30,000 prisoners to hunger strike. And that was probably one of the largest, if not the largest prison strikes we’ve seen. And then, um, recently, like in 2016, and the recent one in August, have been more like national prison strikes, prisoners organizing in different states with each other, which is kind of incredible to see happen. So yeah, that’s a little bit of the background.

Adam: One of the things we try to talk about on this show a lot, and I know this is something that The Appeal is trying to do in general ideologically, is to really get away from this idea that of the kind of deserving victim and the undeserving, the kind of violent offender and the nonviolent offender as this kind of moral delineation, innocent and guilty and realize that to really reform prison and to meaningfully reduce prison populations, you have to deal with people who are quote unquote “violent” offenders who are just there for low level marijuana arrest. And this speaks to the kind of broader humanity of the prison system itself. And the prison strikes to me at least seemed to strike at the core of that kind of liberal tic to want to sort of divide people into sort of good and bad. Can you talk about it, at least from your experience talking to activists and prisoners, how difficult it is to get people to sort of see prisoners not along those lines, the innocent versus guilty, but see them as fundamentally human deserving certain rights and how difficult it is to get people to care because we see prisoners as basically expendables, as people who sort of don’t really deserve our solidarity and empathy?

Raven Rakia: Yeah. I think that was a main theme of this last prison strike specifically in terms of not trying to divide prisoners into nonviolent and violent and I’m glad you bring this up too because when it comes to prison strikes, I mean of course prisoners who are in prison for all different reasons will organize, but it does seem that like people in prison who are there for longer terms are more likely to want to change the conditions. People who are in there for low level terms who are maybe in there for a year or two, a lot of times they’re usually focused on just getting out and having good time and not getting any sort of violations or anything like that. Which is the type of thing that striking brings. This was a major theme in this last prison strike. They’re ten demands are basically ten demands for human rights and they’re arguing that all humans deserve these things, even people who may have done something wrong in the past. Specifically their demands highlight the fact that they do not think the like violent and nonviolent binary is necessarily right. Like for example, number seven of their demands, um, says, “No imprisoned human shall be denied access to rehabilitation programs at their place of detention because of their label as a violent offender.” So I think this demand specifically, and of course others do as well, highlight how they view that sort of binary and how it should be broken down in terms of providing everyone with human rights.

Adam: Let’s talk about the mechanisms of regress, of having their grievances aired. You note that the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 passed by President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress, you note that it places barriers and restrictions on prisoners trying to file federal lawsuits about their conditions. Can you talk about what that Act did that made being a prisoner more difficult and removed one of the key mechanisms of accountability?

Raven Rakia: Yeah, definitely. So the Prison Litigation Reform Act was passed in ‘96 under Bill Clinton and it basically placed a lot of barriers and restrictions of things that prisoners needed to do or things they couldn’t do in terms of filing a lawsuit to say that their constitutional rights had been violated. So for example, it required prisoners to go through all of the administrative grievance processes within that prison before they could file a lawsuit. And the problem with that is, you know, sometimes these grievance processes are very long and complicated or just certain things like being in prison, you’re depending on certain people to even be able to file that grievance process and that is the guards, so it can be sometimes difficult for inmates to file grievances. And so this places a barrier in terms of in terms of lawsuits and it will basically mean that your lawsuit will be thrown out if you didn’t go through the entire grievance process. So another barrier that the Act placed on lawsuits that were filed by people in prison, it limited the cost that an attorney could be paid if they won the lawsuit, which can discourage attorneys from taking the lawsuit whatsoever.

Adam: Right.

Raven Rakia: Um, it also adds restrictions on when a prisoner files a lawsuit alleging emotional or mental harm there are restrictions placed on that. Um, which is a problem because of the types of policies and you know solitary confinement units that prisons have across the country.

Adam: Yeah. I mean the tort gets a bad name because it’s constantly demonized in the media and pop culture, but tort is the only mechanism that powerless people have to hold powerful people to account. And it’s the only core. So if you, if you stymie that tort, then yeah, you have a recipe for abuse.

Raven Rakia: Right. Yeah, exactly.

Adam: One of the things that they also address, and this is something that’s become more popular in popular discourse, and there was obviously a recent documentary about it, is the eye is the idea of a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment that effectively permits slavery. It permits slave wages, you know, I don’t mean that sort of rhetorically or to be provocative, but it’s quite literally a slave wage. The loophole on the exemption of the Thirteenth Amendment passed after the Civil War is that you’re allowed to have debt peonage. This was a huge component to what’s called neo-slavery, which is slavery in the South from the 1870s to the beginning of World War II, where you basically arrested people for vagrancy or small petty offenses and then put them in prison for months, sometimes several years, paying off their debt, that this was legal and we currently have this today. Can we talk about the labor conditions in these prisons specifically the ones that actually went on strike and what the demands are in terms of minimum wage and basic labor rights.

Raven Rakia: So in terms of the demand, it basically asks that all people who are incarcerated be paid the prevailing wage in that state. And that’s one of the national demands. Some of the states also made their own demands. So Ohio had a list of demands where they also asked that everyone in the state be paid $15 an hour. So of course those two are tied together. But yeah so labor conditions in general across the country in prisons, it’s kind of two fold because on the one hand some of them are very laborous and they’re used as punishment at times like you will be put into a worse work position as some sort of punishment or retaliation and on the other hand some prisoners enjoy some some work conditions because it means it can get them out of their cell. What organizers in prison have been trying to push in terms of their ideology and theory behind it, from what I’ve seen, is that the two choices aren’t really choices because people in prison only want to work because that means they get out of a cage. In that sense it’s still forced labor. I think their theory behind their prison strikes is something that’s very interesting and needs to be taken seriously more in terms of media coverage as well.

Adam: Yeah, to the point of media coverage. I know that in the strike that happened in September 2016, there was basically no media coverage. I did a lot of work on that for FAIR and for Alternet. I documented quite clearly that they weren’t really covering it all. This was different. There was more coverage this time. Do you think that that’s a product of the nature of the strike itself? Do you think people are maybe becoming more aware of these things? And obviously it’s still not enough and a lot of it’s superficial, but from your observation, having followed this for several years, what is the state of the media’s coverage of these? Because obviously these strikes are, are designed partially towards outside audiences, towards people who make up the public that informs these decisions. Can you talk about the, the media strategy from the prison strikes perspective and whether or not they feel like it’s working?

Raven Rakia: Yeah, sure. I can’t really speak for the prison strike organizers in terms of if they think it’s working, but I think it’s working. Um, so in terms of like the organizing that’s been happening for the past eight to ten years,mainstream media has finally caught on, like this past prison strike in 2018, um, which is great, but I agree with you in 2016 there was really, there was very little coverage from mainstream media. I mean, I think that’s partly because of the prison strike organizers’ media strategy just getting better and better after years of doing it. And I think a huge part of it is prisoners ability to get access to cell phones in certain states where they’re then able to speak their thoughts, you know, on social media. So it seemed like eventually the mainstream media caught on, they were just a little late. I think it does show that there’s more and more prison coverage and for that we have these prison organizers to thank, we have Black Lives Matter to thank. I think that is the reason behind the better prison coverage or at least more extensive prison coverage than we’ve seen in the past.

Adam: Um, one of the demands that I thought was interesting and something that isn’t talked about a lot is the nature of what they call death by incarceration, which is an exorbitant amount of time that a person is given behind bars that assumes they’ll die behind bars and they have these sort of virtual, what’s called virtual life sentences, which are 50 years plus. Um, it affects 200,000 people, roughly 50,000 are serving life without the possibility of parole. This has a, obviously has a deterious effect on the prison itself, right? If you have a whole population who effectively society has given up on and says there’s no such thing as, as redemption or no such thing as, as reform, uh, if these are concepts people buy. This is unique to the United States is alone in this with very few other countries, I know in Europe especially, um, you rarely have sentences over 20 years because of that reason exactly. Can we talk about the effects that this has on prisons in general and what it says about the nature of our carceral system?

Raven Rakia: So yeah, one of their demands is to end death by incarceration and I think the importance of that term is like, it means that like we should not be giving up on people as a society. There’s a lot of studies out that people age out of crime and actually keeping people behind bars for so long as they age does nothing to help our society in any way. Um, and people like Release Aging People in Prison, that organization, also have been fighting to get people out of prison who have been there for like, you know, 30, 40, 50 years. There’s a lot of studies out there that show keeping people for so long is mainly just expensive and has no purpose for us as a society or for them because many of them age out of crime and can be rehabilitated if they did something wrong. You know?

Adam: So this most recent prison strike, the one that ended on September 9th, do we have a general idea of how effective it was or what the totality of it is? I know reporting on prisons is notoriously difficult. It’s more, it’s more difficult than pretty much reporting anywhere except for maybe Syria and other countries with difficult access, but it’s very, very difficult to report inside prisons, which is a huge barrier to getting factual information.

Raven Rakia: Yeah. So in terms of what we know about how this prison strike has gone, IWOC has said that they’ve heard about or seen activity in about fifteen states at least, and that could be anything from boycotting commissary to hunger strikes in a few states and then a few, a few confirmations of work strikes and boycotts in Florida as well. And I think in terms of what they’ve accomplished, I think the media coverage was a huge win for them and it allows them to get their voice out to multiple people and also every time there’s a lot of media coverage on prison organizing, there’s more of a chance that people in prison will hear about it because, you know, they’ve read about in the paper. So that’s exciting. And then things that I’ve seen in terms of like the prisoner organizers, like Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, talk about in terms of moving forward is that they’re focused on the tenth demand, which is giving people in prison the right to vote and they’re moving forward. It seems like they’re going to be focusing on that demand in terms of organizing people on the inside and the outside of prisons.

Adam: Can you comment on the retaliation aspect? Specifically what we’ve learned in the last few weeks about what kind of retaliation prisons have taken against incarcerated persons who, who decided to strike?

Raven Rakia: We’ve heard of retaliation happening in multiple states. Um, this is mainly being documented again by IWOC, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee who organized phones zaps. And phones zaps are when people on the outside call the prison and basically leave a bunch of messages demanding certain rights of the prisoners usually detailed in letters and that sort of thing. So IWOC has been documenting most of the retaliation and we’ve seen retaliation in states like Ohio, where they’ve put multiple people in solitary confinement ahead of the strike for speaking about the strike on the phone, for example, or getting something in the mail that mentioned the strike. We’ve also heard of prisoners getting their privileges taken away and things of that nature. Um, like no phone calls for a certain amount of time or no visits, which is pretty detrimental in terms of like, you know, of course visits from families and loved ones really help in terms of prisoners mental health and as well as recidivism and things of that nature. I think for the most part, wherever you see work strikes or hunger strikes you’re going to see retaliation and this has been told to me from prisoners multiple times. Things like organizing or participating in a work stoppage is usually on the set of rules that is seen as a violation and can lead to solitary confinement in many states. So unfortunately retaliation has basically been ongoing since 2016 for many prisoners. And it continues after this last prison strike and prisoners basically respond to organizing or any mention of strikes and this sort of thing with conduct reports, rule violations and solitary.

Adam: So obviously there’s tremendous risk here.

Raven Rakia: Yeah, definitely.

Adam: Something it’s hard to convey that, you know, the word courage is not one I like to use a lot, but I think it’s probably appropriate here.

Raven Rakia: Definitely.

Adam: What are the next sort of plans from the activists perspective? What do you think their next moves are in this space?

Raven Rakia: In terms of what comes next it’s very important for us to pay attention to retaliation, what we were just talking about, because this is usually when it happens, when the media goes away and the prison strike ends, this is usually when taliation gets worse. And so the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee’s phone zaps are really important. I know they’ve been organizing that for for many weeks and they will likely continue to. In terms of what’s next, that’s important to mention. Um, I know, the organizers in prison plan to release a statement in terms of what’s next. And I know that, like I said before, their right to vote campaign is something that they’re going to be focusing on, the tenth demand, which asked that prisoners get the right to vote in all states.

Adam: Well, I think on that note we’ll end it. This was very informative. Um, I know that this is something that is extremely hard to cover and rarely covered so I really appreciate the work you’ve done on it.

Raven Rakia: Thanks. Yeah and I appreciate you having me on and talking about this with me.

Adam: Thank you so much to our guest, Raven Rakia. Remember, you can follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod, on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook page. And as always, you can subscribe to us on iTunes. This has been The Appeal podcast. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production assistant Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much for joining us. We’ll see you next week.